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Strange Scientific Journeys into the Mysterious Power of Prayer

Throughout history, for as long as we have been able to project our thoughts outwards to search the fringes of our world and understanding for some semblance of meaning, we have had some form of religion. In many of these religions an integral part of their practices involves prayer in some form or another, wherein the devout attempt to make some connection with a higher power, often with the aim of making requests for miraculous or even mundane outcomes. The forms and methods these prayers take and who or what they reach out to are as varied as the religions that pray, but they all have the purpose of influencing our bodies, minds, or realities somehow. However, does any of this have a real, measurable effect on our world? Is this all wishful thinking and shouting out into the abyss of a cold, indifferent universe or is someone or something actually listening? These are questions nearly as old as our species, which have consumed theologists, philosophers, doctors, and psychologists alike since time unremembered, and yet we still don’t really know the answers. However, there have been actual serious scientific efforts in recent times efforts to try and discover these answers. So does prayer work or not? Let’s explore these questions and more from both sides of the debate.

On the surface, the efficacy of prayer depends largely on who you ask. For the faithful there is no question or debate at all, prayer works and they very often have numerous personal experiences that for them prove this. Indeed there have been documented cases throughout the ages of prayer supposedly facilitating all manner of miraculous outcomes, with many of these revolving around medical miracles of some sort. I have written very recently on such miracles, and many of these attribute these remarkable recoveries to prayer to some extent in some form or another. There are indeed many other similar cases which were not covered in my previous article in relation to this, and some of which I will present here to illustrate the purported benefit of focused prayer.

One account comes from 1974, when a medical trainee came down with a condition called Waterhouse-Friderichsen syndrome, which is a bacterial blood infection that is almost always fatal. The hospital she was sent to had in fact never seen a person survive the deadly illness, and she was told in no uncertain terms that his prognosis was terminal. X-rays of her chest showed that she was developing a collapsed lung and pneumonia, and on top of this the disease was causing ocular bleeding which caused one of her eyes to go completely blind.

It was then that four different groups of individuals began to pray for her recovery, and shortly after there was reported a dramatic improvement in her condition. Within 48 hours the patient was breathing normally, a follow-up X-ray showed a clear chest, and even her vision in her blinded eye began to come back. Indeed, her vision would come back to its previous level, despite the fact that she had been told that her eye was irrevocably blind. It was completely baffling to doctors as to how this could have possibly happened, and one physician named Rhiannon Lloyd would say:

Despite the fact that the four consultants who saw her on admission remain confident as to their diagnosis, its accuracy is called in doubt by those unable to explain her survival.

Another account comes from 1977, when an 11-month-old baby was diagnosed as having a terminal lung disease called fibrosing alveolitis, which caused his health to deteriorate rapidly, with his weight dropping dangerously fast. Antibiotic treatments failed, as did the use of corticosteroids and azathioprine. Nothing seemed to work as he further wasted away, and it was decided that the baby would most certainly not survive. As a last result the baby was brought to a Pentecostal pastor, who took him to a prayer healing service, and where it was claimed the baby began to make a miraculous recovery over the next few days until he was completely normal.

Another miracle supposedly brought about by the power of prayer was the case of 4-year-old Luke Burgie, who in 1998 developed a mysterious gastrointestinal condition that caused him to waste away to practically nothing as he was ravaged by nearly nonstop diarrhea. Antibiotics, medication, and dietary changes did no good, and it was thought that he would soon die. Doctors suspected that he had some form of acute intestinal cancer, and that he would most likely not survive. This was when his mother, Jan Burgie, turned to more unorthodox measures, and asked the nuns Sister Margaret Mary Preister and Sister Evangeline Spenner to pray for her son. The two nuns then prayed over a 9-day vigil to Mother Theresia Bonzel, a German nun who lived 100 years ago, to do something to help the boy, and soon after this vigil was finished Luke woke up in perfect health, with no further health complications. This particular miracle would be so impressive that even the Vatican officially recognized it as such.

These are interesting tales that seem to suggest that the power of healing works, often dramatically so, and there are countless similar stories such as these, with people miraculously cured through the power of prayer. However, surely no doctor would ever seriously believe that prayer has actually anything to do with it, right? Well, that is not exactly the case at all, and there have been many medical professionals who have at least entertained the idea or even fully embraced it. Dr. Allen Hamilton, a 30-year medical veteran, Harvard educated brain surgeon, and medical advisor for the popular TV show Grey’s Anatomy, was long skeptical of such stories of medical miracles and the power of prayer, until he one day changed his mind about this after witnessing enough modern medical miracles.

The first of these was when he was treating a boy who had sustained serious burns all over his body that had sent him into a coma. Tragically, the boy’s father was also hospitalized and dying at the same facility, and doctors had even used him to provide skin grafts for his son. After the father passed away, the boy awoke from his coma one night claimed that he had seen his father standing at the foot of his hospital bed. Such cases as these slowly changed Hamilton’s mind, made him question his true beliefs, and he would go on to write a book on medical miracles and prayer called The Scalpel and the Soul: Encounters with Surgery, the Supernatural and the Healing Power of Hope. It was a bold move to make for such a respected medical professional, and Hamilton has said of the mindset of most doctors and their reaction to his book thus:

(In medical school) Nobody said, ‘You are going to see things you can’t explain and see miracles that there are no explanations for. A lot of surgical colleagues were dismayed. They couldn’t believe I wrote a book about spirituality.

However, despite this skepticism, Hamilton has claimed that many of his colleagues have nevertheless had similar inexplicable experiences, and that even the most hardened and skeptical of doctors has had situations that could not be easily explained. He said that even though there were those who had raised eyebrows about his book, many doctors secretly lauded his efforts to point out the power of prayer in medicine, and he has said of this:

Doctors have this schizophrenic relationship with medicine, because we know there is more to it than science. [They] were coming forward and saying, ‘I have had a lot of the same experiences. I am so glad someone talked about this because it is something I felt and I have been moved by it and I thought I was alone.’

While these accounts and testimonies are certainly intriguing, and prayer undeniably has a strong psychological effect for those who believe, you may wonder if there has been any attempt to actually scientifically and objectively study and measure the purported powers of prayer to glean concrete evidence about all of this, and in fact there have been numerous such studies, unfortunately with varying results. These studies have mostly focused on three different categories of prayer, including the effects on the person praying (first-person effects), when someone close to the person prays for them (second-person effects), and when a group of unknown people pray for the person (third-party effects), with the second two being considered what is called “intercessory prayers,” or basically praying for others. Such studies started out small and were riddled with scientific flaws, such as a lack of hard facts, questionable methods, rampant bias, and relying too much on anecdotal reports and circumstantial evidence, but within the last decade there has been a push to study the phenomena of prayer with more scientific vigor and in clinical settings.

Such studies have provided mixed results to say the least, and may arguably even muddy the waters as to the efficacy of prayer. On the positive end of the spectrum we have the research of Harvard scientist Herbert Benson, MD, who has spent decades studying the effects of prayer on people with medical conditions. Benson claims that the main ingredient here is the relaxing effect that prayer has, in whatever form it takes, which serves to reduce stress, give hope, and promote healing, and he credits the repetitive effects of certain phrases or words for this.

Praying hands

His own studies have shown that MRI scans of people deep in meditative prayer show that the deeper parts of their brains exhibit interesting activity, the limbic systems become activated, and a “quietude” then envelops the entire brain, which drastically affects the nervous system, heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. This results in an overall sense of well-being, and body functions become more evenly regulated. This is perhaps no surprise, as prayer would obviously give peace of mind to the faithful, but what of its objective benefits?

Harold Koenig, an associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at Duke University and author of the book Handbook of Religion and Health, claims that an analysis of over 1,500 studies on the effects of prayer on the body have shown that people who pray are less likely to get sick, that hospitalized people who never attended church have an average stay of three times longer than people who attended regularly, that heart patients were more likely to survive surgery with prayer, that those who prayed enjoyed lower rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, or strokes, and that depression in the faithful was lower and less pronounced. However, Koenig still says that prayer is no substitute for proper medical treatment, stating:

Studies have shown prayer can prevent people from getting sick — and when they do get sick, prayer can help them get better faster. Nobody’s prescribing religion as a treatment. That’s unethical. You can’t tell patients to go to church twice a week. We’re advocating that the doctor should learn what the spiritual needs of the patient are and get the pastor to come in to give spiritually encouraging reading materials. It’s very sensible.

