• Thu. Oct 6th, 2022

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Dr. Herbert Benson, Who Saw the Mind as Medicinal, Dies at 86

“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 Dr. Wallace, Dr. Benson was not an advocate of Transcendental Meditation; in fact, he split with Dr. 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.

Dr. 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 book “The Relaxation Response,” published in 1975. 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 in the United States alone.

Millions more Americans, if skeptical about alternative medicine and Eastern spirituality, were still meditation-curious, and Dr. Benson, with his Ivy League pedigree and clinical approach to research, gave them license to indulge. The book sold more than four million copies and was a New York Times best seller.