Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-7479d7b7d-jwnkl Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-12T13:39:52.805Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Chapter 11 - Meditation, Prayer and Healing

A Neuroscience Perspective

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 October 2022

Christopher C. H. Cook
Institute for Medical Humanities, Durham University
Andrew Powell
Formerly Warneford Hospital and University of Oxford
Get access


Traditional Western science has had little interest in the concept of mind, and has only recently begun to recognise the relationship between spirituality and health. A better understanding of mind has allowed us to establish the scientific concepts behind the spiritual dimension of healing, and the close correlation between religious and spiritual practice and positive changes in a number of stress-related physiological systems. Meditation and prayer have both been shown to improve brain function, and together with practices such as forgiveness and positive thinking, and a supportive social structure, have been shown to benefit both mental and physical health. Meditation has particular clinical applications in those conditions where high arousal and anxiety are a part of the pathology. Controlled studies of prayer have produced mixed outcomes, but prayer is a widespread religious practice and may have positive effects on the person praying – for example, in terms of pain relief.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Acevedo, B. P., Fossposs, S. and Navretski, H. (2016) The neural mechanisms of meditative practices: novel approaches for healthy aging. Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports, 3, 328339.Google Scholar
Aftanas, L. I. and Golocheikine, S. A. (2001) Human anterior and frontal midline theta and lower alpha reflect emotionally positive state and internalised attention: high-resolution EEG investigation of meditation. Neuroscience Letters, 310, 5760.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Austin, J. (2014) Zen-Brain Horizons. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
Aviles, J. M., Whelan, S. E., Hernke, D. A. et al. (2001) Intercessory prayer and cardiovascular disease progression in a coronary care unit population: a randomized controlled trial. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 76, 11921198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Benor, D. J. (2002) Spiritual Healing: Scientific Validation of a Healing Revolution. Southfield, MI: Vision Publications.Google Scholar
Benor, D. J. (2004) Consciousness, Bioenergy and Healing: Self-Healing and Energy Medicine for the Twenty-first Century. Medford, NJ: Wholistic Healing Publications.Google Scholar
Braboszcz, C., Rael Cahn, B., Levy, J., Fernandez, M. and Delorme, A. (2017) Increased gamma brainwave amplitude compared to control in three different meditation traditions. PloS One, 12, e0170647.Google Scholar
Byrd, R. C. (1988) Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. Southern Medical Journal, 81, 826829.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cawthon, R. M., Smith, K. R., O’Brien, E., Sivatchenko, A. and Kerber, R. A. (2003) Association between telomere length in blood and mortality in people aged 60 years or older. The Lancet, 361, 393395.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Conklin, Q. A., King, B. G., Zanesco, A. P. et al. (2018) Insight meditation and telomere biology: the effects of intensive retreat and the moderating role of personality. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 70, 233245.Google Scholar
Damasio, A. (2000) The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness. London: Heinemann.Google Scholar
Dennett, D. (1991) Consciousness Explained. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.Google Scholar
Durschmid, S., Reichert, C., Walter, N. et al. (2020) Self-regulated critical brain dynamics originate from high frequency-band activity in the MEG. PLoS One, 15, e0233589.Google Scholar
Epel, E. S., Puterman, E., Lin, J. et al. (2016) Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Translational Psychiatry, 6, e880.Google Scholar
Fox, K. C. R., Nijeboer, S., Dixon, M. L. et al. (2014) Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 43, 4873.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Gardner, R. (1983) Miracles of healing in Anglo-Celtic Northumbria as recorded by the venerable Bede and his contemporaries: a reappraisal in the light of twentieth century experience. British Medical Journal, 287, 19271933.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Harris, W. S., Gowda, M., Kolb, J. et al. (1999) A randomised, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit. Archives of Internal Medicine, 159, 22732278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hernández, S. E., Barros-Loscertales, A., Xiao, Y. et al. (2018) Gray matter and functional connectivity in anterior cingulate cortex are associated with the state of mental silence during Sahaja yoga meditation. Neuroscience 371, 395406.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A. and Oh, D. (2010) The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: a meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78, 169183.Google Scholar
Illueca, M. and Doolittle, B. (2020) The use of prayer in the management of pain: a systematic review. Journal of Religion & Health, 59, 681-699.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, A., Kristeller, J. et al. (1992) Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. American Journal of Psychiatry, 149, 936943.Google ScholarPubMed
Kaur, C. and Singh, P. (2015) EEG derived neuronal dynamics during meditation: progress and challenges. Advances in Preventive Medicine, 2015, 614723.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Kjaer, T. W., Bertelsen, C., Piccini, P. et al. (2002) Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced changes of consciousness. Cognitive Brain Research, 13, 255259.Google Scholar
Koenig, H. G., King, D. E. and Carson, V. B., eds. (2012) Handbook of Religion and Health. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Kretzer, K., Davis, J., Easa, D. et al. (2007) Self-identity through Ho’oponopono as adjunctive therapy for hypertension management. Ethnicity & Disease, 17, 624628.Google ScholarPubMed
Lazar, S., Kerr, C., Wasserman, R. et al. (2005) Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16, 18931897.Google Scholar
