Research results are in, concluding that prayer can be strong medicine
By Lara Evans
Photos by Rod Walker
A man in a white lab coat stood over the seedlings that had recently broken through the earth. The young shoots were growing straight up, bright green and healthy. Directing a silent prayer for the botanicals, he took a deep breath and focused his thoughts: "Let the seedlings achieve their best state. Let them fulfill their fullest potential. Let Thy will be done."
The seedlings' neighbors—in the same shallow container, growing under the same exact conditions and separated only by a string draped across the middle—hadn't yet broken through the ground. No one was praying for them.
This is a scene one might have witnessed in 1969 during the first of several experiments conducted by the Spindrift Foundation, composed of a group of Christian Scientists who first brought prayer into the laboratory. In controlled conditions, researchers documented the effect prayer had on increasing seed-germination rates. Without question, the prayed-for seeds repeatedly grew faster than their counterparts.
While these findings were not well received at the time, today the connection between health and spirituality is gaining attention from serious researchers all over the world. Academia is also taking note. In 1993, three of 125 medical schools were considering the connections between healing and spirituality. Currently, more than 80 medical schools have incorporated this type of course work into their programs, based on compelling laboratory results from both self-prayer and intercessory prayer studies.
The benefits of self-prayer—when a person prays for herself—can be explained quite simply. On the other hand, intercessory prayer—when a person prays for someone or something else, as with the seedlings—is a little more complicated.
The Brain-Body Connection
Larry Dossey, MD, author of several books, including Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), is a pioneer in the field of healing and spirituality. Explaining the physical benefits of self-prayer, he says, "For 20 years, studies have shown that those who pray or meditate experience tranquility, stress hormones go down and blood pressure diminishes; and everyone agrees this is good for a person's health."
One example comes from a study conducted by researchers at Dartmouth Medical School. They found that heart surgery patients who took comfort from religion were three times more likely to be alive six months after heart surgery than their nonreligious counterparts. Another study found that over a 28-year period, men who regularly attended religious services had a 25 percent lower mortality rate. A third study concluded that those who attend religious services at least once a week had a stronger immunity to illness.
The benefits of self-prayer can be explained by a mental-physical connection. But the benefits of intercessory prayer have left many confounded.
Action At A Distance
Dossey, who describes himself as spiritual but not religious, has been reviewing prayer studies for over a decade. His definition of prayer, he says, is "so broad you can drive a truck through it." And, while he admits it doesn't satisfy most, his general description is intentionally all-inclusive. "Prayer may not involve words; it may involve silence, turning inward, entering the void," says Dossey. "For me, it's any psychological act that brings us closer to the transcendent. It's not the territory of any specific religion."
Dossey points to more than 130 clinical studies concluding that intercessory prayer benefits health. In one such study, conducted in 1988, Randolph Byrd, MD, a cardiologist at San Francisco General Hospital, designed a double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical study to evaluate prayer. Over a 10-month period, 393 patients who were admitted to the coronary care unit (CCU) were randomly assigned by a computer to either an intercessory prayer group—those who would be prayed for—or a control group—those who would not be prayed for. All patients signed informed consent, but they did not know which group they were in, nor did any of the doctors or nurses. Roman Catholic and Protestant prayer groups across the country were given the names of the prayer-group patients and a general idea of their condition. They were asked to pray each day for these patients but were given no instruction on how to pray. The results were significant, to say the least. Those in the prayed-for group vs. the control group were five times less likely to need antibiotics and three times less likely to develop fluid in their lungs. No one in the prayer group needed endotrachial intubation, whereas 12 in the control group did. And, while not statistically significant, fewer patients in the prayed-for group died.
Had it been a new drug that yielded these results rather than prayer, Dossey believes, it would've likely been lauded as a revolutionary breakthrough. In 1988, however, prayer was not discussed much within the medical establishment. Byrd's study summarized: "These data suggest that intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God has a beneficial therapeutic effect in patients admitted to a CCU."
