Q. My family and I attend a local church with about three hundred members. Recently I read in a national magazine that empirical methods have shown prayer can have positive effects on the person praying and on the person who is prayed for, but that scientists don’t know how it works. Every week the church cleric does a group prayer with the entire congregation. Do you think this does any good or is it just a traditional ritual? And do you have a metaphor that helps explain this?

A. Research on the impact of prayer on the brain and body have burgeoned in the last decade. Studies by Andrew Newberg MD, co-founder of the field of Neurotheology, have shown that different types of meditation and prayer (and prayer is a form of meditation), affect parts of the brain differently, the results of which can be seen on brain scans. Each appears to beneficially impact neurological function, physical, and emotional health. For example:

  • Can increase blood flow to frontal, parietal, temporal, and limbic areas
  • Can decrease metabolic activity (uses less energy)
  • May trigger deafferentation (a type of pain relief)

Prayers that focus on gratitude, celebration, or a positive vision of the future (as well as rejecting anger and resentment) have been found to:

  • Increase compassion
  • Reduce depression and anxiety
  • Relieve stress
  • Lower blood pressure and heart rate
  • And eventually extend life  

In relation to group prayers, I guess it depends on your definition of "good." The two parietal lobes of the human cerebrum or gray matter integrate sensory information, particularly determining spatial sense and navigation. They are activated when you sense yourself as separate from other things in the world and distinguish yourself as separate from other individuals. This is very helpful in boundary-setting and understanding where you stop and another begins. Think of it as the opposite of enmeshment. It turns out that the parietal lobes are deactivated during religious experiences such as singing hymns and saying group prayers. This causes you to temporarily feel more ‘at one’ with a Higher Power and enhances a sense of unity with members of a congregation or with all humanity or the universe at large.

A metaphor? The brain tends to learn quickly with metaphor—so here is one that may help. Imagine that you are standing in a field with three bison and imagine they are calm and even friendly. Your brain perceives each as a separate entity and certainly as separate from you. Compare this to individual prayers or prayers in a very small group of two or three persons. Now change your mental picture and imagine that you are in a field with three hundred bison all standing together. Your brain perceives them as a group rather than three hundred separate entities.

If the original three bison decided to charge down the field, there would be some noise but relatively little impact on the environment. If the three hundred bison decided to charge down the field, however, there would be the noise of 1200 pounding hooves that might even cause the ground to shake, to say nothing of possible clouds of dust. (Just imagine what it must have been like to witness 3,000 or 30,000 or 300,000 or 3,000,000 charging bison earlier in the world’s history. The collective power would be impressive.)

Three hundred individuals all reading the familiar Lord’s Prayer or other church prayers together appears to produce a temporary sense of being more "at one" with a Higher Power and enhances a sense of unity with members of the congregation or with all humanity or the universe at large. Since a social network is one component believed to help increase potential longevity, the act of singing and praying by the whole group could be considered one type of social networking.

In addition, there appears to be a bridge that connects the left temporal lobe (doing, rituals) with the right temporal lobe (being, spiritual). Actually participating in a left hemisphere ritual with the other attendees such as reading aloud or reciting or reading a congregational prayer or singing songs with words can trigger a right hemisphere spiritual response in a way that simply observing the ritual does not.

You may find the following books interesting:

  • Larry Dossey MD, Prayer is Good Medicine
  • Andrew Newberg MD, How God Changes Your Brain
  • Candy Gunther Brown PhD, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing