The Science of Prayer and Healing Relevance to Physical Disability
Laurance Johnston, Ph.D.
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 actu ally 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.
Prayer: A Medical Taboo?
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."
The Comeback of Prayer: 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.
Organized 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.
The Science Behind Prayer: 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. With potentially 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. Humans: 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 pulmonary edema. 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.
Distant or Time-Displaced Prayer: Non-Local 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 machine. Time-Displaced 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 past. 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.
A New Energy? 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? These paradigm-expanding mechanisms frequently involve concepts central to other healing traditions. Although often referred to as subtle-energy (instead of prayer) research, the mechanisms are increasingly being backed up by scientific evidence.
Electromagnetic Energy: Frequency: Electromagnetic energy represents one mechanism by which prayer can be transformed into healing power. Although all humans generate such energy, spiritual healers seem to be unique (see How Prayer Heals by Dr. Walter Weston, 1998). For example, whereby most people emit a variable electromagnetic frequency from their hands, healers emit a steady 7.8-hertz frequency (hertz is the number of waves that pass a fixed point per unit of time, e.g., cycles per second). Perhaps because it is identical to the Earth's resonant frequency, this frequency appears to have special healing significance. For example, in mice it can heal cancer induced using a lower frequency. This indicates that some frequencies are life enhancing and others are not. Touch healers have been shown to transmit this 7.8-hertz, life-enhancing frequency to others through prayer-like consciousness. Voltage: The body's cumulative electrical potential can be immense. Researchers have shown that spiritual healers' hands can emit over 200 volts; non-healers produced no more than 4 volts. Because such voltages are approximately one billion times stronger than brain-wave voltages and 100-million times stronger than those in the heart, their potential impact on the human body is enormous. It is conceivable for healers to "raise the dead" in the same sense as heart defibrillators.
Human Energy Fields: Many healers believe that energy fields surround the human body. Most people at some level can sense them. It explains the intuitive feelings one has for another, including instant dislikes or physical chemistry. The halos surrounding spiritual beings in many traditions supposedly represent one higher manifestation of these fields. Barbara Brennan, a former NASA physicist, has developed a training program to enhance people's inherent capability to perceive these fields (see Hands of Light, 1988). A classic demonstration of these energy fields is called the "phantom leaf effect." After a part of a leaf has been cut off and destroyed, a precise image of the entire leaf can be obtained using Kirlian photography. Proponents believe that the human energy field is composed of at least seven consecutive layers representing increasing energy vibration. Intersecting the body and the energy field are seven tornado-like energy centers called chakras. Fundamental to many eastern healing traditions, these chakras suck energy from the universal energy field and transform it into energy that the body can use. Located in front of the spinal cord, a power column or pranic tube receives life-force energy from the chakras and transmits it vertically through the body. Any energy imbalance or blockage eventually causes illness (basically, the theory behind acupuncture). This energy imbalance can be measured and assessed before the onset of physical disease. For example, using an advanced form of Kirlian photography, Indian physician Ramesh Chouhan can identify the unique energy signature of various diseases months before overt symptoms. Spinal Cord Injury: According to Sherry Pae, a teacher at the Barbara Brennan School of Healing, spinal cord injury (SCI) will greatly affect energy flow through the body because of the cord's proximity to the power column. Furthermore, after injury, the energy received by the base and sacral chakras is substantially reduced. The effects of the injury are stored in the etheric field, the energy field closest to the body. This field contains the template or blueprint for the physical body. It duplicates every cell and organ of the body. As such, it is responsible for the growth, development, and repair of the physical body. If the etheric template is distorted, its physical product, the body, will also be distorted in some sense. After injury, the etheric field's dysfunctional energy vectors must be mended to facilitate physiological healing. Because time tends to lock in a spinal cord injury within the etheric field, the sooner the therapy is performed the better. Pae says negative, injury-associated emotional memories are stored within cellular energy fields. The body will heal more quickly when this negative energy is removed. She says that pain and spasticity are especially amenable to energy therapy. Dr. Walter Weston is a spiritual healer (also, an ordained minister and researcher), who uses these energy fields. He believes that recent trauma injuries respond well to his efforts. Although his experience with spinal cord injury has been limited, he indicates that his healing therapies have been especially effective for traumatic brain injury. He reports many severe head injuries that he has treated have survived with damaged brain tissue regenerated and memory functions restored.
