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Does prayer affect health?

04 October 2019

Pat Ashworth explores a well-researched area of medicine


THERE is a wealth of claims that people who are religious are happier and healthier than those who aren’t. Trawl the internet, and you will find attributed faith, or prayer, the power to re­­duce fi­n­anc­ial strain, help can­cer patients to cope, decrease alcohol abuse, short­en hospital stays, leng­then lives, and enable children to do better in school.

And a survey carried out between 2012 and 2015 by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) did, in fact, conclude that religious people from different faiths were happier than people of no religion. Data on personal well-being in terms of four key concepts — “happiness”, “life satisfaction”, “worthwhile”, and “anxiety” — was collected from more than 300,000 adults in the UK. On a ten-point scale, the average measure nationally for life satisfaction was 7.5.

Analysis showed that Hindus exceeded this and were found to be the happiest, with a score of 7.57. Christians were next with 7.47, followed by Sikhs with 7.45 and Buddhists with 7.41. Jews came in at 7.37, Muslims at 7.33 and “any other religion” at 7.26. People professing “no religion” were the unhappiest, with a score of 7.22.

Survey data published in January this year from the United States and 25 other countries, compiled by the nonpartisan Pew Research Centre, showed some evidence that religiously active people were healthier, happier, and more engaged in their communities. In the US, 36 per cent of the “actively religious” described themselves as “very happy”, compared with 25 per cent of the “inactively religious” and 25 per cent of the unaffiliated. Notable “happiness gaps” were also found in Japan, Australia, and Germany.

The report found no clear connection between religiosity and the likelihood that people would describe themselves as being in “very good” overall health. Even after taking into account factors that might affect the results, such as age, income and gender, only in the US, Taiwan, and Mexico did the actively religious report better health than everyone else’s. The religiously affiliated were generally less likely to smoke and drink, and people who attended religious services were more likely to join other organisations such as charities and clubs.


HOW to measure such things is an endless source of interest in the scientific world as well as the religious. The efficacy of prayer is a recurring question in attempts to explore outcomes for the two sections of society: the religious and the non-religious. It was something C. S. Lewis reflected on at length in a book of essays, The World’s Last Night, in which he recalls standing by the bedside of a woman so riddled with bone cancer that it took three people to move her in bed, and who was predicted to die within weeks.

“A good man laid his hands on her and prayed. A year later, the patient was walking (uphill, too, in rough woodland) and the man who took the last X-rays was saying, ‘These bones are as solid as rock. It’s miraculous.’” But, as he points out, there is no rigorous proof. Medicine, “as all true doctors admit”, is not an exact science, and “a compulsive empirical proof such as we have in the sciences can never be obtained. . . We need not invoke the supernatural to explain the falsification of its prophecies. You need not, unless you choose, believe in a causal connection between the prayers and the recovery.”

He expresses doubt about controlled experiments of the sort where a team of people might agree to pray “as hard as they know how, over a period of six weeks, for all the patients in hospital A and none in hospital B. Then you would tot up the results and see if A had more cures and fewer deaths. . . The trouble is that I do not see how any real prayer could go on under such conditions. Simply to say prayers is not to pray, otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men for our experiment.”

And he reflects: “It would be even worse to think of those who get what they pray for as sort of court favourites, people who have influence with the throne. The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough to that.”

A ten-year study in 2006, funded primarily by the Templeton Foundation and involving more than 1800 patients who had had coronary bypass surgery, found that prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery. It was a scientifically rigorous investigation of whether prayer could heal illness, in which congregations were asked to deliver the prayers using patients’ first names and the first initial of their last names. They were told that they could pray in their own ways, but were instructed to include the phrase, “for successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications”.

The researchers found no difference in outcome between the patients who were prayed for by these strangers and those who were not. But the largest obstacle to any prayer study of this nature was deemed to be the unknown amount of prayer that each person received from friends, families, and congregations across the world who prayed daily for the sick and dying.

Dr Herbert Benson, a pioneering cardiovascular specialist at Harvard Medical School, made an interesting correlation between prayer and health. He estimated that more than half the visits to a doctor were prompted by illnesses such as depression, high blood pressure, ulcers, and migraine headaches, caused at least in part by elevated levels of stress and anxiety.

It led him to discover what he called the “relaxation response,” which occurrs during periods of prayer and meditation. He identified a decrease in the body’s metabolism, a slowing of the heart rate, a reduction in blood pressure, and calmer and more regular breathing at those times: a physiological state associated with slower brain waves, and feelings of control, tranquil alertness, and peace of mind.


THE most interesting advances in this field of study are arguably coming from neurologists such as Dr Andrew Newberg, director of research in the Department of Integrative Medicine and Nutritional Sciences at Thomas Jefferson University. In researching how brain function is associated with various mental states — in particular, religious and mystical experiences — he has closely studied those who practise prayer and meditation, such as Tibetan Buddhist monks and Franciscan nuns.

