The Psychology of Prayer


I’m going to go way out on limb here for an atheist here – prayer may well work. Yup, we atheists can guffaw and ridicule all we want about what Christians say about the “power of prayer” but the thing is that the Christians may well be right. And the Jews and the Muslims and the Hindus and the Buddhists. Or any one of many systems of beliefs that involve ritual prayer and/or chanting and/or meditative practice. So what if it’s to an imaginary being, the point is that it does appear to have benefits.

Part of the secret of prayer and whether it works or not is what one prays for. Obviously if one prays to win the lotto that week the odds of that prayer “working” are more or less the same as winning the lotto itself which happens to be, in most lottos, worse than that of getting struck by lightening. And the same can be said of a lot of the objects of prayer if they’re too material in nature. So to be clear on what “powers” we’re talking about when it comes to prayer I think for now it’s necessary to reject prayer that asks for material or monetary gain or a particular success (though this doesn’t stop people the world over from trying).

And neither are we talking about the prayers of thanks, at meal time for example, since the one praying already has what they need (such as the meal in front of them for instance, however meager). This has benefits but this is in the realm of what anyone who regularly expresses gratitude would feel. I don’t pray, obviously, but I often try to express gratitude for what I have in life. I may or may not express this to anyone in particular or I may express it on my Facebook page or elsewhere on line. Whether anyone “hears” it or not is not the point – it makes me feel better. I suppose, in that light, that we could consider a prayer a selfish act because it’s only the one who does the praying that feels good (unless it’s watchful parents who are satisfied that their children are carrying out the ritual of prayer as directed by them or by the church).

And belief and prayer is about the self. New York state’s Wells College professor of psychology and Scientific American columnist Jessie Bering in his book The Belief Instinct relates a study from the 50’s by Italian scholar Raffaele Pettazzoni.

Pettazzoni disovered that, regardless of the particular religion subscribed to, the central gods were envisioned as possessing a deep knowing of people as unique individuals – of their “hearts and souls”. Indeed, Bering goes on to say, one of the inevitable consequences of thinking of God is a heightened, almost invasive sense of individualism. In one recent study, participants who were asked to to think about God exhibited a huge increase of self-awareness compared to those who were asked to just think about other people.

This sense of God, prayer and self would appear to tie into the efficacy of prayer.

The “efficacy” of prayer is not without controversy but this depends on who’s doing the praying and for whom. If it’s praying for others then there’s some bad news. According to the largest and most scientifically rigorous study of prayer’s efficacy, the 2006 STEP project (Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer), no significant difference was found whether subjects were prayed for or not, except some negative effects among those who knew they were receiving prayers.

Further, meta-studies of the literature in the field have been performed that showed evidence only for no effect or a potentially small effect. For instance, a 2006 meta analysis on 14 studies concluded that there is “no discernible effect” while a 2007 systemic review of intercessory prayer reported inconclusive results, noting that 7 of 17 studies had “small, but significant, effect sizes” but the review noted that the most methodologically rigorous studies failed to produce significant findings.

A little further back in history, in 1665, one Archbishop Lancelot Andrews during the days of bubonic plague in London couldn’t help but notice that the horrors of that disease equally claimed those who prayed and kept the faith as well as those who did not. Prayer and faith could not, it seems, fend off what was brought by rats and fleas and not by sin and moral backsliding (and the story of the defeat of the plague was also a case of science over religion).

Back to today, Psychology Today columnist Michael J. Formica reports on a study done at Duke University Medical Center which found that,

within a group of 150 cardiac patients who received alternative post-operative therapy treatment, the sub-group who also received intercessory prayer (they were prayed for) had the highest success rate within the entire cohort. The fascinating thing about the study is that it was double-blind – neither the researchers, nor those on the receiving end of the intercessory prayer knew that these patients were being prayed for — suggesting an intervening variable.

A comparable double-blind study, conducted at San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit, demonstrated similar results. Those patients “prayed for” showed a significantly diminished need for imminent critical care, maintenance medications and heroic measures, as well as witnessing fewer deaths – again, suggesting an intervening variable.

Clearly, Formica goes on to say, the intervening variable implied by these studies isn’t a case for God. It does suggest, however, some relationship between the states of consciousness experienced by those praying, and the subjective experience of those prayed for.

In his book, Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett relates a study by Columbia University that “purportedly showed that infertile women that were prayed for became pregnant twice as often as those who were not prayed for. Dennett goes on to report, however, that this study’s authors were later found fraudulent and the whole study premise fell apart.

