When I went to see “Miracles from Heaven,” I saw more laughter, crying and applause than I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. Clearly, this new movie — the real-life story of a young girl, suffering from an incurable illness, who was inexplicably healed after a nearly fatal accident — touches a chord, at least in the theater in Boston where I saw it.
To doctors, events like the story that this girl’s mother (played in the film by Jennifer Garner) recounted in her memoir are impossible to explain. Scientists call them “spontaneous remission” or “placebo responses.”
Religious people generally use a different word: “miracle.”
I’m trained in both medicine and theology. I’ve been investigating the medical evidence in stories like these since 2003. And I can say unequivocally that much of physical reality, remarkable as it may sound, is created in our minds.
I do not believe that we can think ourselves into health. But I do believe that principles of mind and spirit exist that we have not even begun to scientifically map in the West, and that we should be doing so.
Think of it this way: Two people can sit on a park bench together, and yet live in very different worlds. One person can be living in hell, with a turbulent, frightened inner world, noticing and experiencing an outer world full of violence and pain. The other person, sitting right next to him, may be living in a completely different universe, full of love, connection and beauty.
Those people might have totally different medical outcomes, influenced solely by the way they see the world.
It’s amazing to me that in the history of medicine we have never studied the people who beat the odds and find a path to health after being told that their illness is incurable or that they are going to die. You would think that these are the people that we would most want to study, that perhaps they found golden keys to health and vitality that we would want to understand. Certainly it’s true that if I wanted to become a great athlete I would study Michael Jordan or Serena Williams. But in medicine we have too long ignored or dismissed people with remarkable recoveries.
I have listened to more than 100 of these remarkably cured individuals, despite the fact that in medical school, I was taught that reports of spontaneous remission are rare, “anecdotes” and “flukes” from which nothing can be learned.
That assumption appears to be wrong. In my studies of more than 100 people with medical evidence for recovery from incurable illness, the similarity in their paths suggests to me identifiable mental and spiritual principles associated with their recoveries.
Take Claire Haser, for example. She said she was diagnosed in 2008 by biopsy with adenocarcinoma of the pancreas, a brutal form of cancer. Without surgery at an early stage, it is essentially a death sentence. Radiation and chemotherapy can delay death, but only briefly.
Haser was told that she was going to die. She values science highly and has a long history of pursuing the best that traditional medicine can offer. After much consideration, however, she said that she knew at a deep level that she needed to not chase a cure but rather to change her relationship with fear.
Five years after deciding not to go through cancer treatment, Haser had an abdominal CT for unrelated reasons. It turned out, she said, that her cancer was gone.
Haser did the same thing that I see over and over in these remarkable patients. She faced her fears and at a deep level changed her relationship with herself.
To move through fear and self-criticism in a way that genuinely changes how one relates to the world, to change not just one’s thoughts, but one’s experience and perception — that is a major feat, whether done as an adult or a child, and whether that process occurs in 10 minutes or 10 years.
As for Anna, the subject of “Miracles from Heaven,” I have not reviewed the medical evidence for myself nor spoken with her doctors, but the diagnosis does appear to have been made very carefully, after multiple tests and evaluations. And the medical evidence, and the psychological pattern that one typically finds after such remarkable recoveries, appear to support her story as well.
I believe Anna. But I disagree with one common viewpoint that the movie espouses. At the very beginning, it defines a “miracle” as a contradiction of natural law.
I believe that miracles only contradict what we know of nature at this point in time. Modern physics is, for example, way ahead of traditional science, and its implications have not been fully incorporated into its perspectives and methods yet. So I believe that miracles actually are consistent with mental and spiritual laws that we are only beginning to study. This is the only way I can understand the similarities among all those with remarkable recoveries whom I have been interviewing.
From whatever perspective you look at it — from the standpoint of Eastern philosophy or of modern physics, from my personal training as a scientist or as a theologian — you see a deeper relationship between the mind and physical reality.
As Scripture says, the Kingdom of Heaven is within and at hand — as near as our souls are to our bodies. Life really is a matter of perception. Perception changes experience, even perhaps to the point of changing physical bodies.
Anna may have experienced a piece of heaven. The astonishing medical evidence suggests her body changed to match her inner experience.
Jeffrey D. Rediger is an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. A medical doctor, he also earned a master’s degree in divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary.