It was April 2008, a year after I'd launched the big global Intention Experiments, testing the power of thoughts to affect the physical world. I'd invited readers from around the world to send a designated, collective thought to a well-controlled target set up in the laboratory of one of the scientists who'd agreed to work with me.
We'd run about four of them by that time, sending intention to simple targets like seeds and plants, and recorded some remarkably encouraging results (see box, page 30). Now I was trying to scale down these effects to something personal for people, something that would fit well in my first weekend workshop, to be run in Chicago that summer.
On a crazy whim, I decided to put them into small groups and have them send a collective healing intention for someone else in the group with a health condition. I thought the group effect in our Chicago workshop would produce nothing more than some minor physical improvement caused by a placebo effect, a feel-good exercise—something akin to a massage or a facial.
On the first day of our workshop, we divided our audience of 100 into small groups of about eight and asked someone in each group with some sort of physical or emotional condition to nominate themselves to be the object of their group's intention. They would explain their condition to the group, after which the group would form a circle, hold hands and send healing thoughts in unison to that group member, holding the intention for 10 minutes.
I instructed the audience in some techniques I'd distilled from the most common practices of intention 'masters'—master healers, Qigong masters and Buddhist monks—with a little breathing exercise, then a visualization, and an exercise in compassion to help people get into a focused, energized, heartfelt state. I also showed them how to construct a highly specific intention, since being specific seemed to work best in laboratory studies.
All the members of each group were to hold hands in a circle because it seemed important to maintain an unbroken physical connection.
"Don't invent any improvement that isn't there," I told them.
On Sunday morning, I asked those who'd received the intention to come forward and report on how they felt. A group of about 10 people lined up at the front of the room, and we handed each of them the microphone in turn.
One of the target women, who had suffered from insomnia with night sweats, had enjoyed her first good night's sleep in years. Another woman with severe leg pain reported that her pain had increased during the session the day before but that it had diminished so much after her group intention that she had the least pain she could remember having in nine years. A chronic migraine sufferer said that when she woke up her headache was gone. Another attendee's terrible stomach ache and irritable bowel syndrome had vanished. A woman who suffered from depression felt it had lifted. The stories continued in this vein for an hour.
I was completely shocked. What on earth had I done to them? The lame may as well have been walking. For all that I disparage woo-woo, the biggest woo-woo was occurring right in front of me.
I dismissed the possibility of an instant, miraculous healing.
But throughout the next year, no matter where we were in the world, in every workshop we ran, no matter how large or small, whenever we set up our clusters of eight or so people in each group, gave them a little instruction and asked them to send intention to a group member, we were stunned witnesses to the same experience: story after story of extraordinary improvement and physical and psychic transformation.
Marekje's multiple sclerosis had made it difficult for her to walk without aids. The morning after her intention, she arrived at the workshop without her crutches.
Marcia suffered from a cataract-like opacity blocking the vision of one eye. The following day, after her group's healing intention, she claimed that her sight in that eye had been almost fully restored.
There was Heddy in Maarssen, Netherlands, who suffered from an arthritic knee. 'I couldn't bend my knee more than 90 degrees, and it was always aching. Going up and down the stairs was always difficult for me,' she said. 'I usually had to carefully make my way down, step by step.' Her Power of Eight group had placed her in the middle of the circle and sat close to
her, with two of the group members placing a hand on her knee.
"At first I didn't feel anything. And then it got warm, and then my muscles started to shake, and everyone was also shaking with me. And I felt the pain going away. And a few minutes later, the pain was gone," she said.
That night Heddy was able to climb up and down the stairs easily and go to the hotel sauna. The following morning, the pain was still gone. "I got out of bed, and I was going to the shower and forgot that I had to go step by step. I just walked downstairs normally."
There was Laura's mother in Denver, who had scoliosis. After her turn as the intention target, she reported that her pain had vanished.
Several months later, Laura wrote to me, saying that her mother's spine had altered so much that she'd had to move the rearview mirror in her mother's car to accommodate her new, straightened posture.
And there was Paul in Miami, whose tendonitis in his left hand was so bad that he'd had to have a brace on it at all times, until he was the target of a Power of Eight group, and stood in front of the audience the next day, showing how he could now move it perfectly.
There were hundreds, even thousands, more, and each time I was standing there, watching these changes unfold right in front of me. I should have felt good about these amazing transformations, but at the time I mainly viewed them as a liability. I believed they were going to undermine my credibility in what I saw as my 'real' work: the large-scale global experiments.
Nevertheless, during the large-scale Intention Experiments and workshops and masterclasses that I began holding regularly, participants of groups both large and small continuously described the same sort of transcendent state when sending collective intention in a group. And there continued to be miraculous effects: healed bodies, healed relationships, healed lives.
