When cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson was approached 40 years ago by a group of people interested in his studying stress, he was initially cautious. Medically speaking, not much was known about the subject — other than that stress was a response to certain stimuli — and in the science community there was a certain prejudice that the area of meditation carried with it.
So he brought the subjects in through the side door, in the evening, so no one would see them. For alternating periods he had them meditate and then think normally, while clinically measuring their metabolism and carbon dioxide elimination, their rate of breathing and their brain waves. Benson and his team discovered dramatic physiological changes that occurred when they changed their thoughts: During the meditative thinking period, their body metabolism decreased, as did carbon dioxide elimination, and their brain waves changed to the relaxing theta waves.
Benson realized that the essence of what was happening was that the train of everyday thinking needed to be broken. After studying many religious and secular literature of the world for two years, he found that nearly every human civilization employed some form of this practice, many times religious. After more clinical trials, he named mind-body effect the “relaxation response” (RR) , to describe physiological changes such as a decrease in metabolism, respiratory rate and heart rate that occur during states of relaxation. Benson’s laboratory, along with others, shows that the RR is effective therapy for stress-related disorders: anxiety, mild and moderate depression, undue anger and hostility, insomnia, high blood pressure, premenstrual tension, menstrual cramps, rheumatoid arthritis, IBS.
Beginning in 1978, Benson developed a number of continuing medical education courses in mind-body medicine, and in 1988, became the founding president of the Mind-Body Medical Institute until 2006, when the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital was founded and he became its director emeritus.
Flash forward to the present, where the development of new technologies can measure the RR in more detail. Research has shown that the mind can quiet the body. And Benson, with 12 books and more than 175 scientific publications to his name, is regarded by many as instrumental in bringing Eastern practices of relaxation and meditation to medicine in the West.
Brain World: When you first discovered the relaxation response, were you shocked?
Herbert Benson: I wasn’t so shocked as I was wary because I knew what was ahead of me because the negative mind-body bias was so strong. I remained a cardiologist and also being head of cardiovascular teaching at Harvard Medical School, but I sustained two professional lives. I kept respectability within cardiology while I also did work in the mind-body field.
BW: What was your personal impression of what you found statistically and scientifically 30 to 40 years ago?
HB: I recognized that we had discovered nothing new because people had been practicing RR techniques for millennia. I saw that our work was giving modern validity to these approaches because I was speaking the modern language of science. I followed this path for over 40 years, the latest work being on genetics. I knew from the outset that it would be difficult because Western science has separated mind from body. But this is being slowly and inextricably overcome by scientific discoveries and by people using mind-body approaches like the RR, and treating many diseases in which surgery and drugs aren’t completely successful. And because we have the scientific proof, it is now being taught in medical schools and to doctors in the West and throughout the world.
BW: What is the newer work?
HB: Within the last 10 years, genetic studies have approached the question of whether RR alters the expression [activity] of genes. This field is called epigenetics. A cross-sectional study of long-term practitioners of RR who had been eliciting it on a daily basis for an average of seven years were matched with controls of same age, gender, education, and race who had never evoked the RR. The blood cells from whole blood measured the genetic activity. It was found that in the long-term practitioners, the genes that controlled metabolism, stress, aging of the body were activated. Genes that were controlling the immune system and inflammation systems of the body were quieted down. There was little change in the control group. With this finding there could no longer be any separation between mind and body. The mind could quiet the body at the genetic level. Even the controls, when taught the RR, showed the same genes being changed, albeit to a lesser degree than the long-term practitioners. This helped establish the efficacy of the long-term practice.
BW: How does this fit within traditional Western medicine?
HB: I am not saying, in any way, that we can do away with drugs, chemotherapy or radiation. Or we can do away with appropriate surgeries. But what should evolve in the future is akin to a three-legged stool. One leg is drugs. Another leg is surgery and procedures. The third leg is self-care that includes stress-relieving techniques such as the RR, along with nutrition and exercise and appropriate behavioral change. So I see in the future a properly balanced three-legged stool where each leg is given proper emphasis.
BW: Why do you think there is a great interest in yoga, meditation, and this mind-body medicine around the world?
HB: People are recognizing that drugs and surgeries have limitations. Many are bothered by the side effects of drugs or surgery and they’re looking for other approaches. An issue is that often when a person starts practicing mind-body techniques, he or she frequently tends to believe that the particular technique that he or she is using is the only and best technique. People will argue, “Oh this form of meditation is or this form of yoga is better than this form, etc. …” What we have to recognize is that we all have the same common response, the RR, and we should be tolerant of people who use different techniques.
BW: How do we measure genetic expression?
HB: Our experiments measure the genetic activity within white blood cells. And one should point out we do not change the structure of the genes. What we are changing are genes’ activity, or expression. Certain genes are turned off. Certain genes are turned on. This is what is called epigenetics.