How can prayer possibly benefit someone else?

I have read about a study that was conducted at a (the name escapes me for the moment) medical school concerning the benefits of prayer.

Basically, a devoted religious group (the specification of which also escapes me for the moment) spent a designated period of time praying for terminally ill patients (cancer).

There were two sets of four groups (of patients). Two groups of patients were prayed for, and the other two were control groups (nobody prayed for them).

Now apparently, the two groups who were prayed for actually showed signs of remission, whereas the control groups did not.

This test has supposedly been replicated and similiar (if not identical) results have been found.

Now supposing that large scale studies show statistically significant results in favour of prayer, what exactly is going on here?

I could understand if individuals were praying for themselves and they got better - this wouldn’t be completely lost on me since neurological systems and immune systems are wired together in a human being. It makes sense to think a happy state of mind could cause a release of chemicals (say endorphins) that boost (or at least give a sort of “jolt”) to your immune system.

However, how in the living heck can a group of disjointed (as in, not directly attached to the individual) people’s prayers possibly affect the immune system of a patient? IT MAKES NO SENSE!!! I mean, how can it possibly affect another individual? It’s almost akin to saying pure thought alone is causing some physical reaction in somebody else’s body.

Okay, please give me the S.D.

#1: Unfortunately, I do not have a copy of the article that I gleened this information from, however I have heard of the study’s popularity, so I am hoping that some of the smarties (or well-informed) on this board will have come across them

#2: I tried Googling, but it only gives stuff with various religious affiliations - not really the source we are looking for.

#3: In the case mentioned above, the patients were not informed whether or not they were being prayed for - so they had no idea (and could not react accordingly - just in case that’s what you were thinking)

I can’t explain it but is this the article you read?

It probably wouldn’t be possible to answer your question factually. The subject is a matter of debate.

I’ll move this thread to the Great Debates forum for further discussion.

General Questions Moderator

You’re thinking of a different case, but a similar study on the effect of prayer on women getting in vitro fertilization (by Cha, Wirth, and Lobo) has been exposed as seriously flawed and fraudulent, and may not have even taken place.

The story is detailed in the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer, but the article (“Columbia’s Fertility Study: Flawed and Fraud”), by Bruce Flamm, mentioned below, is not online, AFAIK. A reprint of a New York Sun article on he case is here.

As a skeptic and agnostic, I would be very surprised if the studies you’ve heard about, including the ones reported on by ABC news lin the link above, aren’t similarly problematic.

ABC’s health reporter, Dr. Timothy Johnson, is an M.D., but also a minister at an evangelical church in Massachusetts, and was responsible for some rather credulous reporting on the Columbia study that has never been corrected or retracted. So ABC may not be the most authoritative source for straight dope in this area.

Without being able to read the original study, I can’t make any kind of specific comment, but if something like this came down in a good study and could be consistenly repeated, it would be Big News. Since this isn’t being treated like other pieces of Big News, I’m inclined to think there’s not much here.

The details are similiar to the link you have provided Wesley, but I’m pretty sure the case involved the usage of cancer patients.

Once again fellas, my apologies for not being able to dig up the exact article. I tend to read New Scientist and Scientific American a lot, so I doubt my source would come from ABC News or it’s ilk.

commasense, I too am agnostic, so I share your reservations about these studies. All the same, I was hoping for (at least some) cursory analysis of this phenomena (if indeed, it is well documented).

In most of the magazine articles I’ve read on the efficacy of prayer, the persons were prayed over by a group in their hospital room. They were mostly recovering from surgery and recovered faster with fewer complications.

Although there was a ‘control’ group that they were compared to, there is an obvious difference between having few or no visitors and having a room full of people obviously wishing you well and doing everything they can to help you.

I have never read about blind praying. I have certainly never heard about double blind praying.

FWIW, Mike, I’ve read the same articles, and it recenly came up in conversation when an MD mentioned he’d read the studies.

Sorry no more information, but you didn’t imagine it. :wink:

This has come up before. The key variable seems to be not whether people are being prayed for but whether they believe they are being prayed for.

There was a study a couple of years ago (I’ll try and dig up a cite if requested) that used four different groups.

One group was told they were being prayed for and they were being prayed for

One group was told they were being prayed for but were *not actually prayed for.

One group was told they were not but were.

One group was told not and were not.
Both groups who were told they were prayed for did marginally better whether they were actually being prayed for or not.

