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.

References
[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.

The Prospering Soul – Christians and Depression Part 2

For most church-goers, putting the terms “Christian” and “depression” in the same sentence just doesn’t seem natural. In part 1, we looked at what depression is and why depression affects a lot more of the church than the church is aware of.

In this instalment, we’ll look at some general ways to handle depression, and what the Bible says about being depressed.

In the first blog, I explained how I understood depression as the end result of the brains capacity to deal with the demands of life. Too many demands or not enough resources overwhelms the brain and low mood is the end result.

So how do you manage depression? Well, if the system is failing because of increased demand or decreased capacity to cope, then it’s logical to manage depression by decreasing demand and increasing capacity to cope.

We can increase our capacity to cope by increasing our brains capacity to grow new nerve branches, and to make the cells more efficient at doing their job.

Increasing the growth of new nerve cell branches (in science speak – ‘synaptogenesis’) involves increasing the growth factors. BDNF has been proven to be increased by anti-depressant medications [1, 2] and by exercise [3, 4]. There may be some evidence that diet might improve depression in a similar way although the evidence is weak [5], so we should take that with a grain of salt.

The next way of managing depression is to increase the capacity to cope. The way we do that is through psychological therapies. There are several styles of psychological therapies, too many for me to discuss them all here. In the real world, most psychologists use a mix of a number of techniques that they tailor to the needs of their patient. I’m going to quickly outline the two most commonly used therapies.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT for short, is “based on the theory that emotional problems result from distorted attitudes and ways of thinking that can be corrected. The aim is to treat difficulties by problem solving, finding better strategies for coping, and overcoming irrational fears.” [6] Essentially it’s the combination of two different therapies, Cognitive therapy, and Behavioural therapy. Cognitive therapy, as the name suggests, assumes that people have mental health problems because of patterns of irrational thinking. Behavioural therapy is quite broad, but looks to challenge the thinking patterns with action (for example: gradual exposure to something a person is afraid of).

CBT is the most well researched form of psychotherapy, and has a lot of evidence for it’s effectiveness [7]. Though there is good evidence that it’s the behavioural arm that gives it any clout [8, 9]. Trying to change your mental health just by trying to change your thoughts is generally ineffective.

In the last couple of decades, a new wave of psychological therapies has emerged from this idea that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is just Behavioural Therapy with bling. The most notable is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT for short. ACT is different to CBT in that ACT doesn’t rely on the idea of changing thoughts, but on simply accepting them. ACT “is a psychological therapy that teaches mindfulness (‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally’) and acceptance (openness, willingness to sustain contact) skills for responding to uncontrollable experiences and thereby increased enactment of personal values.” [10]

According to ACT, you don’t have to change your thoughts, because thoughts aren’t that powerful to begin with – they’re just words. Sometimes they’re true, and sometimes they’re helpful, but if we spent all of our time trying to fight them, we miss out on experiencing the joy in the present moment, and we can lose sight of the values that guide us into our future fulfilment.

The common link between good psychotherapy is that their therapeutic effect comes from improving skills in different areas that the patient lacks. That is, psychological therapies increase the capacity of the patient to cope with things that would have otherwise wouldn’t have handled well and would have caused distress.

The last way to manage depression is to limit the excessive demands that have been placed on the system in the first place, or in other words, reduce the unnecessary stressors. People who are depressed tend to be bad at this, but there are a few basic skills that are common to all stress management techniques that can form the platform of ongoing better skills in this area. The full list will be a blog for another time, but the simplest technique is to breathe!

It’s really simple. Sit in a comfortable position. Take slow, deep breaths, right to the bottom of your lungs and expanding your chest forward through the central “heart” area. Count to five as you breathe in (five seconds, not one to five as quickly as possible) and then count to five as you breathe out. Keep doing this, slowly, deeply and rhythmically, in and out. Pretty simple! This will help to improve the efficiency of your heart and lungs, and reduce your stress levels.

Remember, B.R.E.A.T.H.E. = Breathe Rhythmically Evenly And Through the Heart Everyday.

To recap, there are three main ways to manage depression – increase the brains ability to process the incoming information, increase the capacity to cope, and decrease the amount of stress that our brains have to process.

