Does prayer work?

An American study has investigated the effect of prayer on patients undergoing heart surgery. Three hundred and seventy-one heart surgery patients who were prayed for by 12 religious congregations fared no better in the six months after their operation than 377 patients who were not prayed for. However, lead researcher Mitchell Krucoff at Duke University told Reuters that “This is not ‘God failed the test’ or ‘God passed the test’…it’s way too early”.

Other patients in the study received pre-surgery treatment from a ‘Healing Touch’ therapist, and were taught breathing exercises, visualised being in a peaceful place and played calming music. These patients were more likely to be alive six months after their operation and suffered far less distress than other patients. “We cannot discern with certainty whether the mechanism of this effect relates to the presence of a compassionate human being at the bedside or to any individual component of the treatment”, the researchers admitted.

The researchers pointed to several methodological concerns. For example, most of the participants, including a majority in the no-prayer group, said friends and family would be praying for them. Second, the prayer congregations in this study included Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist groups, but the results may have differed with a uniform prayer group, or if the faith of the people doing the praying had been matched to those being prayed for. There’s also the issue of when the prayers were performed – something not monitored here.

The study was motivated, the researchers wrote, by the fact that “bedside compassion and prayers for the sick” are practised throughout the world and yet scientific quantification of the “methods, mechanisms, safety, and effectiveness” of these practices have barely begun.

Krucoff, M.W., Crater, S.W., Gallup, D., Blankenship, J.C., Cuffe, M., Guarneri, M., Krieger, R.A., Ksheetry, V.R., Morris, K., Oz, M., Pichard, A., Sketch Jr., M.H., Koenig, H.G., Mark, D. & Lee, K.L. (2005). Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study. The Lancet, 366, 211-217.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.