This conclusion seemed outrageous to many scientists, and in 1998 researchers at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., set out to see if this result could be repeated. The 50-week study, dryly titled "A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit," once again showed powerful results. Like Byrd's study, rigorous standards were implemented to avoid subjective data. The study involved 990 patients who this time were not even aware of the experiment; they had no idea someone somewhere was praying for them. At the end of the 50 weeks, the group receiving intercessory prayer scored 11 percent better on a scoring system that categorically measured symptoms.
Reception of these studies has been mixed. The beneficial conclusions are evident, but the reasons for them are not. While the mechanism of action remains unknown, many scientists are left scratching their heads.
"For religious people, there is no mystery here," says Dossey. "God does it, end of discussion. Science of course wants more than that." Dossey believes the reasons behind the benefits are beyond anything that science can currently measure. "All known forms of energy display something called 'The Law of the Inverse Squared,' which means that the farther away from a source of energy you get, the weaker the energy becomes. Prayer doesn't do that." As illustrated in Byrd's study, the distance between patients and the corresponding prayer group has no bearing on the prayer's effectiveness. Prayer groups down the street were no more effective than prayer groups thousands of miles away. If intercessory prayer is effective through energy, it's not the kind of energy we understand in Newtonian physics. Prayer is not localized, it does not travel from point A to point B, rather it is there instantaneously. "Prayer," says Dossey, "is action at a distance. If one honors the data, then one must conclude that the local model is incomplete. It's a matter of being a good scientist."
All You Need Is Love
While these studies used a Christian-prayer model, it's important to note that many other non-Christian-prayer studies have been conducted with similar results. "On the basis of all the evidence," says Dossey, "there is not a shred of reason to believe any particular religion enjoys an advantage over the other. Even Buddhist prayer works in the laboratory and Buddhists don't even pray to a god. I'd suggest that what's involved with intercessory prayer goes far beyond religion. The overwhelming factor for success isn't how spiritual you've been, but rather the level of love and compassion you have for who is being prayed for."
Bill Sweet, former president of the Spindrift Foundation, agrees. "When I first got involved with Spindrift, I asked the very naïve question, 'Were Christian prayers in the name of Jesus Christ more effective?' But what we've seen is that the efficacy of prayer has more to do with the qualities of consciousness. Are you demonstrating the qualities you're praying for? Are you sympathetic, loving, caring? This has proven more relevant than any denomination. Prayer is acknowledged through the way you live your life."
What Does It All Mean?
Dossey notes some concern regarding the use of prayer in medicine. "When doctors first stumble across this, they say, 'Wow, a new tool,' and they tend to see prayer from a pragmatic view," he says. "We must be careful. It's easy to use it as the latest pill, but the main issue is the spiritual aspect." And, he notes, the evidence is based on statistics; no medicine—including prayer—works every time.
"Even if prayer didn't make the disease go away, there's still reason to use prayer," he says. "The most effective prayer has nothing to do with getting rid of illness or improving health, but rather it helps us connect with something greater than ourselves, the bridge between us and the Absolute, however we define that."
In other words, prayer, as a medical modality, is just the tip of the iceberg. While prayer has provided us with a tool to help track consciousness, the further one looks into the research, the greater the implications. Does thought have physical power? Can intention make a difference? If, as these findings suggest, all things are intimately connected, could it be, then, that thought operates through this invisible, connecting lattice? That, in fact, no man is an island? Dossey quotes philosopher and author Pir Vilayat Khan, who put it this way: "The assumption of being an individual is our greatest limitation."
While the effects of spirituality on health are provocative and hopeful, Dossey considers what it all means: "Distant healing studies show clearly that we have a quality of consciousness that may manifest through the brain, but it's beyond the body. This is the real payoff of all this research. Buddha nature. The Soul. Immortality. Eternality. It isn't about whether the cancer goes away or the heart heals; it's about what happens next."
Lara Evans is managing editor of Delicious Living.