What Happens When We Pray?

I recently wrote a book (When God Talks Back) about the evangelical Christianity practiced by maybe a quarter of Americans in which people seek out a personal relationship with an interactive God.[1] In these faiths, God talks back. God is actively, supernaturally powerful—he can and may step in to improve the quality of your haircut—and God is intimate. He cares about your humdrum worries; he wants to hear about them; and he wants to talk to you about them in turn. In setting out to do the research for that project, I wanted to know how a human was able to experience God in dialogue. I took it as a special case of the way people are able to feel confident that God is real—a case that seemed to make the cognitive burden of belief particularly hard. I did not, and do not, think one can foreclose the possibility that the supernatural is present. But the supernatural is by definition non-natural: not materially available to the senses. Yet in this kind of Christianity, people talk about hearing God “speak.” I wanted to know what they meant.

What I saw in the church where I did my work was that knowing God in this way was not so much a matter of belief but a matter of skill—something that you learned to do—and that the main vehicle for the learning was prayer. People usually prayed informally, and in that prayer, they conducted daydream-like conversations with God in their minds. I could see that the church invited people to develop these daydream-like dialogues in particular ways.

For instance, the church invited people to think about their minds not as private, but as containing thoughts and images and sensations they might once have understood to be internally generated, but were in fact communications from God. Not all thoughts counted: people were encouraged to attend to the texture of thought and pick out thoughts that felt “stronger” or “louder” that others, or more spontaneous. (I think it is quite possible that around the world, spontaneous thought is more likely to be attributed to an external cause than thoughts that seem connected to the flow of awareness.) People were also encouraged to pick out only thoughts that were in various ways good: they made you feel good, and they were the kinds of things a good God would say. In short, even though the church invited this informal daydream-like prayer in which people had back-and-forth conversations with God, not all daydreams were equal. People were using their expectations of God and of prayer to shape the kinds of thoughts to which they attended and with which they engaged. I could see why this practice might make outsiders uneasy, but in general I thought that the Christians I knew who prayed in this way were thoughtful about the process, and they always remained aware that they might be wrong about what God was saying to them.

The church also invited congregants to practice their dialogue with God by in effect pretending that God was present: by going for a walk with God, or by asking God what shirt he wanted them to wear. I am not suggesting here that they considered God to be imaginary or that they were doing ”mere” pretend. C.S. Lewis entitles one of the chapters of Mere Christianity “Let’s Pretend.” He suggests that we pretend in order to experience as real. That’s the invitation here. You were supposed to learn to trust your conversations with God about the things that mattered because you were used to talking to him—even about things that didn’t.

The church also invited people to practice being loved unconditionally by God in a variety of ways. People learned to talk to God as they might to a therapist, and waited to hear what this wise, sensible person might say. They learned to remind each other to see themselves from God’s point of view—not as the weak, inadequate person they felt themselves to be, but as a loving and empathic observer would see them. And they stood in for God within the prayer circle, praying out loud to someone the words they felt that God was giving them to say.

These are ways to help people experience informal prayer as not just thought, mere daydream, but as abstract conversations with an external being. That was important, because these informal conversations are, and are not, a natural way to pray. On the one hand, talking to God in your mind is something people do intuitively. It’s like talking to your absent spouse, your dead grandmother, the person you had dinner with last night, your dog. On the other hand, experiencing those back and forth conversations and not dismissing God’s response as make-believe—that’s hard for people, particularly in a secular society. For some people, it may even be a stretch to call informal talk “prayer.” The great scholar of contemporary Catholic experience, Robert Orsi, remarked to me that before Vatican II, what most Catholics meant by the word “prayer” was the recitation of specific formal scripts. That was something the evangelical pastor Ken Wilson said to me, too. As a young boy, he explained, what it meant to pray was to recite something like the Our Father: words written by someone else and memorized by the person who prayed.  Not that his family prayed much, he said, but they said grace. Then came the sixties, and he met a man who “talked about Jesus as his friend, as someone that he knew.  It was language that we had never heard associated with God.” They had this man to dinner and invited him to give thanks—he was a religious man—and “he’d turn and he would just speak in a conversational tone of voice to God as if God was in the room.”  They were shocked—and soon hooked to a different kind of prayer life.

