How Prayer Healing Works


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Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

Josh Clark

Hi, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh. That's Chuck, Chuck Bryant, Josh Clark, not Bryan. I'm Josh.

Chuck Bryant

Right. We've got some listener mail, claiming that Josh is Bryan. Not true.

Josh Clark

At least they've got the spelling of your last name almost correct without the T. I think they use the Y, generally, Bryan.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, interesting.

Josh Clark

Yeah, it's not Chuck and Bryan. It's Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark.

Chuck Bryant

Bryant.

Josh Clark

That's what I said.

Chuck Bryant

Sure.

Josh Clark

Lighten up, Chuck.

Chuck Bryant

That's neither here nor there.

Josh Clark

No, it's not. What is here and what is there is intercessory prayer.

Chuck Bryant

Wow, that's a leap. I like it, though.

Josh Clark

It is. Do you like that segue? It's like a bull in a china shop. Let's go.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah.

Josh Clark

Yeah. So Chuck, I don't know how you feel about this, but there have been studies on prayer, right.

Chuck Bryant

Sure.

Josh Clark

And actually, people who pray, who pray for themselves, for others, but who spend a significant amount of time praying. You could also call it meditating. They actually lead healthier lives. Did you know this?

Chuck Bryant

I did. I read your article.

Josh Clark

Okay.

Chuck Bryant

A lot of good info in there.

Josh Clark

Let me ask you this because this is something that I was aware of before I wrote this article. And it was really interesting to see how it's been studied. I was aware that people had been studying it. But to find what the methodologies were like and what the results were.

Chuck Bryant

Exactly.

Josh Clark

I mean were you aware that prayer healed? Is that something that you would have accepted before you read this article?

Chuck Bryant

Well, I grew up in the church, in the Christian church. And anyone who's grown up in church or has been to church like that knows that prayer is very central. It's the personal conversation that you have with God. And so yeah, you're taught from early on that prayer makes a big, big difference.

Josh Clark

Right and it actually does have a physiological difference.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Is that taught as well or is it just a happy byproduct?

Chuck Bryant

No, in my church it wasn't, at least. They just said that's how you get results.

Josh Clark

I gotcha. Well speaking of results, there have been studies that have evaluated people, examined people who pray a lot. And they tend to have lower blood pressure. They live longer. Their heart rate is generally slower. They're a little more laid back, physiologically than someone who doesn't pray. And there's been some explanations for it.

Chuck Bryant

Well yeah, I know one that I think makes a big difference is many people who are, in fact, religious, probably tend to lead healthier, cleaner lifestyles, things like alcohol and smoking and other things that can lead to -

Josh Clark

Avoiding prostitutes, that's a big one.

Chuck Bryant

That's a good one.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

So yeah, I think that might have a lot to do with it, personally.

Josh Clark

It definitely does. We're not the only ones who thought of that. Other people have as well and explained it away with that. So there's been follow up studies that took all those factors into account. And they still found that people who pray tend to be healthier.

Chuck Bryant

True.

Josh Clark

My theory is that you're meditating. When you pray, you're meditating. You're entering a -

Chuck Bryant

Meditative state.

Josh Clark

A transcendental state, a meditative state. So you're just more relaxed. I think if you do that enough times, your body learns to relax.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, that makes sense.

Josh Clark

That's what I think. Okay. So there's not a lot of people who are, I guess, debating whether or not prayer has an effect on the person who's praying. What is really contentious is whether or not praying can have an effect on anyone else or anything else in the universe.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

This is where we get into the real sticky discussion.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, it is sticky.

Josh Clark

Are you ready?

Chuck Bryant

I am ready. I know growing up, as I said, in the Christian faith, they would often tell us if a family member, a distant family member of anyone in the church were sick, they would call upon the church to pray for them.

Josh Clark

What do they call those things, prayer lists?

Chuck Bryant

Prayer shout outs, requests.

Josh Clark

Prayer shout out, whoop, whoop.

Chuck Bryant

I don't remember, to be honest. But they would prayer request for people to keep them in their hearts and minds.

Josh Clark

Sure, yeah. And you could actually call in and leave a voice mail and then you get added to the list, right?

Chuck Bryant

No, I don't know anything about that.

Josh Clark

I'm pretty sure. I've seen phone numbers, like prayer hotlines.

Chuck Bryant

Oh, okay.

Josh Clark

I kid you not.

Chuck Bryant

No, I believe it.

Josh Clark

So you've got this congregation praying for this person. Do you have any anecdotal evidence, any story of somebody healing from that?

Chuck Bryant

No. I'm sure that that probably happened here and there, but I don't remember that stuff now.

