Prayer heals when it’s close-up and personal, according to a study carried out in Mozambique by doctors, scientists and a religion professor.
It’s not just any kind of prayer, but “proximal intercessory prayer,” or PIP – when one or more people pray for someone in that person’s presence and often with physical contact – that was found to help heal some patients with hearing and visual problems.
A team of medical doctors and scientists led by Indiana University professor of religion Candy Gunther Brown found in the study, conducted in rural Mozambique, that prayer brought “highly significant” improvements to hearing-impaired participants and significant changes to the visually impaired.
They studied 14 hard-of-hearing and 11 visually-impaired people recruited at meetings of Pentecostal Christian groups in Mozambican villages and towns.
The study participants were tested with a handheld audiometer or vision charts, depending on their impairment, before and after they took part in a prayer session.
“There was a highly significant improvement in hearing across 18 ears of 11 subjects” and “significant visual improvements,” says the study, which will be published next month in the peer-reviewed Southern Medical Journal.
Two of the hard-of-hearing study participants were able to hear sounds 50 decibels lower after the prayer session and three of the visually impaired subjects saw their vision improve from 20/400 or worse to 20/80 or better.
The study focused on the clinical effects of prayer and did not attempt to explain how or why some participants saw such remarkable improvements.
“This study shows that in some instances there are measurable effects that can be demonstrated using clinical studies,” Brown, whose interest in the study was to explore spiritual healing practices, said.
“Much more needs to be found out about why these effects are noticed, what are the mechanisms, are there structural changes involved,” she said.
“But one thing this study tells us is that a major reason that Pentacostalism is growing is the widespread perception that healing takes place.”
The Pentacostals typically spent between one and 15 minutes administering PIP, but some spent an hour or more with a patient.
“They placed their hands on the recipient’s head and sometimes embraced the person in a hug” while praying softly out loud, according to the study.
The study focused on hearing and visual conditions because they allow improvements to be objectively and easily measured, and are less susceptible to perceived or psychosomatic improvement than conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Rural areas in Mozambique were chosen for the study because eyeglasses and hearing aids were not readily available there and Pentecostal groups who specialize in healing prayers were active there.
Brown and colleagues urged more studies “to assess whether PIP may be a useful adjunct to standard medical care for certain patients,” especially in countries with limited care options.
“The implications are potentially vast given World Health Organization estimates that 278 million people, 80 percent of whom live in developing countries, have moderate to profound hearing loss in both ears and 314 million people are visually impaired,” the study says.
In an editorial accompanying the study, Harvard Medical School professor John Peteet wondered what physicians would make of the study and urged scientists to “rigorously question any purported mysterious healing.”
He also points out that while the study’s authors are not asking “readers directly to consider a supernatural explanation for these unexplained findings nor asserting that they are predictable, their report challenges the world view of readers who rule out the supernatural or relegate it to another time.”
Peteet said common ground between science-minded physicians and spiritual prayer-givers was available, namely that both have “foundational commitments to healing whenever it is possible and to meaningful acceptance when it is not.”