What were the possible mechanisms for these miraculous effects?
The after-effects of a mystical state
In his book Ecstasy: A Way of Knowing, Catholic priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley quotes psychologist Arnold Ludwig's defining characteristics of an altered state of consciousness like mystical ecstasy, including: alterations in thinking; disturbed time sense; loss of control; changes in emotional expression; a change in body image; perceptual distortions, including visualizations and hallucinations; changes in meaning or significance, particularly as regards the mystical state itself, like a eureka moment; a sense of the ineffable; and feelings of rejuvenation. Most of the workshop attendees and participants in the large-scale studies reported most, if not every single one, of these states. It was Greeley's view that anyone undergoing this state is actually afforded insight into a greater reality and a major rejuvenation. 1
A 'Woodstock' effect
New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt's 'hive hypothesis' theorizes that people reach the highest level of human flourishing by losing themselves in a larger group. Haidt built upon the work of the 19th-century social scientist Émile Durkheim, one of the first to study the impact of community on the individual, who referred to the effect of ritual on a group as 'a collective effervescence.'2
This kind of 'collective effervescence' was evident at Woodstock, the legendary 1969 rock festival in upstate New York. Despite the extraordinarily overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, the bad weather and lack of provisions, no fights or rioting broke out, and the nearly half a million attendees experienced a transcendent feeling of connectedness.
It also occurs with the annual pilgrimage to Allahabad, when 100 million participants gather at the banks of the river Magh Mela in northern India. Contrary to every expectation, the attendees record higher levels of physical and mental well-being than normal, despite greater risks to health from communicable diseases, poor sanitary facilities and the cramped and temporary living conditions of a mass gathering.
Researchers from the Centre of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Allahabad found that participants were actually in greater health at the end of the pilgrimage than when they'd set off on it, even when the physical conditions were harsh. 3
The rebound effects of altruism
Dr Sean O'Laoire, an Irish Catholic priest with a PhD in transpersonal psychology, tested the effect of prayer on anxiety or depression and mood by enlisting 406 volunteers, 90 of whom were elected to do the praying. All 406 of O'Laoire's participants improved on every objective and subjective measure of physical and psychological health.
But when O'Laoire looked a bit closer, he saw that those doing the praying were faring even better than their targets. And although the amount of prayer hadn't made a difference to those being prayed for, it did impact those doing the praying. The more prayer they carried out, the healthier they became.
"It seems, then, as if praying is more effective than being prayed for," O'Laoire concluded.4
In one study, more than 800 Americans suffering from severe stress were followed by University of Buffalo researchers for five years to compare the state of their health with the extent to which they'd helped anyone outside the home, including relatives, friends or neighbors. When faced with future stressful situations like illness, financial difficulties, job loss or death in the family, those who'd helped others during the previous year were 30 percent less likely to die than those who hadn't.5
Activation of the vagus nerve
The vagus nerve, one of the longest of the body, which originates at the top of the spinal cord and works its way through most of the body's major organs, connects with all the communication systems involved with caretaking. It slows down heart rate, calms the effects of any fight-or-flight autonomic nervous system activity, and initiates the release of oxytocin, a neuropeptide that plays a role in love, trust, intimacy and devotion. Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, and Chris Oveis, one of Keltner's graduate students, tested whether activation of the vagus nerve helps to nurture universal love in a person by showing a group of student volunteers photos of malnourished children—the ultimate of the world's victims. As soon as the students saw the photos, their vagus nerves went into high gear. The same effect was not produced in another set of students who were shown photos designed to elicit school pride, such as images of landmarks on campus or University of California sporting events.
But the most interesting effect occurred when the students were shown photos of 20 other groups of strangers who were markedly different from them: Democrats, Republicans, saints, convicted felons, terrorists, the homeless, even students from their strong competitor, Stanford University. Those students love-bombed by their own vagus nerve reported feeling a far greater sense of similarity to all the disparate groups than those who'd been exposed to photos designed to elicit pride. Activity of the vagus nerve helped to remove a boundary of separation, causing the students to focus more on similarities rather than differences, and those feelings of similarities increased, the more intensely their vagus nerves fired.6
Activating the vagus nerve and increasing levels of oxytocin, as occurs when we show kindness or compassion towards others, also has a marked healing effect on the body. David Hamilton, a former medical researcher and author of Why Kindness Is Good for You, made a study of the healing effects of increased oxytocin levels and found evidence that they lower inflammation and boost the immune system, aid digestion, lower blood pressure, heal wounds faster and even repair damage to the heart after a heart attack.7
Oxytocin is so protective that it can defend us against bacterial assault. In one ground-breaking Austrian study carried out at the Medical University of Vienna, 10 healthy men were first injected with disease-causing bacteria on its own and then given the bacteria plus oxytocin. When first injected with the bacteria, the men displayed evidence of rapidly increasing levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines—evidence of increased inflammation. However, these cytokines were reduced markedly when oxytocin was injected at the same time.8
Oxytocin even plays a key role in turning undifferentiated stem cells into mature cells, which also help in repair and renewal.7
The power of doing something meaningful
Psychologists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill examined the difference in likely future health between healthy people who live a fulfilling life of pleasure —what we'd normally define as the good life—compared to those who live a life of purpose or meaning.