As an anthropologist, I could also see that newcomers to this kind of church would begin by saying that God didn’t talk to them. Yet after some months they would sometimes report that they could recognize God’s voice the way they recognized their mother’s voice on the phone. I could see, then, that having an informal conversation with prayer in your mind—what Christians in this church called prayer–involved learning. I also thought that the learning changed something about the experience of mind. Now I shifted my methods from ethnography to experiment to see if I could replicate these ethnographic observations and understand them more deeply. I brought in over a hundred people and randomized them to prayer practice or to lectures on the gospels, and I found that those in the prayer group were more likely to report more vivid mental images; that they seemed to use mental images more; that they reported more unusual sensory experiences and more intense spiritual experiences; that they experienced God more as a person, felt his presence more, and interacted with him more often.[2]

That part of When God Talks Back presents claims about religion I take to be generally true of this kind of prayer practice. I argued that paying attention to what one imagines makes the world of the mind more vivid, and that this was central to understanding imagination-rich prayer.

More specifically, I suggested that there is a specific practice (inner sense cultivation) common to spiritual traditions in which someone sees, hears, touches and so forth in the imagination, and that this practice has two consequences:

a.     that using sensory imagination makes what is imagined feel more real

b.     that attributing significance to inner sensation generates unusual experience: sensory overrides (or hallucinations, though the term is one that some people associate primarily with mental illness, an association I reject) but also a near tangible sense of presence and a range of other powerful spiritual phenomena

The ethnographic and experimental work supports a theoretical model which explains how such phenomena might emerge out of ordinary cognitive process. If, as some psychologists have argued, imagery and perception depend on many of the same neural structures, increased attention to mental imagery should have some effects on a range of image-related cognitive processes: on perceptual processing, on the use of imagery, on unusual sensory experience, and on the vividness of imagery itself. My work was able to show that the increased attention has the consequences implied by the model, but not until now supported by experimental evidence: that the practice of intentionally attending to mental imagery increases subjective vividness and increases the reporting of unusual sensory experience. These findings suggest that paying attention to mental imagery alters the subject’s awareness of such inner phenomena to the extent that that it alters the subject’s decision about what the subject perceives to be real.

Let me be clear: I am not claiming anything about whether God is or is not real, or about whether what someone reports to be a word from God is, in fact, God’s word. If you are reading this essay as a Christian, you should be asking: if God is always speaking, why do only some people hear? Instead, I am arguing that these prayer practices in which people imagine conversations with God in their minds really change people, because their inner world becomes more and more vivid over time. Prayer changes people not only because of what they say in prayer, but because the very act of imagining God and paying attention to the thoughts which count as God’s responses shape the very texture of inner experience. This is something the church fathers and the medieval mystics knew well. They sought to replace the human content of the imagination—the building blocks of the mind, the monks called them—with scripture, so that the stories and phrases from the holy text came alive to them and became the bedrock of the way they configured their world. My work suggests that these practices really work.

[1] A 2006 Pew Research Center survey found that they could identify 23 percent of Americans as “renewalist” Christians who sought an experientially vivid relationship with a personal God.

[2] This more experimental work is published in Luhrmann, Nusbaum and Thisted 2010; Luhrmann and Morgain 2012; Luhrmann, Nusbaum and Thisted 2013.


Discussion Questions

1. What do you think are the most important elements in prayer practice?


2. Do you see differences in personality or interest between those who like to pray a lot and those who do not?


3. Many people have observed that women pray more than men. It is also true that women score slightly more highly in absorption than men. Do you think that might account for the difference? What else might?

Discussion Summary


A number of commentators asked about what I’ll call the key elements of prayer and about what is fundamentally real. I’d like to ask, in this concluding comment, how my work contributes to the cognitive science of religion, arguably the most important theory of religion to have emerged from the social sciences for many decades. The striking achievement of these anthropologists and psychologists has been to demonstrate that a fundamental feature of human cognition–the differences between intuitive and reflective, or deliberative, belief–has significant implications for understanding religion. This is the difference between the way we think when we think quickly, automatically and near-instinctively and the process of slow rational analysis (see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow). They have shown that the wide range of theologies we find across the world are undergirded by intuitions that have evolved to help us live in our everyday world. Stewart Guthrie (Faces in the Clouds) suggests that our need to be alert to predators probably led to a hyper-awareness of possible agents. People intuit invisible agents because they see animation in inanimate objects. Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained) argues that religion is in effect a by-product of cognitive evolution. The way we draw inferences has developed over time, and that development produces cognitive expectations. We look for social others, and the surprising sameness of gods around the world (gods are remarkably human-like) is probably not unconnected to the way we remember—that we attend to novelty, but too much of it. Justin Barrett (Why Would Anyone Believe in God) points out that (in addition to the above) the developmental trajectories of young children contribute to the expectation of an invisible, all knowing God. Children do not realize that others cannot read their minds until around three, but that expectation lingers in their sense of a God who still knows all they think. These expectations become cognitive modules, mental tools, that evolve to help us make sense of the world fast when we need to—and, as a consequence, lead us to find agents who know what we are thinking, demand our right behavior, and punish us when we do wrong. “Why would anyone believe in God?” Barrett asks. “The design of our minds leads us to believe.”

I think that my work demonstrates that there is a third category of phenomena: practices which create specific experiences deemed religious, to use Ann Taves’ (Religious Experience Reconsidered) useful phrase. While our intuitions may lead us to infer an invisible agent, sustaining the sense that God is present within our cool rational framework can be hard. That, I suggest, is what prayer does, and why it takes work. After all, when you look out of the corner of your eye, you might think that you see the cat on the sofa, but if it disappears when you look more carefully, you form the rational belief that the cat is not there. It is one thing to infer the supernatural late at night when alone in the house; quite another at noon on a sunny day. What prayer does is to enable the person praying to override the rational inhibition that would reject the presence of an invisible other by allowing the person a richer sense of an inner sensory awareness of God’s presence.

That work will be necessary in any social world. But it will be most important—or perhaps, most clearly emphasized as important—in a world where people explicitly struggle with secular doubt. That, I think, is why these experiential practices have grown more important in recent decades. In any setting, God is in effect made “real” by elaborate effort: chanting, asserting, building a costly cathedral in which such a powerful God might live. In any setting, the sheer effort people invest in connecting to their God suggests that they must overcome inherent doubt—not, perhaps, doubt that the ancestors are real, but doubt that the ancestors care, will listen or will respond. As the consensus about God decreases, however, it becomes more important for people to experience God’s presence personally and intimately. That emphasis probably explains the spread of experiential spirituality within the United States. It may also explain the rapid spread of Pentecostalism around the world.

Besides which, all that intense spiritual practice—it’s fun.  That’s not a solemn anthropological thesis. But it’s probably important.

New Big Questions:

  1. How do different social worlds—and, I would add different local ideas about what constitutes the mind—shape our spiritual experience?
  2. How much difference do different prayer practices make to the experience of God or the divine?

12 Responses

  1. George Gantz says:

    As a non-evangelical Christian, I appreciate the insights of this article and its balanced review of personal prayer.  I am still a bit uncomfortable with the idea that we can strike up a conversation with God, but I do feel that prayer plays a critical role in helping each of us (including non-Christians) attend to the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19).  The human mind is so fraught with potential error that the demarcation between delusional conviction and true revelation from God can be very difficult to ascertain.  Emmanuel Swedenborg, for example, tells us in his inspired writing (Heaven and Hell, True Christian Religion, etc.) that spirits are in constant communication with us in our thoughts and feelings – both good spirits and evil spirits.  How do we know that what we have heard in prayer is from one or the other?   From the study of mental illness, we also know that the human mind is capable of believing in things that are patently untrue and in hearing voices telling us to do terrible things.  How do we tell the difference?

    Your article highlights two elements that will help us make that determination.  First, the training and practice of personal prayer you describe seems to bring a significant level of reflection to the process – a testing, assessment and discrimination during the conversation that shapes what one pays attention to.  This is in contrast to a practice that emphasizes, for example, an unconditional acceptance as in the case of “ the recitation of specific formal scripts”.  For a practice based on internal, subjective experience, this reflection is an important controlling influence helping to avoid the pitfalls of delusion or even simple error (something we are all subject to).  

