At Shalem we talk a lot about brains. We are especially intrigued by the “neuroplasticity” of brains—that is, the ability of our brains to change, develop and grow, from cradle to grave. There have been enormous advances in brain science over the past 15 years that demonstrate how crucial relationships are in the sculpting of our brains.
When we are in relationship together, we are firing the neurons in each other’s brains, moulding each other’s lives literally at a biological level. Child psychiatrist Dr. Jean Clinton, a friend of Shalem’s, has said, “relationship is the nutrition of the brain.” Relationships are God’s gift for healing and health.
Recently I had the distinct pleasure of meeting with a distinguished neonatologist and clinical neuroscientist, Dr. Karen Pape. She is a leading figure in the pediatric world in advocating the notion that baby’s brains, when damaged due to a birth injury, for example, can and do heal—contrary to much of the current medical wisdom.
From her clinical practice, she is convinced that the neuroplasticity of infant brains supports healing and recovery in areas of the brain where damage has occurred—much like the recovery that often happens with people who have experienced strokes. I highly recommend the work of this extraordinary practitioner; a good place to start is her TED Talk, entitled “Baby Brains DO Recover, But Habit Hides It.”
At Shalem, our interest is not just in the connection between relationships and mental health. We are especially interested in the intersection between relationships (and their effect on neuroplasticity), mental health and faith. In our conversation, Dr. Pape referenced credible scientific research studies that indicate the healing power of prayer. That put me onto the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University in North Carolina. Their research work is drawing some astonishing conclusions about the power of prayer.
For example, Dr. Koenig, the Director of the Center and an esteemed psychiatrist, notes (in a Newsmax Health interview) that an exhaustive analysis of over 1,500 reputable medical studies “indicates people who are more religious and pray more have better mental and physical health….The benefits of devout religious practice, particularly involvement in a faith community and religious commitment, are that people cope better. In general, they cope with stress better, they experience greater well-being because they have more hope, they’re more optimistic, they experience less depression, less anxiety, and they commit suicide less often. They have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, and probably better cardiovascular functioning….Out of 125 studies that looked at the link between health and regular worship, 85 showed regular churchgoers live longer.”
In the same article, another researcher, Tom Knox, notes that “religious attendance is associated with adult mortality in a graded fashion. There is a seven-year difference in life expectancy between those who never attend church and those who attend weekly.”
In a widely cited study, researchers from San Francisco General Hospital looked at “the effect of prayer on 393 cardiac patients. Half were prayed for by strangers who had only the patients’ names. Those patients had fewer complications, fewer cases of pneumonia, and needed less drug treatment. They also got better quicker and left the hospital earlier.”
How extraordinary! How remarkable to think about the powerful double-gift of God’s direct action in physical and mental health recovery: the gift of biological rewiring through relationship, and the gift of healing and recovery through prayer.
As one who seeks to follow Christ, my response is: of course! The power of prayer is not at all new to people of faith. But then I also have other responses: there is the potential for grave danger here too, perhaps best described with reference to one of the Ten Commandments: “Do not take my name in vain.” Prayer to God cannot be used like a magical incantation. We cannot use prayer to manipulate God into meeting our own objective for healing.
And I have seen far too many times when people dealing with depression, for example, berate themselves and fall deeper into depression, because their fervent prayers for recovery have seemingly not been answered. The message they give themselves: not only am I a failure as a person (because I’m depressed), now I’m also a failure as a Christian.
These cautions are important.
But they do not detract from these unspeakable gifts of God. What extraordinary food for thought all of this is. And I expect to be chewing for a long time yet.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network