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The Biology of Belief

MARY ANN BRADLEY SAT PERCHED on the living room sofa in her Nantucket home. Her eighty-five years had been kind to her. She always had been short, but these days barely topped five feet, with a perfect mane of silver hair and not a single wrinkle on her forehead. It was August 18, 2006, about ten in the morning. She had prepared for this moment, as evidenced by several pages of handwritten notes spread out on the coffee table before her. She was, and is, one of the dearest people in my life. And at this moment, Mom was serving as my guide to a religion that is, perhaps, a hundred years ahead of modern science—a religion that relies wholly on the power of thought to alter the body.

“I have never known anything but Christian Science,” she began. “It’s been the guidance system of my life and has never let me down.”

Mom comes from a family of Christian Scientists, and raised my brother and me in the faith. Her mother was a “practitioner,” the metaphysical equivalent of an emergency-room doctor. People called her with their problems. Granny prayed for them, and more often than not, a healing ensued.What most people know about Christian Scientists is that they do not take medicine—even vitamins—and that they rarely go to doctors.What most people do not know is that there is a method to this asceticism.

Christian Science holds as a central premise that healing is a function of spiritual understanding; that matter and its conditions, including sin and disease, are “false beliefs”; and that prayer changes a person’s thought, which results in healing. An example drilled into me by my Sunday-school teachers: When a person looks at a dirty bathroom mirror, his reflection may be marred by smudge marks and toothpaste splatters; but the problem is with the mirror (the distorted image of reality) and not the person. In Christian Science, the way you clean the mirror—and restore the reflection—is to clean up your thinking.

“Everything is thought in Christian Science,” Mom explained. “Everything is going on in your thinking. If you remove the ‘false beliefs’ which we can call error, evil, sickness, and replace those thoughts with the spiritual truth—the truth that man is made in the image and likeness of God—then the body responds. Since there is nothing broken in God, then there can be nothing broken in the image and likeness of God, man.”

Okay, let me translate for those unfamiliar with theVictorian language of Christian Science, which was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in the mid-nineteenth century. Christian Science prayer shares little with the popular conception of prayer. Rather than beseech an authoritative and exceedingly busy Judge to stop what He’s doing, listen to the plea, weigh the arguments, and then miraculously intervene, Christian Science appeals to spiritual principles, akin to working out a math problem. In this sense, Christian Science prayer is nearer to meditation than to petition: it is a mental discipline, one that claims that when you apply spiritual “laws,” you take control of your environment—your body, your employment status, your love life, your mood. Which does not mean that life proceeds perfectly or endlessly—not even Mary Baker Eddy cheated death—but that what you think directs how you experience the world. Or as my mom always says,“Your thinking is your experience.”

I asked Mom for a concrete example.

“Okay, I’ll tell you about my broken hand,” she offered. “I was engaged to be married and it was a Sunday afternoon. I was with my fiancé—your dad—and he was teasing me, and I hit his knee in response. I knew immediately something was wrong with my hand. So I asked him to take me home.

“I started working in Christian Science,” she continued.“And this is the thought I worked with: Nothing can come into my human experience that I do not allow in my consciousness as a reality. And it was up to me to see that this broken bone—or whatever it was, at that point I didn’t know—was unreal. Just as the statement ‘Two plus two is five’ is erroneous, unreal. You take it out of your consciousness as a reality. You erase it, and then you substitute the truth.”

“In this case, what was the truth?” I asked.

“The truth was, that I could not have anything broken,” she said. “I was a spiritual idea of God, so there was nothing to be broken.”

Then Mom grew quiet, overwhelmed by the memory of what came next. I had seen this cascade of emotion before, when I talked with Sophy Burnham, and Arjun Patel, and virtually all of the mystics I had interviewed.

“I was sitting on my bed, about to go to work,” she recalled. She was reading the Christian Science textbook Science and Health when the tectonic plates of her reality shifted.

