11 Jan 2016

Say a prayer for me

From Our Changing World, 9:06 pm on 11 January 2016

Science and religion have never been the best of friends, but could they have more in common than we’ve appreciated? University of Otago science communication student Evan Balkcom interviews three scientists from the university’s Psychology Department to discuss how they use science to analyse the positive effects of prayer has on the mind.

When people think of prayer they often think of its external effects, or the power it has to affect the world around us. But we rarely consider what effect it has on the internal mind and body.

Research in this field has led scientists to an ironical junction, as the act of prayer should invoke a sense of disempowerment. To ascribe power of your own life to another being would seem likely to cause one to lose power. However, the flipside shows that, in fact, the very act of ‘handing over’ power can be empowering.

In discussing this, PhD candidate David Barton weighs the scientific merits against his own strong beliefs in God.  “I can’t remember ever not believing in God” he says.

David relied heavily on his faith when he was struggling with family issues during his time in the army. He says he felt empowered and reassured with his faith, and it saw him through.

“Prayer, from a psychological point of view, is tied to faith,” he says.

However, can a belief in what you cannot see enhance performance as a self-fulfilling prophecy? PhD student Victoria Alonga explores these questions in her research, which shows there are significant results in the way people behave when they think they are participating in the spiritual act of prayer.

“I’m far more interested in the psychological effects of prayer on the person doing the praying,” s \he says.

“Current scientific literature suggests that prayer helps people find meaning in life, increases optimism, increases gratitude, and makes people more likely to be forgiving,” says Victoria.

To test people’s persistence in carrying out a difficult task participants were given the same Swahili passage, but there were three variations or ‘conditions’  in how it was labelled:  prayer, foreign language or meditative. After reading the passage they were given an anagram puzzle to solve, finding a word out of some jumbled letters.

“Not only did the religious and prayer condition try harder, they took longer to give up. But they also got more correct,” says Victoria. “So believing you are praying, regardless of what you are saying, clearly had an effect for the religious.”

University of Otago psychologist Jamin Halberstadt  says that while there is a certain amount of disempowerment in ceding control of one’s behaviour or future to God, at the same time you are taking action by invoking God’s power. He likens this to phoning the police when there is aruckus outside that you want them to deal with, and says that there is an ironic empowerment that the individual is doing ‘something’ even though they aren’t the ones actually doing it.

Evan concludes by commenting that regardless of whether you believe in God or not, the positive internal effects of praying are measurable. The rest is a matter of faith.

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