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
actually 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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?
on Part 2