MU professor discusses prayer, health on CBS Early Show

Friday, October 24, 2008 | 3:56 p.m. CDT; updated 5:25 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 24, 2008

COLUMBIA — People have long embraced prayer and faith as a way to pull themselves through illness. MU professor Brick Johnstone's research is taking a scientific approach to faith, shedding light on the relationship between prayer and healing.

Johnstone discussed his research Tuesday on CBS's "The Early Show." This venue enabled him to share a small part of the research he has done and how it should impact the future relationship between religion and health care.

Johnstone is a professor of health psychology at the MU School of Health Professions and director of the Spirituality and Health Project at the MU Center on Religion and the Professions. He said he has always had a strong interest in religion, and as a practicing neuropsychologist, he came to see the important role faith plays in many individuals' lives.

Over the past five years, he has been researching the relationship between spirituality and health and most recently looked at how it relates to his previous research on the rehabilitation of persons with traumatic brain injury.

Johnstone's interview on CBS was short — one minute and 47 seconds, to be exact. "I felt very constrained by their questions," he said, "it's obvious they're looking for sound bites. As an academic, I am used to talking about very specific things.

"They had prepared me for about 10 different questions in a lot of different areas, and then they asked me three very short questions. I was only able to touch the surface very generically on a very broad topic."

At the same time, Johnstone said he feels that his time on air was effective. "I told them beforehand that I would not be pigeonholed into saying anything I did not want to say, that I wanted to talk about existing research," he said.

The two psychiatrists featured earlier in the show's segment on prayer and health represented opposing sides on the subject, one claiming that prayer was very effective for healing and the other that not all people who prayed were healed. Johnstone was able to articulate a middle-ground position.

He described to anchor Maggie Rodriguez how spiritual belief and congregational support lead to better health. He expounded upon his explanation after the show. "Prayer isn't related to health per se, but if you have real strong beliefs in a loving, caring god, and if you have real strong support from your congregation, those things lead to better health. It's not saying that prayer is unimportant, just that it's not really related per se," he said.

However, if given the opportunity, Johnstone said he would have liked to have talked about his most recent research, to be published in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science in December. The research found that injury to the right side of the brain makes it easier for one to be more spiritual.

The narrative earlier in the show's segment told the story of a man who, as the research suggests, became more spiritual after a motorcycle injury that primarily affected the right side of his brain. The reporter, however, focused on how he, his friends and family saw healing as the catalyst for his recovery.

According to Johnstone, the body of research on the relationship between prayer and health has exploded since 2000. Understanding of this topic is much more common now than it was 10 years ago, he said.

Johnstone is working to implement further research on brain injury and spiritual experience. He is proposing a grant to look at how injury on the right side of the brain, the area that controls the ability to define the self, leads people to focus less on themselves, which is a state of transcendence.

He hopes that academic research will lead to incorporation of religion and spirituality into health care, through such avenues as forgiveness protocols, religion-based counseling and church-based social support.

For instance, studies have shown that one of the best predictors of improved health is forgiveness, resulting from either religious or nonreligious motives. Psychologists and chaplain-type figures could use this research to work with patients to forgive and release anger — such as forgiving the other driver involved in a car accident – which would increase their likelihood of health improvement, he said.

Fusing religion with health care furthers the aim of the Center on Religion and the Professions to improve understanding of religion among the professions. In this instance, they hope to find new tools for medical professionals to help patients.

"Often religion is divorced from professional lives," the center's director Debra Mason said. "Whether or not a professional is religious, it is important for anyone seeking to serve the public to understand that some people believe we are hard wired to have a spiritual dimension."

Johnstone also believes that findings on the relationship between religion and health apply to everyone's lives.

"You should do whatever it is that helps you connect with your god, your thoughts about the universe or whatever is important to you," he said. "In our culture, that tends to be prayer. People should continue to rely on whatever helps them and on their congregations."

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