A Test of Faith

A controversial San Francisco study is spending taxpayers' money to see if Christian clergy, Indian medicine men, and Tibetan lamas can heal patients with AIDS and brain tumors

Targ runs the meetings and launches into the first subject: the distant healing research. The AIDS study involves 150 patients who have been randomly divided into three groups: one that will receive spiritual healing, one that will not receive healing, and one that will receive mental well-wishes from nurses (to see whether people without training in a healing method can affect health). For 20 weeks, professional healers such as Tibetan lamas, shamans, and Christian groups will try prayers and distant healing on one group, while the nurses will focus on another.

At the end of that time, Targ and her team will look at differences between all three groups, including the number of hospitalizations and new illnesses, to see whether the group that received professional healing did better than those that didn't.

The brain tumor study is similar, except that participants have been divided into two groups, and nurses are not being used.

Targ leads a discussion of research strategies, shifting swiftly between topics. Many of Targ's colleagues describe her as a "brilliant" scientist who consistently crafts well-designed experiments.

"Elisabeth is our hero," says Dr. Mitchell Krucoff, a Duke University researcher who is conducting a similar trial. "She's a wonderful, groundbreaking researcher."

Her detractors, meanwhile, say Targ is a naive ideologue who is simply tilting at windmills. "They [alternative medicine researchers] have good intentions, [but] some are just not sophisticated enough," says Dr. Wallace Sampson, a vocal critic of alternative medicine. "That's my opinion of Targ. She just doesn't know."

Still, other skeptics will admit that Targ is a skillful scientist -- even if they find her research subject questionable. "Targ's study does have statistical significance and is probably the best study thus far done that has reported positive results," says Dr. Harold G. Koenig of Duke University. "However, I'm not sure if it has scientific significance unless it can be clearly replicated by another group of investigators."

Targ's introduction to "intentionality," or communicating a person's intentions through mental telepathy, began at an early age. Her father, Russell Targ, is known for running "remote viewing" experiments at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1970s -- studies funded by the government in the hopes of cultivating psychic spies who could tap into clairvoyance and intuition in order to receive information that could be useful to the CIA. Young Elisabeth began watching those experiments when she was 8; she began assisting with them as a teenager.

"I met a lot of people who were participating in studies, and I watched them do the studies with amazement," Targ says. "It gave me an open mind. But there was very little "gee-whiz' about it. There was no discussion of religion or spirituality whatsoever. It was a physics project."

Targ says she grew up in a devoutly atheist household. "My father was a physicist, my mother was a biologist," she says. "My family calls ourselves Jewish, but I've never been to temple once."

By 12, Targ was helping a Stanford researcher stick electrodes into monkey brains to look at the right brain and left brain divide. At 13 she was working in another Stanford lab, using electrodes on crayfish to understand their feeding reflexes. In seventh grade, when a reporter asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, she told him she was going to be a neurophysiologist, which is what she trained as when she earned a master's degree in biology.

Targ says she did not set out to study intentionality or spirituality. In fact, when she began classes at Stanford Medical School, Targ was interested in becoming a psychiatrist so she could research neuropharmacology, or the study of brain chemicals.

Her research into spirituality began in the mid-'90s when she conducted a study on the role of spirituality in women with breast cancer, funded by the Department of Defense.

"In the '90s, women with breast cancer seemed to be getting better because they were praying," Targ says. "As a psychiatrist, I was interested in how other things affected that -- maybe these women had more social support. One question was: Are there benefits [of spiritual practices] above standard [psychological] treatments, and is it OK to support people making those choices?"

In the midst of that research, Targ received a call from Dr. Marilyn Schlitz, the director of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a private research group in the Bay Area that studies concepts like human consciousness. Schlitz contacted Targ in an attempt to pair her with Fred Sicher, a member of the institute who wanted to research distant healing.

Sicher arranged for a meeting on a sailboat one evening in 1994. As Targ, Sicher, and Schlitz sailed out onto the San Francisco Bay with a view of a partial eclipse of the moon, Targ agreed to join the research.

Targ's pilot study was conducted in 1995 and 1996, using only 20 AIDS patients. At the end of six months, 40 percent of the group that had not received healing had died, compared with none in the healing group, which Targ saw as evidence that the distant healing phenomenon should be further researched. The findings, however, are scientifically insignificant because they could possibly be explained by other factors such as age. The study sample was also too small to draw any real conclusions because the results could have occurred purely by chance.

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