In National Geographic‘s December issue, the magazine investigates the healing potential of religion—and more generally, spirituality. As breakthroughs continue to push the boundaries of medicine forward, scientists are starting to explore how mere belief can alter the way we heal.
From your average Sunday churchgoers to individuals that have their own personal belief systems, researchers are looking at placebos, rituals, and mystical experiences to see if they have any ameliorating effects.
Many believe that science and religion are at odds, but some scientists have come to the conclusion that the two may complement each other in specific situations. Mike Pauletich (above) might agree with the latter after undergoing an experimental surgery, as part of a study, to slow down his early onset Parkinson’s disease. Pauletich’s quality of life improved drastically, and he has almost no visible symptoms today—which is remarkable, given that he never received the experimental procedure, just a placebo.
Science and religion have actually been closely connected since the days of shamanism and spiritual healers. Evidence of religious healing being used in prehistoric cultures dates back some two million years, and in many cases, these healers were among the most revered in their society. Yet we haven’t been able to evaluate its effect on human life; modern standards for experiments were not around when the confluence of religion and health was at its zenith. There was much skepticism, too.
Since then, scientific experiments have become the standard of proving a hypothesis true or false. Although many religions around the world still incorporate aspects of religious healing into their practice, they are a far cry from the ancestral practices they once were. For example, the Mexican witch doctors, or brujos, from the Veracruz state, adapted some shamanistic traditions from Roman Catholicism.