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Prayer: A Neurological Inquiry


David C. Haas

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 31.2, March / April 2007

Are silent prayers transmissible to, or readable by, a supernatural being? A brief examination of this question using modern information about the brain.

A prayer is, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “a solemn request to God or an object of worship; a supplication, thanksgiving, or other verbal or mental act addressed to God.” Petitionary prayers—messages seeking help or guidance for particular concerns—are common among Christians. They are also a feature of some other religions, such as Islam (Bouquet 1956) and Judaism where prayers expressing devotion and submission to almighty God prevail. But even these are intended communions with God. Although prayers are addressed to a supernatural being, prayer is an empirical behavior and thus accessible to scientific investigation.

Much prayer is silent (mental prayer). Silent praying is silent thinking, which “is really conducted largely in unspoken words” (Langer 1970) and which occupies a large part of our everyday lives (Bronowski 1978), a fact that attests to the enormous importance of language to human thought. So, silent prayers are simply verbal thoughts addressed to a god. Could therefore such thoughts be known to a supernatural being?

I explore this question in the following sections using modern information on mind and brain.

Although we all silently talk to ourselves a good deal (carry on internal dialogues), not all thoughts are verbal. Some are visual or auditory. We visualize people and places every day and often recall tunes from music we like. Thoughts are commonly mixtures of these and other types, often accompanied by emotions. Thoughts are mental phenomena, states of mind. But what then is mind?

The concept of mind encompasses our conscious mental life, including not only thoughts, but also perceptions, such as seeing and hearing; sensations, such as touch and cold; feelings, such as pain; and emotions (Sherrington 1951; Harth 1983; Harth 1993; Crick 1995). The brain is the organ of mind; it generates all that is mental. A few examples illustrate. A stroke that destroys the left occipital lobe deletes vision in the right visual field. Brain degeneration from Alzheimer’s disease causes progressive impairment of memory, reasoning, and other mental attributes. Intoxication of the brain produces well-known mental impairments. Electrical stimulation of the exposed human cortex can evoke images and sounds, and even a virtual reliving of past experiences (Penfield and Roberts 1959). Modern brain-imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic-resonance imaging, have connected certain mental states with heightened activity in specific brain regions (Kamitani and Tong 2005; Binder, et al. 2005; Ishai, et al. 2005).

How brain activity generates mental states is as much of an enigma today as it was more than a half-century ago when the great neurophysiologist Charles Sherrington (1951) said in wonder, “How can a reaction in the brain condition a reaction in the mind?” More recently, the physicist Erich Harth (1983) expressed this enigma when he wrote “Mind is like no other property of physical systems. It is not just that we don’t know the mechanisms that give rise to it. We have difficulty seeing how any mechanism can give rise to it.”

Transmission and Readability of Prayers

The brain, an electrochemical organ, consists of matter and energy, but the mental states that are the epiphenomena of its physiological processes are neither material substances nor forms of energy. Sherrington (1951) expressed this “scientific position” in saying, “Thoughts, feelings, and so on are not amenable to the energy (matter) concept. They lie outside it.” If thoughts—including silent prayers—are not a form of energy, then there is no known natural means by which they could be transmitted beyond ourselves or read within us.

Still, many credulously believe that some people (especially so-called “psychics”) can read minds and that thoughts can be transmitted from one person to another by mental telepathy or “extrasensory perception” (ESP). Perhaps this belief has been fostered by the seemingly substantive and energetic presence of our thoughts. But numerous experiments during some 150 years of research have not validated ESP and have left a wake of spurious statistical analyses (Lilienfeld 1999; Paulos 1990).

Though thoughts and prayers are neither transmissible nor readable by any natural means, could they be known to a supernatural being? Evidence for or against this can be obtained by determining whether prayers are followed by what was solicited by them. Only proper scientific studies, however, can provide reliable evidence by excluding chance occurrences, and biases from the results. To this end, a number of such studies have measured the effects of intercessory prayer (praying for others) on health-care outcomes in patients with various illnesses. A thorough review of the medical literature in 2000 concluded that the data were inconclusive (Roberts, et al. 2000). Since then, at least five studies have been published, the most recent in April 2006 (Benson, et al. 2006). All found no beneficial effect of intercessory prayer. (See also Bruce Flamm, “One Big STEP: Another Major Study Confirms That Distance Prayers Do Not Heal the Sick,” Skeptical Inquirer, July/August 2006.)

Transmission and Detection of Brain Activity

In contrast to thoughts, the brain activity underlying them consists of (electrochemical) energy. Could this energy be transmitted from us or be detected within us? If so, would it have the informational content of the thoughts arising from it? This activity, in brief, is the sending and receiving of electrochemical impulses among the brain’s densely packed microscopic neurons, which number in the tens of billions in the highly enfolded human cortex (Crick 1995). The impulses (“nerve action potentials”) sent by a neuron can be picked up by a microelectrode within 100 micrometers of it in the cortex. These impulses have amplitudes of several millivolts (Brecht, et al. 2004). Electrodes on the surface of the brain are, however, too distant to detect them, but can record synchronized fluctuations of electrical potentials in masses of cortical neuronal dendrites (branches receiving incoming impulses). These post-synaptic potentials vary in amplitude from about 0.5 to 1.5 millivolts, but when recorded on the scalp their amplitudes are only about 10 to 50 microvolts. The ionic (largely sodium and potassium) movements responsible for these voltage fluctuations can not be recorded outside the scalp, for their detection requires a medium affected by ionic movements. But these electrical potentials, like all moving electric charges, generate magnetic fields, which pass through the skull. They are, however, extremely weak (about 50 x 10 -15 Tesla), some nine orders of magnitude less than Earth’s magnetic field and as much as six orders below ambient magnetic noise (Volegov, et al. 2004). Thus, they can be recorded only by special sensors on the scalp in shielded rooms (Volegov, et al. 2004).

No one would suggest that these electromagnetic energies represent more than a smidgen of the neural activity underlying thoughts, which presumably includes repetitive firing of action potentials in neural circuitry containing millions of cortical and sub-cortical neurons (Harth 1993). Even if this immeasurable activity could be captured, seemingly insurmountable difficulties would prevent its translation into thoughts. To begin with, the translation would need to be simultaneous with the flow of thoughts as well as in the language of the thinker, for a full thought is its verbal expression. In view of what is known of brain development and organization (Harth 1993), the neural patterns underlying any thought, even a formulary prayer, would be unique for every individual. Thus, generic translations from neural patterns to verbal thoughts in any language would be impossible. A supernatural being would need to instantly surmount these difficulties—for multitudes of concurrent supplicants—in order to grasp the informational content of a mental prayer. Moreover, such a being would, logically, need to be with each supplicant while he or she is rotating with Earth at 1,038 miles per hour (if at the equator), orbiting around the Sun at 18.5 miles per second, rotating around the center of the Milky Way at about 150 miles per second, and moving through space with our galaxy at some thousands of miles per second.

Like all mental states, prayers are neither matter nor energy. Thus, they are not transmissible to or readable by another being by any means within the laws of nature.

Whether they can be known to a supernatural being hinges on the effects of the prayers’ solicitations as judged by proper scientific studies. To date, such studies of intercessory prayer have not shown it to improve health-care outcomes. In contrast to thoughts themselves, the brain activity from which thoughts arise does consist of energy—electrochemical energy within neural circuitry. Reading this teeming energy in millions of circuit neurons and translating it into the thought or prayer arising from it seems theoretically impossible for even a supernatural being.


David C. Haas

David C. Haas, M.D., is a retired professor of neurology at the State University of New York, Upstate Medical University, Syracuse.