So it would appear difficult to say with certainty whether praying for others “works” or not.  Yet while second person prayer appears questionable, there are anecdotal stories from people who swear that prayer for oneself works. I have one such story and I’ll tell that here.

I know a man,  now about sixty-five, who had lived as a closet homosexual his whole life. He grew up in a time and place where homosexuality just was not accepted  and so, as many homosexual men in that era did, he tried to live a heterosexual life; he married, had children and all the hetero facade that homosexuals from days gone by built. Then one day the facade crumbled, he was exposed and he had to come out. In a matter of weeks he lost his career, family and greatly “lost face” (to borrow that most excellent Chinese phrase). He went through some very, VERY  dark times. What got him through? He claims it was the power of prayer.  And having watched this man overcome his great internal difficulties I think I can earnestly say that his frequent prayer indeed did give him a psychological boost that he may not have found elsewhere. This, however, is but one story.

Further on the efficacy of personal prayer (as opposed to intercessory prayer) and on a broader scale, graduate student in sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Shane Sharp, interviewed 62 women who were the victims of partner violence. Talking to a perceived higher power helped the women cope with their emotions and abusive situations in various ways — by allowing them to vent without fear of a violent reaction, to view themselves in a positive light and simply to distract themselves from their immediate situation.

“Victims who used prayer to express their anger and frustration perceived God as a loving parental or friendly figure who was nonjudgmental and forgiving; thus, victims felt they could express their anger to this other in interaction without fear of judgment or negative retaliation,” Sharp wrote in the study published in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly. “During prayer, victims came to see themselves as they believed God saw them. Since these perceptions were mostly positive, it helped raise their senses of self-worth that counteracted their abusers’ hurtful words.”

So it would appear that the prayer in my anecdotal story and that in a larger study worked similarly. Both involved traumatic experiences that the one praying was trying to overcome and that regular prayer helped boost esteem levels and, I’d imagine, helped boost positive feelings which helped lead to better outcomes for those doing the praying. This, I think, is where the psychology of prayer becomes interesting. One would have to ask; does prayer then work along the lines of the power of positive thinking? That’d be my guess.

One of the forerunners in the “field” of the power of positive thinking is Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, author of the hugely successful The Power of Positive Thinking and who, not surprisingly, was also a minister. However, his work came under much criticism for containing mostly hard to substantiate anecdotes and unproven claims. Nonetheless, the book would stay on the New York Times best selling list for 186 consecutive weeks and would go on to sell a staggering five million copies world wide. Popularity, however, does not equate efficacy.

The power of positive thinking continues to be wildly popular however. Proponents swear it works but does it? Perhaps it would help here to  look at something that I’ll argue is psychologically similar to prayer, and positive thinking – meditation.

From neuroscientist Mario Beauregard’s book Brain Wars, research shows increases in alpha and theta activity during mindfulness meditation practices. It’s thought that theta waves lead to increased relaxation. This would, one would assume, reduce stress and lead to a more positive state of mind. It’s possible then that prayer or chanting, for strong believers, or positive thinking could produce a similar effect to mindfulness meditation. Regular meditation also has shown to increase brain matter. Harvard researcher Sara Lazar used structural MRI to scan the brains of 15 people who didn’t meditate and twenty experienced meditation practitioners and found that the meditation practicitioners had increased grey matter in brain regions associated with attention and interoception.

Other studies involving more novice practitioners of meditation found that after only eight weeks of daily practice it led to increased self-awareness and increase in grey matter in corresponding areas of the brain. If this seems incredible, and it certainly is something, what happens is that meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex which, just like exercise builds muscle mass, builds brain mass.

The question though is whether prayer, and/or the power of positive thinking, is equal to meditation. Meditation is a very specific exercise so it’d depend on how “advanced” the method of prayer is and how long and how often it’s practiced.

All major religions have prayer rituals that work in similar ways for similar reasons. One reason meditation works is that it focuses the mind and removes distractions, including those that come from within our own minds in the form of negative or unwanted thoughts. A person of religion might, when his or her mind is being bombarded with unwelcome negative or “sinful” thoughts, turn to prayer. If it’s directed enough and practiced well enough, this would push aside the unwanted “sinful” thoughts. This would work similarly in the brain as meditation and thus prayer would be perceived as “working”.