Josh Clark

Well that kind of prayer is called intercessory prayer. You're interceding on behalf of somebody, maybe asking for them to heal.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Hopefully you're not praying for them to die. That could still be considered intercessory prayer. But for the most part, people pray that somebody's going to rebound from an illness or get over a streak of bad luck or something like that. It's also called distant prayer because it's not centered on the individual. You're praying out for somebody. These have also been studied. There's been some methodologies over the course of the last couple decades, starting with this guy, name Randolph Byrd, who's a physician. And he was the first to create this really ground breaking, landmark study.

Chuck Bryant

Right, in the late 1980s, I think.

Josh Clark

Yeah, it was 88, I think. And I think he was a cardiac physician.

Chuck Bryant

Indeed.

Josh Clark

He assembled, I think, like 353 different people's histories. And he found people who were statistically inseparable, meaning that they were the same age. They were the same race. They had the same heart conditions. On paper, they were one and the same, basically.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And he contacted some groups. I think it was in California, where he got in touch with some different denominations. I think they were all Christian, but he got in touch with Baptists and Presbyterians and Catholics and all that. And he had these groups get together in groups of three or four. And these people would have the name of one patient.

Chuck Bryant

Right, their condition.

Josh Clark

Yeah, and they would pray that they had a speedy and, I think, effective recovery, something along those lines.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And they prayed for them overthe course of, I don't know, several weeks, I believe. And after this praying was done, the physician, Randolph Byrd went back and studied who thrived and who didn't.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

We should also say there's a control group of people who weren't prayed for.

Chuck Bryant

Right. Thanks a lot.

Josh Clark

Yeah, right.

Chuck Bryant

That's what I would have said.

Josh Clark

So he actually found that there was a really significant difference, like a huge difference, actually, between the recoveries of people who were prayed for and those who weren't prayed for.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Something like 85 percent, I think.

Chuck Bryant

85 percent compared to 73.1 percent.

Josh Clark

That's enormous, statistically speaking, that's huge.

Chuck Bryant

It is. 12 percent is very big.

Josh Clark

And the thing is there was no one who could explain away what happened. Byrd's study has never been, basically, overturned.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

The people who were praying didn't know the people they were praying for. The people who were being prayed for were not - there's nothing that you can say that says well this is what happened.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Because that's a huge statistical difference.

Chuck Bryant

It is.

Josh Clark

That got the attention of the scientific community.

Chuck Bryant

Of course.

Josh Clark

Big time.

Chuck Bryant

So all of a sudden, there's like a slew of, basically, follow up studies that use Byrd's methodology. This is the most beautiful thing about Randolph Byrd, in my opinion. He used the scientific method. He used science to conduct an investigation into something that science doesn't believe in, which is prayer, intercessory prayer. And he created the study in such a way that it could be modeled. He said here's how you do it. And other people have followed the same model. And they have come up with radically different results, basically. Another pretty big study was the Step Study, which is the study for - study of the effects of intercessory prayer. It was a huge study. It covered six different medical centers, across the U.S.

Chuck Bryant

Right and this was published in the American Heart Journal.

Josh Clark

Yeah, so it was pretty significant.

Chuck Bryant

It's bona fide.

Josh Clark

They, basically, broke these groups down into three groups, those who received prayer, but weren't aware of it, those who didn't receive any prayer and those who received prayer and were aware that they were being prayed for.

Chuck Bryant

Exactly, heart patients.

Josh Clark

Yeah, so this study was, like you said, it was published in the American Heart Journal, which is pretty big journal as far as they go in this country.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

They found that those who didn't receive prayer had about the same kind of recovery as those who did, but it was like 52 percent to 51 percent. And even worse, those who were aware that they received prayer actually had the worst results. It was 59 percent of them had complications after heart surgery.

Chuck Bryant

Right. So this seems to fly in the face of the Byrd Study.

Josh Clark

Yeah, it does. It's totally contradictory. It's also pretty counterintuitive, too. How would prayer be harmful?

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And that's actually one of the reasons why people are investigating prayer, why it's become kind of a niche field of study, because it's not really - if people are praying, maybe we should find out if it is, in fact harmful. Science shouldn't be like go pray, we don't believe in that, whatever. There should be investigations into it. And this is kind of startling. 59 percent of people who are aware they're being prayed for had complications following surgery. That, alone, warrants investigation into it, right?

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

So that Step Study was one of a number that have come up with - nobody has ever come up with the kind of statistical difference that Randolph Byrd did.

Chuck Bryant

Right. I think, personally, I'm a bit of a skeptic in life, in general. And when I hear about studies like this, to me, prayer is something that's hard to quantify, statistically because people pray in different ways. People pray for different lengths of time. I'm not sure how you could say that this solid group that all prayed exactly the same in the same way and had the exact same beliefs - it's hard to quantify if you ask me.

Josh Clark

It is. And again, Randolph Byrd came the closest to it. He told these people how often to pray, what to say when they're praying.

Chuck Bryant

Specifically to pray for.

