By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 15, 2005
Praying for sick strangers does not improve their prospects of recovering, according to a large, carefully designed study that casts doubt on the widely held belief that being prayed for can help a person heal.
The study of more than 700 heart patients, one of the most ambitious attempts to test the medicinal power of prayer, showed that those who had people praying for them from a distance, and without their knowledge, were no less likely to suffer a major complication, end up back in the hospital or die.
While skeptics of prayer welcomed the results, other researchers questioned the findings, and proponents of prayer maintained that God's influence lies beyond the reach of scientific validation.
Surveys have shown that millions of Americans routinely pray when they are ill or when someone they know is. A growing body of evidence has found that religious people tend to be healthier than average, and that people who pray when they are ill are likely to fare better than those who do not. Many researchers think religious belief and practice can help people by providing social support and fostering positive emotions, which may produce beneficial responses by the body.
But the idea that praying for someone else -- even when he or she is unaware of it -- can affect a person's health has been much more controversial. Several studies have purported to show that such prayer is beneficial, but they have been criticized as deeply flawed. The debate prompted a spate of new studies aimed at avoiding those shortcomings, including the new study, which is the first to test prayer at multiple centers.
For the Mantra II study, Mitchell W. Krucoff, a cardiologist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and his colleagues designed an experiment involving 748 patients who underwent treatment for heart problems at nine hospitals around the country between 1999 and 2002.
The researchers enlisted 12 congregations of various Christian denominations, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists around the world to pray for some of the patients, giving them names, ages and descriptions of the illness. The researchers then divided the patients into four groups. The first quarter had people praying for them. The second quarter received a nontraditional treatment known as music, imagery and touch (MIT) therapy, which involved breathing techniques, soothing music, touch and other ways to relieve stress, such as calming mental images. The third group received both prayer and MIT, while the fourth received nothing.
In the final year of the study, the researchers took the additional step of asking more religious congregations to pray for the prayers of the initial group to work. Neither the patients nor their doctors knew whether someone was praying for them. The prayers varied depending on the religion, lasting between six and 30 days.
The researchers then followed all the patients for six months to see which patients suffered serious complications, were re-hospitalized or died from heart problems. Overall, there was no difference among the four groups, the researchers report in Saturday's issue of the Lancet medical journal.
The researchers did find evidence, however, suggesting that those receiving the MIT therapy experienced less distress before their procedures, and those who received both MIT therapy and the "high-dose" prayer may have been slightly less likely to die in the following six months. Those findings provide avenues for future research, Krucoff said.
The researchers acknowledged that it was impossible to make any firm conclusions because of the difficulty of studying something such as prayer. The study, for example, could not accurately measure factors as fundamental as the "dose" of prayer administered and could not account for the possible effects of family members praying for patients on their own, the researchers noted.
"I really don't want people to think we're dissing prayer," Krucoff said. "This study gives us a sense of where there might be therapeutic benefit that might be worth pursuing in future trials."
Skeptics, however, said they were far from surprised by the findings.
"There's nothing that we know in the universe that could account for how prayer or the healing intention of one group of people could influence the health outcomes of another group at a distance," said Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. "It's preposterous."
But the Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence, director of pastoral care at New York Presbyterian Hospital, disputed any suggestion that the study disproved the power of prayer.
"Prayer can be and is helpful," Lawrence said. "But to think that you can research it is inconceivable to me. Prayer is presumably a way of addressing God, and there's no way to scientifically test God. God is not subject to scientific research."
Marilyn Schlitz of the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Petaluma, Calif., said the study showed the need for additional research. She is conducting a federally funded study testing the power of prayer to help wounds heal.
"The fact that the vast majority of people in this country make use of prayer or some type of compassionate intention really demands that we look at these phenomena with rigorous scientific perspective," she said.