Does Prayer Really Work?

The science behind faith.

  • Editors' Pick
  1. On a brilliant February morning in San Francisco, I’m talking to Elisabeth Targ, a psychiatrist with impeccable research credentials who’s conducting studies that disturb some people and fascinate others: the ability of prayer to heal life-threatening disease.

    Targ, who’s tall and regal with deep reserves of warmth, has been doing prayer studies for seven years. In her first project, she enrolled twenty patients with AIDS and randomly assigned them to two groups: one that received prayers from experienced healers and one that did not. The patients and healers never met, and neither the patients nor their doctors knew if or when they were being prayed for. To Targ’s surprise, 40% of the control group died and no one in the prayer group died during the six-month trial period. She repeated the study with 40 patients but by then, protease inhibitors were being used that kept people on AIDS alive. No one in either group died, but those in the control group suffered six times more complications and illnesses than those in the prayer group.

    She’s currently doing two studies with 150 patients each, funded by the National Institutes of Health: one on AIDS and one on a different illness Targ selected because AIDS is no longer necessarily fatal. She picked glioblastoma multiforme, a rare, aggressive brain tumor which few survive. “I wanted a hard problem,” she says, so the effects of prayer, if there were effects, would be noticeable. She’s enrolled 40 patients for the glioblastoma ...