Does prayer have the power to help recovering alcoholics squash temptation? A small new study out of the NYU Langone Medical Center finds that at least among 20 long-term Alcoholics Anonymous members who reported no cravings in the week leading up to the test, prayer reduced cravings that arose when shown images of alcoholic drinks or people drinking.
To perform the tests, the researchers report in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, participants were asked to read the newspaper or pray after being shown the images.
Participants reported some craving following seeing the images, but less so after having prayed, while MRI data showed changes in parts of the prefrontal cortex that controls attention as well as in regions thought to control emotion.
“This finding suggests that there appears to be an emotional response to alcohol triggers, but that it’s experienced and understood differently when someone has the protection of the AA experience,” says senior author Marc Galanter, who published a book on Alcoholics Anonymous earlier this year.
He goes on to suggest that the reduction in cravings in AA members correlates to the amount of time that has elapsed since one’s so-called “spiritual awakening,” which AA describes as taking a different attitude toward drinking.
In previous research, participants asked to pray every day for four weeks drank about half as much as those who were not. (See why some have been challenging the 75-year hegemony of AA.)