Larry Dossey

Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing

Review by Stephanie Riley, 2011 | Review by Weiyi “William” Du, 2009

Review by Stephanie Riley, 2011

Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing. By Larry Dossey, M.D.  Harper Collins Publishers, 1999. 271.  $14.99.

Larry Dossey, M.D., physician, author, lecturer, and former Executive Editor of the peer-reviewed journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine is known for his efforts to bring spirituality into healthcare. In Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing, Dossey calls for a radical reinvention of medicine. Dossey writes, “The premise of this book is that the mind is infinite” (xiii). From the premise, Dossey forges passionately ahead to establish a new era of medicine where the mind and consciousness are fundamental to healing.

In his introduction, Dossey presents two principle ideas: Era III medicine and nonlocal mind. The concept of the nonlocal mind, a new treatment of consciousness, distinguishes Era III medicine from Eras I and II, its historical predecessors. Dating to the 1800s, Era I medicine considered consciousness a mechanical entity like the physical brain. Era II medicine emerged in the 19th century, when scientists began to understand what is known today as the mind-body connection. In Era II, consciousness is believed to have an influence on individual health. Era III medicine adds a spiritual dimension to health, according to Dossey, and captures the idea that consciousness can extend beyond the body. Dossey uses the term “nonlocality” to express the notion of an expansive consciousness. Borrowed from physics, nonlocality relates to one object’s having a direct influence on another, distant object. Dossey defines the nonlocal mind as the “hallmark” of Era III, noting consciousness’s potential to act “on distant things, events, and people, even though they may be unaware that they are being influenced” (8).

Dossey explains his understanding of the healing process in chapter 1, “The Eras of Medicine.” Most importantly, he expounds upon Era III, or “Nonlocal Medicine,” in which the mind is distinguished from brain. Dossey states that brain researchers commit an egregious mistake when they equate the brain with mind. Instead, in Era III, the mind is seen as free from the brain and body, as well as from time and space. He writes that the error of substituting brain for mind “is enormous, because it limits the mind not only to the brain’s premises but to the brain’s fate as well: destruction with physical death” (28). The concept of nonlocality suggests a transgression of boundaries set up by the body, the brain, and time. Furthermore, Era III is important because it provides “a cure” for the fear of death. In Era III, the mind never dies.

In addition to establishing the fundamentality of the mind or consciousness, Dossey asserts that Era III healing is collective. Physicians act intuitively to understand what is going on with their patients, and the assumption is, “’We are in it together’…no one’s illness is a purely individual matter” (25). As a result, Dossey establishes a new Golden Rule for this medical model: “Do unto others because they are you” (32). Suspecting readers’ resistance to the idea of being connected to others through mind, Dossey suggests a path of non-attachment where readers suspend how they think the world should work, so that they can open their minds to other options. The primary option Dossey endorses, of course, is nonlocal mind.

In chapter 2, Dossey makes the case for nonlocal experiences that are unmediated, unmitigated, and immediate. He talks about nonlocal healing in organic substances and mice, makes an argument for the healing properties of distant prayer, and details what he calls the nonlocal mind in animals. He explores scientific experiments, case studies, and narratives to elaborate the nature of consciousness. Dossey cites several scientists who are mystified by the mind but find that it is fundamental. The new model of the mind, Dossey suggests, will show that consciousness is an ordering principle that coordinates humans and nonhumans. It extends beyond the individual and occurs outside of that individual’s awareness.

In “Dreams, Prayer and the Zone: How We Experience Nonlocality,” Dossey details what he sees as the ubiquitous experience of nonlocal mind. After several personal histories illustrating the spontaneous nature of nonlocal mind, Dossey talks about its particular appearance in sports. When athletes find themselves in “the zone,” they are experiencing nonlocality. In addition, nonlocal mind emerges in empathetic responses and dreams. Empathetic responses enhance Era III medical doctors’ capacity to diagnose. Diagnosis “requires a uniting of doctor and patient so that knowing can flow between them and yield a solution” (91). While a doctor’s ability to experience a patient’s pain through empathy happens while each party is awake, dreams help people connect empathetically during sleep. Dossey describes dream helper ceremonies where dreamers come up with solutions for others while sleeping: “problem solving and creative insights flow back and forth between individuals during dreams” (97). This phenomenon leads Dossey to advocate a National Dream Team. The Dream Team would focus dreams on providing possible solutions for social, economic, and social policy questions.

