Top Gun star Val Kilmer believes in long distance healing. Does science back him up?

We hear it all the time, “thoughts and prayers.”
For some, it sounds like an empty gesture. For others, it’s a meaningful way to gain support and healing from afar. 

A few years ago, actor Val Kilmer opened up about his experiences with prayer and illness on Reddit. Kilmer, who starred in Top Gun, Willow, and many other films, has throat cancer.

In a 2017 Q&A, he wrote:

“I am very grateful for all the prayers and good thoughts from around the world…many many people have been healed by prayer throughout recorded history.”

In addition to the prayers he received from fans, he revealed that two of his doctors were praying for him as well. He has survived until now, though he did go through grueling treatments and lost his normal voice. He revealed the whole story in his 2021 documentary “Val.”

And of course, Kilmer is just one of millions of people around the world who believe in the power of prayer. 

So, what’s the science of prayer? Has it been shown to heal? The answer is, well…complicated.

She Blinded Me With Science

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A recent article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry took a look at four major, peer reviewed studies of prayer and healing. 

The first study looked at women in Korea undergoing in vitro fertilization. The study found that prayer worked—the ones who received prayers from strangers from afar had nearly twice the pregnancy success rate than the ones who didn’t get prayers. 

Another study, however, found the opposite. Patients undergoing heart surgery had slightly worse outcomes than the group who were being prayed for. 

A third study tried a novel approach. It used primates (bush babies) as the subjects, rather than people.

Because of this, the researchers couldn’t tell their subjects what was going on in the study. That did away with the so-called “placebo effect,” because the bush babies didn’t have any hopes or expectations either way. 

The results were startling. The group being prayed for had faster wound healing than the other, non prayer group. They also had fewer infections.

Even more astounding, the wounds were self inflicted—in other words, these animals had been harming themselves. So not only did they get better, but the long distance prayers may well have helped their state of mind, curbing their self destructive behavior.

The most fascinating study of all was the fourth one. In this one, names were chosen at random from a list of hospital patients. They were given to one person who did long distance praying for all of those in need of healing. 

Though there was no difference in overall death rates, the patients in the prayer group spent less time in the hospital than the non prayer group. They also had shorter periods of illness (fever) than their non prayed-for counterparts.

Here’s the twist. The list of patients was taken from hospital intakes that had taken place several years before the study was conducted. 

That’s right. The praying affected the past. So, not only was distance involved, but time as well. 

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It’s difficult if not impossible to look at this study without wondering if there’s a divine force at work in the universe. There could of course be other explanations. But I for one found myself getting goosebumps when I read it. 

It Happened to Me

Part of my interest in this stems from an experience I myself had in the hospital. I was there because two years after my original accident, I was struck down by quadriplegia.

The problem was clearly seen on the study that measured my body’s response to electrical stimulation, known as an EMG. So, it wasn’t psychological. But despite this, the doctors weren’t able to pinpoint what had brought it on, and therefore had no cure for me. 

My roommate Patricia was a deeply spiritual and religious woman. (For more about her, read the story I wrote about her.) She had a large number of friends who came by on a regular basis. They prayed with her and for her. 

Soon, they were praying for me too. I had no objection to this. I’m Jewish and was at the time a lifelong atheist. Still, I was spiritual in my own way, and anyhow who would refuse prayers in a situation like mine? 

I’d been paralyzed for three months and it looked bleak. Then, my chiropractor suggested I try a different pillow that he believed would reduce the pressure on my spinal cord and could cure the paralysis. Though I trusted him, I was skeptical.

Still, my husband ordered the appropriate pillow from Amazon and placed it under my head. A few hours later, I tried out some experimental movements. To my amazement, the paralysis was gone. I could move my arms and legs again!

I asked Patricia what she thought had happened—was I just lucky to have a brilliant chiropractor, or was it the prayers?

“It was both,” she said. “God was acting through your chiropractor.”

Many religions talk about this kind of human involvement with God’s works. Christianity has many stories of healers other than Christ himself. In Judaism, too, a number of Rabbis are said to have healed people through prayer. 

The First Century CE Rabbi Ben Dosa was renowned for his healing power. Another was the Baal Shem Tov, who founded the Hasidic movement in the 1700s, which rejuvenated Judaism and is popular to this day.

This video, by a follower of another noted Hasidic Rabbi and healer, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, explains how prayer can heal:

Lately I’ve been experimenting with prayer, using both traditional Jewish prayers as well as my own personal prayers. The results so far have been mixed. 

I have noticed that my pain is down. And not long ago I got a major boost. I was connected to a new pain doctor through a Facebook group for fellow alumni of my college. 

He’s one of just a few pain doctors I’ve seen who’s helped me. It feels miraculous after so many years of fruitless searching. I now wonder, was this series of events because of my prayers?

At the same time, my prayers for complete healing have yet to materialize. I’m not sure if this is because I still harbor doubt, or because, as the rabbi in the video says, my soul isn’t in tune with the idea. Or maybe it’s something else. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this, and any experiences you’ve had with prayer and healing. The comments are open.

It’s an exciting time for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, as so many people are opening their minds to healing through alternative means. All of which makes “thoughts and prayers” have new resonance and meaning.

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