“I had this great sense of light—of one thing flowing out of another, out of another, out of another, out of another, into eternity,” she said. “There was nothing but light. It’s all one. It’s all God. The all-ness of God, which is the oneness of God, and I was within that oneness. And I just sat there, and it didn’t last very long, but I’m quite convinced that that was when my hand was healed.”

At the request of my father, who had not yet converted to Christian Science, my mother visited a doctor who X-rayed her hand two days later.

“And the doctor came back and said, ‘Well, yes, the large bone in your right hand is broken,’ ” Mom recalled. “And he said, ‘What we usually do in cases like this when someone hasn’t gone to the doctor immediately is we rebreak it and reset it. But if you want that done, you’re going to have to go to another doctor. Because it’s perfectly set and it’s almost healed.’ ”

Mom paused, reliving the intensity of that moment.“And I remember walking out of his office—my feet didn’t touch the ground, I was so filled with God’s truth, the spirituality, the marvel of it. That was the end of it.”

As I began to study the biology of belief, I found myself circling back to Christian Science and taking a fresh look at healing—what believers see as the evidence of divine laws in operation. Certainly I continued to delight in swallowing an aspirin or cough medicine anytime I chose. But the more I talked to people about spirit and matter, the more I suspected that Christian Science was onto something.

Laughing Back to Health

Mind-body medicine has become so widely accepted today that it is difficult to recall when it was considered fantasy. For ordinary Americans, the conviction that your thoughts or emotions affect your body gained traction in the 1950s when Protestant preacher Norman Vincent Peale wrote his transformative book, The Power of Positive Thinking. But it was not until the 1970s that scientists finally began to acknowledge a connection between mind and body.

Anne Harrington, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, identifies Norman Cousins as the man who triggered the revolution. In the 1970s, Cousins, an influential writer and editor in chief of Saturday Review, was hospitalized with a mysterious, crippling disease. Doctors diagnosed some form of progressive paralysis or a degenerative bone disease that would eventually kill him. Facing a death sentence, Cousins threw out the specialists, checked himself out of the hospital, and worked with his own physician to wage a novel war on the disease. His plan was the medical equivalent of unleashing millions of beagles in Baghdad: he flooded the place with good cheer.

“He knew that there was research and evidence showing that negative emotion—fear, anger, anxiety—was bad for you,” Harrington said. “But he felt that there had been little study of whether positive emotions might have the opposite effect on your health, that it might be good for you. He felt he had nothing to lose, because he wasn’t going to get better through conventional means, and perhaps he had a lot to gain.

“So he checked himself into a hotel,” she continued. “He had films of Candid Camera and the Marx Brothers brought in. He read all sorts of funny books, and he discovered that ten minutes of a belly laugh gave him twenty minutes of pain-free sleep. And little by little, as it came to be famously remembered, he laughed himself back to health.”1

What earned Cousins a place in medical history, Harrington said, was the fact that his experience was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the world’s premier medical journals. Cousins received close to 3,000 letters from doctors and researchers, who praised him for medically documenting his novel approach. Firmly clutching the gauntlet thrown down by a mere layman, scientists began to explore how Cousins’s recovery could be explained within the parameters of science.

Thus was born a new science: psychoneuroimmunology. The infelicitous name makes sense when you break it down: Your thoughts and feelings (psycho) affect the chemicals in your brain (neuro), which affect the hormones that fight disease or replicate viruses (immunology). Psychoneuroimmunology. New research centers began to spring up—at Harvard, Ohio State, the University of Rochester, and the University of Miami, and one named after the man himself, the Norman Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA.