Dossey’s notion of nonlocal mind extends beyond the healer-patient relationship to include the arts, especially performance art, and the rapport between people and animals. Dossey believes that, “the greatest healers” are “the greatest actors” (111). An actor becomes the role he/she plays, just as doctors should, according to Dossey, become the patient. The sense of becoming another is also emphasized in the human-animal relationship. According to Dossey, pets teach us love and “provide us the opportunity to unite unconditionally with another” (115). For Dossey, these examples illustrate the unity of living things.

Dossey delves deeper into the methods that the nonlocal mind uses to break free from the “prison” of Era I medicine in “Era III in Everyday Healing.” He discusses telepathy, dreams of illness and healing, intuition, inanimate objects as intermediaries, miracles, and the healing of things. He also talks about sympathetic magic as “one of the oldest expressions of nonlocal mind – consciousness working outside the confines of the body to affect someone else, with a physical intermediary” (136). For Dossey, the intermediary is like a photograph that binds one to another through love, “nonlocally.” Dossey illustrates that even though nonlocal mind binds people to each other, the individual still exists. However, in nonlocal mind the individual takes a back seat to the joy of togetherness in interdependence.

In chapter 5, “Reinventing Medicine,” Dossey puts Era III in practical terms. In Era III, knowing is revelatory and intuitive. Therefore, a doctor makes a diagnosis just as he/she would interpret a tapestry, absorbing its pattern and understanding its artistic design. Even though, as Dossey asserts at the beginning of the text, nonlocal knowing happens suddenly, refining intuitive skills takes practice.

Dossey thinks it is important to incorporate Eras I, II, and III into treatment. However, he sees the implementation of Era III medicine as critical. He details the scientific rationale justifying Era III interventions and makes the case that spirituality in medicine is revolutionary. This spirituality surfaces in the final chapter when Dossey’s presents his idea of “eternity medicine.” Eternity medicine “regards immortality as a given” (211) and requires doctors (and readers) to consider “three controversial areas connected with illness and death: near-death experiences, visitations from the dead, and reincarnation” (218). Death is unmentionable in Era I, but in Era III, death is a phenomenon that includes a notion of dying as being absorbed back into the whole universe. Ultimately, Dossey claims, “the path of the physician since antiquity has been considered a spiritual path and remains so” (228). Thus, physicians have an intrinsic spirituality that “enables them to respond to Era III” (228).

In this text, Dossey is not only arguing for a new medical model, but he is also making the case for a cosmology. In order to agree with Dossey, readers probably need to have certain beliefs before coming to the text. For instance, if a reader does not believe in life after death, or that one consciousness can enter another’s body, then that reader will find Dossey’s arguments fragile and unappealing.

Dossey’s effort to integrate spirituality and medicine is admirable. However, the attempt to validate his claims falls short. Dossey’s argument relies more on a reader’s previously held beliefs than on the scientific validity of the studies he presents. Moreover, the definition of nonlocal mind seems to change throughout the text. Nonlocal mind shakes us up. It is synonymous with the infinite and the universal, but distant. Nonlocal mind shows up in animals that find their way back home after a distant separation from owners. Nonlocal mind simultaneously extends beyond the individual and lives within the individual like the athlete who finds him/herself in the zone. Like gravity, nonlocal mind is not understood, but it is obvious, natural and right. Nonlocal mind is also art; this presumes that art “shakes us up.” Evidence of nonlocal mind emerges when pains in the abdomen synchronize with dreams about a rat gnawing at the abdomen. Then, x-rays confirm ulcers in the area the dream-rat was eating. In these definitions of nonlocal mind, Dossey strays far from the definition of nonlocality in physics. In addition, nonlocality changes from meaning one consciousness having a direct influence on another person to constituting a variety of experiences and relationships. When the meaning of nonlocality alters, confusion arises.

Dossey’s book reads like an inspirational Internet site. Compiled of interesting data, often based on documented studies, the text is a passionate treatise. However, the rhetoric sounds biased, so readers are left to wonder if what is written is believable. Dossey never mentions confounding factors, nor does he introduce studies that conflict with the point he is trying to prove. His confirmation that studies are accurate rests in a phrase, and versions of that phrase, he repeats throughout the text, “The odds against a chance explanation for the experiment’s outcome were less than one in a thousand” (43). Furthermore, Dossey trusts personal testimony to validate claims. Personal testimony as scientific evidence is, at best, unreliable and, at worst, fabricated.

Dossey’s entire text seems fabricated in a way. He uses a scientific term “nonlocality” to boost an argument about spirituality. However, in physics, nonlocality has nothing to do with the supernatural mind. In addition, many of the scholars Dossey supports, support him in return, as evidenced by a glance at Dossey’s personal website. A reader should expect from Dr. Dossey a level of honesty about limitations and errors, in his work and in referenced studies. Dossey fails to deliver. Instead, Dossey uses a rhetorical slight of hand to convince, even coerce, vulnerable and novice readers looking for help and healing that his argument bears scientific truth.

Dossey’s title works though. He does seem to “reinvent medicine.” Reinventing the medical model so that it attends to deep human, spiritual need is critical. That Dossey offers alternatives to current medical practice is refreshing, but the evidence of a cohesive nonlocal mind is lacking. What is good in Dossey’s work is often lost as a result of inconsistency in terms combined with unsatisfying scientific data. Moreover, some readers will find his world-view compelling; others will find that his cosmology undermines the aim to bring spirituality into the medical world.

Review by Weiyi “William” Du, 2009

Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing. By Larry Dossey. HarperCollins, 1999. 271 pages. $14.00.

With the emergence of biochemistry at the end of 19th century, medicine has made great progress in the past hundred years. Scientists have discovered biological elements such as viruses, cells, and DNA. People have started to understand the constructions of their bodies and the mechanisms of diseases. In hospitals, scientific tests help physicians to confirm the diseases of a patient. Medicines and operations cure a patient through dealing with symptoms or eliminating the causes of the diseases. It is regarded as a routine in most of the hospitals to take tests and then get treatments. Patients also regard it as a scientific approach, and probably the ideal of medical treatment. However, there is a different approach concerning the function of minds in medical treatment. In other words, minds have positive effects on physical health. In this area, Larry Dossey is an advocate, and more than that, in his book Reinventing Medicine: Beyond Mind-Body to a New Era of Healing, he brings the mind-body relationship a step further to a nonlocal level.

Dossey proposes three eras of medicine: Era I, mechanistic medicine; Era II, mind-body medicine; and Era III, nonlocal medicine. Era I dated from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, in a time when medicine became science. Until now, medical school training is still based on the understanding of Era I medicine, and this mechanistic medicine is regarded as “conventional” or “orthodox” medicine (20). Nevertheless, Era I medicine has its defects: one, the effectiveness varies among individuals, and the other, the hospital experience becomes inhumane. Mechanistic medicine tends to treat the same disease with the same solution. To detect nuanced symptoms, physicians send patients to expensive, sometimes painful tests. Besides that, physicians usually ignore the worries of patients because they can only provide the narratives of their feelings and anxieties without any evidence. Physicians believe that only through scientific data can they make a good judgment. Personal communication or attachment, therefore, is not necessary in the physician-patient relationship.

Era II medicine, stamped by a mind-body relationship, burgeoned as an alternative treatment. In this phase, aspects of the human mind, such as an optimistic attitude, and the control of emotions, will be beneficial to physical well-being. Hence, people can be positive actors for their health.

Nevertheless, Dossey thinks Era II is not enough. Instead, he foresees an Era III in the future. In this era, not only one’s mind will have effects on his or her own body, but it will also affect others’ bodies. At the same time, his or her body could also be affected by others’ minds. Minds, therefore, are interrelated. Medical treatment can be distant, through prayers or mental practices. Mind is no longer local to one’s body, but nonlocal. Nonlocality is the hallmark of Era III medicine. Practice such as prayers and qigong can be used as medical treatment to heal people from illness.

Dossey offers a comparison chart of these three medical eras (19). Era I is a completely physical, body-based approach to health and illness, while Era II includes the functions of the mind. In Era III, the mind-body relationship is no longer individual, but open to all minds and bodies. He emphasizes that the methods in different eras are not exclusive. Just as scientific tests and medicines are still used in Era II, Era I and II methods are also available in Era III. Moreover, “Eras I and II [are] the healing foundation of era III” (161).

In this book, Dossey tries to achieve two goals: to describe a revolutionary concept of nonlocal medicine; and to convince readers through scientific studies that nonlocality exists and will be the future of medicine. He thinks it is easier for patients to accept the concept of nonlocality, while physicians—because of their years of scientific training—are harder to convince. Dossey presents his proposition through accounts of experiments conducted by some leading scientists in different areas. Long distance praying for patients with AIDS has significant effects (45). Nonlocal healing is not only effective in humans, but also in animals. Mice treated by healers recover with “significantly greater rapidity” than controlled mice with the same wounds (43). Moreover, the nonlocal healing is also effective in plants. Watering plants by a person with a depressed mood produces a negative effect on their growth (41). However, for Dossey, this still does not encompass the range of nonlocality, which even penetrates the boundaries between living beings and non-living things. He presents an experiment that the desire of an actor can influence the randomness of a random event generator (REG) (73). Now even machines can be affected by the mind. In Era III, everything in the world, whether it is human, animal or non-living, can contact and react with each other through minds. Era III sounds fascinating yet at the same time like an illusion. It is not difficult to “intuitively” sense that minds can have effects on bodies without “scientific” evidences. However, Dossey goes too far by saying that his proposition is drawn from “scientific” studies; it sounds “intuitively” uncanny or even outrageous.

Delving further into Dossey’s assumptions and visions may be helpful to understand clearly what he means by Era III nonlocal medicine. One assumption is that the existence of nonlocality, which has been proved in the universe by physics, can and should also be proved in the human mind by scientific studies. Another assumption is that the existence of mind-body medical practices in antiquity partially proves the validity of nonlocality. Greek, Chinese, and shamanic medical traditions all have a holistic understanding of mind, body, and world. These practices have worked effectively for thousands of years. Therefore, there must be something true in their holistic medical philosophies. Dossey also regards whatever the patients report to the physicians as true and meaningful. Hence, he provides the statistics that “…around two-thirds say they have experienced some sort of extrasensory perception, and nearly half report ‘contact with the dead’…two-thirds have experienced déjà vu, and one-third have seen things at a distance” (86-7). The truth of these assumptions is suspicious. Dossey never tries to prove them, instead, he takes them for granted.

His visions for the future medicine in Era III are: physicians and patients “being one,” and eternal medicine. Physicians understand patients not through tests, but through nonlocal communications. Therefore they can feel what patients feel and provide what patients need for their well beings, both physically and mentally. This concept of “being one” feeds the desires of contemporary patients and also rectifies the impersonal relations between physicians and patients. Eternity medicine is to recognize the infinity of consciousness; therefore, people will have “empathy, compassion, and love” to each other (213). Even death cannot separate the mental contacts. Death is not finality but a part of eternity.

What Dossey provides here is not merely an era of medicine, but a cosmology, a perspective on history, and even a religion. There is no way to accept his division of medical eras unless accepting a whole worldview beforehand.

Mind or consciousness is prevalent over the world. It does not only belong to humans and animals, but also to non-living things. Dossey cites experiments that a box can weep, and a computer can be unhappy (71). Through this consciousness, everything in the world is connected. Through connections, minds can perceive each other, and can affect each other. This provides a channel to explain things that science alone cannot explain. Something inscrutable in science begins to have meanings. Dossey does not express precisely how mind works on body, but only refers to examples and analogies. Perhaps he would consider any specific explanation too mechanistic, which is inappropriate in his framework. Therefore, readers get the sketch of what Era III looks like, but they never understand clearly.

