Herbert Benson, a Harvard-trained cardiologist whose research showing the power of mind over body helped move meditation into the mainstream, died on Feb. 3 at a hospital in Boston. He died at 86.
His wife said he had heart disease.
Even after his first studies, Dr. Benson remained unconvinced of the benefits of meditation; he picked up the practice himself only decades later.
He was open to the idea that a person's state of mind could affect their health, even though it was a radical idea at the time.
During his time working for the U.S. Public Health Service in Puerto Rico, he noticed that island residents had lower blood pressure than their mainland counterparts. When he returned to Harvard as a researcher in 1965, he wondered if part of the cause was outside the usual explanations of diet and exercise.
He and his colleagues came up with a way to train monkeys to raise and lower their blood pressure, based on a reward system. The work was low-key, and many medical researchers took it as fact that stress can raise heart rates.
He was approached by several followers of the founder of a technique that claims to allow practitioners to enter a higher state of consciousness through repetition of a mantra. They told him that they have already mastered the practice of teaching monkeys.
The New York Times reported in 1975 that Dr. Benson didn't want to get involved with the meditation practitioners. I finally agreed to study them because they were persistent.
They came 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 showed an immediate and significant drop in their heart rate, oxygen intake, and other metrics when they were contemplative.
He told Brainworld magazine that he knew what was ahead of him because of the negative mind-body bias. I did work in the mind-body field, but I kept respectability within cardiology.
He published his first findings in the early 1970s with Robert Wallace, a young physiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. He was called a maverick by the press and many in his profession did not like him.
Others were impressed by his research and objectivity. Dr. Wallace was an advocate of the practice, but he split with Dr. Benson because he insisted that there was nothing special about it.
The relaxation response is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. The relaxation response has to be asserted consciously because a stress situation will cause the body to raise its heart rate.
In 1975, he showed how to do that in his book, "The Relaxation Response." The year before, the movement claimed more than 400,000 followers, studying more than 300 centers around the United States.
Millions of Americans were still skeptical about alternative medicine and Eastern spirituality, but Dr. Benson's Ivy League background and clinical approach allowed them to indulge. The book was a New York Times best seller.
The connection between the mind and the body became accepted as standard fare among establishment researchers. The Mind-Body Institute was founded in 1992 and moved to Massachusetts General Hospital in 2006 with the help of John W. Henry.
Herbert was the son of Charles and Hannah (Schiller) Benson and was born on April 24, 1935.
He received his medical degree from Harvard in 1961.
He is survived by his wife and four children.
Several of the books written by Dr. Benson dealt with the effects of faith and spirituality on the body. He became friends with the Dalai Lama during his visit to Boston in 1979 and was the first Western doctor to interview Tibetan monks about their practices.
Buddhist monks were able to raise their body temperature enough to completely dry their damp sheets during meditation.
Such findings were later disputed. He compared himself to another pioneer at the intersection of the mind and the body, William James.
Dr. Benson was not a praying man, but by the 1990s he was convinced that prayer and faith had a positive effect on the body. If we believe something is helping us, our bodies will work harder to heal.
He undertook a decade-long study on the healing power of prayer with a grant from the John Templeton Foundation.
In some cases where people believed they were being prayed for, they got worse, as a result of the conclusions released in 2006 that intercessional prayer had no impact.
He believed that prayer could help a sick person. Even if his research was 100 percent accurate, meditation and prayer could never replace drugs and surgery.
He spent his career trying to correct the fact that Western medicine had long ignored medical treatment and spiritual care.