An Interview with Dr. Larry Dossey
By David Jay Brown
Larry Dossey, M.D., is considered one of the worldís experts on
mind-body medicine, and is one of the leading spokespeople for
integrating spirituality with medicine. He is the author of ten books on
the role of consciousness and spirituality in medicine, including Space,
Time & Medicine, and the New York Times bestseller Healing Words: The
Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine.
Dr. Dossey graduated in 1967 from Southwestern Medical School in Dallas.
He then served as a battalion surgeon in Vietnam and spent hundreds of
hours in helicopters, rushing around with--paradoxically enough--a
medical aid bag and a rifle. He says that these daily close encounters
with death profoundly affected him, and they gave him an immense sense
of gratitude toward life.
In the 1970s, after completing his residency in internal medicine at the
Veterans Administration Hospital and Parkland Hospital in Dallas, he
helped to establish the Dallas Diagnostic Association--the largest group
of internal medicine practitioners in the city--and served as Chief of
Staff at the Medical City Dallas Hospital. While there, he became
intrigued by patients who experienced remissions that conventional
medicine could not adequately explain, and by the interactions between
mind and body. These experiences lead to the development of a
biofeedback department at the Dallas Diagnostic Association, and to an
interest in alternative and holistic medical therapies, such as imagery,
visualization, and meditation.
In 1982 Dr. Dossey wrote Space, Time & Medicine, the first of a series
of books about the implications that research into mind-body healing,
parapsychology, and oneís world view have on medicine. This book
influenced many young physicians at the time and helped promote a
greater acceptance of these ideas in mainstream medicine. Some of Dr.
Dosseyís other books include Beyond Illness, Recovering the Soul,
Reinventing Medicine, and Prayer is Good Medicine.
More than anything else, Dr. Dossey is probably best known for his work
popularizing the research which demonstrates that prayer can have
measurable healing effects. Although the evidence for this
phenomena--known in the scientific literature as ďremote healingĒ--is
impressive, as with much of the research into psychic phenomena, the
carefully controlled, double-blind studies that have been done in this
area are virtually unknown to the average person, and many scientists
persist in ignoring the very interesting and compelling data that has
resulted from these studies.
Dr. Dossey served as co-chair of the NIH panel on Mind/Body
Interventions at the governmentís National Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine. For nearly ten years he was the executive editor
of the medical journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine,
which he helped found in 1995. Currently, he is executive editor of
Exlore: The Journal of Science and Healing. He is a very popular public
speaker, and has appeared on Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, Good Morning
America, and NBC TVís Dateline. Dr. Dossey was the first physician ever
invited to deliver the Annual Mahatma Gandhi Peace Foundation Memorial
Lecture in New Delhi, India.
Dr. Dossey lives in New Mexico. I interviewed him on January 30, 2006. I
was instantly comfortable with Larry. Heís very kind and gracious. I was
particularly struck by Larryís strong sense of optimism and his
contagious sense of hope. We spoke about mind-body medicine, research
into remote healing, the problems with conventional Western medical
treatments, and the future of medicine.
David: How did your experience in Vietnam effect your perspective on
Larry: I had one of the strangest assignments possible for a physician
in Vietnam. I functioned basically as a high-powered medic, beyond
anything that would resemble a M.A.S.H. unit, carrying basically an aid
bag and a rifle around. I actually went on patrols, spent hundreds of
hours in helicopters, and fortunately got back alive--which took some
doing. It was a daily confrontation with oneís own mortality. I was in
combat for the entire time, and this experience certainly makes one
humble about the blessings one has in this culture. I can assure you
that, and Iíve reflected on that every day since I came back from
Vietnam. Itís been a kind of indwelling presence really--the fact that I
did remain alive--and itís filled me with gratitude. I donít think that
it changed anything about my commitment to medicine, or made me see
healing in any different way, but it was a confrontation with the
immediacy of death, and it really was a powerful experience for me.
David: What do you think are some of the biggest problems with the way
that medicine is practiced today?
Larry: Let me just name three or four. One is that itís become so
complex that itís practically unmanageable. The institute of medicine
several years ago began to make a national issue about the death rate in
their hospitals from errors, and the side-effects of medications, and
just flat out mistakes. There was a survey of this published in the
Journal of the Medical Association three or four years ago in which
these statistics were analyzed. In this paper the third leading cause of
death came out to be hospital care. The death rate in American hospitals
from medical mistakes, errors, and the side-effects of drugs now ranks
as the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer.
Well, the objectors came forward and were able to reanalyze the data. I
think they demoted it down to five or six, as if thatís some great
accomplishment. But many experts still say that itís number three. Even
so, the fact that itís even number five or six is still a national
scandal. It should be a disgrace. But somehow people just accept this as
part of the way medicine is. So the lethality of medicine is one
problem. Another problem with medicine is itís applicability. Itís been
estimated that three-fourths of people who go to physicians have nothing
physically wrong with them, which means that theyíre beyond the reach of
what high-tech, complex, modern medicine has to offer.
Thereís also a problem with the expense. Weíre nearing fifty million
people in this country who donít have health insurance. Thatís a
national disgrace. Weíre the only western industrialized country for
which this is so. There was a survey published in The Wall Street
Journal last year which found that medical illness and medical expense
was the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. Now,
this didnít just apply to low income families. This applied to
middle-income families. Many of them had college educations, and many of
them had health insurance, but the insurance didnít pay. This is a
Another problem with modern medicine is that it is not as effective as
we want it to be. For example, take longevity. Currently the United
States ranks twenty-sixth in longevity in countries in the world, behind
countries like Costa Rica. Take infant mortality. Weíre now thirty-ninth
in the world, behind countries like Cuba, Slovenia, and Aruba. This is
disgraceful. We spend more money on healthcare than any other country, I
think by a factor of three now, so weíre not getting our moneyís worth
in many areas. You add up all of these things, and you think, well,
weíve lost our way here. I think we have lost our way, and so those are
just a few of the problems I see.
David: What do you think can be done to help improve the situation with
modern medicine and reverse those problems?
Larry: For one thing, we urgently need a government-financed,
centralized healthcare plan for everybody. Itís shameful that we donít
have it; weíre the only industrialized western country that does not.
This is a tall order now, particularly when one political party controls
all three branches of government and is opposed to such changes. But
there are hopeful signs.
This gives me an opportunity to make a shameless advertisement for my
new book I mentioned awhile ago called The Extraordinary Healing Power
of Ordinary Things. In this book Iíve tried to steer the medical
conversation away from costly, high-tech, complex things like stem
cells, transplantation, drugs, and surgery. This is not because Iím
opposed to those things; I really support them. But high-tech, expensive
approaches have dominated the efforts of medicine in this country, to
the exclusion of many other valuable approaches. So I singled out
fourteen really simple, commonplace, freely available things that pay
huge dividends in health that are hardly ever talked about.
Some of these things have to do with prevention and with mental
attitude. This may sound like New Age stuff, but the statistics show
that the health benefit of these things are absolutely huge. Most people
in their lives are not going to need things like an organ transplant or
stem cells. Ninety percent of us live ninety percent of life needing to
focus on a completely different perspective. Iíll just give you one
example--optimism. People who are optimistic live longer and have a
lower incidence of disease than people who are pessimistic. Who ever
talks about this?
One could single out any number of other extraordinarily simple things
that pass under the radar screen yet yield huge health benefits. So we
need a greater sense of openness to the simple, the plain, the ordinary.
A part of a physicianís education should focus on prevention, and we
need a government that emphasizes prevention through public health
measures. We need to provide some sort of safety net for people who get
over their heads with horrible illnesses and can never get out again.
