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Josh Brown: My experience of miracles

10 February 2023

The neuroscientist’s investigation was prompted by his own healing. Interview by Sarah Meyrick


Dr Mary Healy (in the orange top), Professor of Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and author of a book on healing, at a service of prayer and healing in Michigan, in 2020

Dr Mary Healy (in the orange top), Professor of Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, and author of a book on healing, at a service of ...

JOSH BROWN is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Indiana University. His academic interests, the university website shows, are wide-ranging, but focus on the brain’s frontal lobes: specifically, on the ways in which both people and animals learn, optimise, and control their behaviour in complex and changing environments — processes that entail planning, prediction, expectation, evaluation, and the sequential ordering of movements, on top of complex sensory processing.

The website lists 28 academic papers, representative of Professor Brown’s impressive credentials. But what most of his colleagues didn’t know until he gave an interview to the New York Times at the end of last year, is that he has another, very personal story of miraculous healing.

Nineteen years ago, Professor Brown was diagnosed with a brain tumour, a glioma. The tumour was inoperable and unlikely to respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy. It was devastating news: he was only 30, and a new father.

“You go and pick up the reading from the hospital, and the reading says, ‘We’re very sorry, but you have a brain tumour,’ and, of course, I’m a neuroscientist; so I’m a bad patient. I’ve read the literature. And I knew immediately that this was this was really bad. We can summarise it as ‘there was a lot of prayer and a lot of screaming.’”

Professor Brown and his wife were both Christians. He had had a memorable experience as an international student in the UK in the 1990s, when the Toronto Blessing reached the University of Edinburgh. “I was quite suspicious of it,” he says. “But I had a very dramatic encounter. I was all alone in my room by myself. And it was as if the presence of God just invaded my room and literally knocked me over. I had this incredible experience in the love of God . . . like nothing I’d ever experienced before. So, at that point, I knew that God was real.”

His intellectual understanding of faith became something else entirely, although he still knew nothing about healing. “But I reasoned that, if God was real enough to touch me in that powerful way in Edinburgh, then perhaps he’s still around doing miracles, and so that became kind of a touchstone in my life.”

He and his wife — their baby daughter in tow — began travelling the country to attend healing meetings wherever they could find them. “I would go up in the line, receive prayer, and then go get back in the line and for more,” he says. He remembers the meetings as “very powerful experiences . . . like grabbing an electrical wire”.

There was no single moment of cure that he can identify. “But, after about a year, it became clear that the tumour was not growing. It looked a bit smaller. And the doctors started talking as if, what, maybe this isn’t a tumour — which is remarkable, because, at the outset, we talked to multiple radiologists and they all indicated that this was a tumour,” he says.

Five months after the seizure that led to the diagnosis, the seizures stopped altogether. There were no other symptoms that anything was amiss. He had regular brain scans until the doctors concluded that all they could see was what looked like scar tissue.


THE brain, of course, is his area of expertise. So, what did he think was going on? “Having gone to all these healing meetings, I figured that, well, perhaps this healing is something, after all,” he says. It wasn’t just his own recovery that convinced him. He witnessed the dramatic healing of others. “Many of them were dramatic. I spoke to people who had had metal rods and plates that seemed to have disappeared, and missing bones that are grown back, and I’ve seen all kinds of blind and deaf people healed. Given all that, it didn’t seem that far-fetched.”

Alongside their own academic studies, Professor Brown and his wife, Candy Gunther Brown, a professor of religious studies at the same university, started investigating healing more seriously. In 2009, they were funded by a John Templeton Foundation grant to travel to Mozambique to investigate the healing claims of the Global Awakening and Iris Global ministries.

In a small sample of patients who requested prayer for healing from deafness and blindness, they found statistically significant improvements. (Some of their findings are included in Professor Gunther Brown’s 2012 book, Testing Prayer: Science and healing.)

In 2011, the Browns helped found the Global Medical Research Institute, which — according to its website — exists to bridge the gap between science and faith, “applying rigorous methods of evidence-based medicine to study Christian spiritual healing practices”. The Institute documents inexplicable healings; so far, more than 2000 testimonies have been considered.

This is separate from the day job, Professor Brown says. “I’m still active in research, in terms of neuroscience and psychology. I run a research lab, and we continue to do brain imaging and build computational neural models. The research into claims of miraculous healings also goes on, but mostly separate from my university position.”


FAMILY and friends have long known his own story of healing, of course. But why is he going public now? “I’ve hesitated to talk about this publicly, in part because I think one would like to be sure of the situation before announcing something,” he says. “But I don’t know of anyone who’s survived a brain tumour like this for that long. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve survived for nearly 20 years.

“And the other thing is, part of my ability to do my job depends on me enjoying a certain amount of respect among my peers within the scientific fields in which I work, and one doesn’t run around claiming God did a miracle lightly. There are certain reputational risks that one might consider, before sharing something as deeply personal as this.”

Josh Brown

Talking about it is risky. “There have been a few colleagues who have told me as much — that they think I’m spouting nonsense. And so I’m well aware of the larger sort of social and professional dynamics. Talking about this, I recognise that I’m taking a bit of a risk, and, for many years, I felt that that risk wasn’t worth whatever might be gained. I’m now at a point in my life where I just can’t be bothered to keep my mouth shut about it any longer.”

And how have colleagues responded? “I think, on the whole, it’s been fairly positive,” he says. “I’ve gotten a lot of nice, kind words. There was a little bit of hate mail, which I suppose is to be expected, and I’ve had the odd person calling it utter nonsense. But I think, for the most part, people understand that when when you face a major illness, it’s a deeply personal thing, and people respond to that in different ways.”

So, why does Professor Brown think that God heals some people but not others? “It’s probably the single most urgent question in all this,” he says. “And the bottom line is, I don’t know exactly. But I do know that I’ve seen situations in which healings seem to be much more likely, and situations in which they seem less likely. . .

“I’ve seen a lot of remarkable healings happen, and I’ve also watched people pass away. I mean, literally watch them pass away, and it’s very hard, and I think if you go about praying for healing, that’s a risk that you take. You are opening yourself up to the possibility of disappointment.”

Sometimes, someone is healed in two minutes, and, at other times “it seems like we pray for hours and nothing happens,” he says. “As far as I can tell, if someone’s preaching a sermon about healing, and offers prayer, then I’d say it’s more likely that someone would experience healing. I think I can say that there are situations where healing seems more likely, but that’s certainly not a guarantee.”


PROFESSOR Brown believes that there are two basic views of the world and the nature of spiritual reality. “One of those can be described as a kind of a warfare view: that is, ‘Thy enemy comes to steal, kill, and destroy, and Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly.’ And Jesus said, ‘The Kingdom of Heaven is near,’ and that implies this sort of clash of kingdoms . . . and people are healed, but, as in any war, it doesn’t come without some mess.

“The alternative view is sort of a blueprint view: that God has everything planned out from the beginning, and we have nothing to do but work out this preordained blueprint. And I think that view is in some ways comforting, because if someone’s not healed, we can say that it must not have been planned.”

He refers to the Canaanite woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer. “I think most of us would say, ‘Ah, I’m very sorry, I bothered you, Jesus. Thank you for making your will clear.’ But she didn’t get the memo. And she argued with Jesus, and wouldn’t take no for an answer, and made somewhat of a nuisance of herself, and got her reward” in her daughter’s healing.

This, he believes, is an argument for persistence. “I sort of take this warfare view, that we may not be without casualties. But, if we are persistent, and continue praying, not give up, then I think we’ll see more people healed. That’s the approach I’ve taken, and I’ve seen God heal a lot of people who I think may not otherwise have experienced that, had we not been persistent.”

Do people need to want to get better? “I think it helps, but I wouldn’t say it’s strictly necessary,” he says. His wife’s research suggests that there is not a great deal of correlation between expectation and outcome. “There are people who get healed who really didn’t expect to, and I think in some ways that might surprise us. Some would argue that, you know, a lot of this is in your head, [and] expecting something to work should help that. But it’s not so much a factor.

“I think persistence does seem to be a factor, but I’ve watched situations in which people walk into a healing meeting at a church, not exactly sure why they’re there, not having planned to go along, and they find themselves healed, and might be somewhat perplexed at the whole thing. And I’ve also seen people who very strongly anticipate healing, and go for prayer lots of times, and they haven’t experienced healing.”

What about his case? “I would say that I desperately hoped for it. I’m not sure how much I expected it. I think there wasn’t a day that went by for the first year after the diagnosis . . . there was hardly a moment that went by without me thinking that I might die, and that would be really horrible. I would leave behind a widow and a child without a father, and I hoped and hoped that I would find some healing, but, to be honest, I don’t know.”

Professor Brown has had various church affiliations; currently, he and his wife are part of an Assemblies of God congregation. What effect has his experience of healing had upon his faith? “The gospel as Jesus describes it hasn’t changed. But, beyond that, almost my entire outlook on the nature of the Christian life has been dramatically transformed. I would never have imagined that I would be talking about miracles.

“If you had told me 20 years ago that this would be my experience, I would have said, ‘You’re clearly taking drugs now. Because this can’t possibly be true.’ But here we are. . .

“I think we talk about the love of God, and then we say, well, you know, God works in mysterious ways. And we probably shouldn’t expect him to do much practical for us. You know we’ll all go to heaven, and that’s good, but [now] I see Christianity as much more about both hope for eternity and hope for now. Which isn’t to say that life doesn’t involve suffering and difficulty. But that there’s real hope now.”


MEANWHILE, he wishes that the Global Medical Research Institute had more resources. You can’t assume that people will upload their stories in appropriate medical detail, he says; each case needs scrupulous checking by research assistants. The individual case studies are important, but proper testing is needed. (He is in perfect agreement here with the sceptics who criticise the robustness of the Institute’s findings.)

“If you’re a drug company, for example, no one would accept a claim that your drug works because you say you gave it to one person and they got better. That would be completely unacceptable in the pharmaceutical industry. I think we need proper randomised controlled clinical trials to really investigate these kinds of claims. There have been a few studies that have been done over the years, but I think that they’re very few and the results are mixed. . . It would be really useful at this point to do things as properly as possible and really do more clinical trials.”

There is, he says, a degree of suspicion between scientists and Christians. “I think there’s been this historic animosity between the scientific community and the Christian communities. And the upshot is that Christians have cast a bit of a suspicious eye on scientists and vice versa.

“I live in both worlds and I don’t see a conflict. But I find that if I go to Christians and say, ‘Well, look, you’re making claims that prayer is effective, and no one outside the community of faith is going to take those claims seriously unless you invest in some research,’ the response I get is, ‘We don’t need research, we need faith.’ To which I would respond: ‘Yes, you do need faith, but everyone else requires research and evidence of the same type that they would require of any other claim with some treatment. That’s a hard sell to the Christian community.”

Christians would do well to take a leaf out of the book of Buddhists who have invested in research into mindfulness, he says. “I think that Christians in my view are behind the game. If you want to claim that whatever you’re doing has an effect you need to invest in research. That’s probably the single message that I would want to communicate to the broader Christian community.

“People talk about mission all the time. But I think if you want to convince the broader public in the Western world that what you’re doing is effective, you don’t need to support missionaries. You need to invest in science.”

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