Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: What we don't know about prayer…

Heart Beat

What we don't know about prayer...

...could fill a book. The latest chapter comes from a large study that showed no benefit in long-distance prayer for strangers. This study didn't, we need to stress right from the start, look at the power of personal prayer, prayer for a loved one, or the kinds of congregational prayer that are so often done for friends or acquaintances.

An idea that has been floating around for some time is that intercessory prayer — praying that God will act for the good of another person — helps healing or speeds recovery from procedures like heart surgery. It has even been tested before, with mixed results. The largest study to date, led by investigators from Harvard and the Boston-based Mind/Body Medical Institute, put intercessory prayer to the test at six hospitals across the country. The researchers asked three different communities devoted to prayer and reflection to pray for people identified only by first name who were about to undergo coronary artery bypass surgery and to continue praying for them for two weeks. The 1,200 study volunteers were randomly assigned to one of three groups: Some were told they might be prayed for, and were. Some were told they might be prayed for, and weren't. And some were told they would be prayed for, and were.

Overall, the "targets" of intercessory prayer didn't recover from bypass surgery any faster or with fewer complications than those who didn't get prayed for. And in an odd and inexplicable twist, people who were told that strangers would be praying for them had slightly more complications than people who were told they might be prayed for. "Did these patients think, 'Am I so sick they have to call in the prayer team?'" mused Dr. Charles F. Bethea, a cardiologist at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, who helped conduct the study.

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