Prayer: medicine or malarkey?

Dr. Larry Dossey looks to prove that the mind can influence the physical world

What if McGill’s newset class was called The Science of Prayer? In an era where religion seems to be on the decline and “individual spirituality” on the rise, and quantum physics has discovered that there is a lot more mystery in this universe than we thought, the idea of such a course may not be as far-fetched as it may first appear. It could be the physics addition of those World of Chem classes we love so much. But it wouldn’t pass without objections.

McGill’s Dr. Joe Schwarcz calls the science of prayer “malarkey,” and sees its major advocate, Dr. Larry Dossey, as merely trying to push his religious beliefs by masking them in science.

As a former chief of staff of Medical City Dallas Hospital, diplomat for the American Board of Internal Medicine, and a member of Hillary Clinton’s 1993 task force on health care reform, Dossey has established himself as a credible physician in the U.S. He has also been called America’s foremost expert on prayer’s healing effect and has written nine books on the topic.

Dossey’s book, Healing Words, reasons that prayerfulness does have the ability to influence the physical world. Dossey uses compiled data from 88 separate studies to “prove” that the healing power of removed prayer can exert real and positive physical effects on its targets. However, one of the major problems with studies of this nature is that they often fail to satisfy requirments of the scientific method, such as applying controls and providing for repeatability of the experiment.

Dossey does, however, include several studies that do meet at least the first requirement. One such experiment, conducted in 1998 by Dr. Elisabeth Targ at the California Pacific Medical Center, showed positive results for the effects of prayer, or “distant healing,” on patients suffering from advanced AIDS. Compared to the control group – those not receiving prayer – the patients who were being prayed for were overall less sick and recovered faster, in greater multitudes.

The mind/body connection is a well-known phenomenon. It is the basis for the effectiveness of meditation and why we get the sweats before that big exam. What is not so well-known is how one person’s mind can connect with another’s body, or how a distant connection can enable one person’s thoughts to influence another person’s body.

Dossey posits a “nonlocal mind” as explanation for the mechanism of healing with prayer. This nonlocal mind is not confined to just the brain, where thought originates, nor the body connected to that brain. Instead, it is posited as infinite, both spatially and temporally. Therefore, the idea is that prayers can travel through space to heal others and that they can also travel through time; they are able to heal in the past, present, and future.

As evidence of the power of the mind, Dossey presents a study that strongly suggests humans have the mental capacity to affect the output of random events. This study, which was published in Foundations of Physics, used random event generators and showed that subjects could influence the output of the REG simply by thinking about it.

From this proof of human mental prowess, Dossey proceeds to present cases where the power of prayerfulness does seem to manifest itself in the physical world. He notes that meditation during running has been proven to increase the body’s efficacy. He cites another study where people concentrating on harming fungi could inhibit growth in 151 out of 194 fungus samples. Dossey also cites a study conducted by McGill’s Dr. Bernard Grad, a now-retired professor and researcher who worked with Oskar Estabany, a self-proclaimed healer. In numerous statistically significant experiments, Grad observed that, through concentration, Estebany could inhibit saline damage to red blood cells, decrease the healing time, and prevent thyroid enlargement in mice.

Dr. Kenneth Ragan, professor of physics at McGill, questions the mechanism behind such claims.

“Playing on the whole ‘quantum’ angle sounds mysterious and oh-so-cool…[but] it has whiffs of just pure and simple misunderstanding of what quantum physics is, what it can tell us, and where it can be used,” Ragan says.

According to Ragan, quantum mechanics apply only to very small systems, of about ten atoms. Our brain is significantly larger than this, and therefore follows the more intuitive Newtonian understanding of the world. Also, Ragan points out that the electromagnetic waves emitted by the brain are far too small to exert any effects resembling those described by Dossey, but that one possibility may be the hypothesized but yet to be discovered “brain waves.” But the existence of these, he says, have yet to be proven in any scientifically sound tests.

To those who may be won over by Dossey’s few examples of the power of the mind to transcend the laws of physics, Ragan would reply, “Physics always works.”

However, physics may not always work in ways we understand. McGill’s Celeste Johnston is currently conducting a federally funded study of the effects of therapeutic touch on infants, set to finish this upcomming summer. Therapeutic touch entails holding one’s hands close to, but not actually touching, another person. The logic behind its effectiveness has been compared to prayerfulness in terms of the mind of one person affecting the body of another. Perhaps its results will be able to shed some new light on the extent of the mind/body connection.

Prayerfulness, meditation, and spirituality in general are becoming more recognized in medicine, as medical schools implement more holistic approaches to healing. McGill’s own Programs in Integrated Whole Person Care, as well as the Physicianship Program, which “speaks to the dual roles of the physician: as healer and professional,” are examples of programs placing greater emphasis on the role of the human mind in betterment and care.