The need is urgent. For instance, the leading cause of personal
bankruptcy in America is medical costs, and most of these bankruptcies
occur in middle-class families. Iím not a medical architect who sits
around at high policy levels and imagines how we might work this out.
But I do know we need to spend national energy and federal capital
making these things happen.
The emphasis in medical technology and pharmaceutical manufacturing is
on shareholder profits. Like whatís the new Viagra going to be? Iím not
opposed to corporate profits, but the tail has begun to wag the dog.
Today we have this widespread practice of private, academic medical
researchers who are in bed with corporations, getting stock options,
perks, and kickbacks on products they develop. In many cases, the
corporations control the design and reporting of clinical trials. Weíve
taken our eye off the ball. The nationís medical endeavor should be
about helping healthy people stay healthy, and helping sick people get
well. Weíve lost our way in this mission, and we need to wake up.
David: How did you become interested in the mind-body connection?
Larry: As so often is the case in doctorsí accounts of how they become
interested in these matters, it was through a personal medical problem.
From grade school onward I had profoundly severe migraine headaches,
associated, not just with pain, nausea, and vomiting, but also with
partial blindness. The partial blindness was the worst thing, and this
almost derailed my career as a physician before it even got started. I
actually tried to drop out of medical school because of this problem. I
was convinced it was an ethical issue. I was certain that sooner or
later I would have an episode of partial blindness and hurt or kill
someone, in surgery for example.
However, my advisor wouldnít permit me to drop out. He told me that the
problem would get better and it got a lot worse. This was really
stress-related, but back in those days one didnít really talk a lot
about stress, and certainly the mind-body connection was a term that had
yet to be invented when I was in medical school. We talked about
psychosomatic disease, but we certainly didnít talk about the mind-body
connection in positive ways.
In any case, back in the early 70s, biofeedback burst on the medical
scene in this country quite by accident. I found out that reports were
coming out of biofeedback centers that people with migraines who
practiced biofeedback noticed that their symptoms got better. I was
desperate because none of the medications that were in common use worked
for me. I chased all over the country learning how to do this for
myself, and it was a miraculous outcome. It was almost like turning a
switch in my brain and my body. I learned about the mind-body
connection, about the meaning of relaxation, and the use of imagery and
visualization. I took up meditation because it was a short step from
biofeedback learning to meditating, and I became absolutely fascinated
with the mind-body research area.
I began to follow it intensely, got certified in teaching biofeedback,
became something of an expert in the field, and established one of the
first biofeedback labs in the state of Texas for my patients and the
patients of the other physicians in my group. I taught biofeedback for
years as part of my internal medicine practice.
From there it was really easy for me to begin to follow the research in
remote healing and intercessory prayer that began to come out of
universities and medical schools in the mid-eighties. I was really
primed for that. Thatís really a fairly short version of how I got
interested in the mind-body area, and consciousness in general. Iím not
sure that I would have become interested in mind-body medicine as
quickly as I did without the impetus of a personal medical problem, and
sheer desperation. But I certainly had a personal incentive. My back was
really against the wall professionally and personally because of the
intractable migraine, for which nothing else was helpful.
David: What role do you think oneís mind play in the health of the body?
Larry: I think that Ďbodily healthí is practically an oxymoron. One
canít talk anymore about the health of the body without bringing in the
effects of consciousness--by which I mean belief systems, meanings,
emotions, attitudes, feeling-states, and so on. The day is long gone
when we can separate the two. Itís just inconsistent with the data. When
we try to do this we really come up short, even when we attempt to treat
the body as just a physical system and ignore the mind. We have to
acknowledge the numerous double-blind, randomized controlled studies
that take into account the placebo response, which clearly is an
indication that the mind cannot be ignored. The placebo response is
simply an expression of expectation, suggestion, and optimism about how
a treatment is going to turn out. There may have been a time when
doctors could get away with focusing on the body and ignoring the mind,
but those days are gone forever.
David: Can you talk a little about the research that has been done in
remote healing and why you think that these studies are important?
