Science is showing that how you feel isn’t just about what you eat, or do, or think. It’s about what you believe.
The pilgrim wasn’t sure he’d make it to the Chapel of Grace. It was agony to walk at all, let alone endure the 70 miles that thousands of believers trek each year to behold an enshrined wood statue: the Black Madonna of Altötting.
Richard Mödl had recently broken his heel, but in 2003 he was determined to complete his first pilgrimage from Regensburg to Altötting, Germany. He figured if the pain got too bad he could always hitch a ride. But he had a deep faith in the Virgin Mary’s ability to deliver him. So he walked. And walked. “When you are on your way to Altötting, you almost don’t feel the pain,” he says.
Today, at 74, Mödl has a warm smile and a wiry frame that looks as if it could survive a charging rhinoceros. Since the healing of his foot, he’s made the pilgrimage 12 more times, and he’s a passionate believer in its transformative power.
Mödl is not alone in his belief. Whether it takes the form of a touch of the Holy Spirit at a Florida revival meeting or a dip in the water of the Ganges, the healing power of belief is all around us. Studies suggest that regular religious services may improve the immune system, decrease blood pressure, add years to our lives.
Religious faith is hardly the only kind of belief that has the ability to make us feel inexplicably better. Six thousand miles from Altötting, another man experienced what seemed to be a medical miracle.
Mike Pauletich first noticed he had a problem in 2004. His aim with a baseball was off, and his arm hurt. His hand shook a little, and, strangest of all, his wife noticed he never smiled anymore.
Figuring he had carpal tunnel syndrome, he went to the doctor. But his bad aim wasn’t because of his arm, and the reason he wasn’t smiling wasn’t because his arm hurt. At 42 years old, Pauletich had early onset Parkinson’s disease. His doctor told him that within a decade he wouldn’t be able to walk, stand, or feed himself.
Pauletich didn’t deteriorate as much as his doctor predicted, but for years he struggled with the disease and with depression, as talking and writing became ever harder. Then, in 2011, he turned to Ceregene, a company that was testing a new gene therapy. Parkinson’s is the result of a chronic loss of the neurotransmitter dopamine. It had been shown in monkeys that injections of a protein called neurturin could halt the progress of the disease by protecting and possibly repairing damaged dopamine-secreting neurons. Ceregene’s experimental treatment was to cut two holes, one in each hemisphere of the brain, through a patient’s skull and inject the drug directly into the target regions.
Pauletich’s improvement after the surgery was impressive. Before the trial he had struggled to move around. He had to constantly explain to clients of his technology development company that his slurred speech wasn’t caused by drinking. After the procedure his shaking disappeared, his mobility improved, and his speech became markedly clearer. (Today you can hardly tell he has the disease at all.) His doctor on the study, Kathleen Poston, was astonished. Strictly speaking, Parkinson’s had never been reversed in humans; the best one could hope for was a slowdown in the progression of the disease, and even that was extremely rare…