The researchers examined the gene expression and psychological states of 80 healthy volunteers in both groups. Although the members of the two groups had many emotional similarities, and all claimed to be highly content and not depressed, their gene expression profile couldn't have been more divergent. Among the pleasure seekers, the psychologists were amazed to discover high levels of inflammation, considered a marker for degenerative illnesses, and lower levels of gene expression involved in antibody synthesis, the body's response to outside attack.
If you hadn't known their histories, you would have concluded that these were the gene profiles of people exposed to a great deal of adversity, or in the midst of difficult life crises: a low socioeconomic status, social isolation, diagnosis with a life-threatening disease, a recent bereavement. These people were all perfect candidates for a heart attack, Alzheimer's disease, even cancer. In a few years, they would be dropping like flies.
Those whose lives were not as affluent or stress-free but were purposeful and filled with meaning, on the other hand, had low inflammatory markers and a downregulation of stress-related gene expression, both indicative of good health. Choosing a life of meaning over one just chasing pleasure, the researchers concluded, is undeniably better for your health.9
Transformational brain-wave changes
The late Eugene d'Aquili of the University of Pennsylvania and his colleague Andrew Newberg studied the brain waves of Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns at prayer, mediums and Sufi masters using functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI) and SPECT (single-photon emission computed tomography), high-tech brain-imaging tools that trace blood-flow patterns in the brain. Newberg discovered that feelings of calm, unity and transcendence, such as during these peak experiences, show up as a sudden and dramatic decrease in activity in the brain's frontal lobes (behind the forehead) and in the parietal lobes, at the back of the top of the head.10
The purpose of the parietal lobe is to figure out where you end and the rest of the universe begins. In each study of peak experience, writes Newberg, "At the moment they experienced a sense of oneness or loss of self, we observed a sudden drop of activity in the parietal lobe."
This shutting down of frontal and parietal lobe activity particularly occurred on the right side of the brain, which would make it easier to access creative imagination, says Newberg, and a sense of oneness. The greatest changes occurred in the right frontal lobes, the area of the brain associated with negative thinking and worry, which might explain why those experiencing a state of enlightenment often describe feelings of bliss.
A 2016 study of our Power of Eight groups by Dr. Stephanie Sullivan at the Life University, the world's largest chiropractic university, discovered a near identical brain-wave signature: a sharp decrease in frontal and parietal lobe activity, particularly during Power of Eight groups.
This suggested that the participants in our global experiments and Power of Eight groups were experiencing something akin to a moment of ecstasy, which then may have proved transformational in their lives. But unlike Newberg's nuns, monks or Sufis, the process hadn't required priming—an hour of intense chanting or reflection to achieve that state—or years of devoted practice. In every case, our participants had been transported into that state in an instant. Sending altruistic thoughts of healing in a group appeared to be a fast track to the miraculous.
The psychic internet
In 2008, Dr Gary Schwartz, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, and I ran six experiments testing whether people can make seeds grow faster with their thoughts. For each of these experiments, Dr Schwartz's lab team prepared four trays of 30 barley seeds apiece—one target and three controls—to eliminate chance findings.
In every instance the Arizona lab team would send me photographs of four batches of 30 seeds labeled A, B, C or D, and I would invite my internet community or an actual audience, if I were lecturing somewhere, to choose our target among the four sets of photographs without informing the scientists, while holding an intention for the seeds to enjoy enhanced growth and health.
Once we'd finished, the scientific team would plant all four trays of seeds and, after five days, harvest the seedlings and measure their lengths in millimeters.
In the six studies, as an overall average, the seeds sent intention grew significantly higher than the controls in the Intention Studies: 56 mm versus 48mm (2.20 versus 1.89 inches).
In the first of the six studies, my audience had been in Sydney, Australia, about 8,000 miles away from the seeds in Tucson, Arizona. Thinking in a group seemed to create a non-local psychic internet of instant connection, where the distance between the participants no longer mattered, even when we weren't working with real targets and intention—just their photographic representation, in a sense like a voodoo doll.
Mitchell Dean, 44, suffered from depression for as long as he could remember, and at times even harbored thoughts of suicide all day long.
To be a psychologist suffering from depression was doubly difficult, and as an integrative therapist, over the years he'd tried everything, from diet and supplements to Chinese herbs and chiropractic, but nothing had seemed to help.