The research flowed quickly, and showed that nonphysical things like thoughts and emotions affect our bodies at the cellular level, just as surely as do genes or lifestyle or the medicines we take. Emotions—particularly depression and stress—are linked to heart attacks.2 They suppress the immune system as it tries to fight the flu.3 One’s thoughts and attitudes affect the course of cancer,4 and the recovery from breast cancer.5 Emotions even affect how long one is plagued by the skin condition psoriasis.6

As I investigated these findings, I stumbled upon a researcher who has found evidence that spiritual thinking may be the most powerful mental antidote of all. I flew down to meet Dr. Gail Ironson at the University of Miami and a patient of hers whose spirituality seems to have kept AIDS at bay.

God and HIV

“It was March 4, 1994. About two-twenty p.m.,” Sheri Kaplan recalled. She smiled wanly. “You remember those things.”

A few days before she lost the illusion that life is long, Sheri had walked into a health clinic near her home in Miami. She was in her late twenties, embarking on a new romance, chuffed with life.

“I said, ‘Give me every test. I’m going to do a complete physical checkup so I can feel good about myself.’ ”

Sheri strode into her doctor’s office a few days later. The doctor looked down at the table, reluctant to meet Sheri’s eyes.

“I knew. You can feel the coldness in the air as soon as you walk in. It was fear in the air. And when I sat down and she told me that my test results came out positive, I said, ‘Noooo. What are you talking about?’ And she goes,‘Yes, Sheri, the test results came out positive.We checked and then double-checked. It is confirmative—you have HIV.’ And I don’t know what else she said after that. Her lips moved, but nothing came out. I could have cut my fingers off and wouldn’t have known it, I was so numb.”

Her questions waged a rapid-fire assault:“Who did this to me? How long have I had it? Will I be able to keep my job? Will I get married? How am I going to tell my mother? My father? Will people point fingers at me? I’m twenty-nine years old—how long am I going to live?

When I met Sheri in December 2006, more than a dozen years had passed since that moment. A slim forty-two-year-old, she had wavy red hair and a tanned, freckled face. She wore no makeup, and didn’t need to, with her intense blue eyes and wide smile.

She chatted unself-consciously as a researcher at a University of Miami clinic drew several vials of blood. They compared notes on CD4 cell counts, viral load, and a battery of other measures that were the lifeblood of those initiated into this dreaded disease. Every six months for nearly a decade, Sheri has dropped by the clinic to meet with Gail Ironson, a doctor and professor of psychology and psychiatry. Twelve years after her diagnosis, Sheri has somehow beaten the virus into submission. She remains healthy and has never taken so much as a pill for medication. The question that drove Gail Ironson was: Why? Why do some people with HIV never get sick?

Sheri’s personality holds some clues. She’s pugnacious. She refused to surrender to the disease. Instead she opened a nonprofit support center—“where people can laugh, and fall in love, and meet people, and have a life after HIV.” Under her determined management, the Center for Positive Connections expanded from a nine-by-twelve-foot room to a 3,500-square-foot facility with a half-million-dollar budget and nine employees.

But something more was at work than a renewed purpose to life. An indefinable current, a pneuma, gave lift to her goals. Sheri’s was not a traditional God—she was raised Jewish but believes in reincarnation—but a living, breathing entity who served as a copilot to steer when she could not see straight for the terror.

“At first I thought, How could God do this to me, make me the leper of society?” she said. “Then I realized, I was chosen. The message was, I was chosen so I could help create social change, so I took this as my role. I realized God didn’t want me to die, or even get sick.”

Gail Ironson has been studying people like Sheri Kaplan for more than a decade, looking for clues to longevity. Her hunt began in the mid-1990s, when Ironson, who trained at Stanford and the universities of Miami and Wisconsin, launched a longitudinal study of people living with HIV. She noticed that a rare group of people fared much better than others. Back then, before the most effective drugs were developed, the average life expectancy for those diagnosed with AIDS by opportunistic infection was a year and a half.

“But many of our people were alive seven, eight years past diagnosis,” Ironson said.“And we were looking for both psychological and immune factors that might be protecting their health. And we found both.”

