Healing Language and Colour Imagery

84 pp A4 free e-book, El-Cheapo Books, 1999, this version 2003

This article serves as a brief overview of a free-of-charge downloadable and printable e-book version of a psychological field study of spiritual healers carried out in 1998. It came from the starting point of watching healers at work, and their decisions to use particular colour visualisations to treat particular conditions. This was paralleled to the standard diagnostic methods and treatments schedules that the average Medical Doctor would (or should) use - e.g. all doctors trained in western clinical medicine, when presented with a patient showing a high temperature and a swollen, painful, foul-smelling deep leg wound should diagnose it as something akin to gangrene and prescribe antibiotics. If one doctor were to prescribe a laxative, or perhaps an eye-patch for such a case it would be highly unusual (and probably later actionable by the grieving family’s lawyer); and indicate that they were operating from a very different diagnostic scheme from their colleagues.

Some healers are believed to base therapy on coherent systems that associate “aura” colours with disease states, and corresponding colour visualisations with treatment. This small study devised a means to test for the existence of any such consistent and coherent scheme across a group of five different healers; it also tested the coherence and consistency of each individual healer’s method over several months.

The problems of defining and researching anything to do with healing and perhaps the often-abusive label of ‘parapsychologist’ (or worse) sometimes attached to those who try may have held back scientific research. However this attitude has not affected the size of the client group. The social phenomenon is that uptake of different alternative therapies is large, and increasing. Fully ten percent of all health consultations in the UK are with an alternative practitioner, and this uptake rate alone should be justification for research. Since NHS treatment in the UK is free and healing is often on a fee or donation basis why do so many people pay for treatment? It seems that it is for something the NHS simply cannot (or will not?) provide, or to treat chronic states that orthodox medicine had not helped. Apparently thirty-five percent of patients using alternative therapies had ceased to call first on their GP, which was often modelled on experiences with previous illnesses- basically if someone is able to help once, you go to them again, and straight away. There is also the suggestion that healers provide ‘maintenance’ treatment for healthy clients, similar to the way that GPs might give dietary and exercise advice to a patient in otherwise good health.

The large client group for alternative medicine, and the numbers keeping their GP ‘in reserve’ imply this area must be researched. This is either to prevent harm if alternative therapies do not work, or to maximise the use and effectiveness if they do.

Over 40 years ago the magician and healer Franz Bardon was vehemently encouraging spiritual healers and the medical profession to become allies. There is nowadays a 10% referral-rate each way between both camps, however the GPs’ knowledge is often insufficient to accurately refer; for which they are legally liable if the patient is harmed. ‘Harm’ includes (legally) knowingly allowing an ineffective treatment instead of an effective one, so it is important that GPs are educated in this field, as otherwise it is in their interests, so far as not being sued goes, not to refer anyone to an alternative practitioner; which would put personal health back hundreds of years. Beyond personal beliefs, anecdotes from colleagues or limited experience there is little aid for GPs making referrals.

A further area to address is the possible psychopathology of practitioners of alternative medicine- i.e. “are alternative therapists a bit dotty?”. Many beliefs (i.e., auras) denied by science may appear delusory under standard psychiatric guidelines for the diagnosis of mental patients. This is important, given that healers are in a position of trust working often with vulnerable people. So are other groups who may seem equally bizarre to the truly objective observer:

“Every week, every day, up and down the country, people accept food from a man who, before feeding them, intones: ‘Take and eat, this is My body . . .''

However, empirical scientific studies in progress support the view that very strongly held spiritual beliefs (of any denomination) can be benign and indeed beneficial. Thus healers, much like any minority ‘religious group,' are only statistically, rather than clinically, abnormal.

Science should ideally progress via Karl Popper’s notions of falsification- something is regarded as being contingently true until good science can demonstrably refute it, and the demonstration of a coherent and stable system of associations would be one small step in support for the non-delusory view, hence this study.

As George Bernard Shaw said “all great discoveries start as heresies”. In any case, science scarcely supports Freudian psychoanalysis or physics, the latter of which relies upon both of two contradictory hypotheses. Also, homeopathy (with no ‘straight’ scientific basis, and regarded as pretty-much akin to sorcery in some quarters) is already used in the UK’s National Health Service. There are also combined Psychology and Complementary Medicine post-graduate courses now being taught at a leading UK University. Times are changing, slowly.

Any ‘normal’ adult has associations between colours and words. Colour is an important controlling stimulus; i.e., red traffic signals make (most) drivers stop. Stimuli also modulate behaviour, eliciting one reaction from many possible ones; depending upon context; as illustrated by Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Many words have high imagery associations, but not the same ones in everyone, there are a lot of variables, including cultural ones- White for example means diametrically opposite things as you move from religion to religion.

Whether healing actually works was beyond the scope of this study, and references in the main text to placebo affects are intended to highlight that scientific investigations will often leap to the most parsimonious explanation of a result, and that this report was written for a psychological audience…. regardless of whether that view is correct- this study is in no way devised with an intention of ‘bashing’ alternative medicine: from personal experience I would not be walking today without the intervention of an alternative treatment after an injury when all that the ‘straight’ medical world could offer was addiction-level long-term prescriptions of painkillers and a deadline to choose my preferred style of walking sticks and then ultimately a wheelchair.

Since healing terms such as aura cannot be easily operationally defined, and ethical considerations meant that patients needing healing were not to be disadvantaged, or their treatment delayed by any experimental methods, human patients could not be used. Instead a ‘paper-patient’ standardised colour and word stimuli method was designed, with the healers responding ‘as if’ they had a real patient under their care.

The results: in brief: “Overall, significant, positive but non-reliable correlations were found between-subjects. Within-subjects correlations were also significant, with partial reliability. Many colour and word components within the overall analysis showed highly reliable correlations”.

What exactly does this gibberish mean to non-statisticians? In brief, there appeared to be a glimmer of a coherent system across the healers- some kind of shared scheme, but the maths to support this was weak, and it is likely that in an attempt to duplicate the study the slight support demonstrated might not be found again, it was a borderline effect. Each individual healer on the other hand was very strong in appearing to have his or her own coherent system over time and for each treatment paradigm; some of these were extremely strong mathematically. The results in the main piece are expressed as mathematical probabilities involving complex computerised formulae, giving simple numerical results of more or less than 0.05, more or less than 0.001- in psychology if something in an experiment appears to have a less than 1 in 20 likelihood to have happened by chance then it is considered a significant result, and to have been due to the thing which you are trying to measure in the experiment and not down to extraneous factors. Sometimes this level is set at a far more stringent 1 in 1000, (0.0001) especially in many parapsychology experiments (where they have “more to prove” to an ever-sceptical audience).

This study showed results that fitted all of those probability levels at various times; in simple terms, the healers have a system, and in places a damned good one: which was quite an impressive result for a study that was expected (by the straight psychologists looking on, who were in one case rather wowed) to show nothing of value. The results were also in places considerably better than broadly comparable studies performed over many years on doctors and psychiatrists who were given diagnostic and treatment tests on ‘paper patients’- descriptions of symptoms similar to this study.

Parts of the full write-up will be similarly incomprehensible to non-statisticians (among which I also include myself, as I’m not working gin that field anymore, and the language is easily lost), but large segments will be of interest to even those with maths-phobia. It’s also free for download!

So next time someone scoffs at someone using a “fluffy new age therapy”, there might well be more behind it than they realise. Cynics simply dismiss, sceptics are at least open to persuasion, and believers are already there. And science…..?

Dave Evans

Download book here