Dr Caroline Leaf and the power of prayer

If you’re a Christian, then you believe in the power of prayer.  It’s pretty fundamental … prayer is fundamental to our relationship with God and our daily life with him, and even salvation itself.

So where does the power of prayer come from?  Does it come from the words we speak like some ritual incantation? Does it come from the power of our minds?  Or does the power of prayer rest solely in God and his power when he answers our prayers?

One gets the impression from reading Dr Leaf’s e-mail newsletter today that the power of prayer is less about God and more about the power of the human mind.

Dr Leaf starts by saying that “12 minutes of daily focused prayer over an 8 week period can change the brain to such an extent that it can be measured on a brain scan. This type of prayer seems to increase activity in brain areas associated with social interaction compassion and sensitivity to others. It also increases frontal lobe activity as focus and intentionality increase.”

That may well be true, but the effect isn’t related to prayer itself, it’s simply what happens when the brain does things over and over.  This same effect occurs in people who perform Buddhist meditation [1], or jugglers learning to juggle [2], or London taxi drivers memorising the streets of London by rote [3].  Indeed, the brain has been shown to change simply with hormonal fluctuations that occur throughout the menstrual cycle [4].  Prayer might change the brain, but so do a lot of other things that have nothing to do with prayer.

Not that these pesky facts stop Dr Leaf from going on to state that, “As well as changing the brain, another study implies that intentional prayer can even change physical matter. Researchers found that intentional thought for 30 seconds affected laser light.”  To start with, this study [5] that Dr Leaf refers to was nothing to do with Christian prayer, and all to do with Buddhist-type meditation … to use this ‘experiment’ as support for prayer is misleading.  It’s also misleading because the results were essentially the interpretation of the experimenter.  The same experimental design performed by independent laboratories showed no effect of thought on laser light [6] (see also “Dr Caroline Leaf – Where Angels Fear To Tread“).

So intentional thought doesn’t change physical matter, and why should that be any surprise?  Prayer might change things, but the effect of prayer has nothing to do with us.  We don’t change physical matter, only God does, since He created matter in the first place.

Dr Leaf is simply setting up a false premise so she can solve it – ‘You cause brain damage by your toxic thinking, but you can heal your brain damage by your non-toxic thinking’.  But toxic thoughts do not cause brain damage, so there is no brain damage from toxic thinking for prayer to reverse.  The pathetic excuse for ’science’ that Dr Leaf relies on to support her ministry doesn’t show any effect for the power of prayer.  As Christians, the power of prayer is a matter of faith and reliance on the power of God, not our own strength.

[1]        Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TW, Wallace BA, Raison CL, Schwartz EL. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in human neuroscience 2012;6:292
[2]        Scholz J, Klein MC, Behrens TE, Johansen-Berg H. Training induces changes in white-matter architecture. Nature neuroscience 2009 Nov;12(11):1370-1.
[3]        Maguire EA, Woollett K, Spiers HJ. London taxi drivers and bus drivers: a structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Hippocampus 2006;16(12):1091-101.
[4]        Hagemann G, Ugur T, Schleussner E, et al. Changes in brain size during the menstrual cycle. PloS one 2011 Feb 04;6(2):e14655.
[5]        Radin D. Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 2008;4(1):25-35.
[6]        Alcock JE, Burns J, Freeman A. Psi wars: Getting to grips with the paranormal: Imprint Academic Charlottesville, VA, 2003.

3 thoughts on “Dr Caroline Leaf and the power of prayer

  1. As someone who studies neurology I can tell you that you are uninformed.
    Additionally the use of name calling and childish tactics such as calling her ‘pathetic’ are not very kind ways to approach the subject.

    • Hi Adam, thanks for your comment.

      So when you say that you’re someone who ‘studies neurology’, do you mean that you are a neurologist in training? Or a doctor in training? Nurse? Physiotherapist? Psychologist? Just saying that you study neurology is ambiguous, and is certainly not a cogent argument.

      As it so happens, I’ve also studied neurology, and psychiatry, and a bunch of other medical specialties in attaining my fellowship of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. I’ve also done a lot of research in cognitive neuroscience over the years as I’ve systematically reviewed Dr Leaf’s teaching before publishing my various critiques. I think I’m pretty well informed, for what it’s worth.

      That said, I might be wrong, and if I am, I would welcome your critique of my work. After all, that’s how science works, how knowledge is refined. Please be specific in how you consider that I’m misinformed, citing your references. I would be happy to review them and refine my arguments as appropriate.

      Additionally, I would be grateful for you to reread the post. There is no name-calling or childish tactics in my blog. That seems to be reserved to Dr Leaf’s sycophantic followers. If you read the post carefully, I wrote, “The pathetic excuse for ’science’ that Dr Leaf relies on to support her ministry doesn’t show any effect for the power of prayer.” I didn’t call Dr Leaf pathetic at all, I described the ‘science’ she cited as pathetic (and it is). In my opinion, it’s a serious indictment on Dr Leaf’s credibility that she would even consider such bad science as reliable, and use it to justify her teaching, and it’s a very sad reflection of the Christian church that it simply believes her without any form of due diligence. Irrespective, I did not call Dr Leaf pathetic as you suggested.

      Again, thanks for your comment. I would welcome any specific criticism that you might have. Otherwise, all the best to you.

  2. Pingback: A Joyfully Nourished Year: The 30-Day Prayer Challenge -

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