Josh Clark

Here's the problem with studying prayer. You can control these groups of people who are praying for these heart patients or whatever, as much as you want. But if prayer is real, if prayer does work, right, and you've got somebody else out there praying for this patient, it completely screws up the results.

Chuck Bryant

Like the patient, itself, were they told not to pray for themselves?

Josh Clark

I don't know. I don't know. And how would you control that?

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

Would you want to control that? Apparently, prayer is the number one alternative medicine in America. That tops vitamins and herbs, which is like a multi billion dollar industry. The best part is prayer is free, of course. But you can't control how much prayer. You can't say here's 10 cc's of prayer. Let's see if it has an effect.

Chuck Bryant

Exactly.

Josh Clark

And you also can't control other people coming along behind you and saying I'm going to pray for this person.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

So it's very difficult to study. And not everybody thinks you should study it.

Chuck Bryant

Right and these are people that are being treated, medically, as well. This is not Christian Scientist who, from what I understand, a lot of times don't believe in medicine, and they only believe in the power of prayer.

Josh Clark

Yeah.

Chuck Bryant

To heal.

Josh Clark

No, these were people who were being treated through modern medicine and were being prayed for.

Chuck Bryant

Right, so you kind of like - I don't know. There's different doctors and different levels of experience. And so that's something you also have to take into consideration as well. You can't say that everyone was getting the exact same care and their whole life history and whether or not these people, typically, recover quicker than others. There's a lot of factors that weigh in here.

Josh Clark

There are, but you could also make the argument that all those factors would appear in any study.

Chuck Bryant

That's true.

Josh Clark

And prayer's just like this extra layer.

Chuck Bryant

Smack down.

Josh Clark

Basically.

Chuck Bryant

You just smacked me down.

Josh Clark

Yeah, sorry Chuck.

Chuck Bryant

That's okay.

Josh Clark

I tried to do it gently. But like I said, not everybody thinks that we should be studying this, right. And that falls on both sides. There's, obviously, scientists who are totally skeptical of prayer and think it's a waste of time and funding. But there's also religious devotees who believe we shouldn't be citing this kind of thing either, that it's folly, that you couldn't possibly study something like God.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

And one guy put it that studying heart conditions, studying the power of prayer is basically like asking a composer with a quadrillion times the talent of Beethoven to compose the notes to "Three Blind Mice." We're getting so granular here. We're missing the big picture.

Chuck Bryant

I would love to hear that version of "Three Blind Mice."

Josh Clark

I bet it would be really, really good.

Chuck Bryant

I bet it would be too.

Josh Clark

So yeah, ultimately the jury's still out. And I don't know, personally, whether I want it to ever come in. I think it would be pretty cool. I definitely believe that there are aspects of us, as humans, and among the universe that science either can't explain under the scientific method or just hasn't figured out the right methodology to apply it.

Chuck Bryant

Right.

Josh Clark

I definitely don't think science explains all and anything science can't explain doesn't exist.

Chuck Bryant

Right, and since my growing up in the church, now here as an adult, my belief is I'm sort of a to each his own kind of guy now. If you want to pray and you feel like it has an effect on you and your family and your loved ones, I say go for it. If you're a skeptic and you don't think that it does, then don't.

Josh Clark

Yeah, and try to avoid the harmful praying where you're actually praying for somebody to become injured. That's just mean.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, and I don't think that - come on.

Josh Clark

So different strokes for different folks then. Fantastic.

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, like Gary Coleman.

Josh Clark

All right. Well, coming up, Chuck is going to tell you about an article that satisfies a childhood fantasy of his.

Chuck Bryant

Indeed it does.

Josh Clark

All right, Chuck, what's the article then? Hold on. I love this, that satisfies a childhood fantasy that sounds so pervy.

Chuck Bryant

No, it's not at all. It's could I install a hidden passageway in my home."

Josh Clark

Awesome.

Chuck Bryant

And I think, I don't know. Maybe it's a little boy thing, but when I was little kid, hidden passageways and tunnels and all that stuff was just the coolest thing to me.

Josh Clark

That's Edmond's, right? Edmond's wrote that, Molly Edmonds?

Chuck Bryant

Yeah, the great, great writer, Molly.

Josh Clark

You know I had a hidden passageway in my house, growing up.

Chuck Bryant

Did you pull a book down from your library to activate it?

Josh Clark

No, it was - we had a linen closet. And for some reason, the interior of it was painted black. And there was a door at the back of the closet. And it opened up onto the steps going down to the basement, which immediately go you onto the other side of the house.

Chuck Bryant

Bring out the Gimp.

Josh Clark

Hide and go seek at my house was awesome.

Chuck Bryant

I bet.

Josh Clark

It was very cool. So you can read that one, "Could I install a hidden passageway in my home," and about 500 million other super cool articles on HowStuffWorks.com.Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com. Let us know what you think. Send an e-mail to Podcast@HowStuffWorks.com.