MAY 21, 1996
A look at whether prayer can affect health. Richard Ostling, religion editor of Time Magazine, has our report.
WOMAN SINGING: These are holy hands.
RICHARD OSTLING, Time Magazine: Throughout history, people have turned to religious traditions in times of illness. In this weekly Catholic service in New York, worshipers prayed for healing and received the laying on of hands, an ancient Church practice for the sick.
WOMAN SINGING: Li, Li, Li--
MR. OSTLING: And there were similar prayers and petitions at this monthly Jewish healing service at a nearby synagogue. For much of the modern era, religion was considered a way to heal the soul while medicine concentrated on ways to heal the body. But now science is beginning to examine the physical healing power of religious belief. The National Institute for Health Care Research reviewed 158 professional studies. Three fourths showed that a religious commitment translated into benefits in psychological well-being, overall survival rates, or quality of life for everyone from cancer patients to drug abusers. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at the Harvard Medical School, who's studied the connections between mind and body for decades, says for people of faith, religion is the most powerful healing tool. And in a new book [Timeless Healing by Herbert Benson, M.D.], he goes so far as to say that we're wired for God, meaning faith is a survival trait that is virtually built into human beings.
DR. HERBERT BENSON, Cardiologist: One had to ask what is the most profound of belief systems? And that is belief in an after-world, belief in energies, powers, forces, God, if you will. There is something, and it brings great solace. It doesn't speak to the issue whether God really exists or not or energies exist, but it does speak to the healthful benefits in such a belief.
DR. HERBERT BENSON: I would prescribe, if you will, that you would be evoking the relaxation response.
MR. OSTLING: The teaching of personal prayer, which is at the heart of most people's religious experience, has become part of Benson's cardiology practice. He started out instructing his patients in what he called the relaxation response. That involved repeating a word or a phrase over and over again and disregarding other thoughts. He found most people chose to focus on a prayer.
DR. HERBERT BENSON: The physiology of prayer that we've been able to study is the physiology of the relaxation response. And when that occurs, there's decreased metabolism, decreased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, decreased rate of breathing, slower brain waves, and feelings of control, peace, and tranquility. These cross all religions.
MR. OSTLING: Benson and others have shown that prayer is good for the person who prays, but what happens to someone else when you pray for them? Here the scientific evidence is much less clear. This practice, known as intercessory prayer, is the subject of an emerging field of research. Presbyterian layman Wayne Ciddio volunteered for a study on intercessory prayer. He and 49 others agreed to pray each day for patients they've never met to see if such prayer had any effect.
WAYNE CIDDIO: We had some general instructions, some guidelines for prayer, but we were mostly asked to pray that God's will be done in the lives of these clients.
MR. OSTLING: The volunteers prayed for alcoholism patients at the University of New Mexico's Substance Abuse Center. Half of the 42 patients received the daily prayers and the others did not. The patients didn't know which of the two categories they were in, nor did their doctors.
DOCTOR: How's the medication for you?
MR. OSTLING: Psychiatrist Scott Walker, who directed the study, got inconclusive results. After six months, all of the patients greatly reduced their drinking, but those in the group who received organized prayers did no better than the others.
DR. SCOTT WALKER, Psychiatrist: So you can see for each day that was entered--
MR. OSTLING: Surprisingly for Walker, patients who knew they were being prayed for before entering the study fared worse than those who didn't know whether anyone was praying for them. Walker speculates that patients' awareness that people who care for them are praying could have a negative impact because of the tensions and guilt that surround alcoholism.
DR. SCOTT WALKER: I think the study suggests that perhaps not all prayer is helpful and my hope is that that stimulates lots of talking, lots of discussion, lots of deep thinking about when you pray what is going to be helpful. If my ego, if my wishes, if my judgments, if my feelings enter into prayer, what does that do? And the flip side of that is, if I'm getting prayer, am I someone who feels worthy to get prayer? We have to consider, can I possibly block prayer?
MR. OSTLING: Walker's project was the first prayer study funded by the federal government. Ursula Goodenough, Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, objects to government funding. She thinks it lends credibility to what she considers questionable therapies.
URSULA GOODENOUGH, Biologist: I understand why people are interested in it but I see human beings as very interested in magic in general. We love magic shows. We love, you know, thinking about Uncle Harry and all of a sudden the phone rings and it's Uncle Harry. I mean, we just, we like that kind of stuff. Science really can't talk about things like telepathy, belief, et cetera, in any kind of way. There's no--all that we know about physical laws would--the way things work--say completely irrefutably that that doesn't happen, that's not the way things work.
MR. OSTLING: Psychologist Charles Tart, who spoke with producer Kate Olson, disagrees. He spent 30 years studying the unusual powers of the mind, such as mental telepathy.
CHARLES TART, Psychologist: The current scientific climate for many decades has been hostile to the study of experience. Science has evolved primarily in the physical sciences, sometimes called the hard sciences, but I like to call them the easy sciences. Well, the problem with that was while it was very objective, it left out all of the most interesting things of life. I think the question of are we spiritual beings or just physical beings has enormous consequences for life. I mean, how do you live your life if you're a spiritual being versus if you're nothing but sort of a biochemical accident? In a rational world that valued scientific inquiry, we'd have enormous amounts of research on questions like the efficacy of prayer or the reality of psychic abilities and all that.
MR. OSTLING: Psychiatrist Elizabeth Targ of the California Pacific Medical Center thinks doctors must study prayer so they can answer their patients honestly.
DR. ELIZABETH TARG, Psychiatrist: We as medical professionals really have, I think, an ethical imperative to be able to answer their questions and to be able to say either yes to something that might be helpful for you or no, this really isn't a good use of your time, and we'd recommend something else. We're not beginning to answer the question, how does it work, or is this prayer or is it subtle energy, or is it what--we have no idea, and this study will not answer that question.
MR. OSTLING: Targ is conducting a privately-financed study which uses people who believe they have a natural gift for healing. They are sending prayers and positive mental intentions long distance to help AIDS patients.
DR. ELIZABETH TARG: The bottom line is that we can set up trials for this just like any other clinical trial, just--we're working within a cancer research institute, and it's well understood how to do a trial of a new treatment, a new intervention.
MR. OSTLING: The use of prayer as treatment has aroused much interest in the medical mainstream. Cardiologist Benson organized the first major conference on spirituality and healing at Harvard, attended by health care workers, researchers, and religious leaders of all kinds. But he's quick to point out that seeking health alone is not a sufficient reason for faith.
DR. HERBERT BENSON: For many, religion transcends its health benefits and would even object to the fact that religion is being used to make me healthier. It's too focused, so what I am finding is that it is good for you but it shouldn't be the reason why you approach religion, especially if religion has a much broader meaning to you.
MR. OSTLING: Perhaps in the long run, medicine will create a partnership with religion, rather than relegating it to the margins. In the meantime, people of faith will do what they've always done--turn to prayer for comfort and healing for themselves and for others.