Science Examines Positive Effects of Spirituality

Science Examines Positive Effects of Spirituality

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is there any proof AA works?

This post was originally published on June 6, 2016.

Many people question how the 12-step approach to recovery works. Some even question if it does work, despite probably being surrounded by people who are sober through the fellowship. How do I know this? Because I am one of those people, most of my friends are those people and I attend meetings and functions with thousands of even more of those people. Oddly though, some folks still find it necessary to speak out against Alcoholics Anonymous (there, I said it). They often attack the spiritual aspect of the program, labeling it “religious” or even cult-like. And while none of that mishigas has ever concerned me, it’s still nothing short of awesome to read in Medical Daily that (and this is for all you angry atheists out there) scientific research has been done about the positive effects of spirituality.

Prayers Being Answered

A recent study by researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center examined AA members with long-term sobriety. First they were given a newspaper, then a prayer from the Big Book, before being shown seductive images of alcohol. While every participant showed some degree of craving in the prefrontal cortex after reading the newspaper, evidence of these cravings drastically decreased after simply reciting an AA prayer.

Dr. Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiary at NYU and senior author on the study said, “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.” Boom. Eggs-actly.

Placebo Effect Realness

Not to make this about me (though I’d hardly be an alcoholic if I didn’t) but back in October, I wrote an essay about this very sentiment. While spirituality is often criticized for being silly because it’s not “scientific,” there is a scientific explanation for the effectiveness of believing in something greater than yourself. This study further validates that.

After a decade of studying the role spirituality plays in the lives of recovering alcoholics, Galanter’s data proves that long-time members of AA undergo a measurable shift in perspective. This is what they refer to as a “spiritual awakening” and Galanter’s studies indicate that it’s this transition that decreases their craving to drink.

But Wait, There’s More!

Although I like where he is going with this, I feel it’s necessary to add that a person does not need to have a “white light” experience to have a shift of this kind. Simply taking the first step to go to a meeting is often a sign of an important change in perspective. It is also very possible to stop drinking and stop having cravings to drink well before having a spiritual experience. But Galanter is right, a significant change on how you see the world (and the effects of your drinking) makes living life sober a whole lot easier.

“Our current findings open up a new field of inquiry into physiologic changes that may accompany spiritual awakening and perspective changes in AA members and others,” Galanter says, and this is exciting news. Because the sooner we are collectively able to understand and accept all the components necessary for addiction recovery, the sooner will start seeing better long-term results. Treatment for addiction is just that—treatment. What the addict does after he or she is released back into the real world is entirely up to them. There is not quick fix pill or machine we can hook up to that will keep anyone sober—addicts have to understand the many sides of their disease, as well as the severity of it, before they can truly be expected to do their part in staying clean.

And sadly, sometimes even then isn’t enough.

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2 Comments

  1. So, let me get this straight here. Science or say contemporary science? Is the study of or collaboration of facts preferably documented. These facts are presumed scientific, valid based on a disciplined setting such as Stanford or Berkley? How about Mrs. Buggy’s third grade class trip to the science museum, do they get to add anything?..How about the Juan Valdez school of sobriety? Isn’t your face on a coffee can the same as your name on a door. My round a boat point here is, the word science is passed around like a new Crayola color. No different than the term 12 Step is used to describe just about anything talkie or groupish groupie? eh.. groupified? Federal Prison “oh behave” Gay only meetings to Aunt Bee’s Sunday morning after Church “free Tom Brady” social, the two handed coffee cup clutchers.

    If someone is in need of Spiritual help where do they go? 12 Step? Scientific approach? or like everything else today lets just create a hybrid where the origins of each stop! and the new politically correct world order begins. Bring back the Mcrib. Have it your way. Feed the masses and get paid for it..

    Now, you can get a fresh approach to recovery by way of a Spiritual awakening as well documented in the AA Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous or? Focus on another study from Mildew University. Apparently millions and millions “big numbers yeah” of everyday people have found a way of life second to their hopeless attempts. Check out an AA convention. Now that’s what I call a Scientific approach.

  2. Chuck Sigler on

    There is also “If You Work It It Works! : The Science Behind 12 Step Recovery” by Joseph Nowinski. It reviews literally dozens of studies in a readable manner. If you want to see a particular study, they are referenced in the end notes.

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Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.