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Can Hands-On Prayer Help Heal?

THURSDAY Aug. 5, 2010 -- An older Mozambican woman named Maryam could not see two fingers held up just one foot in front of her when she arrived for a Pentecostal prayer intervention in her village. Nor could she see an eye chart from a similarly close distance.

But after a healer at the evangelical meeting laid hands on her and prayed for less than a minute, Maryam was able to not only see the fingers held up in front of her but could count them as well. The eye chart also came into view, with Maryam able to read down to the 20/125 line.

The experiences of Maryam and 23 other Mozambicans, part of a study reported in the September issue of the Southern Medical Journal, a peer-reviewed journal, suggest to the researchers that "proximal intercessory prayer (PIP)" -- in which the healer is in close proximity to the patient, often touching or hugging him or her -- may be a useful complement to Western medical practice.

In this study, the degree of improvement seen in people with vision and hearing impairments was more than that seen previously in hypnosis and suggestion studies, the team noted.

And while they don't discount that much of the results may stem from a placebo effect, benefits did seem to occur in some individuals.

"We found a statistically significant effect of PIP for the population of both those with auditory and visual impairments," said study lead author Candy Gunther Brown, associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University in Bloomington. "We didn't generally find that people who were totally deaf or blind to start with ended up with 20/20 vision and perfect hearing, but those with moderate to severe impairments when tested before the intervention, had a much, much improved threshold."

Previous studies have tended to focus on "distant intercessory prayer," in which the person or persons praying and the subject of the prayer are not in direct or even close contact with each other.

"The problem with studying distant intercessory prayer is that's not how people actually pray for healing," Brown said.

PIP is especially common among Pentecostal groups, which, with half a billion members globally, are the fastest growing Christian subgroup, according to the researchers.

"It's a common practice but there's little scientific understanding of what, if anything, happens when people pray for healing," Brown said. "A lot of empirical claims are being made and they need to be tested empirically."

Those empirical claims have fostered a great deal of controversy, with some groups even arguing that intercessory prayer can be harmful.

Brown and her colleagues focused only on hearing and seeing impairments because they are relatively easy to measure with an audiometer and vision charts.

The investigators found improvement across the group of participants.

When it came to boosting hearing, two individuals with hearing deficits were able to hear sounds 50 decibels below their pre-prayer level.

And three visually impaired people improved their vision to 20/80 or better, up from 20/400 or worse, the team reported.

Although these authors did not look at the why's of healing prayer, a number of hypotheses are circulating as to how it could be beneficial.

"Placebo effects are certainly the best known of these kinds of mind-body interactions that take place," Brown said. The effects could also be attributable to subjects being more motivated simply because they are being studied.

One physician believes prayer may have some as-yet-unexplained power to heal.

"There's a lot out there about the power of touch and human connection and just being present with somebody, and whether that might be contributing to healing," added Dr. J. Adam Rindfleisch, an integrative-medicine practitioner and assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. "It stands to reason if someone is near you and you know they're caring about you and want your well being, you're more likely to [get better]," he said.

"I have to tell you that in my time of doing integrative medicine, sometimes people get better and you might not know the mechanism, but that's fine," he stated. "It doesn't have to be explicable to have value."

More information

There's more on the role of spirituality in cancer care at the U.S. National Cancer Institute.

Posted: August 2010


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