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Can Prayer Heal?

Does prayer have the power to heal? Scientists have some surprising answers.

Wired for Spirituality?

For the past 30 years, Harvard scientist Herbert Benson, MD, has conducted his own studies on prayer. He focuses specifically on meditation, the Buddhist form of prayer, to understand how mind affects body. All forms of prayer, he says, evoke a relaxation response that quells stress, quiets the body, and promotes healing.

Prayer involves repetition -- of sounds, words -- and therein lies its healing effects, says Benson. "For Buddhists, prayer is meditation. For Catholics, it's the rosary. For Jews, it's called dovening. For Protestants, it's centering prayer. Every single religion has its own way of doing it."

Benson has documented on MRI brain scans the physical changes that take place in the body when someone meditates. When combined with recent research from the University of Pennsylvania, what emerges is a picture of complex brain activity:

As an individual goes deeper and deeper into concentration, intense activity begins taking place in the brain's parietal lobe circuits -- those that control a person's orientation in space and establish distinctions between self and the world. Benson has documented a "quietude" that then envelops the entire brain.

At the same time, frontal and temporal lobe circuits -- which track time and create self-awareness -- become disengaged. The mind-body connection dissolves, Benson says.

And the limbic system, which is responsible for putting "emotional tags" on that which we consider special, also becomes activated. The limbic system also regulates relaxation, ultimately controlling the autonomic nervous system, heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism, etc., says Benson.

The result: Everything registers as emotionally significant, perhaps responsible for the sense of awe and quiet that many feel. The body becomes more relaxed and physiological activity becomes more evenly regulated.

Does all this mean that we are communicating with a higher being -- that we are, in fact, "hard-wired" at the factory to do just that? That interpretation is purely subjective, Benson tells WebMD. "If you're religious, this is God-given. If you're not religious, then it comes from the brain."

The Impact of Religion on Health

But prayer is more than just repetition and physiological responses, says Harold Koenig, MD, associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at Duke and a colleague of Krucoff's.

Traditional religious beliefs have a variety of effects on personal health, says Koenig, senior author of the Handbook of Religion and Health, a new release that documents nearly 1,200 studies done on the effects of prayer on health.

These studies show that religious people tend to live healthier lives. "They're less likely to smoke, to drink, to drink and drive," he says. In fact, people who pray tend to get sick less often, as separate studies conducted at Duke, Dartmouth, and Yale universities show. Some statistics from these studies:

  • Hospitalized people who never attended church have an average stay of three times longer than people who attended regularly.

  • Heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following surgery if they did not participate in a religion.

  • Elderly people who never or rarely attended church had a stroke rate double that of people who attended regularly.

  • In Israel, religious people had a 40% lower death rate from cardiovascular disease and cancer.

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