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Howard's End: Power We Don't Understand

Despite criticism by Cabinet Minister, Ruth Dyson, why did Wellington rugby icon Norm Hewitt continue playing against Canterbury in the NPC final while sporting a broken arm? Does Norm Hewitt possess an inner force to control pain and do we understand it? John Howard writes.

Why is it that a salamander or a lizard can replace a lost tail, a limb, the lense of an eye or the bones of its jaw?

Why is it that a crayfish, a crab or an octopus can grow a new limb? Why is it that plants can regenerate? - and presumably humans can do none of it.

But some humans can blot out excruciating pain and others can't. Do some people still possess an inner force which most of us have lost? - or do we all still have it?

There are numerous stories about the spontaneous healing miracles at Lourdes and other religious shrines which seem to require only a vision, a prayer, perhaps a momentary connection with a holy relic along with intense concentration on the diseased organ or limb.

When Diomedes, in the fifth book of the Iliad, dislocates Aeneas' hip with a rock, Apollo takes the Trojan hero to a temple of healing and restores full use of his leg within minutes. Hector later receives the same treatment after a rock hits his chest and fells him.

We could dismiss these accounts as the hyperbole of a great poet if Homer weren't so realistic in other battlefield details, and if we didn't have similar accounts of soldiers in recent wars recovering from "mortal" wounds or fighting on while oblivious to injuries that would normally cause excruciating pain.

British Army surgeon H.K. Beecher, described 225 such cases after World War II. One soldier at Anzio in 1943, who'd had eight ribs severed near the spine by shrapnel, with punctures of the kidney and lung, who was turning blue and near death, kept trying to get up from his bed because he thought he was lying on his rifle.

Remarkably, his colour returned, his bleeding abated and the massive wounds began to heal after no treatment but an insignificant dose of sodium amytal, a weak sedative given him because there was no morphine.

These prodigies of battlefield stress and injury strongly resemble the ability of yogis to control pain, stop bleeding, and speedily heal wounds with their will alone.

Biofeedback research at the Menninger Foundation and elsewhere has shown that some of this same inner power can be tapped in people with no yogic training.

The healers job has always been, either directly or indirectly, to release something not understood, to remove obstructions (germs, virus, despair etc) between the sick patient and the force of life driving obscurely towards wholeness.

The more I consider the origins of medicine, the more I am convinced that all true physicians seek the same thing and the gulf between folk therapy, inner force, and our stainless-steel version is illusory - they are part of the same.

Our doctors ignore this kinship at their - and worse, their patient's - peril because there is much we don't understand.

If somebody told us of a magical worm that built a little windowless house, slept there for a season, then one day emerged and flew away as a jeweled bird, we'd laugh at such superstition - if we'd never seen a butterfly.

Unfortunately, we have defined life as a pure chemical phenomenon. Attempts to find a soul have failed.

As our knowledge of the activity within cells grew, life has come to be seen as an array of chemical reactions, fantastically complex but no different in kind from the simpler reactions performed in a high school science lab.

We know a great deal about the genetic code, the function of the nervous system in vision, muscle movement, blood clotting, and somantic cell counts etc.

But these complex processes are only the tools life uses for its survival.

Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who discovered vitamin C wrote, " We understand virtually nothing about such basic life functions as pain, sleep, and the control of cell differentiation, growth and healing. We know little about the way every organism regulates its metabolic activity in cycles attuned to the fluctuations of earth, moon and sun. We are ignorant about nearly every aspect of consciousness, which may be broadly defined as the self-interested integrity that lets each living creature marshal its responses to eat, thrive, reproduce, and avoid danger."

Therefore, we cannot say that Norm Hewitt was foolish to play on with a broken arm or that he is a poor role model - he may possess an inner power to control excruciating pain that even he doesn't know he has, or understand.

And if you really want to embarrass a neurosurgeon, ask one to define pain.

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