The long-term survivors were less depressed. They were better at coping. They were more proactive, finding the best doctors and the best research. Ironson could have predicted all these characteristics: studies have long indicated that your attitude—whether you curl up on the ropes or deliver a counterpunch to the kidneys—often affects the course of a disease. But Ironson noticed another, unexpected trait among her long-term survivors.

“People kept talking about how spirituality was important in their lives,” she said. “If you ask people what’s kept you going so long, what keeps you healthy, often people will say ‘spirituality,’ or ‘my relationship with God.’ I mean, there were many other things that came up, but spirituality came up a lot as a moving force in people’s lives.”

Ironson began to zero in on spirituality as a predictor of how fast the disease would progress. First, she compared those patients who felt embraced by God or abandoned by God, and tracked two biological measures—CD4 cells and viral load. CD4 cells are a part of the immune system that helps fight off tumors and viruses such as HIV. The HIV virus also attacks CD4 cells, so as the disease makes inroads, it knocks off more and more of these fighter cells.Viral load is a measure of how much of the HIV virus is in one’s system; the higher the viral load, the sicker the person becomes.

Ironson found that people who felt abandoned by God after their diagnosis lost their CD4 cells at a rate 4.5 times faster than the people who relied on God to cope with the diagnosis; their viral load also increased. 7

Let me repeat that astonishing statistic: Turning to God rather than rejecting God appears to boost your immune system and stave off the disease nearly five times as effectively.

Next, Ironson looked at people’s “view of God.” Do you believe God loves you or that God is punishing you? She found that people who held a positive view of God maintained those CD4 cells twice as long as those who did not. And people who believed God loves them maintained the cells three times as long as those who felt God did not love them.8

Ironson compared one’s spirituality and view of God with a battery of other items that affect the course of the disease, including the mother of all predictors, depression. Depressed people saw their CD4 cells disappear twice as fast as those who were not depressed. But if they embraced a spiritual outlook on life, that more than offset the bad immunological effects of depression.

“I find that extraordinary because depression is the most consistent, reliable predictor of how people do with illnesses, and not just HIV,” Ironson told me. “People who are depressed are much more likely to suffer a second heart attack or die. People diagnosed with cancer who are depressed are much more likely to have a recurrence and have a poorer disease course. So depression is a very well-established psychological factor, and to find another psychological factor that may potentially be more important is very surprising.”

Ironson and her researchers looked for alternative explanations as to why spirituality might be related to better health. They ruled out other explanations through statistical analysis. They controlled for age, education, gender, and race—even church attendance, which has been linked to longevity. They controlled for psychological variables such as optimism, life stress, depression, and coping.

“We wanted to determine whether there is some independent contribution of spirituality over and above other psychological constructs that other people had looked at,” she said.

“And what did you find?” I asked.

“We found that spirituality still predicted a significant amount in disease progression.”

“Just so I understand it,” I said, “you found that if, say, someone wasn’t taking their meds and was depressed, they could still do better if they were spiritual than if they weren’t spiritual?”

“Yes. Now, I’m not in any way suggesting that people shouldn’t take their meds,” she added, laughing. “This is really an important point. However, the effects of spirituality are over and above. So whether people are taking their meds or not, spirituality was still related to slower disease progression.”

She paused a beat, to let the idea sink in. “Spirituality is our most powerful predictor to date.”

While scientists might balk at the idea that “God” has anything to do with HIV progression, they readily agree that your thoughts affect your body. Here’s how it might work with HIV. Stress hormones that make your heart race and hands sweat, such as cortisol and norepinephrine, accelerate how quickly the HIV virus can replicate. Ironson said her research has shown that the stress hormone cortisol is lower in people who score high on having a “sense of peace” through meditation, belief in God, and other spiritual practices. She has found that norepinephrine is lower in people who score high on “altruism” and compassion, another component of spirituality.9 In other words, Ironson connected the dots from a patient’s spiritual beliefs, to the chemicals in her brain, to the immune system.

