Dr Herbert Benson - The Summary of an Incredible Life


Herbert Benson was born on April 24th 1935, in New York and was the son of Charles and Hannah Benson. He married and had two children and four grandchildren. Benson studied at Wesleyan University and graduated with a biology degree in 1957. With a solid educational foundation, he continued to build upon his academia by later graduating from Harvard (1961) with a medical degree. 


It has recently been reported that Doctor Herbert Benson sadly died of heart disease and kidney failure on Thursday, 3rd February 2022. Benson, a Harvard-trained cardiologist, was a propelling force in the power of mind over body movement. Over the years, extensive research demonstrated how holistic approaches, such as meditation could positively impact human bodies.


Whilst it took numerous years for Benson to implement his finding into his day to day activities (remaining sceptical of practices such as meditation), he was open to the possibility that a person’s physical health could be impacted by the ‘state of mind’ and started researching the concept in the mid-1960s.


Dr Benson worked for several institutes over the years. During his time at the U.S. Public Health Service in Puerto Rico, he noted that island residents often had lower blood pressure that, when compared to their mainland counterparts, was found to be significantly lower. Upon his return to Harvard in 1965, he embarked on further investigation into this and the broader impacts of diet and exercise.


Benson and his colleagues worked, flying very much under the radar and devised a reward system for monkeys that trained them so that their blood pressure would elevate and lower accordingly. It was already widely considered that stressful situations could raise heart rates thanks to the fight-or-flight response. 


However, even with the low-key nature of the work, word of Benson’s work got out, at which point he was approached by individuals who followed and practised Transcendental Meditation (a process in which repeat a mantra to reach a higher level of consciousness). In addition, experts questioned him if he could conduct his work on humans instead of animals. 


Industry specialists understood that originally Benson was not thrilled at being involved with this group; however, they asked him repeatedly until he relented and agreed to embark upon the research, providing they came to the lab at Boston City Hospital after hours to avoid being questioned by his peers. 


Researchers took several different metrics during these sessions, such as heart rate and oxygen intake. The data was collected by attaching sensors to the subjects’ bodies and placing masks over their faces. The participants were then asked to move into their contemplative moments, at which point it was recorded that this action was akin to that of the act of falling asleep!


In the early 1970s, working alongside Robert Keith Wallace, a young physiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, Benson warily published the initial findings. As a result, he was shunned by many within his profession! But of course, as with most of these situations, not all was lost, and many were intrigued and supportive of Benson’s insight! 

Benson dubbed his approach the relaxation response, which is the exact opposite response to fight-or-flight. There is a reduction in adrenaline via conscious application of the process.

In 1975 (coinciding with the Transcendental Meditation movement), Benson published his book “The Relaxation Response”. During this time, more than 400,000 adherents were studying at over 300 centres within the USA. Through this and the increased curiosity of fellow Americans, the book managed to sell more than four million copies helping to kick start a longer-lasting and widely accepted theory of mind-body connection.

Off the back of his success, Benson found the Mind-Body Institue in 1992, which later became known as the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine. Benson supported his work with many books published over the years (a list of which can be found here.)


Ultimately, Dr Herbert Benson was a trailblazer in how complementary medical practices are viewed and received by the general public and the conventional medical field. Who knows where we would be today without his work within the mind-body field? It is almost more reassuring that Benson was initially sceptical about his findings, as he worked tirelessly to challenge his work. However, in his later years, Benson became truly accepting of his conclusions, believing that even the action of a small prayer or meditation session could assist those suffering from extreme illness to feel better and improve their overall physical health when supported with drugs and surgery.

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