Willpower as a factor in healing

Cecils’ column on willpower affecting medical recovery got me to thinking about similar claims about faith & prayer. Christian folks like to tout the ‘well known fact’ that people who have faith in God and who pray for his Divine Grace tend to suffer less and recover faster during major medical crises like cancer. Is there any valid research to back up this claim?

Whether there is research or not, if it works for the patient, does it really matter? Have you ever had a headache, taken a Tylenol and your ache goes away instantly? There is no way that Tylenol can work that fast, but you know you took it so it works right away. Your headache is gone, so does it really matter if it is a thing of the mind?


It matters insofar as members of various religions would like to use this as proof that their religion is the one true faith. As well, if it were true that prayer and faith had a real, measurable effect on health, it would be important for treatment.

Now, I’ve never seen a reputable study that showed any such link, so I would have to say that it’s most likely the same as your Tylenol example; i.e. a placebo. I’ve noticed a similar effect with energy drinks. I’ve often felt more alert just from opening the can. Obviously, the drink itself can’t possibly have any effect on me at that point, but the knowledge that I’m about to drink it perks me up a bit.


I dunno…While the discussion of various studies on the effect was interesting, it seems as though any conclusion that would suggest willpower is a factor in healing would be immediately explained away by some other correlation.

I think ultimately the question cannot be scientifically phrased in any way that wouldn’t make the answer blindingly obvious. That’s certainly not a call to adopt any faith-based medical rituals, just a realization that, scientifically, the answer to the question will always be “No, willpower in and of itself does not affect medical conditions.” But that doesn’t stop me from praying :slight_smile:

There’s at least one data point in favor of the power of willpower.

John Allen Paulos, in his book Innumeracy, cites a study that shows that people have a tendency to die after their birthdays. It’s statistically significant, from the numbers he cites. People seem to want to go past that milestone.
I haven’t read any such study myself, and I’m not sure if Paulos’ book even gives the reference. And, even if true, one could argue that the tendency to survive could be due to more direct causes (such as continuing to take medication one would otherwise neglect, for instance) than mere willpower. But there’s at least a glimmer of some backing for this in published studies.

I’d like to see some data thats non-cancer related. I mean cancer is not something your body is gonna be able to fix. It would be more interesting to hear about recovery rates. The theory being you can’t will your body to do something it can’t do, but it can heal normal injuries, so could you will it to heal faster? Also willpowers effect on illness’s with more of a fighting chance .

I don’t think that the power of prayer necessarily correlates with the willpower of a sick person to overcome illness, as in the original column. But, a simple correlation of people praying for a person to overcome illness would be that those people are also attending to and paying attention to their loved ones, vs someone who doesn’t have anyone to pay attention to them. In a hospital scenario, this surely makes a difference. Whether or not prayer works, those who are focusing on the patient at that concentrated level are probably doing a lot of additional measures to help the sick one as well. I’d like to see a differentiation in the “Prayer works” studies that factor in that level of care as well.

I’m not adverse to mind-body interaction in healing, and do see strength of mind as being an asset in overcoming illness, but, think it more complex than just Hoping it so. Am quite adverse to the mindset of “Well, you just didn’t get right with God”, or, God’s Will in healing.

I don’t think there will be any research that will support your claim. Not because prayer doesn’t necessarily have an effect, but because the medical benefits of prayer-type studies usually have a blind or double-blind design. The ill people don’t know if they’re being prayed for or not. So they don’t really connect with willpower. This is just based on what i’ve seen to be the most common form this research takes, though, there could well be a study into personal prayer floating around somewhere.

From the same column:

Huh… this charming anecdote begs for more research. Could we get a better answer on the efficacy of brackish-water enemas when lacking freshwater in survival situations? It seems to me that without such drastic measures, humans cannot survive 38 days without freshwater (albeit with a small amount of rainwater).

Anecdotal, but I’ll throw it out there anyway…

My late father was a Dr., a General Practioner at a small town clinic in Arkansas. He saw a little bit of everything.

He told me that he could sometimes tell if someone was going to make it through a life threatening illness by their attitude. Obviously, if someone was all ate up with something and too far down the road, then no amount of prayer or anything was going to help, but he knew people, either by faith or through sheer will and determination (and I don’t mean lip service) that were able to overcome serious illnesses (proper medical treatment was of course part of the equation).

Sometimes this only meant living longer than expected, but he told me that this attitude/will/faith made a difference. I’m sure other Drs. have noticed the same thing.

And what about the role of stress reduction in healing? And stress reduction is something that can be learned. (Is it alpha brain waves that are so easy to control when you have audible feedback?)

I’ve always assumed it was possible to “hang on” through sheer force of will. Was it just a coincidence that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died July 4th 1826, 50 years to the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence?

With respect, for I know doctors who’ve said the same, might the phenomenon not be an effect of confirmation bias?

In re depression and healing:

Remember that the neurological correlate of depression (I won’t get into what’s cause or effect) is alteration of production/uptake of neurotransmitters. Is such alteration generalized? If so, it could affect the immune system and other health-maintaining bodily systems. Or vice versa.

Depression has definite physical symptoms–tiredness, slow reactions, reducted activity levels, increase or decrease in sleep, etc.–which suggest general effect of neurotransmitter disfunction.

In re prayer and recovery:

For those who believe in prayer, in whatever sense, the effects are increase in confidence, in happiness, relaxation, and reduction of depressive feelings. Thus, even absent spiritual efficacy, prayer induces the positive state that enhances healing.

The double-blind study needed about prayer involves telling patients that others are praying for them, while it is not true for half the cases. And telling patients that others are not, while for half people are. I suppose you’d arrange with a monastery for the prayers? That brings in questions of which religion(s) are devinely approved.

For some, perhaps, and that’s a good point. My dad based his observation on experience; he was agnostic, iconoclastic, kind of arrogant and at one time thought, like many doctors, that HE was the one who was responsible…so he came to this through having his own biases NOT confirmed, basically.

But he also saw good, pious, strong-willed, optimistic people die and depressed, cynical, unhealthy pricks live through it.

IIRC, he believed that this willpower thing was possible, but still not all that prevalent.

What does after a birthday mean? Is it within a month or 2. Everyone dies after a birthday, it could just be 364 days after a birthday.

If it is within 6 months then that makes perfect sense, because now we are talking 50/50 chances.

See the book. IIRC, they divided the year into quarters (with nthe birthday as one endpoint). Too many people, from a strictly probablistic point of view, were dying in the quarter following the birthday.

I did a quick look via the internet, and found this interesting paper. I don’t know if Phillips was the one Paulos had in mind 9he segmented the year by months, not quarters), but he certainly reported this effect. Which the author of the webpage hasn’t been able to duplicate, even using Phillips’ own data: