Dr. Herbert Benson, who saw the mind as a panacea, dies at 86

Herbert Benson, a Harvard-trained cardiologist whose research shows the power of mind over body helped bring meditation into the mainstream, died on Feb. a hospital in Boston. He is 86 years old.

His wife, Marilyn Benson, said the cause was heart disease and kidney failure.

Dr. Benson does not set a champion goal of meditation; in fact, even after his early pioneering studies, he remained a skeptic and only chose to practice on his own decades later.

However, he is open to the possibility that one’s mental state can affect one’s health – common sense today, but a radical, even heretical idea when he began to study it. in the mid-1960s.

While working for the United States Public Health Service in Puerto Rico, he noticed that island residents often had significantly lower blood pressure than those on the mainland, all equal. He began to wonder if part of the cause lay beyond the usual explanations of diet and exercise, a question he asked when he returned to Harvard as a researcher at the time. 1965.

Working in a lab at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center), he and his colleagues devised a way to train monkeys to raise and lower blood pressure, based on a reward system. Less important work; many medical researchers have taken for granted the fact that while a stressful situation can increase heart rate by the fight-or-flight response – discovered by accident, in the same laboratory where Dr. work – the mind itself has no control over it.

However, the rumors spread, and one day he was approached by some of the followers of the founder of transcendental meditation, a technique that allows practitioners to enter a higher state of consciousness through repetition. another spell. Why teach the monkey, they told him, when we have perfected the practice?

“At first, I didn’t want to get involved with them,” Dr. Benson told The New York Times in 1975, referring to those who practice meditation. “This whole thing seems a bit far-fetched and a bit alien to traditional medical research. But they persisted, and so I finally agreed to study them. ”

To avoid attention, he insisted that they arrive after hours, and went through a side door. He attached sensors to their chests and masks to their faces, measured their breathing, then asked them to switch between normal thinking and focused meditation.

The meditators were right: Across a variety of measurements – heart rate, oxygenation – they showed an immediate and significant drop in their moments of contemplation, like Dr. Benson, when entering a trance state. sleep while remaining awake.

He told Brainworld magazine in 2019. “I’m not so shocked that I have to be on guard because I know what lies ahead because the negative tendencies towards the body and the mind are so strong. at Harvard Medical School, but I’ve maintained two professional lives. I hold my respects in the field of cardio while I also work in the mind-body field. “

Working with Robert Keith Wallace, a young physiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, he published his first findings in the early 1970s. Press reports called him a jerk. rebellious and a troublemaker, and many in the profession shunned him.

But others have been impressed by the strength of his research and by his objectivity. Unlike some researchers at the time, including Dr. Wallace, Dr. Benson was not an advocate of transcendental meditation; In fact, he split with Dr. Wallace when he asserted that there was nothing special about the practice or use of mantras – any word or phrase, repeated, would do, he said.

Dr. Benson calls his approach the relaxation response – the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. But while a stressful situation will cause the body to automatically increase heart rate and release adrenaline, the relaxation response must be consciously asserted.

He showed how to do that in his 1975 book, The Relaxation Response. It hit at the right time: That same year, the transcendental meditation movement attracted more than 400,000 followers, studying at more than 300 centers across the United States alone.

Millions more Americans, if skeptical of alternative medicine and Eastern spirituality, remain curious about meditation, and Dr. Benson, with his Ivy League pedigree and clinical approach to research, has granted Allow them to enjoy. The book has sold more than four million copies and is a New York Times bestseller.

Over time, Dr. Benson’s emphasis on the mind-body connection became accepted, even standard, among researchers at the facility. In 1992, he founded the Mind Body Institute, in 2006 moved to Massachusetts General Hospital and with funding from investor John W. Henry, renamed the Benson-Henry Mind Body Medicine Institute, with the presence of Dr. Benson as its emeritus director.

Herbert Benson was born on April 24, 1935, in Yonkers, NY. His father, Charles, operated a series of wholesale manufacturing businesses, and his mother, Hannah (Schiller) Benson, was a homemaker.

He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1957 with a degree in biology and received his medical degree from Harvard in 1961.

Along with his wife, he is survived by a son, Gregory; a daughter, Jennifer Benson; and four grandchildren.

Dr. Benson has written the following 11 books, The Relaxation Response, some of which delve more deeply into the physiological effects of spirituality and faith. He was the first Western doctor allowed to interview Tibetan monks about their practice, and he became friends with the Dalai Lama during the Buddhist spiritual leader’s visit to Boston in 1979. .

Dr. Benson discovered that, while meditating, Buddhist monks could raise their body temperature enough to completely dry the damp sheets that covered their bodies.

Such findings were later disputed and Dr. Benson was rarely without his criticism. But he was undaunted, comparing himself to William James, Harvard’s predecessor and another pioneer at the intersection of mind and body.

Dr. Benson was not a man of prayer himself, but in the 1990s he firmly believed that prayer, and faith in general, had a physiological effect. For him, the explanation lies in a version of the placebo effect: If we believe something is helping us, our bodies will work harder to heal.

With a $2.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, in 1996 he undertook a decades-long study of the healing powers of prayer — specifically, whether the prayer of a who can help others or not.

The conclusions reached in 2006 were definitive and disappointing (for believers at least): Constant prayer not only had no effect, but in some cases people believed them to be. being prayed for, they get worse – as a result, Dr. Benson said, they firmly believe that if someone is praying for them, they must be very sick, with their bodies trying Try to match that impression by getting sicker.

However, Dr. Benson believes that prayer can help at least one sick person who is praying. And he’s always careful to say that even if his research is 100% accurate, meditation and prayer can never completely replace medicine and surgery.

Both medical treatment and mental health care are needed, he says — a fact Western medicine has long tried to ignore, and one that he has spent his career trying to correct. cure. Dr. Herbert Benson, who saw the mind as a panacea, dies at 86

Fry Electronics Team

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