    Second, the practice is in the context of a religious tradition that relies on a fixed scripture – one that has, so to speak, stood the test of time.  While personal prayer is largely subjective and autonomous, there is an ultimate arbiter when it comes to judging what is right and what is wrong.  Of course, interpreting scripture has its own pitfalls, but at the level of judgment that we need to make most decisions, following the Ten Commandments or the basic teachings of Jesus will be enough to keep us on the path of good.

    At key points in my own life, faced with a challenging decision, I have sometimes found myself in a quagmire of doubt. After a period of time, contemplation, and struggle, I have often felt that the right decision simply made itself known to me, and I was profoundly grateful for the clarity and joy that replaced my uncertainties.  At the time I may have been insure, but now I am confident that the path was made clear to me by God.  An open heart and open mind will see the evidence of His divine providence everywhere.

  2. Tanya Luhrmann says:

    God comment. All that theology and practice does, or at least should, shape the way that people identify God speaking and prevent them from making judgments that seem strikingly wrong to others (for example, that God authorizes you to hurt someone else). That said, of course, sometimes people make interpretations of God’s word that do indeed seem wacky to others. There’s a lot a non-Christian or non-evangelical might be spooked by. At the same time, I was impressed by how thoughtful people were, and how hesitant they were to judge God as having spoken to them if there were serious consequences to taking something as his word (moving across country, for instance). 

  3. Roncooper says:

    In my opinion direct communion with God can have a powerful effect on a person’s life. It also appears that the state of mind of the person praying determines the nature of the experience in that a person can meet God or demons. This idea also exists in the Indian tradition, where there are demons at the entrance to the temples. The students must prepare so that they don’t meet demons. This has been interpreted in two ways, either the whole process is psychological or it is necessary to prepare in order for the process to work properly. Sort of like, it is necessary to clean your glasses if you want to see through them.

    For me the most interesting question is whether prayer that works or productive prayer is real. The dualistic world view, which believes in a supernatural or transcendent realm, has no problem accepting productive prayer as fact. The non-dualistic view does not have an explanation where this type of prayer is valid and so it is reduced to psychology. For fun I will speculate on a natural explanation for the non-dualistic view. 

    It seems to me that there must be a non-localized form of consciousness for productive prayer to be true. This consciousness would be part of the natural universe in the form of a field. It could be all pervasive like the Higgs field, where it would be a feature of the whole universe. In this case prayer would be similar to communication between a part and the whole. Imagine a white blood cell communicating with the whole person.

    Another type of field is more localized near it’s a source. In this case the field of consciousness would be strongest near the earth where the life forms are.  This shared consciousness would function more like Jung’s collective unconscious because it would be intimately tied to the living.

    Next, there needs to be some justification for postulating a non-localized form of consciousness. One possibility would be to include consciousness within the realm of the wave-particle duality. This duality is well established science and it states that everything has a dual nature. Everything behaves both as a particle and a wave. Consciousness would have a localized, particle, form we call a life form, and it would also exist as a field. Of course no one knows if consciousness has a dual nature at this time, but if it does, this would be typical behavior and would not be unusual.

    So we have these possibilities; reality is dualistic and the person prays to a supernatural or transcendent power. Reality is non-dualistic and prayer is a psychological fantasy. Reality is non-dualistic, productive prayer is real, and consciousness has a non-localized form. Of course the ancient astronaut people think it is aliens.

    These are my thoughts. I’m sure others have better ideas.



    • Tanya Luhrmann says:

      This is  a great, deep question, or comment. It’s not one I feel competent to answer, but it is also hard not to feel confident that the world as we know it is not all there is of the world. As an anthropologist, I have an acute sense of the lenses we all wear when looking out at the world–to borrow your metaphor–and an appreciation for the variety of the lenses themselves. I also have an apreciation for the rich sense humans have that the world is somehow alive and bigger than it seems: that intense sense of reality that William James called the “more.” Thank you for your comment! 