The fourth way to help manage depression is prayer. There is limited scientific information on the effects of prayer on depression, although a small randomised controlled trial did show that prayer with a prayer counsellor over a period of a number of weeks was more effective than no treatment [11]. But the Bible encourages us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

And Jesus himself called to those heavy in heart, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

One final thought. It’s sometimes hard to understand how strong Christians can become depressed in the first place. After all, the Bible says that the fruit of the Spirit is joy (Galatians 5:22). 1 Peter 1:8 seems to suggest that every Christian should be “filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.”

So when you’re filled with the opposite, it makes you feel like a faithless failure, and Christians without depression assume a similar thing for Christians they know who are suffering from depression. It’s the logical conclusion to draw after all – if the fruit of the Spirit is joy, and you are not filled with joy, then you mustn’t be full of the Spirit.

But when you look through the greatest heroes in the Bible, you see a pattern where at one point or another in their lives, they went through physical and emotional destitution. Sure, their lives had some pretty amazing highs, but they often experienced some amazing lows as well. Moses spent forty years in the wilderness, and when God appeared to him in the burning bush, he argued with God about how weak and timid he was (Exodus 3 and 4).

In 1 Kings 18, Elijah had just seen God rain down fire to supernaturally consume his sacrifice, capture and kill four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and watched God break the drought over Israel. At the height of this run of amazing connection to God, Jezebel the evil queen threatened him, and he ran for his life in a panic and asked God to kill him, twice, over the period of a couple of months (1 Kings 19).

Peter had spent three years with Jesus, the Messiah himself, hearing him speak and watching him perform miracle after miracle after miracle. Peter even saw the empty tomb first hand on the very first Easter Sunday, but still, he gave up on life with God and went back to his former occupation, which turned out to be lots of hard work for very little reward (John 21:1-3).

The same pattern is also seen in King David, Gideon, and a number of other great leaders through the Bible. The take home message is this: it’s human nature to suffer from disease and dysfunction. Sometimes it’s physical dysfunction. Sometimes it’s emotional dysfunction. It’s not a personal or spiritual failure to have a physical illness. Why should mental illness be treated any different?

As the stories of Moses, Elijah and Peter testify, being a strong Christian doesn’t make you impervious to low mood or emotional fatigue. Hey, we’re all broken in some way, otherwise why would we need God’s strength and salvation! Having depression simply changes your capacity to experience the joy and love of God. Closing your eyes doesn’t stop the light, it just stops you experiencing the light. Being depressed makes it hard to experience God’s love, but it doesn’t stop God’s love.

In the 80’s and 90’s, a popular Christian musician was a man named Carmen. One of his best known songs had these words,

“When problems try to bury you and make it hard to pray, it may seem like Friday night, but Sunday’s on the way!”

It’s really hard when you’re afflicted by the dank darkness of depression. But nothing will separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:35-39), including depression. You may not feel it, but God’s love is there, and Sunday’s on the way.

Remember:

  1. Depression is a common mental health condition that can have prolonged and devastating consequences. Depression is characterised by either a sadness or a lack of joy which are abnormal in their intensity and their duration, but also affects sleep, appetite and motivation. It’s caused by abnormalities in genes which affect the brains ability to grow new nerve cell branches, and which also affect in-built coping mechanisms, so stress is both more likely to occur in people who are more prone to depression, and the stress is then handled poorly, overloading their emotional capacity.
  1. The management of depression is three-pronged: to improve the brains ability to grow new nerve cells through exercise and/or medication, to learn new ways to cope with distress, and to decrease the amount of stress in the first place.
  1. Christians are not immune from depression, and it’s important for Christians to understand that Christians suffering from depression are not weak, or failing in their spiritual walk, or are unloved by God. The love of God is always present, even if they are unable to process it properly. As dark and dismal as depression can become, there is hope. It may seem like Friday night, but Sunday’s on the way.