Her patient Sheri Kaplan put it this way: “I have the power to control my mind. That’s one thing that I can control, before it gets to a physical level or an emotional level. So if you can nip it in the bud, you can stop anything from moving forward into a direction you don’t want it to. If I visualize the virus not being there, the virus is not there.”

“You’re saying you can overpower the virus with love or good thoughts like washing it out of your body?” I asked her.

“Oh, yeah. Washing it out—I do that every day in the shower. I watch the virus go down the drain.”

Scientists would differ with that conclusion. The virus is still lurking in Sheri’s body. But tell that to the HIV, which has failed to make an inch of progress since the day it invaded her life.

Is Anyone Up There?

Neither Sheri Kaplan’s story nor Gail Ironson’s research claims that there is a God who puts a restraining hand on the HIV. It is the belief that there is a God who guides, not abandons, loves, not punishes, and occasionally intervenes to cause the miracle. This keeps everything in a closed—and safe—loop. The materialist can argue that the power to affect one’s own body originates in the mind of the believer, not from an external or supernatural source. In other words, the skeptic can point to a material mechanism, and there’s no need for a God to fill in the gaps.

So now let’s launch into far more turbulent scientific waters: the prayer studies. The premise of these studies is that one person’s thoughts (or prayers) can affect another person’s body. The vast majority of Americans believe in the power of prayer, and spend a lot of time demonstrating that belief, whether in church, or the hospital room, or as part of their morning devotion. And why not? It’s all mind over matter anyway, right?

Apparently not. I soon learned that conflating prayer (for someone else) with the mind-body connection amounts to scientific blasphemy. Prayer and positive thinking may appear to share some characteristics, scientists told me, but that is a mirage. It is a little like equating the opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan with actually losing your leg on Omaha Beach in the D-Day invasion. They seem to portray the same sort of event, but in reality everything is different, including the mechanism by which they are experienced—pixels of light on a movie screen versus a physical bullet shattering your thighbone.

I asked Anne Harrington at Harvard to explain why some scientists embrace the mind-body connection in one breath and repudiate intercessory prayer in the next.

“It’s a gigantic leap. It’s a whole different ball game,” Harrington said.

When talking about the mind-body connection, science can explain the mechanism in which a person alters his own experiences through prayer and mental discipline.

“But with interpersonal prayer, you’re making, at least potentially, a metaphysical claim—a claim about the nature of external reality. You’re arguing either for the existence of invisible mysterious forces—which science doesn’t know anything about—which somehow emanate from the praying person to the person being prayed for. Or you’re making an argument for a miracle, for an intervention into a disease process that would not have happened otherwise. I think it’s a very big step.”

One of the first scientists who dared to test God (and the wrath of his colleagues) was R. C. Byrd at San Francisco General Medical Center. In the late 1980s, he monitored nearly four hundred patients admitted to the coronary care unit for heart problems. Half the patients received prayer from Christian intercessors, the other half received no prayer. The patients knew they were in the study (they signed consent forms) but no one—not the patients, not the researchers—knew who was receiving prayer and who was not. This eliminated the placebo effect, in which a person who thinks he is receiving a healing agent (a drug, or, in this case, prayer) actually improves—not because the drug (or prayer) is effective, but because the patient believes it is.

After ten months, Byrd’s study seemed to indicate a medical impossibility: those who received prayer had many fewer hospital stays and much less need of medical attention, including ventilatory assistance, antibiotics, and diuretics.10