There have been other studies pointing at a benefit of prayer as well, such as a study in The American Journal of Public Health which followed 5,000 people in California for 5 years and seemed to show that those who prayed regularly were 36% less likely to die than those who didn’t, another one published in the U.S. Journal of Gerontology that suggested atheists had an increased death rate, and research by The American Society of Hypertension, which apparently showed overall lower blood pressure for those who prayed regularly.

A study conducted by San Francisco General Hospital examined the effects of prayers sent by strangers to 393 cardiac patients, and concluded that those who were prayed for showed fewer complications and better overall health, as well as quicker recovery times and earlier release from hospitals. Another study comes from 1998, and involved a rigorous, double blind study of 40 patients with severe, advanced cases of AIDS. Each patient randomly either received prayers from strangers or did not, and nobody knew who might be praying for them. After 6 months it was found that the group that had received the prayers displayed better overall health, fewer doctor visits, and decreased cases of further health complications than the group who had not been prayed for.

Similarly, an study on AIDS patients at the Pacific College of Medicine in San Francisco was carried out by Dr. Elizabeth Targ. In this case 20 critically sick AIDS patients receiving the same medical treatment were divided into two groups, one with outside prayer and one without, and it was found that all 10 of the prayer group lived, while 4 from the other group died. This could be due to pure random chance, but it was impressive enough that the lead doctor of the study, Targ, said:

I was sort of shocked. In a way it’s like witnessing a miracle. There was no way to understand this from my experience and from my basic understanding of science.

Another project was undertaken by Dr. William Harris and a team of cardiologists at the Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri. Harris was actually quite skeptical at the time, saying “We were even doubtful that the phenomena itself was real, that prayer could do anything.” In the study, 1,000 heart patients were monitored, but not told that they were part of any type of experiment. They were simply randomly and secretly put into two groups that were either prayed for or they were not, in order to eliminate the placebo effect or any psychological or faith-based bias. The patients were then monitored for a full year, after which it was shown that the group who had been prayed for demonstrated 11% fewer heart attacks, strokes, and other complications than the group that had received no prayers. These results would prompt one of the cardiologists who took part in the study, a Dr. James O’Keefe, who was quite skeptical when coming into this, to say:

From a purely scientific standpoint, I thought it (the study) was illogical. I don’t really think of spirituality normally as playing a role in scientific, rigorous, double-blind placebo-controlled scientific studies. It’s two different realms. (However) This study offers an interesting insight into the possibility that maybe God is influencing our lives on Earth. As a scientist, it’s very counterintuitive because I don’t have a way to explain it.

There are numerous other studies that also seem to show that prayer works to some degree or another, but interestingly there are just as many that have produced more negative results. In 2001 there was double-blind study at the Mayo Clinic, utilizing 799 random coronary surgery patients who were put into either a prayer group or a group who received no prayers. After 26 weeks it was found that, according to the researchers, “intercessory prayer had no significant effect on medical outcomes after hospitalization in a coronary care unit.”

One of the more well-known such experiments is a 2005 study known as the MANTRA (Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings) II study, which sought to analyze the effects of intercessory, or third-person, prayer and healing for 748 cardiac patients. The study was carried out by scientists at Duke University, and applied rigorous scientific methods, but they were unable to find any significant association at all between prayer and recovery in the patients.

Also quite well known is the 2006 Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), which started with 1,802 coronary bypass surgery patients spread around several hospitals. The patients were randomly split into three groups, with groups 1 and 2 told that they may or may not be prayed for, while group three was told they would be prayed for. Congregations at three different Christian churches were then told to pray for the patients’ full recovery as described, which they did. The thing is, there was no noticeable difference in 30-day mortality rates between the three groups, meaning that prayer had had a negligible effect, if any, and in fact the results actually showed a slight spike in mortality for those who did receive prayer, oddly enough, which has been speculated to be because those who knew they were being prayed for experienced more stress, a sort of “performance anxiety” so to speak.

Of course in the aftermath of the study some of the worshipers complained that they had been specifically told to at the end of their prayers to repeat the script “For a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications,” which was not the way they usually prayed and felt unnatural. Because of this, they said that their prayers lacked the power or heft they would have normally held. There is also the fact that such a study, in which one or more of the groups is specifically told they are being prayed for, could possibly exhibit the placebo effect, making it difficult to determine if any possible observed benefits are truly coming from some higher power or if they are simply psychosomatic in nature.

