Dr. Herbert Benson, who saw the mind as medicinal, dies at 86
By Clay Risen
Herbert Benson, a Harvard-trained cardiologist whose research showing the power of mind over body helped move meditation into the mainstream, died Feb. 3 at a hospital in Boston. He was 86.
His wife, Marilyn Benson, said the cause was heart disease and kidney failure.
Herbert Benson did not set out to champion meditation; in fact, even after his first pioneering studies, he remained a skeptic, picking up the practice himself only decades later.
He was, however, open to the possibility that state of mind could affect a person’s health — common sense today but a radical, even heretical, idea when he began researching it in the mid-1960s.
During a stint working for the U.S. Public Health Service in Puerto Rico, he noticed that island residents often had significantly lower blood pressure than their mainland counterparts, all else being equal. He began to wonder if part of the cause lay outside the usual explanations of diet and exercise, a question he took up when he returned to Harvard as a researcher in 1965.
Working in a lab at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center), he and his colleagues devised a way to train monkeys to raise and lower their blood pressure, based on a reward system. The work was low-key; many medical researchers took it as fact that while a stressful situation could raise heart rates thanks to the fight-or-flight response — discovered, coincidentally, in the same lab where Benson worked — the mind itself had no control over it.
Word got out, though, and one day he was approached by several followers of the founder of Transcendental Meditation, a technique that claims to allow practitioners to enter a higher state of consciousness through the repetition of a mantra. Why teach monkeys, they told him, when we have already perfected the practice?
“At first I didn’t want to get involved with them,” Benson told The New York Times in 1975, referring to the meditation practitioners. “The whole thing seemed a bit far out and somewhat peripheral to the traditional study of medicine. But they were persistent, and so finally I did agree to study them.”
To avoid attention, he insisted they come after hours and through a side door. He attached sensors to their chests and masks to their faces, to measure their breathing, and then had them switch between periods of normal thinking and focused meditation.
The meditators were right: Across a variety of metrics — heart rate, oxygen intake — they showed an immediate and significant drop during their contemplative moments, akin, Benson said, to entering a sleep state while still awake.
“I wasn’t so shocked as I was wary because I knew what was ahead of me because the negative mind-body bias was so strong,” he told Brainworld magazine in 2019. “I remained a cardiologist and also being head of cardiovascular teaching at Harvard Medical School, but I sustained two professional lives. I kept respectability within cardiology while I also did work in the mind-body field.”
Working with Robert Keith Wallace, a young physiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, he published his first findings in the early 1970s. Press reports called him a renegade and a maverick, and many in his profession shunned him.
But others were impressed by the strength of his research and by his objectivity. Unlike some researchers at the time, including Wallace, Benson was not an advocate of Transcendental Meditation; in fact, he split with Wallace when he insisted that there was nothing special about the practice or the use of mantras — any word or phrase, repeated over and over, will do, he said.
Benson called his approach the relaxation response — the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. But whereas a stressful situation will cause the body to automatically raise its heart rate and release adrenaline, the relaxation response has to be asserted consciously.
He demonstrated just how to do that in his 1975 book, “The Relaxation Response.” It hit at the right time: That same year the Transcendental Meditation movement claimed more than 400,000 adherents, studying at more than 300 centers around the United States alone.
Millions more Americans, if skeptical about alternative medicine and Eastern spirituality, were still meditation-curious, and Benson, with his Ivy League pedigree and clinical approach to research, gave them license to indulge. The book sold more than 4 million copies and was a New York Times bestseller.
Over time, Benson’s insistence on the connection between the mind and the body became accepted, even standard fare among establishment researchers. In 1992, he founded the Mind-Body Institute, which in 2006 moved to Massachusetts General Hospital and, with an infusion of money from investor John W. Henry, changed its name to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, with Benson as its director emeritus.
Herbert Benson was born April 24, 1935, in Yonkers, New York. His father, Charles, ran a series of wholesale produce businesses, and his mother, Hannah (Schiller) Benson, was a homemaker.
He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1957 with a degree in biology and received his medical degree from Harvard in 1961.
Along with his wife, he is survived by a son, Gregory; a daughter, Jennifer Benson; and four grandchildren.
Benson wrote 11 books after “The Relaxation Response,” several of which delved further into the physiological effects of spirituality and faith. He was the first Western doctor allowed to interview Tibetan monks about their practices, and he became friends with the Dalai Lama during that Buddhist spiritual leader’s visit to Boston in 1979.
Benson found, among other things, that Buddhist monks could, during meditation, raise their body temperature enough to completely dry damp sheets that had been draped over their bodies.
Such findings were later disputed, and Benson was rarely without his critics. But he was undeterred, comparing himself to William James, a Harvard predecessor and another pioneer at the intersection of the mind and the body.
Benson was not a praying man himself, but by the 1990s he was convinced that prayer, and faith in general, had a physiological impact. For him, the explanation lay in a version of the placebo effect: If we believe something is helping us, our bodies will work harder to heal.
With a $2.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, in 1996 he undertook a decadelong study on the healing power of prayer — specifically, whether one person’s prayers could help another.
The conclusions, released in 2006, were definitive, and disappointing (at least to believers): Intercessional prayer not only had no impact, but in some cases where people believed that they were being prayed for, they got worse — a result, Benson said, of their conviction that if someone was praying for them, they must be very ill, with their body trying to match that impression by getting sicker.
Still, Benson believed that prayer could help at least a sick person doing the praying. And he always took care to say that even if his research was 100% accurate, meditation and prayer could never replace drugs and surgery completely.
Both medical treatment and spiritual care, he said, were necessary — a fact that Western medicine had long tried to ignore and one that he spent his career trying to correct.