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
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.,
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
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
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.