The study rocked the materialists back on their heels, and emboldened other researchers to assess whether there exists some nonmaterial force that responds to prayer and heals. One study found that prayer physically helped people with advanced AIDS.11 Another large study replicated the Byrd findings and found that prayer helps one recover from heart attacks and heart disease.12 There was good news for would-be parents: in a controversial study, researchers in South Korea found that women who were trying to become pregnant through in vitro fertilization were twice as likely to conceive if they received prayer than if they did not.13 Monkeys, too, have much to celebrate: those who received prayer healed more quickly from wounds than those who received no prayer.14 And, finally, in a study destined for the annals of the weird, Israeli doctors tested retroactive prayer. They asked intercessors to pray for half of nearly 3,400 people who suffered bloodstream infection in the hospital in the early 1990s. But the intercessors began praying in 2000—six to ten years after the patients developed the infection. The group receiving retroactive prayer had lower mortality rates, shorter hospital stays, and shorter periods of fever.15

But for every study suggesting that prayer heals a person’s body, there is another one showing that prayer has no effect—or worse, that you don’t want prayer, no how, no way, get that intercessor away from me. Does prayer help people with heart problems in a coronary care unit? Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found no effect.16 Does it benefit people who needed to clear their arteries using angioplasty? Not according to researchers at Duke and other medical centers.17 In other studies, prayer and “distant healing” did not seem to affect the course of HIV,18 did not alleviate pain for those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis,19 and did not ease the plight of those on kidney dialysis machines.20 People with skin warts will get no comfort here: researchers found that people who received prayer saw the number of warts actually increase slightly, compared with those who received no prayer.21 In the most famous study, conducted by Harvard researcher Herbert Benson and his colleagues, prayer backfired, at least for those who knew it was coming.22

I looked a little closer at this study, which involved 1,802 patients undergoing cardiac bypass surgery. They were split into three groups. Members of one group received intercessory prayer for fourteen days, beginning the night before the operation, but they did not know it. Members of another group were told they would receive prayer, and they did. The third group did not receive prayer. The result left advocates of prayer sputtering and critics of prayer chortling. Patients who received prayer and did not know it, and those who received no prayer fared about the same.The patients who did worst—who had the most complications—were those who received prayer and knew it.

I have heard many explanations for this surprising result, including the complaint that these prayer studies do not reflect the way people actually pray. How many of us pray for a complete stranger by reading from a script? Most of us pray urgently, passionately, for a person we know and love. It is an intimate act. This critique comforts some people as far as the results of studies showing that prayer has no effect. But what about the Benson study showing prayer is bad for your health?

One explanation, Anne Harrington told me, is the potential fear that arises when you are about to undergo bypass surgery and the doctor informs you that a trained healer is assigned to pray for you.

“One reaction is, ‘Oh my goodness, they’re praying for me, I must be really sick.Why am I chosen? This must be bad news,’ ” Harrington hypothesized. “Or, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m now in a study to demonstrate whether prayer is real. I better get well really fast or I’m going to let God down.’ Who knows what they were thinking! But people believe there was some kind of psychological backlash within the patients that led to this unexpected result.”

Violating the Laws of the Universe

Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, holds a less charitable view of these prayer studies. I asked him his assessment: Does the prayer of one person benefit another?

“The answer is pretty unequivocally no,” Sloan said crisply. “There’s recent evidence as well as older evidence which suggests there’s no impact of distant, intercessory prayer.”

In his book Blind Faith, Sloan has amassed an arsenal of reasons why these studies—even if they support prayer—should be discarded.23 First, they don’t take into account the prayers of family and friends who are going to pray for the patient going into bypass surgery no matter what, even if the patient is in the nonprayer “control group” and researchers tell the family not to pray. A wife will not refrain from praying for her husband just for the good of science—and Sloan argued that those “supplementary prayers” muddy the results.

Second, he said, the researchers fell into the “sharpshooter’s fallacy,” where you first empty a six-gun into the side of the barn and then draw the bull’s-eye. In this case, the researchers often asked intercessors to pray and then watched to see what happened—declaring victory when, for example, AIDS patients bathed in prayer visit the hospital less frequently.

“In science you have to specify what variable you expect to be influenced by your treatment before you conduct your study,” Sloan said. “You don’t fish around until you find something afterward.”