References

[1]        Duman RS, Li N. A neurotrophic hypothesis of depression: role of synaptogenesis in the actions of NMDA receptor antagonists. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, Biological sciences 2012 Sep 5;367(1601):2475-84.
[2]        Anderson I. Depression. The Treatment and Management of Depression in Adults (Update). NICE clinical guideline 90.2009. London: The British Psychological Society and The Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2010.
[3]        Karatsoreos IN, McEwen BS. Resilience and vulnerability: a neurobiological perspective. F1000prime reports 2013;5:13.
[4]        Rimer J, Dwan K, Lawlor DA, et al. Exercise for depression. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews 2012;7:CD004366.
[5]        Lai JS, Hiles S, Bisquera A, Hure AJ, McEvoy M, Attia J. A systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary patterns and depression in community-dwelling adults. The American journal of clinical nutrition 2014 Jan;99(1):181-97.
[6]        NowOK. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Dictionary of Psychotherapy 2015 [cited; Available from: http://www.dictionary.nowok.co.uk/cognitive-behavioural-therapy-cbt.php
[7]        Ruiz FJ. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy versus Traditional Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Current Empirical Evidence. International journal of psychology and psychological therapy 2012;12(3):333-58.
[8]        Longmore RJ, Worrell M. Do we need to challenge thoughts in cognitive behavior therapy? Clinical psychology review 2007 Mar;27(2):173-87.
[9]        Dobson KS, Hollon SD, Dimidjian S, et al. Randomized trial of behavioral activation, cognitive therapy, and antidepressant medication in the prevention of relapse and recurrence in major depression. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 2008 Jun;76(3):468-77.
[10]      Smout M. Acceptance and commitment therapy – pathways for general practitioners. Aust Fam Physician 2012 Sep;41(9):672-6.
[11]      Boelens PA, Reeves RR, Replogle WH, Koenig HG. A randomized trial of the effect of prayer on depression and anxiety. Int J Psychiatry Med 2009;39(4):377-92.

If you’re suffering from depression or any other mental health difficulties and need help, see your GP or a psychologist, or if you’re in Australia, 24 hour telephone counselling is available through:

Lifeline = 13 11 14 – or – Beyond Blue = 1300 22 4636

Dr Caroline Leaf and the tongues trivia tall tales trifecta

Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 12.23.16 pm

I saw a Facebook factoid from Caroline Leaf today that said, “When we speak in tongues, research shows that the areas involved in discernment in the brain increase in activity, which means we increase in wisdom.”

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. She has also proclaimed herself as an expert on science and the Bible.

In the opening of her “Scientific Philosophy”, for example, Dr Leaf says that, “God is the Creator of the Universe and is the Author of Science. Since God is the Author of the Bible, the Bible is therefore the ultimate authority in any scientific matters. The study of Science is therefore the study of God’s handiwork and is a way of admiring His Creation. God, the Creator, is the One to be worshipped, not the Creation. The Creation, however, reflects the Glory of God and points to His Divine attributes.”

In order to prove that the Bible is the ultimate scientific authority, Dr Leaf attempts to find scientific studies which support Biblical concepts. One example of this is her teaching on Glossolalia, the scientific term for the Biblical concept ‘speaking in tongues’.

Dr Leaf’s Facebook factoid on the neuroscience of speaking in tongues is at least the second time she has posted it. In November when I first saw Dr Leaf’s proclamation on the science of speaking in tongues, I was fascinated. I went to find the research for myself to see if the areas involved in discernment in the brain really increase in activity when speaking in tongues. As it turns out, there isn’t any.

The only study that I could find about brain functioning during speaking in tongues was by Newberg [1]. As I wrote in my previous blog, the study by Newberg showed the part of the brain that’s involved in both speaking in tongues and discernment, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, decreases in activity when praying in tongues, not increases, in direct contradiction to Dr Leaf’s meme.

In November, I concluded, “there are really only two reasonable explanations as to why the research contradicts Dr Leaf; either there is another piece of research which supports Dr Leaf’s assertion, or Dr Leaf is simply wrong.”

Today on Facebook, Dr Leaf demonstrated that she can not be swayed from her entrenched idea that speaking in tongues increases discernment … or can she? Her meme and her discussion on glossolalia in her ‘Scientific Philosophy’ seem contradictory.