Those who were prayed for secretly did better than those were not.

The upshot. those who believe they are being prayed for show a marginal placebo response whether they’re actually prayed for or not. Those are do not believe it show no response even if the are being prayed for.

No causal effect from prayer per se has been shown at all.

That should have said they did NO better.

Would anyone like to broaden the discussion to how can prayer benefit anyone? I am not a religious person, so religious faith in general perplexes me. But I particularly find it hard to grasp why anyone would imagine that an all-knowing, all-powerful, timeless infinite-in-all-ways creator of the universe would care, say, how quickly you recover from your appendectomy. The current “Amazing Race” has a team that keeps praying for things like “God, please make the bus wait for us.” Football teams pray for victory over the other team. That all seems to me to trivialize the notion of God. Even in the most terrible excruciating circumstances, perhaps when a parent is praying for the life of a dying child, you have to ask why should God care? To him, isn’t it all the same in the end? And if you pray for your child and he dies anyway, does that mean God is mad at you? Or that your innocent kid didn’t deserve to live? Or maybe God was just overwhelmed by the prayers from football teams and lost tourists. What is this prayer business about anyway?

Apart from the obvious ethical difficulties presented by such studies (which I presume can be surmounted) there is the issue of control. The study organisers may not arrange for prayers for members of some groups, but how can we know that they weren’t being prayed for anyway? (In fact we can be fairly confident that they were, since there are many people who pray generically for the sick. And they may have been the object of specific prayers from friends or relatives not involved in the study.)

Also, we need to know what was being prayed for. We infer that the persons doing the praying were seeking a physical recovery, and (presumably) that’s what participants in the study were asked to pray for. But other common prayers would be for the best outcome for the sick person, or that the will of God be done. Neither of these necessarily involves a physical recovery.

Issues like these make me sceptical of the value of these studies. The most we can conclude from this study is that, for sick people, there’s no evidence that being prayed for promotes physical recovery, although believing that you are being prayed for does appear to promote physical recovery to some extent. But we can’t generalise from this to draw any wider conclusions about the value or effect of prayer. I think there’s limited usefulness in applying the techniques of the natural sciences to the study of the transcendent.

I think some kind of Quantuum entanglement may be at work.

Interestingly, it is probably not possible ethically to test the efficacy of prayer without informing the subjects. Most medical studies are prevented by ethical standards from testing medications or procedures on patients without their informed consent, and if prayer is seriously presented as a method of improving patient outcome, it would have to be treated the same way.

I believe this was one of the issues that brought to light the problems with the Columbia study I mentioned in my first post. The doctor in Korea who conducted it had not submitted the design to the ethics panel, and had not gotten the consent of his patients.

what if some well-designed study with a large sample size shows a significant benefit from prayer, whether or not the people knew about it? what do we do then? are we supposed to stop and say “oh, god is at work!” and leave it in the realm of mysticism, or do we pursue the mechanism?

it seems to me that these are “scientific” studies which could yield results that dissuade further scientific studies.

How would you be sure that no one is praying for the control group?

What, we shouldn’t undertake a study if we fear the result will upset our cosy little ideas of how things are? :slight_smile:

Whatever happened to the fearless pursuit of knowledge?

I can accept one way in which prayer is helpful, either to the petitioner, or to somebody for whom prayers are being asked. It’s a source of comfort to a believer. That doesn’t mean it will actually help in any physical way, but I suppose if it calms a person at a stressful time that is helpful.

That’s all I can see in it though, and obviously in the case of somebody who is the subject of prayers rather than the petitioner, that person would have to know about it for it to help.

That’ just about it as far as prayer works. Otherwise, it is a very selfish thing, and should be condemned as such by true believers, who do not exist anyway. Sorry be so negative, but such is reality.

Approaching prayer from another angle:
Suppose you or a loved on is in difficulties. You have two options:
(1) accept the situation as the “will of God”,i.e. do nothing and hope for the best
(2)pray to God ; ask God to change the situation for the better
Does not the act of option (2) show that you do not trust God? That is called the sin of despair, and may be a punishable offense.
Asking God for help is normal, however, one is never sure if said prayer is answered (in a way discernable to humans).
So, I would doubt that nay efficacious effect from prayer could ever be proven.
Plus, how does God ever get anything done? With all those voice messages on the answering machine!!