In a hotel in Grand Rapids, MI a young boy with Downs’ Syndrome began having a panic attack which caused him to begin screaming and rolling around the floor. Father Michael Scanlan happened to be a passerby in the hotel and witnessed this scene. As if directed by a higher-power Fr. Scanlan went straight to the boy’s parents who were hopelessly trying to calm down their frantic son. Fr. Scanlan asked the boys parents if he can pray over their son. They agreed. He prayed healing prayers over the boy and immediately the boy’s panic attack ceased. In the weeks that followed the boy’s cognitive development accelerated. The family doctor was astonished to find out that the boy had overcome Down’s Syndrome and all cells in the boy’s body reached the correct chromosome count. Now, is this story (along with countless others) a reflection of divine intervention through prayer or just a coincidence? What does prayer actually do to the human person? Let’s take a fly-by view to see how important prayer is and what prayer can do to your human psyche.
What remains intriguing is that scientific research has shown how prayer can dramatically improve your physical and psychological well-being.
Time magazine recently ran an article showcasing the positive benefits of prayer. The article states, “Prayer has been shown to be powerful, in at least one way. It triggers the relaxation response, a state of mind-body rest that has been shown to decrease stress, heart rate and blood pressure; alleviate chronic disease symptoms; and even change gene expression.”
The Time article was drawing off the recent study by JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016. Additionally, there have been numerous other studies that have revealed the overall physical and mental benefits of prayer. As a 2012 article in the Huffington Post stated,
“What science can tell us is that people who pray and meditate tend to be statistically more healthy and live longer than those who do not. . . . Regular prayer and meditation has been shown in numerous scientific studies to be an important factor in living longer and staying healthy.”
Before digging in on the scientific benefits of prayer, it is helpful if we first understand what prayer is on a practical level. Prayer is practically a universal phenomenon. Studies show that that almost everyone prays – even atheists. The problem with these studies is there seems to be a confusion between prayer and meditation. While research also reveals benefits to meditation, the distinction between prayer and meditation is significant. In her article How Prayer and Meditation Changes Your Brain holistic writer Shayla Love defines meditation as “Focusing on the present moment, focusing on the body, noticing when the mind begins to wander and returning the attention to the breath, a candle, or some other focus point.”
Therefore, while meditation focuses on a number of things internal in the world, prayer focuses on God – a divine reality that lies outside the world. As Bishop Barron articulates, “Prayer is a conversation with God.” In sum, prayer is more concentrated and specific than meditation. Whereas meditation encompasses many focal points (a tree, waterfall, candle, etc.) within the world, the central point in prayer is always God – the transcendent entity that surpasses the material world.
According to Barron, this communication between a person and God needs to contain a couple key ingredients that we’ll focus on. First, prayer needs to be honest. Your prayer, your communication to God is not meant to be fake or superficial but rather authentic. For prayer to be effective, we have to be real when we pray. The key is to not hide behind manufactured, pious language in prayer. Instead, prayer is meant to be a clear and honest communication in which you talk about what your spiritual shortfalls and mental challenges are. Secondly, prayer is not meant to simply use God as some sort of divine bell boy where we instruct him to make our lives as comfortable as possible. Rather, prayer is intended to be a workout of your thoughts. Because sin acts as a vector of contagion on one’s soul, prayer is an expression of words in which one’s thoughts become elevated to the level of the divine. Whether you like it or not God knows all your internal thoughts and motives. So, prayer requires a conscious effort to honestly alter your negative thoughts and align them closer to God’s.
Just like in every human conversation we are supposed to communicate honestly – so too in prayer. And just like in every conversation, once we are done talking, we then need to listen attentively. According to Bishop Barron this is one of the crucial aspects of prayer as prayer remains a two-way street. Because listening is a key component of prayer, prayer necessarily must involve silence. Today, practically everywhere you go you’re surrounded by the deafening noise within the culture. In his book, The Power of Silence, Cardinal Sarah explains that most people won’t hear God precisely because they’ve become consumed by the cacophony of noise and messages within the culture. For prayer to be effective you need to release yourself from the outside commotion of your day so much so that you have an internal silence within so you can hear God. The prophet Elijah did not hear God in the noise of the wind, earthquake, and fire but only heard God in a tiny whisper when all became silent (see 1 Kings 19: 11-13).
The final aspect of prayer is that it helps center a person away from all that external trappings in order to communicate who that person is. As Barron states, “Prayer is the act of finding the center of your life and meaning.” In this sense, prayer is lifting our hearts and mind to God to understand who we are and what our mission is.
Our lives are busy and complicated with many things going on. There needs to be something that is the central point to all our thoughts and actions so we can grasp who we are and distinguish which messages we need to align ourselves to all the while understanding which messages to erase from our thoughts. In prayer, we take our human complexity and ground it to a central being of contemplation; to the very being that created us. Therefore, to pray is to find the place where you are here and now in which all your actions are centered towards God.
What are the benefits of prayer?
Now that we know what prayer is, let’s see what science shows what prayer does to our human health. Prayer positively effects the operating power of your brain in that it increases the activity of the frontal lobe of your brain. Typically, the front of the brain decreases with age. However, 50 year-old’s that pray regularly have a similar size frontal lobe and gray-matter count as 25-year-old’s. Moreover, prayer affects the insula of your brain. Insula is an area of the brain involved in integrating sensory and cognitive information. Additionally, insula is the number one region associated with fluid intelligence, or IQ. In short, prayer can make you smarter, think with more focus, and decrease the aging of your brain (see here).
Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiovascular specialist at Harvard Medical School indicates that prayer brings about “the relaxation response.” His research showcased that in prayer the body’s metabolism decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and our breath becomes calmer and more regular. This physiological state of prayer is correlated with slower brain waves, and feelings of control, tranquil alertness and peace of mind.
Additionally, Dr. Andrew Newberg found that prayer and meditation provides a healthy increase of dopamine levels to your brain.
While there are some benefits to meditation, the effects of prayer seem to go far beyond what meditation does. Recall that meditation is focus on an object in the world, whereas prayer is focus on a being (God) that lies beyond the world. Ken Pargement of Bowling Green State University instructed one group of people who suffer migraines to meditate 20 minutes each day repeating a spiritual affirmation, such as “God is good. God is peace. God is love.” The other group used a nonspiritual mantra: “Grass is green. Sand is soft.” In this experiment, the spiritual meditators had fewer headaches and more tolerance of pain than those who had focused on the neutral phrases. Therefore, while meditation can be mentally effective, prayer is even more beneficial to a person’s overall psychological well-being as it can reduce pain and in the long-run allow a person to have a higher pain tolerance.
What’s more is that prayer significantly reduces stress and depression. In a study that examined the effects of prayer on depression, the authors state, “We conclude that increased activity in the prefrontal cortex after healing prayer may be associated with increased cognitive control over emotions. Healing prayer may help to dissociate the memory of the trauma from feelings associated with it, as evidenced by changes in the precuneus region of the brain.”
What this study reveals is that prayer significantly helps people get through traumatic incidents in their life. In instances where people experienced betrayal, emotional and psychological distress, prayer was a mechanism that overcame these past scars. Scientists found incredible neurological changes within a person that prayed to help them deal with their problems. Neuroscientist Ramiro Salas studied individuals who prayed frequently to overcome past traumas. He saw more activity in the prefrontal areas of the brain when he asked people to think about their trauma. This area of the brain is thought to regulate cognitive control. Salas indicated, “Whatever happened during prayer allowed the patient to actually have better cognitive control over their emotions.” Therefore, what this research shows is that prayer is a sure-fire way to overcome any suffering one might face.
Not only does prayer improve your mental state in life, it can also help overcome certain medical conditions. We already mentioned prayer’s ability to reduce migraines. Another study from the National Institutes of Health found that individuals who prayed daily were shown to be 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure than those without a regular prayer practice. Additionally, research at Dartmouth Medical School found that patients with strong religious beliefs who underwent elective heart surgery were three times more likely to recover than those who were less religious. A 2011 study of youth with asthma indicated that those who practiced prayer experienced fewer and less severe symptoms than those who had not. Other studies show that prayer boosts the immune system and helps to lessen the severity and frequency of a wide range of illnesses.
But the question remains: By what physiological mechanisms does prayer impact our health? Herbert Benson’s most recent research suggests that long term daily spiritual practices help to deactivate genes that trigger inflammation and prompt cell death. That the mind can alter the expression of our genes is exciting evidence for how prayer may influence the functioning of the body at the most fundamental level. Here, we see how prayer can literally affect your physical well being – such as preventing cell death. Therefore, prayer injects life into our bodies and soul much like Jesus injected life to those that followed his teaching (see 2 Corinthians 3:6, John 5:40, 6:53, 68, 10:10, 14:6, Acts 17:25).
The effects of prayer have fascinated neuroscientist Andrew Newberg. Newberg recently wrote a book called How God Changes Your Brain. Newberg has studied the brains of Tibetan monks, Franciscan nuns, and various others that pray for at least an hour a day. Newberg mentions that prayer, like other areas of thought control your brain pattern. As Newberg states, “The more you focus on something — whether that’s math or auto racing or football or God — the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain.”
What is interesting about prayer is that it can reshape the brain in a more profound way than any other area of concentration be it music, sports, or nature. What intrigues Newberg is that prayer causes the frontal lobes of the brain to light up more than any other area of focus. Equally intriguing is the parietal lobes go dark in people that pray. The parietal lobes is an area that takes in our sense information and orients our sense of self in the world. Therefore, the brain patterns indicate that in prayer people lose their sense of themselves. Here, we see how prayer puts Jesus statement that whoever losses himself will find himself (see Matthew 16:25) into reality.
The importance of losing oneself centers on the fact that in the spiritual life the goal is to go beyond the self. If a person is centered on the self they are merely showcasing the state of self-absorption or self-worship. However, when you lose your sense of self, you are more connected to not you but the one who created you – God. Here the words of the prophet John ring true, “I must decrease so he can increase” (John 3:30). And prayer scientifically proves that it is one of the best mechanisms in which you decrease precisely so God can increase in you.
We now see ample evidence that prayer packs much psychological and spiritual force to one’s soul. Prayer works to sharpen the human senses and alleviate painful scars. Life is littered with all kinds of experts on self-improvement techniques. How interesting that science now indicates that you can by-pass all these self-help gurus and instead go to prayer to obtain fulfillment. So, if you want to reduce your stress and boost your overall mental disposition, take the time and go to a quiet place to have an honest conversation with God in prayer.