For example, she writes in her scientific philosophy manifesto, “In 2006 Dr. Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania, using single-photon emission computerized tomography (SPECT), found that the frontal lobe of individuals who spoke in tongues was less active. This brain profile was in contrast to Franciscan nuns in contemplative prayer and Buddhist monks in meditation, in which frontal lobe activity is increased. Since the frontal lobe activity is increased when we are focused on what we are saying, this finding confirms self-reports of what people who spoke in tongues experienced, implying that the words spoken in glossolalia originate from a source other than the mind of the individual speaking in tongues.”

In this paragraph, Dr Leaf confirms that frontal lobe activity decreases when speaking in tongues, in keeping with her anecdotal evidence of “self-reports of what people who spoke in tongues experienced, implying that the words spoken in glossolalia originate from a source other than the mind of the individual speaking in tongues.” But this is in direct contrast with her social media meme, which suggests that speaking in tongues increases frontal lobe activity – the area of the brain common to glossolalia and discernment is the vmPFC, which decreases with glossolalia and increases with discernment.

Dr Leaf is a confusing enigma. She posts social media memes that are clearly wrong, even disagreeing with the scientific papers she has written about and her own conclusions in her own manifesto.

This only discounts her legitimacy. You can’t continue to contradict your own evidence. It’s like shooting yourself in the foot, or digging your own grave. What’s worse, Dr Leaf teaches this from real pulpits, not just on social media. How is her audience supposed to feel when they hear what she has to say and find it disagrees with her own scientific philosophy?

I sound like a broken record, but Dr Leaf desperately needs to review her teaching and social media memes. It’s bad enough to be contradicted by scientific evidence, but to be in disagreement with your own teaching is embarrassing, and does nothing to preserve trust with your audience.

References

[1]        Newberg AB, Wintering NA, Morgan D, Waldman MR. The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during glossolalia: a preliminary SPECT study. Psychiatry research 2006 Nov 22;148(1):67-71.

Dr Caroline Leaf – Where Angels Fear To Tread

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After a day-trip to Movie World, and then a slight distraction by Eurovision, I had a quick look at Facebook before going about my evening chores. Upon reading Dr Leaf’s latest social media meme, I was aghast!

Dr Caroline Leaf is a communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Hiding in amongst her “Scientific Philosophy” was this juicy factoid: “Researchers found that intentional thought for 30 seconds affected laser light.” This is, apparently, also proof that prayer can change physical matter.

I actually thought it was God that changed physical matter if He agreed with our prayer requests, and not our prayers themselves, because if it was simply our prayer, then we wouldn’t need God. That’s probably a blog for another time. Still, it was her last statement that caught my attention. Intentional thought can change the properties of laser! I’d never heard that before! I had to find the references.

It turns out that the paper Dr Leaf is referring to is, “Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge” [1]. In this experiment, Dr Dean Radin, a paranormal researcher, took 5 “experienced meditators” and 5 normal control subjects, and asked them to mentally interfere with a laser beam pointed at a light-reading CCD sensor inside a sealed box. He averaged out the intensity of the light pattern that was read by the CCD. He believed he found a difference in the amount of light that was read by the sensor when the meditators “blocked” the laser light compared to non-meditators and control runs.

In his original paper, Radin published the following graph of his results.

Screen Shot 2015-05-24 at 10.27.48 pm

The length of the bars represent a statistical value based on the results, not the actual results of the experiments. The simplest explanation is that the further down the bar goes, the greater the degree of interference to the laser light. Radin believed the effect was caused by the meditators literally interfering with the quantum mechanics of the photons in the laser beam, “observing” them from outside of the box, thus causing their wave function to collapse and stopping them from reaching the sensor.

However, notice that the first few experiments show a large effect, but that this diminishes as the experiments go along, and towards the end, the control groups and the meditator group is actually about the same, with no interference to the laser light at all. This effect is called the Decline Effect, and is common problem amongst studies of the paranormal. It’s a result of a phenomenon called ‘regression to the mean’, or in other words, the more times you perform an experiment, the more likely the results will line up with the true average. I think in Radin’s case, it also had a lot to do with his own expectations.

