Herbert Benson, a Harvard-trained cardiologist whose research into the power of mind over body helped bring meditation to the mainstream, died Feb. 3 at a Boston hospital. He was 86.
His wife, Marilyn Benson, said the cause was heart disease and kidney failure.
dr. Benson was not out to defend meditation; even after his first pioneering studies, he remained a skeptic, only picking up the practice himself decades later.
However, he was open to the possibility that mood could affect one’s health — common sense today, but a radical, even heretical idea when he began researching it in the mid-1960s.
During a stint with the U.S. Public Health Service in Puerto Rico, he noticed that islanders often had significantly lower blood pressure than their mainland counterparts, all else being equal. He began to wonder if some of the cause lay beyond the usual explanations of diet and exercise, a question he took up when he returned to Harvard as a researcher in 1965.
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 their blood pressure, based on a reward system. The work was restrained; many medical researchers assumed that while a stressful situation could raise heart rates thanks to the fight-or-flight response—discovered by chance in the same lab where Dr. Benson worked—the mind itself had no control over it.
But the news came out and one day he was approached by several followers of the founder of Transcendental Meditation, a technique that claims to enable practitioners to enter a higher state of consciousness through the repetition of a mantra. Why do monkeys learn, they told him, when we’ve already perfected the practice?
“At first I didn’t want to interact with them,” Dr. Benson to The New York Times in 1975, referring to the meditation practitioners. “The whole thing seemed a bit distant and somewhat peripheral to traditional medicine studies. But they were persistent, so in the end I agreed to study them.”
To avoid attention, he insisted that they come after hours and through a side door. He mounted sensors on their chests and masks on their faces to measure their breathing, then had them alternate between periods of normal thinking and focused meditation.
The meditators were right: Across several metrics — heart rate, oxygen uptake — they showed an immediate and significant drop during their contemplative moments, similar to, said Dr. Benson, to enter a state of sleep while they were still awake.
“I was not shocked as much as I was wary of knowing what to expect, because the negative mind-body bias was so strong,” he told Brainworld magazine in 2019. “I continued as a cardiologist and was also head of cardiovascular education at Harvard Medical School, but I’ve had two professional lives. I kept respectability within cardiology, while also working in mind and body.”
In collaboration 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 renegade and a misfit, and many in his profession shun him.
But others were impressed by the strength of his research and by his objectivity. Unlike some researchers at the time, including Dr. Wallace, was Dr. Benson does not advocate transcendental meditation; in fact, he broke up with Dr. Wallace when he insisted there was nothing special about the practice or use of mantras — any word or phrase, repeated over and over, is enough, he said.
dr. Benson called his approach the relaxation response — the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. But while a stressful situation causes the body to automatically increase its heart rate and release adrenaline, the relaxation response must be applied consciously.
He demonstrated how to do that in his 1975 book, “The Relaxation Response.” It came at the right time: That same year, the transcendental meditation movement claimed more than 400,000 adherents, studying at more than 300 centers in the United States alone.
Millions more Americans, though skeptical of alternative medicine and Eastern spirituality, were still curious about meditation, and Dr. Benson, with his Ivy League pedigree and clinical approach to research, gave them permission to surrender. The book sold over four million copies and was a New York Times bestseller.
Over time, Dr. Benson’s emphasis on the mind-body connection is accepted, even by default, among established researchers. In 1992, he founded the Mind-Body Institute, which in 2006 moved to Massachusetts General Hospital and, with an infusion of money from investor John W. Henry, changed its name to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, with dr. Benson as Director Emeritus.
Herbert Benson was born on April 24, 1935 in Yonkers, NY. His father, Charles, ran a wholesale business 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.
He and his wife leave behind a son, Gregory; a daughter, Jennifer Benson; and four grandchildren.
dr. Benson wrote 11 books after “The Relaxation Response,” several of which delved deeper into the physiological effects of spirituality and faith. He was the first Western doctor to interview Tibetan monks about their practices, and he became friends with the Dalai Lama during that Buddhist spiritual leader’s visit to Boston in 1979.
dr. Among other things, Benson found that during meditation, Buddhist monks could raise their body temperature enough to completely dry damp sheets draped over their bodies.
Such findings were later disputed and Dr. Benson was rarely without his critics. But undeterred, he compared himself to William James, a Harvard pastor and another pioneer at the intersection of mind and body.
dr. Benson was not a praying man himself, but in the 1990s he was convinced that prayer, and faith in general, had a physiological influence. For him, the explanation lay in a version of the placebo effect: If we believe something helps us, our bodies will work harder to heal.
In 1996, with a $2.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, he conducted a 10-year study on the healing power of prayer, specifically whether one person’s prayers could help another.
The conclusions, released in 2006, were final and disappointing (at least for believers): not only did intercession have no impact, but in some cases where people believed they were being prayed for, they got worse — a result, Dr. Benson said of their belief that if someone prayed for them, they must be very sick, and their bodies tried to match that impression by getting sicker.
Still, Dr. Benson that prayer could at least help a sick person who prayed the prayer. And he always made sure to say that even if his research was 100 percent accurate, meditation and prayer could never completely replace medicine and surgery.
Both medical treatment and spiritual care, he said, were necessary — a fact Western medicine had long tried to ignore, and a fact he spent his entire career trying to correct.
This post dr. Herbert Benson, who saw the ghost as medicinal, dies at age 86
was original published at “https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/17/health/dr-herbert-benson-dead.html”