Medical training leads us to believe that the human body is a walking time bomb. At its best, conventional medicine tries to figure out what’s going to blow up first, then head it off at the pass before it gets too serious. We call that “preventative medicine,” and we think that it’s state-of-the-art. It’s such nonsense.
The human body is a walking miracle, and what it lets us get away with is just fantastic. When you think about our lifestyles — how we eat, how we deal with stress and all this sort of stuff — the fact that most of us are still walking around is amazing. At the same time, we impose certain limits on our bodies, from our beliefs and our attitudes, in terms of what’s possible and what’s not.
In the world of alternative medicine, there’s something going on that is very positive and beneficial, but we don’t completely understand it. The difficulty is that from a traditional study or point of view, when you have a drug that is patentable or a medical procedure research technique that can make somebody money, the government wants to invest money to research and develop it.
A lot of energy healing/mind-body medicine/natural medicine approaches cannot be protected by patent. So there is no incentive for anybody to invest in researching them. Of course, the government should invest in researching them, if it wants to knock down health care costs.
I remember my first experience watching an acupuncture treatment — on a patient who had osteoarthritis. In those days, doctors responded to arthritis by essentially saying, “Get the biggest jar of aspirin you can find, and eat it until your stomach bleeds.” That was the best we could do.
So there I was, watching this acupuncture practitioner doing a technique that had been around for five thousand years. He put a few little pins in the patient, and suddenly the patient didn’t have pain. It was unbelievable to witness. Based on our training, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. How could it possibly be true?
My first thought was, “This patient is nuts. He’s crazy. He’s an old guy who definitely has osteoarthritis. He just thinks he doesn’t have pain.”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that if you can get somebody to think they don’t have pain — hello! You know, that was better than we could do. So I got very seriously interested in natural pain relief and took a left turn in my studies.
Up until then, I was in the psychiatry department at UCLA, doing a post-doctorate in neurobiochemistry. The experience with the acupuncture treatment just grabbed me. I wanted to figure out how this technique could ease pain in people, in ways that we couldn’t through conventional medicine.
So I transferred to the anesthesia department, because they were the only people that seemed to be interested in pain in those days in the medical school. We started research — doing double-blind, triple-blind studies and getting effects that were repeatable, reliable, observable, predictable, measurable. In all the criteria for a scientific method, the criteria got met.
So there we were, stuck with a phenomenon. We didn’t know about endorphins. We didn’t know about any of these mechanisms. When you cast a hypothesis (my hypothesis being,”‘Acupuncture is all hypnosis”), then go and collect data, and the data and hypothesis don’t agree, a scientist has to throw out the hypothesis. Only a quack throws out the data.
When you see something that works, and you don’t understand it, you call it magic. But as you understand it, you call it science. That’s what it is considered now: There are professional journals, professional societies, board certification in acupuncture.
I took a lot of heat in those early days, for publishing papers demonstrating the positive effects of acupuncture. Everybody was critical. Then three years ago, I got the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Pain Society, for the same research. It’s funny when you get to see the worm turn in your lifetime.
David E. Bresler, Ph.D., L.Ac., is a health psychologist and board-certified acupuncturist who formerly served as the founder and director of the UCLA Pain Control Unit. In October 2000, he was named to the White House Task Force on Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Dr. Bresler has authored over 100 publications, including the book, Free Yourself From Pain, and was the recipient of the Janet Travell Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Pain Management. Currently, Dr. Bresler is the president of the Academy for Guided Imagery.