|Herbert Benson, MD, is the father of modern mind-body medicine. From the late 1960s onward, Dr. Benson’s breakthrough research at Harvard Medical School has demonstrated that the relaxation response, which can be elicited through a variety of methods including meditation, is the physiological counterpoint to the fight-or-flight response and serves as a natural antidote to stress. Numerous markers including metabolic rate, heart rate and blood pressure are increased by stress and decreased by the relaxation response. Benson continues to lead research into its basic physiology and efficacy in counteracting the harmful effects of stress.
In this interview with Dr. Daniel Redwood, Dr. Benson describes his research and its potential for filling a major gap in contemporary health care. He explains that because drugs and surgery have such dramatic effects, the medical profession has tended to focus on these methods to the virtual exclusion of mind-body approaches, which can provide a much needed complement, particularly in the treatment of stress-related conditions.
Benson is a graduate of Wesleyan University and the Harvard Medical School. He is the author or co-author of over 175 scientific publications and 11 books, including The Relaxation Response, The Mind/Body Effect, Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief, The Relaxation Response—Updated and Expanded (25th Anniversary Edition), The Breakout Principle, Mind Over Menopause, and The Harvard Medical School Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure. More than four million copies of Dr. Benson’s books have been printed.
In 1988, Dr. Benson became founding president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and remained in that position until 2006 when the Mind/Body Medical Institute ceased to exist. At that time, the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital was founded and he became its Director Emeritus. Harvard University has honored his many contributions by the establishment of the Herbert Benson Professorship in Medicine, which will be activated upon his retirement.
To learn one way to evoke the Relaxation Response, click here.
In the early 1970s, you published the first major research articles on meditation and the relaxation response. You demonstrated that a whole series of physiologic indicators which are increased by stress, can be decreased by practicing the relaxation response. For those not familiar with your work, could you summarize what you found and also tell us how you felt when you started to sense its importance?
What we found was that when people practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM), there were a set of profound physiologic changes that were opposite to those of stress. Namely, decreased metabolism, decreased blood pressure, decreased heart rate, decreased rate of breathing, and also slower brain waves. These findings were performed at Harvard Medical School in the late 1960s, in the very laboratory in which Walter B. Cannon had defined the fight-or-flight response back in the early 20th century, where he found increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased rate of breathing, increased blood flow to the muscles, and called it “fight-or-flight,” or emergency response.
The importance of this is that 60 to 90 percent of visits to doctors are in the mind-body, stress-related realm poorly treated by any drugs or surgery. So initially, I felt that this was a very important finding, that in our minds we have the capability to bring forth a response opposite to the fight-or-flight response that could have therapeutic value. And then our teams discovered that there is a physiologic state opposite to the fight-or-flight response, which we labeled the relaxation response, which has been practiced and brought forth for millennia.