He had signed up to be part of a Power of Eight group for an entire year, and not long afterward his group sent an intention to help him with his condition. As a result, Mitchell was inspired to work with a chiropractor, who ran 46 tests on him. When he got the results back, 45 were fine, but the 46th showed that one of his liver filtration systems wasn't working. That meant that some of the toxins his body took in were going directly to his brain. Mitchell started a new regimen of Chinese medicine, diet and supplements, and this time, they worked.
Finally he'd had a true breakthrough; although the depression returned for a day or two now and then, it had subsided. But the most profound effect on himself occurred whenever he held an intention for someone else.
"It just feels like there's more good fortune that comes my way," he said.
"Something in me feels more central, more grounded, more hooked up—like a conduit to spirit."
Healing chronic fatigue
Patty Rutledge suffered from severe chronic fatigue for 13 years. The only exercise she could manage was walking the dog for 10 minutes twice a day. An MRI scan confirmed that she had two lumps in her breast that could become cancerous. For years, Patty had been diligently trying out various forms of alternative medicine, without success.
Patty asked her Power of Eight group to focus on finding and healing the source of her fatigue, and having the two breast lumps just melt away. On August 26, she had her first breakthrough: a repeat breast scan revealed that the lumps were completely gone. Nevertheless, her energy levels remained unchanged, and she felt even more depleted after a trip to Santa Fe.
When she returned home and began researching why she felt worse on the trip, she discovered that she might have been dehydrated in Santa Fe's increased altitude, which would have affected her liver stores of glycogen, the energy that gives her muscles the power to move. Tests by her naturopathic doctor revealed that her liver wasn't producing or releasing glycogen properly.
That same month, she discovered black mold present near her dressing room and bedroom, where she spent many hours every day. "I finally got to the root of the problem," she said. Once she'd had the mold treated and begun naturopathic treatments for her liver, her health began to transform.
"Within one week, I was lifting weights again!" she said, and during a vacation later that month, Patty was able to hike, paddleboard and do Pilates.
Ingrid Pettersson's husband died in late 2013, only four weeks after being diagnosed with a rare cancer. Although his oncologist had been confident that the cancer was treatable, he had been deeply affected by the pessimistic attitude of his home-health nurses and their gloomy prognosis, particularly their repeated pronouncements that he'd never resume normal activity like driving again. Ingrid stood by watching helplessly as her husband seemed to just give up.
As a result of her husband's rapid decline and death, Ingrid had to close his thriving business and move out of their new apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden. Within months, she was beset with financial difficulties. For most of the early part of that year she was overwhelmed by shock, grief and depression at her dramatic loss and her suddenly changed circumstances.
Several months after her husband's death, Ingrid decided to join in with a large-scale experiment of ours targeting a person with post-traumatic stress disorder.
After participating, her debilitating grief vanished. "Since your last experiment, it's all gone," she wrote. 'I couldn't believe it. It's just amazing.' For the first time in months Ingrid had a good night's sleep and woke up energized, feeling happier than she had in a long time.
"The negativities and even my grief after my husband died did not seem to affect me as much as it had done during the last months." And best of all, she said, "I got back the flow in my life." After the experiment she decided to start a new career organizing workshops in energy healing in Gothenburg and Stockholm.
Gathering the eight
Assemble a group of eight like-minded friends who are open to the possibility of healing and intention. You can use a book group, a church group or the members of your neighborhood.
1) Ask if any of the members of the group with a healing challenge of some sort (emotional or physical) would like to be the target of the healing intention. Allow the person nominated as the recipient to describe their problem in detail.
2) Spend a few moments talking over and designing the intention statement that you will all hold together.
3) Gather around in a circle. Either join hands or place the nominated subject in the middle of the circle, as every other member of the group places one hand on the subject, like the spokes of a wheel.
4) Begin by having each member of the group close their eyes and concentrate on inhaling and exhaling. Each should clear their mind of any distractions, then hold the intention statement in their mind while imagining, with all five senses, the intention recipient as healthy and well in every way. All members should then send out the intention through their hearts. The intention recipient should remain open to receive. (For the full instructions on techniques that work best, see The Power of Eight.)
5) After 10 minutes, gently end the healing intention and have everyone take a few moments to 'come back' into the room. First ask the intention recipient to describe how they feel, and if they have experienced any changes, positive or negative. All the other members may then take turns sharing experiences. Take note of any feelings of palpable oneness and also any improvement in the condition of both senders and receivers.
6) With time, begin to select targets outside your group.
7) Keep a careful note of any monthly progress in your life: your health, your relationships, your career, your life's purpose.
Adapted from Lynne McTaggart's new book, The Power of Eight (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2017)