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Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person?

by / NPR

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Ninety percent of Americans say they pray — for their health, or their love life or their final exams. But does prayer do any good?

For decades, scientists have tried to test the power of prayer and positive thinking, with mixed results. Now some scientists are fording new — and controversial — territory.

Mind Over Body

When I first meet Sheri Kaplan, she is perched on a plastic chair at a Miami clinic, holding out her arm as a researcher draws several vials of blood.

“I’m quite excited about my blood work this time,” she says. “I’ve got no stress and I’m proud of it.”

Kaplan is tanned and freckled, with wavy red hair and a cocky laugh. She is defiantly healthy for a person who has lived with HIV for the past 15 years.

“God didn’t want me to die or even get sick,” she asserts. “I’ve never had any opportunistic infections, because I had no time to be down.”

Kaplan’s faith is unorthodox, but it’s central to her life. She was raised Jewish, and although she claims no formal religion now, she prays and meditates every day. She believes God is keeping the virus at bay and that her faith is the reason she’s alive today.

“Everything starts from a thought, and then the thought creates a reaction,” she says. “And I have the power to control my mind, before it gets to a physical level or an emotional level.”

For the past decade, Kaplan has been coming every few months to see Gail Ironson, a professor at the University of Miami. Ironson, an AIDS researcher, runs down a battery of questions.

“During this time have you had any HIV- or AIDS-related symptoms?” Ironson asks.

“Nope,” Kaplan says. “Nothing.”

“What percent of your well-being do you think is due to your own attitudes and behaviors versus medical care?” Ironson continues.

Kaplan laughs: “110 percent.”

Kaplan has never taken medicine, yet the disease has not progressed to AIDS (and she is not part of the population that has a mutation in the CCR5 gene that prevents progression of HIV to AIDS). In the mid-1990s, when having HIV was akin to a death sentence, Ironson noticed that a number of patients like Kaplan never got sick. Ironson wanted to know why. And she found something surprising.

“If you ask people what’s kept you going so long, what keeps you healthy, often people would say spirituality,” she says. “It was something that just kept coming up in the interviews, and that’s why I decided to look at it.”

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