But Sloan’s chief complaint is that prayer studies are “a wild-goose chase that violates everything we know about the universe.”

“Physicists tell us there are four forces that we know about in the universe. That’s it, just four,” he explained. There are strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity, and electromagnetic energy. None of these could explain how a weightless thing like a thought or a prayer could affect a person five feet away, much less thousands of miles away.

“There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody’s thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person,” Sloan said. “None.We know of none.”

Proponents of distant healing are not troubled by that argument. For years, no one knew how morphine or aspirin or quinine worked. They just knew it worked. Hand-washing was standard medical practice well before anyone hatched a theory of infectious diseases: surgeons and doctors just knew patients fared better when their doctors lathered up. So what if we don’t know how prayers help another person? Eventually, they say, we will.

I confess my bias here. My own family life was peppered with these “unexplainable” healings.24 We did not chronicle these healings except in memory, but over the past century, thousands of other Christian Scientists have done so in the pages of magazines such as the Christian Science Journal or Sentinel. Perhaps a skeptic could dismiss some of the thousands of unexplainable recoveries from near-fatal accidents or Alzheimer’s or cancer or other diseases, complete with doctors’ verifications. Maybe he could dismiss most of them. But all of them?

For me, the most satisfying compromise between the proponents and skeptics of prayer came from John Astin, a research scientist at California Pacific Medical Center. Astin reviewed the early prayer studies and concluded that the seeming effects of prayer were real and not just chance happenings. But he also led a study that found that prayer did not help people with HIV.25 When I visited him, he told me he was genuinely puzzled about the conflicting results.

Astin’s hunch is that one person’s thoughts or prayers can influence someone else’s body. But they may not have the firepower to alter the course of a disease.

“Let’s say you have heart disease,” Astin proposed. “You’ve got a whole array of factors that have come to influence your getting that disease.You have biological and genetic factors, family history, dietary lifestyle factors, psychological factors, depression and stress.”All of these influence cardiovascular function.

“And let’s say I’m a spiritual healer, and I’m trying to influence the course of that disease in some way, to facilitate healing,” he continued. “Well, that’s not happening in isolation. It’s happening within the context of a whole host of complex factors that are influencing that disease. So it doesn’t even make sense to think it could supersede the influence of everything else.”

In other words, it is impossible to tease out the prayers for a heart patient from his genetic predilection or the thousands of cheeseburgers he consumed over the years.

As I was wrapping up my research about prayer, I realized that science has embraced a sliver of my childhood faith, a century after Mary Baker Eddy “discovered” Christian Science. Most medical scientists now agree that mood states like depression—which are heavily influenced by your thoughts—predict disease progression in a variety of diseases. Or, as my mom would say, your thinking is your experience. Indeed, nowadays scientists shout it from the rooftops, forgetting that they were until recently the snipers gunning for people like Norman Vincent Peale, or Norman Cousins, or my mother.

But positive thinking doesn’t require God, and that is the critical point. Many scientists still deride the core of religious belief. They reject that there could be a force that can infuse prayer with power, call it God or Higher Power or the Divine Mr. Fixit. They reject this because that force, or mechanism, would have to operate outside of the laws of nature as we currently understand them. This is the Maginot Line that separates two sorts of scientists and two sorts of science. Over and over again, I would witness fierce hand-to-hand combat at this very divide.

Later, I learned of a possible—though not widely accepted—scientific explanation for this force. It is called “quantum entanglement”—what Einstein described as “spooky action at a distance.” But I had not arrived at that research yet. And so I tackled another personal question. Back in 1995, when my life appeared perfect from the outside and wretched from the inside, I had hit a breaking point and found in that unhappy moment a new spiritual direction. I had always wondered what triggered that dramatic shift, the kind of turnaround or conversion experience that is so common in spiritual journeys.Was it physical, or spiritual, or both? For that, I had to revisit the most exquisite, and painful, moment of my life.

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