  4. Meyer1953 says:

    I find that the defining content of prayer is, that one is – especially in the sense of “becomes” – informed of God from within that one’s self. That is to say, that God does do informing of the one praying and the informing becomes known to that person from within the person. The result of such informing then has every capacity to transform, to nourish, to be shared from, the one praying.

    It is not at all the case that each praying person experiences even a likeness to the prayer experience of the next person. Especially, it is my understanding from experience that a few of all those who pray have remarkable rapport with God, deep and sure, but that others have no such report nor can imagine from experience what it would be like to so have.

    Suppose a person were flying at altitude over the center of America. There would be a certain, breathtaking, vista and it would be remarkable. But the same person flying across the same landscape in a helicopter, with the real option to land at will, would discover a whole depth not immediate to the high-altitude traverse. In a similar way, we delve into long-hinted leads in prayer, leads that God is in and has waited patiently for us to engage. We are then like the helicopter, closing with the land and perhaps even visiting Grandma’s for dinner. We are informed through the reaching, the knocking, the seeking.

    • Tanya Luhrmann says:

      Hi–I do think that one of the things we know least about is what people actually when they pray. That’s in part because it’s hard to ask about inner experience (anyway, mostly researchers don’t) but also partly because until recently I think most observers thought that prayer was straightforward. We can tell the broad differences in what people do (talk informally vs recite scripts like the Our Father) but what peple actually do in detail: it is terribly private and intimate. Your comment is a good observation, I think

  5. Roncooper says:

    I went to Amazon to buy the book and was really impressed by the reviews. I look forward to a good read.

    I have a question about the messages the people recieved, and that is, did they fall into catagories? Were there instructions, new ideas, messages of love, etc. or were they all over the place? Evidently some responses were nonvocal.

    I have been wondering if the messages were tuned to the type of the individual. For example, instructions for a willful indivual, a message of love for a caregiver, new ideas for the intellectual, etc.

    Just curious.


    • Tanya Luhrmann says:

      Hi! Thank you. What people hear is quite individual and indeed, all over the place. My sense was that when peopel heard what other people said about God speaking, they tended to use common sense to sort it out. As I once heard a pastor remark, if God tells you to relax, you don’t really need to worry about whether it is God’s true inerrant voice. If God tells you to move across the country: that’s when you want your friends to pray about this issue too. Another pastor once remarked, if God tells you to jump off a bridge, that is not God. Let me know what you think! best Tanya 

  6. Michael A. says:

    Thanks so much for your article Tanya, in the last paragraph you wrote : 

    “They [church fathers, mystics] sought to replace the human content of the imagination—the building blocks of the mind, the monks called them—with scripture, so that the stories and phrases from the holy text came alive to them and became the bedrock of the way they configured their world. My work suggests that these practices really work.” 

    Clergyman Martin Kiddle, Church of England, (“The Revelation of St. John” Harper, 1940), agrees, stating that: 

    “He (St. John) clearly intended that his message should be pastoral, a practical exhortation to ordinary folk; and we know that, unlike ourselves, his original readers expected and enjoyed instruction through the apocalyptic medium. In fact, Revelation was actually a revelation to those for whom it was first composed, because they had the master key, which unlocked its mysteries. We have lost that key.” 

    It seems to me that you both are correct, and further that, as Martin Kiddle explains, humankind has lost the ‘key’, namely, the key elements intrinsic to understanding Scripture and thus the practical and effective implementation prayer. 

    We no longer live in ancient times nor within the atmosphere of their concrete and mythic symbolism, – so in todays scientifically abstract world, how does one re-gain access to these key elements? – elements, which are key to everything spiritual, such as practical prayer? 

    In the book/movie “Contact” (concerning a message from alien intelligence) there is a line, which says, “…buried within the message itself is the key to decoding it.” If the Bible, as a whole, contains the divine message, which sometimes appears alien to humanity, how does one decode it? – Answer: with a key. This implies, that within the context of the Bible, God encoded His message with decodable meaning. 

