On Saturday, June 8, 2019, during the Pulitzer Center's Beyond Religion Conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., award-winning journalist and Pulitzer Center grantee Erik Vance sat down with Peabody Award-winning broadcaster Krista Tippett to discuss his life and work and the lessons he has learned reporting on medicine and science. The conversation, a live taping of Tippett’s "On Being" podcast series for PRX, explored the intricacies of how the mind and body interact with reality.
“I was raised in Christian Science. It’s famous for being a faith healing religion, and Christian Scientists don’t go to the doctor,” Vance said, in response to the opening question about his religious background.
Vance elicited laughter when he described his first visit to the doctor, at 18: a confusing experience, in part due to his unfamiliarity with simple check-up procedures, that left him questioning his doctor’s qualifications. “I had these horrible stomach pains, and I was in a great amount of pain. And I went to the doctor. He sort of felt around my stomach like some sort of witch-doctor, which I now know he was checking my appendix,” he recalled.
It is that spirit of curiosity and questioning that inspired Vance to leave Christian Science and seek a deeper understanding of the mechanisms behind faith healing. He would later attend a brain mapping conference, where one of the keynote speakers, neuroscientist Tor Wager, also a former Christian Scientist, talked about the placebo effect. Thus began Vance’s fascination with the intricacies of the human mind and years of research that would form the basis of his first book, Suggestible You.
The wide-ranging conversation touched on some of the topics discussed in Suggestible You, from the mind body dichotomy to the role of genetics and personality in hypnosis. The prevailing question of the afternoon, however, remained that of bridging the gap between scientific knowledge and religion, to which Vance had a compelling response: “I think in all of this what is needed is empathy,” he said, acknowledging the inherent difficulty in reconciling science and religion on an individual level.
“Having empathy for where somebody is coming from or why they are having that experience, and that that experience is totally valid. And that people are not crazy. That people act rationally,” he added. Vance’s case for empathy resonated with many in the audience, and holds promise for bridging divides beyond science and religion.