Larry: Theyíre important because they force a total revision of our
ideas about the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the
brain and body. The old idea is that consciousness was simply an
epiphenomenon of the brain; the brain made consciousness sort of like
the liver made bile. In any case, the effects of consciousness were
confined to oneís own body. They had no ability, in principle, to reach
out and make a difference remotely in someone else--but thatís precisely
the new image that is forming on the medical horizon.
Itís an image of what I call ďnonlocal mind.Ē ďNonlocalĒ is simply a
fancy word for ďinfinite.Ē Nonlocal mind is unrestricted to specific
points in space, such as individual brains and bodies, and itís
unrestricted to specific points in time, such as the present moment.
This sounds nutty and off-the-wall to people whoíve bumped into this for
the first time, but if one has the willingness to look at the data
emerging from healing studies, I think that the picture becomes quite
compelling--at least it has for me and many other researchers in the
So, just to summarize where we stand data-wise, Dr. Wayne Jonas, who is
the former director of the National Center for Complementary and
Alternative Medicine, recently did a review and came up with 2,200
papers and citations in this field of remote healing. Over two hundred
of these studies were controlled clinical trials and laboratory studies.
The quality of the studies is quite good. Using what are called CONSORT
criteria, he was able to assign either an ďAĒ or a ďBĒ level of
excellence to these studies in remote healing. Eighteen of these studies
are major controlled studies in humans, eleven of which show
statistically significant results. The laboratory studies look at the
effects of peopleís intentions on nonhumans--rabbits, mice, rats,
plants, even bacteria growing in test tubes, fungi, yeast, and so on.
Occasionally the subjects of these lab studies are inanimate objects,
such as random event generators. The majority of all these studies yield
statistical significance, which shows that something is going on that
you canít ascribe to chance. This is just a huge area. Itís infuriated
skeptics, who really arenít very much inclined to look at the data or
even read all the studies. All told, this data calls into question
fundamental assumptions about the nature of consciousness, as Iíve
mentioned, and itís forcing a revision of how consciousness operates or
manifests in the world.
Thereís a paradox here, because for most of human history people
believed that these things actually happen, but itís only in the past
two hundred years that weíve developed a tremendous level of
intellectual indigestion over this idea that consciousness could
function remotely. So itís ironic that weíre getting back to this
ancient idea. Whatís further ironic is that science, which has denied
for two hundred years that these things are possible, is pointing the
way back. So, in a sense, science is shooting itself in the foot by
producing this sort of evidence that contradicts what it has claimed
regarding consciousness for two centuries.
David: Why do you think that the study of consciousness and research
into psychic phenomena has important relevance for medicine?
Larry: There are several reasons. One is that it has health
consequences. In my judgment the studies clearly show that peopleís
intentions, prayers, and healing efforts at a distance can make the
difference between life and death in people. Itís important also because
we really do want an accurate idea of the nature of our own
consciousness. Itís important because honoring this information leads us
to a view of consciousness which is full of hope about our origins and
If we acknowledge that consciousness is nonlocal--that itís infinite in
space and time--then this really opens up all sorts of possibilities for
the survival of consciousness following physical death. If you reason
through this, and follow the implications of these studies, you begin to
realize that consciousness thatís nonlocal and unrestricted in time is
immortal. Itís eternal. This is as hopeful as the current view of the
fate of consciousness is dismal. This totally reverses things. So we are
lead to a position, I think, where we see that even though the body will
certainly die, the most essential part of who we are canít die, even if
it tried--because itís nonlocally distributed through time and space.
Our grim vision of the finality of death is revised. Death is no longer
viewed as a gruesome annihilation or the total destruction of all that
we are. So there are tremendous spiritual implications that flow from
these considerations, in addition to the implications for health. In
fact, I believe that the implications for health are the least of it. A
lot of people who encounter this area take a practical, bare bones,
utilitarian approach to it. They say, wow, now weíve got a nifty new
item in our black bag--a new trick to help people become healthier.