    Discovering the ‘primer’, or the ‘key’:  Within information theory, information and entropy are entangled, and so require an error-detecting, error-correcting method/mechanism. Linguistic entropy might be interpreted as the measure of uncertainty within a message, therefore, human language has adapted to this lack of clarity. The outcome of this adaptation is, that when one communicates, extra information is nearly always given, which in turn creates redundancy, and redundancy reduces uncertainty and adds predictability to a message. 

    But the question is: what are the basic elements of redundancy? – linguistic rules among others, which restrict the degree of syntactic and semantic freedom, e.g., within the context of human communication, a single message or sentence cannot convey all the information of the universe. Nor can a single phrase extracted from the context of a Biblical story convey the complete divine meaning required, if it is to be employed within the practical application of prayer. All the elements of the story, including its context are required, if holistic prayer is practiced. 

    So how does redundancy relate or interact with the ‘key’ elements of a practical heart-felt prayerful understanding? The rules of linguistic redundancy are embedded (hidden) in the deep structure of language. Thus, this inherent, but hidden structure of language dictates, to a very large extent, not only our form of expression, namely the surface-structure, but, in my opinion, its felt-content, – its deep structure. This, in my view, is where the ‘key’ elements of prayer are to be found, i.e., buried in the deep structure of spiritual grammar (related to this, see the work of Noam Chomsky or Choms-key). 

    In this regard, if like produces like, then the contemplative imbibement of the Biblical deep structure tones, embodied in its stories, represent an identity between the revealed text and our consciousness. This in turn implies we are conversing with God, – in the beginning via the medium of the text, after much practice, – directly, through inspiration.

    Example: Author/journalist Christopher Booker understood this sense of deep-structure as opposed to surface-structure and published his research (35 years worth) concerning the deep unspoken, but soul-impacting felt-structure of literature, in his tome, “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.”  

    These plots are deep-felt tones synthesized through analysis of the repeated, redundant patterns in the surface story, and, it seems to me, are the key, not only in everyday literature, but also in the Biblical writings in order to understand the structure of the praying human mind at a very deep level, and thus also a key to understand the underlying Biblical plots and stories. Specifically, such an analysis of the Bible presents the key to understanding the elements of practical prayer, which, at a deeply interactive contemplative level also follow, in my view, a sevenfold pattern, e.g., the seven days of creation, which many refer to as the ‘seed-plot’ for the unfoldment of rest of the Bible. Seven-ness abounds in the Bible and is a symbol for completeness.

    • Tanya Luhrmann says:

      Just pray. I apologize if this seems to brush off your comments, but I seriously think that the practice is mroe important than the explanation, if you want to see effects. Just do it. Whatever it is for you!

      • George Gantz says:

        I would suggest that the “just-do-it” experiential approach or the attempt to decode the “deep structure” of scripture thorugh linguistics or information theory do not exhaust the options for gaining greater clarity about the meaning of the literal content of the Bible.  For me, the experiential approach is insufficient as it fails to engage my reasoning faculties in understanding the deeper meaning of scripture.  As for deep structure, I do believe it is there a “Key”but that it is too difficult, perhaps impossible, to be found in pursuit of the intellectual analysis of linguistics or information theory.  Rather, I think the “Key” can be found in the writings of those who have direct experiences in the spiritual world and can share those experiences (although we have to be cautious about such claims).  Some examples include: Dr. Eben Alexander, author of Proving Heaven; Saint John on the Island of Patmos, author of The Book of Revelation; and Emmanuel Swedenborg, author of many volumes detailing his experiences in the spiritual world and how that has informed his understanding of the internal sense of the Bible.  Swedenborg’s “Secrets of Heaven” explains in great detail the precise internal meanings of every verse in Genesis and Exodus, but his general works such as Heaven and Hell or Marriage Love are more accessible.

        In any event, whether direct prayer, code breaking, or studying the testimony of others is the approach we use to understand scripture, we do need to bring both our head and our heart to the task.

        • Tanya Luhrmann says:

          Yes: one of the things that impressed me so much in doing the work was how many different ways there are for people to do spiritual work, and how important it is that there is this range. Prayer is a remarkably intimate practice, far more so than I imagined when I began this work. One form does not work for all.