Brain imaging, he writes in “The Neurotheology Link: An intersection between spirituality and health”, can “help inform us about the nature of spiritual and contemplative experiences and how they affect us in terms of health and wellbeing”.

Putting the monk and the nun into a brain scanner while they were meditating showed, first of all, a similarity of experience. The nun described “communion, peace, openness to experience. Unawareness and responsiveness to God’s presence around me, and a feeling of centring, quieting, nothingness, as well as moments of the fullness of God permeating my being”.

The monk, a scientist who works with Dr Newberg, described “an intense feeling of love. I felt a profound letting go of the boundaries around me and a connection with some kind of energy and state of being that had a quality of clarity, transparency, and joy.”

In both cases, the frontal lobes of the brain shifted into overdrive, “a red glow of activity” when they used words that connected to the divine. It led Dr Newberg to ask: “If disparate religions drive the same neural routes to transcendence, can one religion claim that it is true and all the others false (or at least deficient)?”

Dr Andrew NewbergBrain scans taken from a study of nuns doing Centering prayer, as part of an ongoing study on the neurophysiological correlates of religious practices. The scans use single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), which allows the measurement of blood flow. The images show the results from a scan on the left at rest and during a “peak” of prayer, shown on the right. The first set of images (Prayer1) demonstrate increased activity in the frontal lobes (associated with increased concentration on the prayer) and increased activity in the inferior parietal lobe (the language area). This latter finding makes sense in relation to the nuns were doing a verbally based practice (prayer). The second set of images (Prayer2) shows that the nuns had decreased the activity in the orientation area (superior parietal lobes) associated with their feeling of deep connection with God.  

And when he scanned the brains of Pentecostal women speaking in tongues, he discovered that the frontal lobes actually shut down: a sign that “these people have surrendered and what happens, happens through them; there’s nothing specific they are in control of”.

Further, he discovered that the twin thalami — tiny parts of the brain taking in sensory information and routing it to other parts — behaved asymmetrically in all three groups. In most people, they beat along side by side, which leads him to think of the thalamus as a spiritual marker in the brain.

The finding offers more evidence that spiritual brains are special, he suggests, conflicted about whether some people are born with a lopsided thalamus that somehow inclines towards God, or whether the hours of prayer and meditation create the asymmetrical thalamus.

“Some of the research I’ve done has shown that meditation, prayer, and so forth, help to reduce symptoms related to depression and anxiety, and may actually help improve the way the brain works cognitively,” he says. “There is a growing body of structural brain-imaging research which has shown that the long-term meditators have thicker frontal lobes than people who don’t meditate.

“If one goes to the gym and lifts weights, that person’s muscles become thicker and stronger. In a similar way, if one lifts ‘mental weights’ by doing a meditation practice, that person’s brain literally becomes thicker, stronger, and more functional. There are clinical responses that people may experience through these practices, such as reduced blood pressure, improved mood, and emotional status.”

Clinicians should understand the total sum of their patients as “biologic, psychologic, social, and spiritual beings. It’s therefore important for [them] to find out in an unobtrusive and inoffensive way, whether or not people have religious and/or spiritual beliefs, how they utilise those beliefs in the context of their healthcare, and whether or not we might learn something about how those beliefs and practices help these patients.”


RESEARCH from the American Psychological Association has shown that contemplative forms of spiritual practice, particularly repetitive forms of prayer, can reduce anxiety and promote a calm mind because they increase the ability to pay attention and quieten the areas of the brain that focus on self.

In a study conducted by the Fetzer Institute, retreatants using the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola were found to have a significant positive change in health, tension and tiredness, and reported feelings of self-transcendence which the researchers believed correlated with a rise in the levels of dopamine, the “pleasure chemical”.

Findings from other research, mainly in the States, have shown that people who are more involved in religious practices and more religiously committed appear to cope better with stress and anxiety. Dr Harold G. Koenig, director of the Centre for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Centre, who conducted a review of 93 studies on religion and health, believes, “One of the reasons is that religion gives people a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and that helps to make sense of negative things that happen to them. A person’s religious community can also provide support and encouragement through hard times.”

There are caveats in all this. Studies also show that religion can be a double-edged sword, in that negative religious beliefs have been linked with harmful outcomes, including higher rates of depression and lower quality of life. ““If people have a loving, kind perception of God and feel God is supportive, they seem to experience benefits,” observed Professor Kenneth Pergament, a psychologist, expert on religion and health, at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

“But when they believe God has abandoned them, or when they question God’s love for them, they tend to experience greater emotional distress. Those kind of struggles have to do with aspects of life that you hold sacred. When you get shaken to that level, it’s going to be very distressing.”

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