Lou, H. C., Nowak, M. and Kjaer, T. W. (2005) The mental self. Progress in Brain Research, 150, 197204.Google Scholar
Ly, A., Saide, A. and Richert, R. (2020) Perceptions of the efficacy of prayer and conventional medicine for health concerns. Journal of Religion and Health, 59, 118.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Martin, J. (2019) The Finders. Jackson, WY: Integration Press.Google Scholar
Morton, P. A. (1997) A Historical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind: Readings with Commentary. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press.Google Scholar
Moss, A. S., Winteringm, N., Roggenkampm, H. et al. (2012) Effects of an eight-week meditation program on mood and anxiety in patients with memory loss. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 18, 4853.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Newberg, A. B. and Iversen, J. (2003) The neural basis of the complex mental task of meditation: neurotransmitter and neurochemical considerations. Medical Hypothesis, 61, 282291.Google Scholar
Newberg, A. and Waldman, M. (2016) How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation. New York: Avery.Google Scholar
Newberg, A., Alavi, A., Baime, M. et al. (2001) The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during the complex cognitive task of meditation: a preliminary SPECT study. Psychiatry Research, 106, 113122.Google Scholar
Newberg, A. B., Wintering, N., Khalsa, D. S., Roggenkamp, H. and Waldman, M. R. (2010) Meditation effects on cognitive function and cerebral blood flow in subjects with memory loss: a preliminary study. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 20, 517526.Google Scholar
Orme-Johnson, D., Schneider, R., Young, D. et al. (2006) Neuroimaging of meditation’s effect on brain reactivity to pain. Neuroreport, 17, 13591363.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Palmer, R., Katerndahl, D. and Morgan-Kidd, J. (2004) A randomized trial of the effects of remote intercessory prayer: interactions with personal beliefs on problem-specific outcome and functional status. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 10, 438448.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Pew Research Center (2015) U.S. public becoming less religious: modest drop in overall rates of belief and practice, but religiously affiliated Americans are as observant as before. Available at (accessed 22 April 2022).Google Scholar
Pischke, C. R., Weidner, G., Elliott-Eller, M. et al. (2007) Lifestyle changes and clinical profile in coronary heart disease patients with an ejection fraction of 40% in the Multicenter Lifestyle Demonstration Project. European Journal of Heart Failure, 9, 928934.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Reangsing, C., Rittiwong, T. and Schneider, J. K. (2021) Effects of mindfulness meditation interventions on depression in older adults: a meta-analysis. Aging & Mental Health 25, 11811190.Google Scholar
Roberts, L., Ahmed, I. and Davison, A. (2009) Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2009, CD000368.Google ScholarPubMed
Roe, C. A., Sonnex, C. and Roxburgh, E. C. (2015) Two meta-analyses of noncontact healing studies. Explore, 11, 15508307.Google Scholar
Romez, C., Freedland, K., Zaritzky, D. and Brown, J. (2021) Case report of instantaneous resolution of juvenile macular degeneration blindness after proximal intercessory prayer. Explore, 17, 7983.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Schwartz, J. M., Stapp, H. P. and Beauregard, M. (2005) Quantum physics in neuroscience and psychology: a neurophysical model of mind–brain interaction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 360, 13091327.Google Scholar
Searle, J. R. (2007) Dualism revisited. Journal of Physiology, 101, 169178.Google ScholarPubMed
Sharma, A., Barrett, M. S., Cucchiara, A. J. et al. (2017) A breathing-based meditation intervention for patients with major depressive disorder following inadequate response to antidepressants: a randomized pilot study. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 78, e59e63.Google Scholar
Sharma, P., Mahapatra, A. and Gupta, R. (2019) Meditation-induced psychosis: a narrative review and individual patient data analysis. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine. Scholar
Shen, H., Chen, M. and Cui, D. (2020) Biological mechanism study of meditation and its application in mental disorders. General Psychiatry, 33, e100214.Google Scholar
Sherrington, C. S. (1940) Man on his Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Sperduti, M., Martinelli, P. and Piolino, P. (2012) A neurocognitive model of meditation based on activation likelihood estimation (ALE) meta-analysis. Consciousness and Cognition, 21, 269276.Google Scholar
Sudsuang, R., Chentanez, V. and Veluvan, K. (1991) Effect of Buddhist meditation on serum cortisol and total protein levels, blood pressure, pulse rate, lung volume and reaction time. Physiology and Behaviour, 50, 543548.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Tolahunase, M., Sagar, R. and Dada, R. (2017) Impact of yoga and meditation on cellular aging in apparently healthy individuals: a prospective, open-label single-arm exploratory study. Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, 2017, Article ID 7928981.Google Scholar
Wahbeh, H., Sagher, A., Back, W., Pundhir, P. and Travis, F. (2018) A systematic review of transcendent states across meditation and contemplative traditions. Explore, 14, 1935.Google Scholar
Xue, T., Li, H., Wang, M.-T. et al. (2018) Mindfulness meditation improves metabolic profiles in healthy and depressive participants. CNS Neuroscience & Therapeutics, 24, 572574.Google Scholar
Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Hood, R. W., Vago, D. R. and Newberg, A.B. (2017) The varieties of self-transcendent experience. Review of General Psychology, 21, 143160.Google Scholar
Yang, C.-C., Barrós-Loscertales, A., Li, M. et al. (2019) Alterations in brain structure and amplitude of low-frequency after eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training in meditation-naïve subjects. Scientific Reports, 9, 10977.Google Scholar
Zylowska, L., Ackerman, D. L., Yang, M. H. et al. (2008) Mindfulness meditation training in adults and adolescents with ADHD: a feasibility study. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11, 737746.Google Scholar

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats