Head researcher for a major "Remote Prayer" study funded by the National Institutes of Health.
By David Ian Miller
San Francisco Gate
Can prayers heal? Surveys show that millions of Americans routinely pray when they are sick or when friends or relatives fall ill. Yet studies on the impact of prayer by strangers, or what's called "distant healing," are inconclusive.
A recent study by researchers at Duke University indicated that cardiac patients showed no improvement in their condition when people prayed for them. Similar studies have indicated a more positive impact from prayer but never without stirring controversy in scientific and religious communities.
Marilyn Schlitz, vice president for research and education at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and senior scientist at the California Pacific Medical Center, is no stranger to the debate.
Schlitz, who has published numerous articles on distant healing, cross-cultural healing and consciousness studies, is leading a major study of remote prayer funded by the National Institutes of Health. Recently I asked her about the difficulties of studying prayer in the laboratory.
The recent study at Duke University Medical Center casts doubt on the idea that praying for people helps them heal. How do you read the results?
There are about 45 years of data -- I would say good, solid laboratory-based, quantitative studies -- that support the idea that one person's intentions may influence another person's physiology at a distance under well-controlled laboratory conditions.
For example, 35 studies designed to measure the impact of one person's intentions on another person's autonomic nervous system have now been conducted in laboratories across the world, subjected to critical evaluation and published in a major peer-reviewed journal. Researchers concluded the data support the distant-healing hypothesis. The fact that the current study conducted at Duke did not support that same hypothesis under a particular set of conditions is not an argument for disregarding the larger body of data.
We clearly need more research to address the clinical implications and to better understand what's going on in this work.
So you are not discouraged by the results?
One study cannot prove or disprove a particular hypothesis. Science moves forward based on a body of data evaluated as a whole. I think there is a compelling case to be made that the science of distant healing is replicable -- not in the sense of turning on a light switch, but certainly in the same sense that most psychological or medical research considers valid.
Tell me about your study funded by the National Institutes of Health. What are you testing?
The study is a three-part clinical trial working primarily with breast cancer patients who are going through reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy. Participants either get distant healing or they don't, and they either don't know which group they're in or they are told about it. By considering the placebo effect we are able to look at whether or not there's an additive effect of knowing that you are receiving distant healing.
Prayer is a difficult concept to define. There are so many different ways that people pray around the world. How do you define it in your study?
I don't really talk about prayer in my research. I talk about compassionate intention.
What we do is invite healers to practice a certain way, and then we allow them to do whatever they need to do to get there. We tell them, "Please hold a compassionate intention for the well-being of another person -- in whatever way that works for you."
So, in our study, they might be subtle-energy practitioners, they may have trained in Reiki -- that's another common practice now. There's the Barbara Brennan School of Energy Medicine. There's Christian Scientists. There is the Tonglen Buddhist tradition, which is basically a heart-opening practice.
There are a lot of practices within Christianity and Judaism that are related to connecting with another person and assuming no distance. And so we have tried to distill those processes and traditions into what we are calling compassionate intention.
So it's not really prayer?
Well, a lot of people in the study are praying. And lot of people believe they are sending subtle energies. We're not trying to control that as much as we are trying to establish some general parameters that everyone can follow.
You have to keep in mind that this is such a premature field with very few resources directed towards it, and much, much more research is needed in order to really begin to ask some of these process-oriented questions like What are people really doing when they pray? And when they move their bodies, does that make a difference? And is there a correlation between the psychophysiology of the healer and the healee? Is that important? And does dosage matter?
Since you brought it up, what is an acceptable dose of compassion in the context of your experiment?
At this point, nobody knows the answer to that question. More research is needed to find an answer. I'll just say that we have certain set ways of standardizing it. In our current study on wound healing, we ask healers to send compassionate intention to their assigned patients for 30 minutes each day for eight days.
How do you measure whether distant healing is having an effect?
We have a tiny Gore-Tex patch that we implant under the skin. What you see on the surface is a little suture. Under the skin is a spaghetti-like strand of Gore-Tex that has little pores in it.
This provides a kind of collection device for measuring collagen. Collagen is an aspect of the wound-healing process. And so we are looking at it as an indicator of wound healing.
Science is so specific. How do you approach something as amorphous as spiritual questions in a scientific manner?
Florence Nightingale said, "God is revealed through statistics." I don't know if I go that far, but I think that there is a way that the practice of doing science is every bit a spiritual practice, because it is about studying something far greater than ourselves.
We are trying to glimpse what is true about reality. It's not the only system for understanding truth, but it's one tool for doing that.
Prayer studies have skeptics on both ends of the religious spectrum. Atheists argue there's no point in doing the research because there is nothing scientific about prayer. At the same time, some religious leaders say that understanding prayer is beyond human capacity, so why try?
I don't think it's at all true that we can't understand the nature of our inner experience. Tibetan Buddhism, for example, has been studying subjectivity for thousands of years.
In our own culture, huge breakthroughs have been made in the last 10 years in understanding the neurophysiology of attention, intention and our belief systems.
What I advocate in the context of current brain research is that we not lose sight of the transpersonal paradigm in terms of understanding the potential reaches of consciousness.
The current worldview is very much dominated by the physicalist, reductionist, mechanistic model. But it may well be that data from distant-healing experiments actually suggest that consciousness is more than what goes on in the brain, or that the brain has the capacity to transcend itself in ways that we have yet to understand. To me, that's where a real breakthrough may come in our understanding of who we are and what we are capable of doing and being.
I'm curious to know, since you're doing research on prayer and healing, do you consider yourself a spiritual or religious person?
I think of myself as an eclectic spiritual person, but I'm not religious. I became a Lutheran when I was about 12. I got myself baptized and confirmed, and then, by the time I was 16, I drifted away from that.
Have you had any personal experiences with the healing properties of prayer?
I've had lots of experiences that suggest to me that there is a transpersonal realm, and I believe that holding that awareness is very expansive and life affirming.
That said, I think open-minded skepticism is a very valid position in thinking about the science of prayer and intention for healing. This is the position that I hold.
I don't know what the answers are. I'm having fun thinking about the ways of asking the questions. But at this point we are not even sure what the right questions are. That's a valid criticism, and at the same time it sort of reveals the possibilities of what we are getting into. I think that there is a whole lot more to learn about our human capacities.
Do you ever pray?
Yes, and I make sure my son does, too. We say a prayer that I made up because I couldn't find anything that was adequate.
It goes like this: "Dear God, thank you for a wonderful day. Please help me to be grateful for what I have, and help me to be the best person I can be."
I figure that if he says that over and over again every day for at least his growing-up period, it has got to be good for shaping his character.
Who or what are you praying to? Does some notion of God figure into it?
Well, my God is not a Judeo-Christian God. I think prayer for me is about connecting to something unnamable, something bigger than myself, and it's a way of engaging in my own humility and appreciation for existence, because there are days when life is not so much fun.
I'm not into religion. But I really do believe there are essential capacities of virtue that come from the wisdom of spiritual traditions -- like gratefulness, forgiveness and altruism -- that help guide our sense of purpose in life and help it to be more meaningful.
As you see it, God is unknowable. As a scientist, you're OK with that?
Yes. I have to live in the mystery of that. Scientists are always kind of playing with the edges, knowing that what's out there is greater than any experiment is ultimately going to reveal.
And yet the fact that these experiments reveal what they do is a great indication of God. The fact that our human minds are capable of understanding that is another indication that we are participants in God's work. And that, to me, is so precious.
During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editor David Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include Salon.com, Wired News and The New York Observer.
SOURCE: San Francisco Gate