Last September, a thought-provoking study appeared in the Southern Medical Journal (2010; 103:864–9). Researchers from Indiana University showed that proximal intercessory prayer (PIP) by evangelical Christians improved auditory and visual acuity in patients from rural Mozambique with poor hearing and sight. PIP’s effects were greater than that produced by suggestion or hypnosis, which can also sharpen auditory and visual acuity.
PIP involves touch – such as an embrace or the placing of hands on the patient’s head – and praying close to the patient. Praying or knowing someone cares enough to pray for you may make you feel better by enhancing well-being, optimism and confidence (Medscape General Medicine 2007; 9:56). So, PIP could trigger placebo responses – bolstering the body’s innate ability to heal itself. But several studies now suggest that intercessory prayer (IP, or asking a higher power) speeds healing – even if patients don’t know that they’re the subject, if other people prayed from a distance or, most remarkably, prayed retrospectively. Not surprisingly, these results proved deeply controversial. IP doesn’t just challenge established medical and scientific beliefs – it rips them to shreds!
The scientific study of IP began in 1988, when doctors in San Francisco split 393 patients admitted to a coronary care unit into two groups. The first group received no organised prayer. Christians outside the hospital prayed for the second group’s recovery. When admitted, the two groups were equally ill. But the IP group developed less severe heart disease, were less likely to need mechanical help breathing, and consumed less medicine in the form of antibiotics and diuretics (Southern Medical Journal 1988; 81:826–829). Then, in 1999, researchers in Kansas City found that IP reduced heart disease severity by 11 per cent (Archives of Internal Medicine 159:2273–2278).
A year later, the British Medical Journal (2001; 323:1450–1) published even more startling results. In 2000, Leonard Leibovici (Rabin Medical Centre, Israel) randomly divided 3,393 patients who had had septicæmia between 1990 and 1996 into two groups. He arranged remote retrospective IP for one group. One in 50 fewer people died in the IP group (28.1 per cent mortality) than in the control group (30.2 per cent) – although Leibovici couldn’t rule out that this was the play of chance. But the lengths of hospitalisation and fever were shorter in the IP group. Statistical analysis suggested these weren’t chance findings.
Other studies tell a similar story. Patients left unconscious after severe head injury recovered better if they were the subject of IPs (American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care 2009; 26-264-269). Another investigation examined bush babies (Otolemur garnettii), small African primates, which injured themselves (as in humans, a sign of distress). Self-inflicted wounds healed quicker in bush babies which were IP subjects compared to animals which were not. The IP group also showed improved blood quality – such as increased red blood cells and hæmoglobin – and more normal behaviours, such as time spent grooming (Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 2006; 1242–8). This finding is important. Bush babies presumably don’t have strongly held beliefs about religion and medicine that could contribute to the placebo effect and complicate human studies.
Furthermore, other distance healing techniques – such as spiritual healing, noncontact therapeutic touch and external qigong – also seem to work. For example, in AIDS patients, distance healing reduced the likelihood of new AIDS-related illnesses (by 83 per cent), visits to doctors (by 30 per cent), hospitalisations (by 75 per cent), time spent in hospital (by 85 per cent) and illness severity – while improving mood (Western Journal of Medicine 1998; 169:356–363). In 2000, researchers (Annals of Internal Medicine 132:903–910) examined 23 trials involving 2,774 patients; 13 studies suggested that various types of distance healing worked.
You could argue that benefits in one, even two, studies are flukes. But as several – although not all – studies show similar results, the findings are harder to dismiss. An authoritative review by the Cochrane Collaboration (which usually assesses medicines, surgical techniques and so on) looked at 10 studies of IP. So, if IP is ineffective you’d expect clear evidence to emerge. Yet the authors commented: “The evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer.” Critically, they add that the lack of “clear effects does not mean that intercessory prayer does not work”.
In other words, we can’t unequivocally claim distance healing works; but equally, there’s no compelling evidence that distance healing does not work – and that’s remarkable. And discrepancies between studies are understandable. Perhaps the study designs are more appropriate for investigating new medicines than distance healing. The Cochrane Review notes that problems with the IP studies’ designs “are enough to hide a real beneficial effect”. Perhaps distance healing works only for certain healers (prayers) and patients. After all, prayer is intensely personal. Perhaps different techniques have different effects. Perhaps distance healing works in only some medical situations – boosting the immune system so people recover more quickly, but not regenerating amputated limbs. But if further investigations show distance healing has an effect – however small in however few studies – it’s hard to overstate just how radically the