Prayer & Healing 1
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The Science of Prayer and Healing

Relevance to Physical Disability - Part 1

Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.

Many alternative medicine therapies emphasize healing from a holistic mind, body, and spirit perspective; any discussion of the therapies would be incomplete without this perspective. Mind-body approaches to medicine have gained increasing acceptance in recent years. What about spirituality? Almost everyone prays when faced with a traumatic injury like spinal cord injury (SCI) or a debilitating disease such as multiple sclerosis (MS). Can this prayer actuprayer and spirituality for spinal cord injury (SCI) and physical disabilityally help one’s health?  Substantial scientific evidence indicates yes. This two-part article will discuss the scientific evidence correlating religion, spirituality, and prayer with physical health, as well as several mechanisms by which their healing effects can be mediated.

Prayer: A Medical Taboo?

Preferring drugs, surgery, and high technology, twentieth century medicine has ignored healing’s spiritual components. Physical laws delineated by Sir Isaac Newton in the seventeenth century guide modern medicine. Under these laws, the universe - including the human body - functions by specific cause-and-effect physical principles. 

As such, the body can be understood by breaking down and studying each component. Because consciousness plays no role in such a system, spirituality has been considered irrelevant to health.

In addition, many people are leery of scientists attempting to study prayer. They believe attitudes reflected by scientists have contributed to many of the world’s problems and do not want prayer debased by scientific scrutiny. Society has a tendency to compartmentalize prayer and spirituality. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH, in Bethesda, Md,) was criticized for sponsoring a study examining the effect of prayer in alcohol and drug rehabilitation because it violated the constitutional separation of church and state.

Because of such controversies and biases, many scientists prefer to use phrases like “subtle energy fields” when describing their research on prayer-like consciousness. Where prayer is thought of as possessing emotional, subjective connotations, subtle energy research is carried out by objective, “hard” scientists.  Nevertheless, many scientists have thought that science and spirituality enhance each other and do not represent incompatible views of the world. One of them is Albert Einstein, who stated “Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.”

The Comeback of Prayer:

Prayer is making a medical comeback. Given that 94% of Americans believe in God or a higher power (1994 Gallup Poll), it is not surprising that 75% of patients think that their physician should address spiritual issues as part of their medical care.  Furthermore, 40% want their physicians to actively discuss religious issues with them, and nearly 50% percent want their physicians to pray not just for them but with them. In a growing trend, 43 percent of American physicians privately pray for their patients. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA, May 1995) entitled “Should Physicians Prescribe Prayer for Health, discusses these trends. The mere presence of this article in this highly respected bastion of the medical profession suggests that the barrier between spirituality and health care is crumbling.

Organized Religion: Good For Your Health?

Scientific studies demonstrate that individuals who participate in organized religion are physically healthier and living longer (see Is Religion Good for Your Health, Harold Koenig, 1997). For example, they have lower blood pressure and incidence of stroke and heart disease. Regarding mental health, they have lower rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. Organized religion can promote health through a variety of social mechanisms, e.g., discouraging unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol and drug use, smoking, and high-risk sex; and providing social support and a sense of belonging.

The Science Behind Prayer:

In addition to the effects of organized religion, prayer-like consciousness also has been shown to exert an influence in numerous scientific studies. Although the effects of organized religion can be explained through readily understandable mechanisms, the effects of prayer cannot. After reviewing the literature, Dr. Daniel Benor (Complementary Medical Research 4:1, 1990) found 131 controlled studies involving prayer or spiritual healing. Of these, 77 showed statistically significant results. A sample of some of these studies follows:

Lower-Life Forms: Through conscious intent, test subjects (i.e., normal volunteers with no special abilities) were able to influence the growth of fungus, molds, yeast and bacteria, often at great distances. These studies imply that prayer has the potential to fight infections.

With potentially profound implications, subjects were also able to alter the genetic mutation rate of bacteria.  If prayer can alter the genetics of bacteria, it is conceivable that it could do so also in man. If this is indeed the case, man may not be limited to what was previously thought to be his born-with, genetic destiny. In fact, Gregg Braden in Walking Between the Worlds: the Science of Compassion (1997) presents a case that human emotion affects the actual patterning of DNA (the genetic material) within the body.

Humans: Prayer-like consciousness has been shown to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, protect red blood cells, alter blood chemistry, and increase blood oxygenation. In one study, skin wounds healed at a much greater rate when treated with a spirituality-related treatment (perhaps a therapy option for pressure sores).

In a controversial study carried out by cardiologist Randolph Byrd (Southern Medical Journal, July 1988), nearly 400 heart patients were randomly assigned to either a group that was prayed for by a home prayer group or a control group. This was a methodologically rigorous double-blind study designed to eliminate the psychological placebo effect. In such a study, neither the patient nor doctor knows who is receiving the intervention (i.e., prayer). Patients who received prayer had better health outcomes, including a reduced need for antibiotics and a lower incidence of pulmonary edema.

Prayer researcher Jack Stucki has carried out double-blind studies evaluating the effects of distant prayer on the body’s electromagnetic fields. In these studies, the electrical activity in both the brain and body surface were measured in subjects in his Colorado Springs laboratory. Nearly a 1,000 miles away in California, spiritual groups would either pray or not pray for a subject. The electrical activity measured in the prayed-for subjects was significantly altered compared to controls.

Healing through Secondary Materials: Spiritual healers have been shown to mediate healing through secondary materials, such as water or surgical gauze, which they have held. A spectroscopic analysis of healer-treated water indicated an energy-induced shift in the molecular structure of the water. This healer-treated water maintained these altered properties and its effectiveness for at least two years. These findings suggest that it is, indeed, possible for sacred objects, such as holy water, to possess power.

Distant or Time-Displaced Prayer:

Non-Local Prayer: The preceding examples indicate that prayer and spiritual healing can exert its effect from a distance. As discussed in Larry Dossey’s Healing Words (1993), test subjects (again, normal volunteers with no special “gifts”) can influence the outcome of random physical events even when separated by great distances.  This research, much of which was carried out at Princeton University, uses random event or number generators. These generators produce large sets of data like zeros and ones, which should average out over time as in the case of flipping a coin.  Subjects, however, can influence the outcome of these generators so the data is no longer averages out (i.e., no longer random). Focusing and mental concentration seems to have minimal effect. Instead, the most influential subjects described a bonding or “becoming one” with the machine. 

Time-Displaced Prayer: Not only can test subjects influence outcomes over distance but also, amazingly, they can affect past outcomes. Specifically, the subjects influenced the output of random event generators in the past. In these cause-is-after-the-effect experiments, the random events have already been recorded but not consciously observed. This after-the-fact influencing was blocked, however, if another party (even an animal) observed the pre-recorded data before the mental influence is attempted. Hence, conscious observation seems to fix the past.

If we can influence the past outcomes of random event generators, some of which are based on atomic decay, is it possible to influence our medical past, which is also based on atomic events? For example, although annual physical exams can uncover problems at an early stage, there is no statistical evidence that such exams increase longevity in the general population. Although being careful not to encourage individuals to forgo such exams, Dr. Larry Dossey speculates that the physical exam may serve as the act of observation that irrevocably locks the disease in place. This “medical looking” may “erase the malleability of critical physiological events “ that many individuals may have been able to influence at some mind, body, and spirit level if not examined.

A New Energy?  

Quantum physics is developing theories with insights into non-local phenomena such as distant prayer. For example, Bell’s theorem, which is supported by experimental evidence, indicates that once subatomic particles have been in contact, they always remain connected. A change in one creates a concurrent change in the other even if they are a universe apart. Some physicists believe that these non-local events are not just limited to sub-atomic particles but underlie everyday events, including prayer. To help understand a number of inexplicable phenomena, including non-local events, many physicists believe that a fifth form of energy exists (in addition to gravity, electromagnetic energy, and strong and weak nuclear energy) that operates on different principles.

Perhaps the life-force energy referred to by many medical and spiritual traditions throughout history represents this energy. Is it the energy referred to as prana in India and Tibet, mana by the Polynesians, Yesad in the Jewish Kabalistic tradition, qi in oriental medicine, or the Christian Holy Spirit?

Continue on Part 2

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