In the ancient world, owing to the lack of knowledge, people had an animated understanding of nature. They believed human and nature were composed of the same elements but in different arrangements. Therefore, people could understand and interact with the world. They did not differentiate body from mind; instead, they were together. They resorted to supernatural power for healing. But later, with the development of science, people believed they started to truly understand the world. The world and bodies were governed by scientific rules and they both function as machines. Science alone seemed to be capable of explaining everything, without resorting to supernatural power or mind-body interaction, however, it could not. People then started to return back to the past world view where human and world, mind and body were one. In the final part of human history, people will regain the relationship with supernatural power without abandoning science.

The history of the understanding of human beings is parallel to the history of cognitive development of an individual. When we were kids, we thought our toys had lives. We were told by stories that animals could speak, plants could sing and cars could transform. When we grew up and studied science, we no longer believed these tales. Nevertheless, a life and world governed by scientific laws are precise and necessary, but deficient in vitality, awe, and miracle. We feel that something is lost. At the same time, somewhere deep in our hearts, we are also longing for enchantment. In the final part of history, individuals will also regain the power of mind, which lives after physical life. Human beings therefore become truly free.

Nonlocality also functions as a religion, dealing with the issues of life and death. The supernatural power is not located out of us, but within us. God is not necessary; instead, people live beyond life and death. Though their bodies may die one day, their minds are immortal. People can confront the deceased in dreams or even in reality.

If Dossey’s proposition of Era III is what we will have in the future, it will bring substantial economic benefits to medical treatment. Costly scientific experiments and tests will be lessened. It will also increase interpersonal connections (32). However, his proposition has problems. The major problem which repeatedly appears in his argument is that he never mentions the percentage of results favorable to his argument among all the experiments conducted. Another problem is that, even though he borrows the term “nonlocality” from physics, his understanding of this concept appears to be mistaken. The central theorems about non-locality in physics rule out the sort of information transfer that Dossey’s theory of non-local mind requires. Moreover, while some interpretations of quantum theory involve spontaneity in non-local particle interactions—an interpretation Dossey favors—there are empirically equivalent interpretations that are fully deterministic while still being non-local. Dossey appears unaware of these problems with his borrowing of non-locality from physics, or else prefers not to make his reader aware of them. Actually, It seems that he does not need to refer to physics. If nonlocal medicine is true, as he is deeply convinced, it will still be true regardless of any connection to non-locality in physics. Moreover, Dossey does not provide any criteria to distinguish true feelings and false ones. He simply assumes that all the perceptions reported by subjects are true. From the experiments he provided, he admits some prayers are not effective, and the effectiveness of healing experts and students are different (57, 60). This difference is never explained in his prediction about Era III, where everyone seems to have the same ability to nonlocally influence each other. Dossey also acknowledges that nonlocal mind has destructive power, but he never tries to deal with the problem of nonlocal power abuse. Besides these inner inconsistency and lack of clarity in his argument, his cosmology, which is the condition of his medical era division, is hard to accept. I am not saying his cosmology is wrong, which is an improper word to assess a value system. However, I think his cosmology is not convincing enough to be accepted. I acknowledge his efforts to help readers, on the one hand, to reassess the possible functions of mind, and on the other hand, to realize the significance of mental power in health in a broad context of medicine, philosophy, and religion. However, Dossey goes too far. His cosmology does not provide the comfort and confidence to readers that it should have, instead, the communications with the deceased and the controls of machines through the mind are too inconceivable. They strengthen the suspicion, fear, and uncertainty of readers toward Era III medicine.

Rather than the nonlocal mind, a more solid basis of future medicine could be the recognition of emotion–body effect, and of the self-healing system of body. Positive emotions and good moods speed recovery, and some diseases can be cured by human immune system and self-healing system without resorting to physicians. This framework can find supports from Dossey’s experiments, fit into the antiquity, and is also open to mechanistic medicine. Meanwhile, it does not have the uncanniness of Dossey’s Era III medicine.