Studies confirm prayer may – or may not – improve health

Depending on the methods used, the condition being treated, and the individuals involved, “results may vary” for those scientists trying to figure out if prayer really works Photo: © iStockphoto.com/MCCAIG

LOS ALTOS, CA, January 10, 2013 – A study published in the July 2012 issue of Explore provides further evidence that the prayers of one individual used to treat a physical condition of another may – or may not – help.

How’s that for definitive?

Depending on the methods used, the condition being treated, and the individuals involved, “results may vary” for those scientists trying to figure out if prayer – the most commonly used form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), according to one government survey – really works.

In this particular study, a team of researchers from the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) set out to determine if distant healing intention (DHI) is effective in treating surgical wounds. DHI is defined by the study’s authors as “a compassionate mental act intended to improve the health and well-being of another person at a distance.” Some of the terms used to describe DHI are intercessory prayer, spiritual healing, intentionality, energy healing, shamanic healing, nonlocal healing, noncontact therapeutic touch, and Reiki.

Seventy-two women undergoing elective surgery – some for reconstruction after breast cancer surgery and some for cosmetic reasons – were divided into three groups: a blinded group receiving DHI, a blinded group not receiving DHI, and an unblinded group receiving DHI. This configuration allowed the researchers to study the effect of their subjects’ expectations by varying the degree to which they knew they were being prayed for.

Here’s what they found:

“The more that participants believed in distant healing, and the more they thought that distant healing was actually focused on them, the worse they did on both objective and subjective measures. In addition, the better the healers thought that they were doing, again, the worse the participants’ outcomes.”

At first blush this would appear to validate the arguments of those who say that prayer is nothing more than wishful thinking – a generally harmless but occasionally dangerous practice. However, the researchers weren’t so quick to come to that same conclusion. While admitting the possibility that DHI effects do not exist, they also considered the possibility that DHI effects do exist but that “the relevant variables that modulate these effects are not well understood and interact in complex ways.”

An increasing amount of evidence indicates that one of the most important variables to consider is the thought of the individual being treated. Qualities of thought such as self-doubt, anger, and fear have long been known to have a negative impact on health, whereas qualities such as forgiveness, gratitude, and compassion – even a belief in a divine power – can have a positive effect.

Then there’s the thought of the one providing treatment. 

In a study that mirrors somewhat the work done by IONS/UCSF, a team of researchers led by Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Herbert Benson concluded that intercessory prayer had an adverse effect on patients recovering from coronary bypass surgery who were aware that someone was praying for them. However, what most news organizations reporting on these findings failed to mention was that those who were doing the praying belonged to a religious group that, according to Indiana University religious professor, Candy Gunther Brown, “have long denied that prayer works ‘miracles,’ and have even called petitionary prayer ‘useless.’”

The question is, will we ever be able to determine if prayer, for another or for one’s self, can have a positive impact on health?

As the IONS/UCSF study suggests, it will likely require further study – even the development of new theories or an entirely different methodology – before we reach anything approaching a definitive answer. In the meantime, those who have found prayer to be an effective means of treating the body (e.g.), even in lieu of conventional medicine, will likely continue praying. And some day – some day – we just might have a better understanding of the source of their confidence and success.

Eric Nelson is a Christian Science practitioner, whose articles on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.


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Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson has been published and featured in numerous newspapers, online publications, and radio talk programs. He speaks from years of experience in the mind-body field, especially as it relates to health. In addition, he is the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California and is a self-employed Christian Science practitioner. He’s also a huge baseball fan and loves riding his bike in the nearby Santa Cruz Mountains. You can find him at www.norcalcs.org.

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