Radin himself was honest enough to discuss the effect in his paper. In his own words, “Although I had employed numerous design features to avoid artifacts (sic), and only four of the 10 control sessions conducted to that point had gone in the predicted direction, I still found it difficult to believe that the experimental effect was as easily repeatable as the results were suggesting. I knew that if I had trouble believing it, I could hardly expect anyone else to accept these results. So I found that my intentions for the experiment changed – I no longer hoped to observe results solely in the predicted direction, but rather I found myself hoping that some of the remaining sessions would go against the prediction, to validate that the methodology was not biased.” [1]

So, Radin probably caused the effect by wanting to see it. He excluded data that didn’t suit his hypothesis, citing a technical issue with the equipment, and instead focussed on the data set that still seemed to fit. He also performed the analysis of the data, which he biased with his own pre-conceived notions.

The other nail in the coffin for this paper is that it was a pilot study that was done by one researcher, which no one has since tried, or succeeded in, replicating. Indeed, the methodology for this research was based on a series of experiments done by a real physicist with better equipment, Professor Stanley Jeffers, a professor of physics at York University in Toronto, Canada, who performed the experiment about 74 times and found no effect [2].

So, Dr Leaf has cited this isolated, error prone, biased and unconfirmed paper of Radin’s as proof of the ability of thought to change physical matter, and indeed, as prayer’s ability to change physical matter.

This is simply more proof that Dr Leaf is prone to rush in where angels fear to tread, and latch on to any “research” that supports her ideas, no matter how tenuous or unscientific. She did the same thing when she cited a conference poster from a paranormal conference in the early 90’s, and claimed it was definitive proof that our thoughts can change our DNA. In actual fact, the paper was so full of flaws [3: Ch 13, The “ingenuous” experiment] that the only thing it could show was how desperate Dr Leaf is to try and justify her unscientific pet theories.

This tendency for Dr Leaf to rely on such poor science, and link it to fundamental Biblical concepts, dishonours science, the truth of the Bible, and her audience.

I think Dr Leaf would be wise to review her scientific philosophy and the “research” that she uses to justify it, rather than continuing to utilise tenuous and inaccurate articles from studies of the paranormal.

References

[1]        Radin D. Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge. Explore 2008 Jan-Feb;4(1):25-35.

[2]        Alcock JE, Burns J, Freeman A. Psi wars: Getting to grips with the paranormal: Imprint Academic Charlottesville, VA, 2003.

[3]        Pitt CE. Hold That Thought: Reappraising the work of Dr Caroline Leaf. 1st ed. Brisbane, Australia: Pitt Medical Trust, 2014.

Prayer Proof?

In Wisconsin, USA, Leilani Neumann is found guilty of second degree reckless homocide of her 11-year-old daughter Kara.  During her recent trial, the prosecution alleged that she ignored the worsening symptoms of Kara’s undiagnosed diabetes for two weeks, and chose prayer instead of seeking medical advice.  Even during the last hours before Kara’s death, Leilani stood with her husband and Bible study members praying for her.  Witnesses said that it was only when the comatosed girl stopped breathing that someone called paramedics.  Neumann family supporters state that the trial was misconducted, without a single witness called for the defense, and an appeal is planned.

Across the other side of the US, Billy is a graduating student of the Bethel School of Ministry, in Redding, California.   He reported on a recent trip to Ecuador where he prayed for a seven year old boy with leg deformities from birth. It was hard for the boy to walk and impossible for him to run, which made him the target of taunts when he tried to play soccer.  Despite their best efforts, doctors had failed to correct the deformities.  Billy prayed for him three times, and after the third prayer, the boy said he saw “the hand of God come down” and touch him.  He took a few tentative steps, and his legs became straighter and straighter.  His mother tearfully confirmed that her previously lame son could now walk and run.  The last thing Billy saw as he was driving away from the crusade was the boy running up and down the car park, staring in wonder at his perfectly straight legs.

Same act of prayer, same God, but two contradictory results.  It is a conundrum that has confused the church for centuries.  Why does God answer some prayer with miracles, and why are some prayers for healing seemingly unanswered?  What is the effectiveness of prayer?

