Relaxation, Mindfulness, and a Visit with the Past

Now the name Herbert Benson might not ring a bell with you, but that bell clanged for me. Dr. Benson died last month at the age of 86. He was a well-known and respected cardiologist at Harvard and a pioneer in the early days of the mind-body field of research. Near the end of my graduate school days he wrote a book titled The Relaxation Response which sold more than 4 million copies. His work had a profound effect on the emerging field of behavioral medicine and health psychology. But let me back up and tell you a little bit about his career path before tracing out what has unfolded in that overall field since his early work. (See lead photo from his Feb. 20, 2022, obituary in The New York Times.)

In the mid-'60s, Dr. Benson and his colleagues discovered that they could train monkeys to raise and lower their blood pressure at will, based on a laboratory reward schedule. When word got out about this animal research, Benson was approached by practitioners of Transcendental Meditation – a practice whose devotees claim allows them to enter a higher level of consciousness by repeating a mantra of some sort. And lo and behold, “the meditates were right: Across a variety of metrics – heart rate, oxygen intake – they showed an immediate and significant drop during their contemplative moments.” Thus began Dr. Benson’s work in the mind-body field. Over the years he was able to demonstrate that minus a mantra, the relaxation response was significant in opposing the fight-or-flight stress response which raises the heart rate and initiates the release of stress hormones – thus lowering blood pressure in the process.

Sometime after the publication of The Relaxation Response in 1975, Dr. Benson founded the Mind Body Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital (later the Benson-Henry Institute) and wrote an additional 11 books reporting further physiological effects of relaxation, spirituality and faith. At some point he was approached by Tibetan monks and agreed to study the effects of their practices, even becoming friends with the Dalai Lama (see second photo below). Subsequent research in his labs actually showed the health benefits of prayer.

“Dr. Benson was not a praying man himself, but by the 1990s he was convinced that prayer, and faith in general, had a physiological impact," his obituary reads. “For him, the explanation lay in a version of the placebo effect. If we believe something is helping us, our bodies will work harder to heal.”

Ultimately, of course, prayer's effect on our lives is a matter of theological understanding and faith and, obviously, Dr. Benson was not really interested in going down that path of argument. But as I said at the beginning of this blog, the announcement of his death brought back a flood of memories for me.

Some of you may be aware of my earlier career as a psychologist and academic. I also was one of the early researchers in the field of behavioral medicine, beginning as Chief of the Behavioral Medicine branch at the National Cancer Institute and then as Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as an Associate Director of the University’s Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. I and my colleagues spent years studying stress-related effects on the immune system and the course of cancer survival – principally breast cancer and melanoma.

But as our research findings found their way into medical and psychological journals, Dr. Benson’s and my paths crossed more than once. We attended the same, small invitational conferences, and knew about each other’s work. Before that, as a resident in training at the Indiana University School of Medicine, I was trained to treat patients using systematic relaxation based on Benson’s research. So yes, his obituary brought to mind a whole host of memories – of both him and my years as a psychologist and researcher in the field of behavioral medicine.

But as they say, since then we’ve come a long way, baby! And now, of course, as church attendance has fallen off across denominations with the increase of “spiritual but not religious” practice on the rise, practices such as “mindfulness” are touted as the best route to overall well-being. In my last book, The Fiction of Our Lives, I offer the following quote from a blog called PsychCentral. In his book Buddha’s Brain, Dr. Rick Hanson writes the following:

If you routinely dwell on your resentments and regrets, the neurons involved in that particular mental activity will fire busily together, and automatically start wiring together as well. Which will add one more bit of neural structure to feeling discontented, mistreated, angry, or sorrowful. On the other hand, if you regularly focus on the good facts around you and inside you – like your own good qualities, such as patience, determination, or kindness – then the neurons involved will wire together, stitching more resilience, hopefulness, confidence, and happiness into the fabric of your brain and your self ... the mind takes the shape of what it rests upon. Modern neuropsychology is starting to shed light on how, exactly, this happens – how the fleeting flow of thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, sorrow and suffering, gradually, inexorably sculpt the brain. (Quoted in Goldstein, “The Neuroscience of Happiness,” para. 5.)

I end that particular section of my book offering Dr. Hanson’s takeaway point – that you can use your mind to actually change your brain’s wiring and thus change your mind for the better – enhancing the quality of your life. Not a bad idea but also not a panacea enabling you to reach nirvana. Our lives indeed are complicated, including our genes, our brain structures, our life experiences, our culture that shapes us and the stories we knit together to explain and give overall meaning to them.

Herb Benson was, first and last, a good cardiologist. His obituary concludes with the following observation:

He always took care to say that even if his research was 100 percent accurate (e.g., that prayer could actually physically help the sick person praying), that meditation and prayer could never replace drugs and surgery completely. Both medical treatment and spiritual care ... were necessary – a fact that Western medicine had long tried to ignore, and one that he spent his career trying to correct.

And so I thank Dr. Benson for his major contributions to the fields of Cardiology and Behavioral Medicine, and also for how he contributed to my own life as a researcher and colleague.

Sandra M. Levy, Ph.D., M.Div.
I am a clinical psychologist, Episcopal priest and author, and I currently serve as Priest Associate at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.