Spinal Cord Injury Case Study: Using knowledge of human energy fields, Deborah Mills treated a man named Russell four months after he became a paraplegic when he fell out of a tree. According to Mills, Russell's energy lines were "broken and unwound" due to his injury. Her initial efforts were directed toward restoring and balancing the energy movement within Russell's physical body. With one hand placed on his pelvis near the hip and the other near his knee, she created a circular movement of energy. This was repeated from the knee to the ankle and again from the ankle to the foot. Next, Mills treated Russell's etheric, emotional, and mental fields. In these sessions, she did not touch Russell but placed her hands in his energy fields. In a manner consistent with many healers, she stated, "I connected my higher self to Russell's higher self and then connected to the universal energy source." Deborah treated Russell three times at one-month intervals. The day after the first treatment, he regained bladder control; soon after the second treatment, he transitioned to crutches from a wheelchair. (Note: these dramatic results represent a single anecdotal case and are not scientific proof.)
Regeneration Potential: Various animal studies support the theory that energy-fields possess the blueprint for the physical body. For example, salamanders are able to regenerate severed limbs, including the tail-containing spinal cord segments. After amputation, electrical voltages can be measured around the missing parts. If the voltage exceeds a certain threshold, as often the case in younger animals, regeneration occurs. Children also appear to have this capability. Specifically, if medically permitted to do so, they can regenerate the severed tip of a finger, including the same fingerprint. Given these results, it is conceivable that the therapeutic manipulation of energy fields could enhance the regenerative potential of an injured spinal cord.
From the Heart? Healers believe that strong emotions are stored in energy fields and that the heart has access to them through the heart chakra. Dr. Paul Pearsall (The Heart's Code, 1998) observed that many heart-transplant recipients assume the donor's uniquely idiosyncratic behaviors, including, musical tastes, food preferences, sexual desires and vocabulary usage. Dr. Pearsall speculates that in addition to the brain, all of the body's 75 trillion cells have some sort of memory ability. The heart's cellular memory potential is especially significant because it is the body's most powerful energy generator, and its millions of cells beat in unison. Dr. Pearsall cites experiments showing a simultaneous synchronization and exchange of heart energy between non-interacting individuals sitting in the same room. Consistent with the heart's poetic role, this energy resonates between individuals like tuning forks. This ability to exchange information with others, combined with the heart's ability to remember provides one possible explanation on how prayer may influence another person. Investigations by Jack Stucki, a biofeedback and prayer researcher, further underscore the heart's potential importance. His studies suggest that prayer, even at great distance, can modify the electrical activity on the body where the heart chakra is supposedly located. Can Collective Consciousness Magnify Group Prayer? Dr. Pearsall speculates that the synchronization of heart energy between individuals provides one mechanism for obtaining group or collective consciousness can be obtained. He cites a famous example of collective consciousness called the "100-monkey syndrome." In this example, on islands off Japan, one monkey learned a new skill. In turn, this monkey taught this skill to other monkeys. After the critical mass of 100 monkeys had been taught, suddenly all of them knew the skill, even those on nearby islands who no physical contact. Experiments have replicated this effect in humans. There are many examples of human behaviors that suggest this collective consciousness. For example, although large numbers of people deeply mourned the death of Princess Diane last year, they felt that the depth of their grief was way out of proportion to the feelings they had for her before she died. Experts theorize that collective consciousness is catalytic and self-feeding. As such, they believe that if the collective consciousness represents a negative emotion, it adversely affects society. For example, in a strengthen-what-you-oppose perspective, a flu epidemic would be aggravated by the fear-based collective consciousness associated with catching the virus. Perhaps an understanding of collective consciousness can help explain why two million people who enter a hospital each year acquire infections they did not have when they went there. Does an infectious consciousness exist in addition to the disease? On the other hand, if a group consciousness represents positive emotions like love, empathy, and compassion, it is humanity enhancing. Einstein showed that mass is just another form of energy. Consciousness, itself, is energy. It follows then that consciousness can create our physical reality, especially when collectively amplified. When reflected in prayer, group consciousness can facilitate powerful healing. British physicist and theologian Dr. John Polinhorne compares group prayer to laser light, which is powerful because its waves are in synchrony. According to Dr. Walter Weston, when synchronizing energy fields can generate immense, exponential power. For example, the power of two people praying would be four times that of a single person (2 x 2), and the power of 10 people praying would be 100 times that of a single person (10 x 10). A large church congregation of 1,000 unified in prayer would have 1 million times the praying power of a single person (1,000 x 1,000). Given the potential healing provided through group prayer, mechanisms have been established in which individuals can be prayed for by groups (see Dr. Larry Dossey's Prayer is Good Medicine, 1996).
Conclusion: Although times are changing, modern medicine has generally viewed the human body as collection of parts that must function and, as a result, be healed according to the science defined by classical, Newtonian physics. With this view of health, spirituality has had no role. In contrast, spirituality is an integral part of many holistic, alternative medicine traditions. Perhaps, this is one reason why so many Americans have been turning to these traditions. They want to be treated from a mind, body, and spirit perspective - and are listening to their hearts.