[As an aside, one of the curious things about Christians is that they seem to believe they have a monopoly on the power of prayer. All religions and belief systems have prayer rituals and practitioners from all faiths and beliefs will report that prayer “works” for them (many Christians, in my experience, get very uncomfortable with this thought because, of course, the idea of “false gods” is strictly verboten therefor they’re strongly disinclined to let into their minds the thought of other religions’ form of prayers work as well as theirs.)]

But prayer is not always “asking” for something or for distraction. Often it can be “talking something over” with one’s god. This form of prayer works along the lines of anytime we have a big decision or have a conundrum or suffering in our lives and we need to talk it through with “someone”. Often, especially in today’s world, it is possible that one does not have anyone suitable or anyone terrestrial to talk with so they might choose to then to “talk to God” about it. If you believe in a loving, understanding God, as those women in the study did, you’ll be “heard” in that vein and thus feel more positive about the conclusion reached. The “talking to God” prayer then does two things; one, it helps practitioners talk themselves through a problem and reach a conclusion and two, it increases the level of belief in the being one is praying to, both of which will help one to perceive the prayer as “working”.

I think it is here that we must tie prayer and prayer rituals to the power of belief. The idea of the power of belief is something thrown around by all kinds of success gurus and thus hard to separate the hype from the reality. We might best look at belief in taking a quick look at the twin phenomenon of placebo and nocebo effects. These powers have the ability to either “heal” (placebo) or kill (nocebo) and both stem from the human ability to believe. Again from Brain Wars Beauregard reports of surgeries performed without anesthetic instead using a placebo in which patients reported no pain and he relates a story from early last century of an Australian aborigine tribe in which the belief in the hexing power of a simple bone is so strong that the otherwise healthy victim of the hexing will die within days. Such is the power of belief within the human brain.

A fascinating new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and reported in The Independent, claims to have zeroed in on areas of the brain involved in belief. Using fMRI (functional magnetic-resonance imaging) to measure brain activity, researchers asked volunteers to think about religious and moral problems and questions;

They found that people of different religious persuasions and beliefs, as well as atheists, all tended to use the same electrical circuits in the brain to solve a perceived moral conundrum – and the same circuits were used when religiously-inclined people dealt with issues related to God.

The study found that several areas of the brain are involved in religious belief, one within the frontal lobes of the cortex – which are unique to humans – and another in the more evolutionary-ancient regions deeper inside the brain, which humans share with apes and other primates, said Professor Jordan Grafman, from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda near Washington DC.

“There is nothing unique about religious belief in these brain structures. Religion doesn’t have a ‘God spot’ as such, instead it’s embedded in a whole range of other belief systems in the brain that we use everyday,” Professor Grafman said.

Jessie Bering explores the psychology of belief in depth in his 2011 book The Belief InstinctIn it he identifies the human species’ unique “theory of mind” as the core to humanity’s belief system. Theory of mind, very briefly, is our ability to think outside of our own minds, to be able to conceptualize what others are thinking. This capacity also gives us the ability to conceptualize, and believe in, higher beings and gods. This capacity can be seen throughout human history and through all cultures.

Bering and other scientists have posited that belief in God or gods or higher beings is an evolutionary adaptive trait in humans, simply a part of better reproductive success. Again from The Independent,

Some evolutionary theorists have suggested that Darwinian natural selection may have put a premium on individuals if they were able to use religious belief to survive hardships that may have overwhelmed those with no religious convictions. Others have suggested that religious belief is a side effect of a wider trait in the human brain to search for coherent beliefs about the outside world. Religion and the belief in God, they argue, are just a manifestation of this intrinsic, biological phenomenon that makes the human brain so intelligent and adaptable.

All of this seems to suggest that there is something to belief – and this appears to be hard-wired in us – in higher beings and thus to the “power of prayer”, to whatever God one believes in and prays to and the stronger the belief the better the chance that prayer “works”, at least for oneself. Does prayer matter? I’ll leave that to Dennett. To paraphrase, “…there is plenty of evidence that participation (including prayer) in religious organizations can improve moral (and I think that is the key thing here), and hence the health, of participants. People who are suffering, even if they don’t have their moral improved in tangible ways, may well gain some solace from nothing more than the knowledge that they are being acknowledged, noticed and thought about”.

And who, I’ll say, are we to argue against or ridicule people’s need to pray, and feel that solace, in an unjust world? There are people who don’t need it but there are people who do and for those that do, I’ll say, all the power to them.


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