There have been some attempts to measure the effects of prayer scientifically.  One of the first published clinical trials of intercessory prayer was a 1988 study by Randolph Byrd.  Almost 400 patients over a period of time were randomized to receive prayer from born-again Christians, while the other half received no prayer.  The results showed a positive outcome for prayer in six of the twenty-nine variables observed.  Unfortunately, the study was plagued by problems in the construction of the trial, and many feel that the positive results were because of study bias, not the prayer itself.

There have been better studies since then.  The “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer” (“STEP”) was a well conducted trial that took 10 years and $US2.4 million.  1800 patients, all admitted to hospital for the same condition, were divided into three groups: one received prayer and knew they were prayed for, another group received prayer without knowing about it, and the last received no prayer.  The prayer was performed by committed Christians experienced in praying for the sick.  The results were not encouraging for intercessory prayer, with the two groups receiving prayer actually having poorer outcomes than those not prayed for.

On the surface this does little to help the dilemma of prayer for healing.  On deeper analysis, there may have been confounding factors.  Those in the control group (without prayer in the study) may have been praying themselves.  Or perhaps the answer to prayer in those studied came outside of the study’s parameters.  Perhaps God wants us to trust in him and his word, the raw power of faith, rather than in the science of a clean-cut clinical study that “proved” the benefits of prayer.  When it comes to the studying of prayer, Christians and clinicians have noted that prayer is not an easily quantifiable substance.  And neither is God for that matter.  When God works supernaturally, he works super-naturally, literally above the laws of nature.  Prayer, then, cannot be studied scientifically since the scientific method relies on observing and controlling variables within the natural order.

In fact, I personally think that God delights in performing miracles that are beyond our reasoning.  The miracles of Jesus provide many good examples – he placed mud, made out of the mixture of dirt and his saliva, onto a blind mans eyes.  He touched lepers.  He told Peter to find tax money in the mouth of a fish.  These sort of miracles perplex yet inspire us.  Scientifically quantifiable or not, they still move us to worship the greatness of God.

How do we find the wisdom to know when to choose medicine or miracle?  Two of Jesus’ miracles come to mind that might shed light on this delicate balance.  The woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48) had “spent all her living upon physicians, neither could be healed of any.”  She touched Jesus and was healed, and Jesus told her “thy faith hath made thee whole.”  The lame man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9) waited patiently near the waters edge and tried as best he could to make it into the waters to be healed but was unable to get there by himself.  When Jesus told him to walk, he got up instantly and was healed.

Both stories are of people in need who didn’t wait passively for healing.  Each did whatever was in their power to find healing, and were at the point where their effort was not enough.  The woman pursued Jesus, whereas Jesus came to the man, but in both cases their faith engaged God and they received healing.  I think the same is true in modern day life.  Healing is by the grace of God.  We do nothing to earn it.  But like many things in the kingdom of God, we also need to ask, to seek and to knock.

I understand that my profession as a GP makes me a little biased, but the healing or prevention of many diseases is available simply by following modern medical advice, or by using simple therapies like vaccinations or antibiotics.  For Kara Neumann, the answer to prayer was in the insulin and fluids that doctors would have given her had they been called in time.  Perhaps it’s because we are so used to the benefits of medicine that we do not see immunizations or pharmaceuticals as miracles, or answers to prayer.  But imagine if you could go back in time one hundred years with some of todays basic medicines like penicillin.  You would be able to cure diseases like syphilis or pneumonia, in that time untreatable and fatal, and you would be labelled as a miracle worker.  Modern medicine is miraculous.

But when modern medicine cannot touch a sickness, either because of limited access to medicine or the limits of medical science itself, the “miraculous” can take place.  Like the boy in Ecuador, or the woman with the the issue of blood, physicians could not heal them, but God did, when personal faith touched his power and grace.

It would be absurd to stand outside in a thunderstorm and pray for God to shelter us when we could just walk inside our house.  In the same way, common sense dictates that we thank God for modern medicine and use it appropriately, because it is just as much a gift of God as our houses are.  Medicines sit along side the astounding phenomena of supernatural power that we define as “miraculous.”  And while the power of prayer may not be quantifiable or reproducible like modern pharmaceuticals, it is nevertheless tangible, just like the love of God that has provided them both.

(Originally published in Alive Magazine, June/July 2009)