Another Cochrane study carried out in 2009 systematically searched ten relevant databases in order to “review the effects of intercessory prayer as an additional intervention for people with health problems already receiving routine health care.” The study took into account various factors that could account for any purported benefits of prayer, and looked specifically at randomized trials in which patients believed that they were praying to a higher power or were being prayed for. After poring through the data, the researchers came to the conclusion:

These findings are equivocal and, although some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer,the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer. We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.

These are just a few of the many attempts to seriously look into the effects of prayer, and as you can see they provide mixed results at best, no matter how strictly they are carried out. Indeed, one of the problems with any of these studies is that there are just so many variables to take into consideration, and it is difficult to ascertain just what we can actually measure. There are many questions that could be big variables that we just don’t know the answers to or simply cannot control to any meaningful degree. Does one religion have more effect than another? Does a priest or religious elder have more potency to their prayers than the layperson? Does a person with faith have more effect when they pray than a nonbeliever praying? Is there a “right way” to pray, or some skill level involved, and does this have any discernible effect on the outcome? Does a Christian praying on Christmas have more weight behind their prayers? Even if a person in a study is not being prayed for as part of the research, might they not be still prayed for by their families and friends? Does more people praying for someone equate to more benefits? Does proximity play any role? Does it make any difference if the one praying has a close relationship with the one being prayed for? When there is a positive outcome, are we seeing a placebo effect or something more?

We simply don’t know the answers to any of these. These are all factors either beyond our understanding or beyond our ability to control in a clinical setting, and without knowing them these possible variables cannot be adequately accounted for in studies, making any such attempt intrinsically flawed to some extent. There is just no way to know what role these disparate factors and others play, to what extent, or how to measure them. Some of these factors are somewhat outside of the set aim of science to sample, control, and reproduce. Dr. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia has said of the problems of scientifically studying and analyzing prayer:

The problem with studying religion scientifically is that you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion.

Add to all of these potential problems of putting religion under the scientific microscope with rigorous experiments is the simple fact that if prayer is what the faithful think it is, in that it is channeling some higher power or omnipotent force, then we are no longer in the realm of normal observable science. This would be a phenomenon that is reliant on the whims and will of something beyond us, and so therefore would not conform to the desires of a scientific test in lab conditions, would not necessarily play along, would not produce consistent or predictable observable results, and could not be relied upon to yield reproducible results or even necessarily follow the laws of nature. Indeed, holy books such as the Bible even say as much, proclaiming that God cannot be coerced or put to the test, with others making similar proclamations.

If there is some greater, conscious power behind the power of prayer, then trying to hold it up to our rules of science, to somehow qualify it and expecting it to reliably show up in controlled tests is folly. We are essentially left with something that can neither be proven or disproven by any means we now possess. There is also the consideration that even if some god were to choose to intervene, then it would be impossible to know just how the potential beneficiary is chosen, or to what degree prayer has played a role, if any. In this sense, we are left with a mysterious phenomenon that very likely is impossible to scientifically confirm to any appreciable or reliable degree. In the end, it seems that these different factors put religion and prayer beyond the scope of serious scientific study, although skeptics are quick to point out that any positive results in such studies will be readily embraced by the faithful, even as negative ones are explained away in these terms. Yet despite these hurdles, there are many who believe that studies into the efficacy of prayer are at least worth pursuing, with a Dr. Deepak Chopra remaining skeptical but retaining some hope for these avenues of research, saying of this:

What physicists are saying to us right now, is that there is a realm of reality which goes beyond the physical … where in fact we can influence each other from a distance. At the moment, I would agree that some of these studies are tentative, that we should be cautious in the way we interpret the results. But the studies are encouraging enough that we should pursue them, because if we don’t, we may have missed one of the most amazing phenomena in nature.

It seems that although there will undoubtedly continue to be those who pursue this avenue of research, the phenomenon of prayer and its potential ability to heal or affect us will likely remain just as mysterious as it has ever been. Can prayer provide miraculous effects and if so from where do they derive their power? While prayer obviously does provide many benefits such as hope, stress reduction, and peace of mind, does it actually involve funneling higher powers and supernatural forces? For the faithful this will always be beyond debate, but is there any way we will ever be able to settle this in a scientific manner? It seems that no matter what the answers to these questions may be it will always remain a powerful force in our psyche, and there will always be those who embrace prayer in whatever form it takes for them, and enjoy its perceived effects and benefits.