Certainly these studies do suggest that this is a proper use of healing
intentions and prayer, and Iím all for that, but the thing that really
gets my juices flowing is the implication of this research for
immortality. For me, thatís the most exciting contribution of this
The fear of death has caused more pain and suffering for human beings
throughout history than all the physical diseases combined. The fear of
death is the the big unmentionable--and this view of consciousness is a
cure for that disease, that fear of death.
David: What role do you think that spirituality plays in health?
Larry: There are a lot of people who just donít want to get close to
this prayer stuff because they think ďitís just parapsychologyĒ and that
all parapsychology is crazy. However, they often feel a little more
comfortable when they look at another set of data having to do with the
impact of spirituality on health. There are over 1,200 studies which
look at the connections between religious behavior, such as attending
worship services, and health outcomes. Currently meta-analyses of these
studies show that people who follow some sort of religious path in their
life live an average of seven to thirteen years longer than people who
donít. Thatís just a huge health benefit. There isnít a whole heck of
lot that physicians can recommend to people that will add seven to
thirteen years on average to their lifespan.
People who like to think materialistically can come up with some fairly
naturalistic explanations for these health benefits. For example, people
who follow religious paths often have pretty good health habits. They
may smoke or drink less. They are part of a social network by virtue of
belonging to a congregation, and rich social networks have a health
payoff. Nobody argues much against that anymore. Also, these people have
a sense of meaning and purpose in life that comes from their religious
affiliation. So if you add up all these things then itís not hard for
even skeptics to imagine how people who are religious might enjoy longer
life and have a lower incidence of disease. And they do.
But itís when people go into the area that Rupert Sheldrake, I and
others have ventured into, where we talk about the remote effects of
consciousness, that people really get cold feet. So itís been our
self-appointed, elective task to hold peopleís feet to the fire and say,
look this information isnít going to go away. Thereís too much of it.
Itís becoming more abundant So wake up. This is where weíre headed, like
it or not.
David: How do you see spirituality and medicine becoming more integrated
in the future?
Larry: Thatís inevitable. One of the most telling indicators is how
medical schools have responded. Back in 1993, when I first began to
publish in this field with a book called Healing Words, there were only
three medical schools in the country that had any coursework exploring
the role of spirituality in health, out of a one hundred and twenty-five
medical schools total. Now ninety schools offer such. That is a historic
development. Ninety medical schools have either formal courses, a
lecture series, or some feature of their curriculum that honors and
addresses this field. So itís kind of a done deal.
Young doctors have much less of a problem with this than my generation
has had. One major reason is that half the medical-school enrollment
these days is made up of young women. They have a lot less trouble with
these ideas than intellectually-oriented guys do. So I think that the
entry of women in medicine has really opened up things quite a bit.
In the final analysis, the evidence favoring spirituality is so
impressive that thereís no way that medicine is going to be able to
stand on the sidelines and ignore it. Sooner or later, good data rises
to the top and prejudices sink to the bottom. This process may take
awhile, and there will be certainly be people who will try to obstruct
it, but I think that thereís no way to stop it.
I see this in my own career. I am embarking on a four-month author book
tour next week, and slotted into this tour are lecture appearances at
medical schools all over the country.
Thereís an old saying thatís attributed to Max Planck, the physicist,
who helped create the revolution in physics in the last century. Planck
said that science changes funeral by funeral. And as Einstein once said,
ďItís harder to crack a prejudice than an atom.Ē I used to believe that
itís possible to come up with such compelling evidence that it would
change things overnight. Well, that didnít happen in physics, and itís
not going to happen in medicine. These things always take awhile.
Moreover, there are some physicians who are so resistant to these ideas
about consciousness and healing that they will never come around.
Theyíll simply die off, as Planck suggested. I hate to say it, but that
has come as a consolation to me, periodically through the years