Category Archives: Neurotheology

The Power of Prayer in a Postmodern World

The rash covered her body. She was burning up with fever. She felt like she was going to die. Debbie, 39, did two things immediately: she called her doctor – who didn’t even need to see her: she had scarlet fever, a childhood disease that is pure misery, and would likely put her on her back for at least two weeks.

Her doc prescribed the needed antibiotics and told her to rest, She’d see her in two weeks when the rash finally went away.

The second thing she did was call her girlfriend, Molly. Immediately Molly activated the prayer network at their church. The congregation was small, maybe 50 people, but they all began to pray for God to heal Debbie.

By Sunday the rash had gone away, as had the fever. On Monday Debbie felt as if nothing at all had happened. Her scarlet fever was gone.

Before you say, “whoa there, Cowboy…the antibiotics must have kicked into overdrive”, consider Veronica.

She had a strange, painful growth on her skin near the clavicle. She saw a specialist who did a biopsy. Sure enough it was chock full of cancer.

She belonged to a prayer group that, or course, went to work.

Veronica was scheduled to have the growth, and likely a pound of flesh surrounding the growth, removed about a week later. When she went to see her surgeon, there was no sign of the growth, certainly no evidence of cancer.

“I can’t operate on something that isn’t there,” he said, and sent her on her way.

The moral to these stories: prayer works. Of course, we’ve known that for about 5,000 years. But, during the modern age of medicine many (if not most) doctors, researchers and otherwise rational people cast aside prayer as superstition or as a benign, harmless activity that made people feel better. A spiritual placebo.

However, about 10 years ago a new movement, neurotheology, was born. Neurotheology (aka the neuroscience of spirituality) takes a long hard scientific look at spiritual practices and how they affect the brain – which leads to how they affect quality of life. What they have found is that those engaged in meaningful, intense prayer and other spiritual practices experienced significant changes in their brain.

Many more studies have been done. One study (captured in a story done by NPR in 2009) followed the research being done by University of Wisconsin neuroscientist, Richard Davidson. He wondered if the brain could change for people who weren’t prayer warriors for hours each day – but led normal lives. Participants spent 30 minutes per day in prayer/meditation during the study.

Lo and behold, through a process called neuroplasicity, their brains began to change within two-weeks. For example, those who focused on being more forgiving actually saw changes in the parts of the brain that produce compassion. (I’ll be writing more about neuroplasicity in other posts.)

So…that’s the physical effects  of prayer. But, what about the results? Isn’t that what really is meaningful to us?

Let’s face it, not every prayer is answered. Maybe that has more to do with how we pray, than the efficacy of prayer itself.

In research done by Larry Dossey, MD (a pioneer in the neurotheology field), certain types of prayers tend to be more effective than others.

For example, if I were to pray: “God, please let me win the lottery!” Chances are that my prayer being answered is directly proportional to the odds of winning the lottery.

However, what if I prayed: “God, I believe in your provision, and I pray that you will provide so that the best possible outcome is experienced by all involved – and I am thankful and grateful for whatever that outcome happens to be.”

I cannot even tell you the number of times I, or friends of mine, have prayed something similar to this and a check finds its way into my mailbox the next day…or my friend finds a $20 bill in old coat pocket…or another friend lands a contract they didn’t expect.

I think it’s not about what we pray for – but the attitude from which we offer the prayer. Being thankful and grateful. Accepting. Not being attached to outcomes. Living in the moment, doing the next indicated things on the journey. Proceeding with confidence and faith. And trust.

The research that’s being done will verify what we know in our hearts. Prayer works. Just ask Debbie and Veronica. They’ll stake their health on it.