Many Americans seem eager this week to see the phrase “thoughts and prayers” die a good platitude’s death. After the worst mass shooting in U.S. history took the lives of 59 Las Vegas concertgoers Sunday night, a sentiment meant to express solidarity sounded to some like cold comfort. When tweeted by elected officials who could feasibly pass tighter gun-control laws, the phrase struck people as not only irritating, but also potentially dangerous: What if uttering this hollow but nice-sounding sentiment allows legislators to bypass the “real” work of passing better laws? What if it allows all of us to avoid the concrete political work of pressuring them to do so? When the public stakes are so high, the argument goes, a nation cannot afford to retreat to private spirituality: Instead, we must act.
But prayer is not inaction. I would argue that it is perhaps the most powerful form of action you can engage in during a crisis—and that’s true whether you believe in God or not. There are good reasons why prayer remains a daily activity for more than half of all Americans (55 percent), including about one in five religiously unaffiliated people or “nones.” Even for those of us who aren’t sure that God exists and that our prayer can change God, prayer can certainly change us.
Neuroscientific research conducted over the past few decades has found that prayer can radically reshape the human brain, leading to increased focus and peace. In the 1990s, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg famously studied the brain scans of 150 people from different religions, from Franciscan nuns to Buddhist monks. He found that those who engaged deeply in prayer for 12 minutes a day over a couple of months had activated frontal lobes and quiet parietal lobes. The result? Those who prayed regularly were more focused, less anxious, and felt more connected to other people.