Friday, May 6, 2016

Alcoholism and the Power of Prayer

Psychoanalysis and its cognate therapies might not have provided much benefit, but they have offered a religious experience for unbelievers. For people suffering from anomie, belonging to a cult can feel like an improvement.

The most intelligent psychoanalysts have long since stopped even pretending that they could offer treatment or cure. They have embraced the fact that it only fulfilled its destiny when it became a cult, a pseudo-religion.

In brief, psychoanalysis is scientology for people with triple-digit IQs.

Of course, no one with any sense has ever claimed that psychoanalysis could treat addictions like alcoholism. The advent and the popularity of 12 Step programs ought to have signaled the fact, unambiguously.

As it happens, AA derives from evangelical Christianity, and it also offers something of a religious experience, a spiritual awakening. And yet, AA does not hide its religiosity. It invokes God and offers prayer at its meetings.

The question then is: which works better for alcoholism, a pseudo-religion or religion?

As it happens, someone tested the proposition and discovered, lo and behold, that for people who participate in AA meetings and who have followed the program, prayer does work to diminish cravings for alcohol.

The Daily Mail reports the story:

For long-term members of AA, praying helps to reduce alcohol cravings when confronted with a triggering situation.

This is according to a new study, which explored the brain physiology of recovering alcoholics who had been involved with the program for years.

Participants who recited AA prayers after viewing drinking-related images reported fewer alcohol cravings and displayed increased activity in the brain regions that control attention and emotion.

The study was conducted in New York at the NYU Medical Center. Since you want to know what happened, here it is:

Researchers recruited 20 long-term AA members to participate in the study.

These participants, who reported no alcohol cravings in the week before testing, were then placed in an MRI scanner and shown pictures of alcoholic drinks, or of people drinking.

Each person was shown the pictures two times.

In the first round, the participants were asked to read neutral material from a newspaper following the viewing.

In the second, they recited an AA prayer which promotes abstinence from alcohol.

Across the board, the research subjects all reported some degree of craving after viewing the images.

But, craving lessened after reciting an AA prayer.

‘Our findings suggest that the experience of AA over the years had left these members with an innate ability to use the AA experience – prayer in this case – to minimize the effect of alcohol triggers in producing craving,’ says senior author Marc Galanter, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Division of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse at NYU Langone.

‘Craving is diminished in long-term AA members compared to patients who have stopped drinking for some period of time but are more vulnerable to relapse.’

Naturally, the researchers studied the brain function of the group under an MRI:

With data from the MRI scans, the team was also able to detect physical responses in the brain.

The researchers observed changes in the prefrontal cortex, the region in the brain that controls attention, and in brain sites that control emotion and the ‘semantic reappraisal’ of emotion.

With data from the MRI scans, the team was also able to detect physical responses in the brain.

‘We wanted to determine what is going on in the brain in response to alcohol-craving triggers, such as passing by a bar or experiencing something upsetting, when long-term AA members are exposed to them,’ Dr. Galanter says.

The researchers observed changes in the prefrontal cortex, the region in the brain that controls attention, and in brain sites that control emotion and the ‘semantic reappraisal’ of emotion.

This addresses the different ways people understand situations based on their perspective, they explain.

‘The findings suggest 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,’ Galanter says.

Galanter has studied the role of spirituality in long-term AA members for a decade, and found that members experience a ‘spiritual awakening’ which marks the transition to a different attitude toward drinking.

Reductions in craving are associated with the amount of time that has passed since this transition.

Why does prayer work? The brain waves do not offer an answer. But, we can observe that prayer helped the test subjects take step back from their emotions and cravings, to submit them to judgment, to see them as someone else’s.

At the least, the prayer did not help them to fulfill the mindless mantra that defines so much psychotherapy today. It did not help them to get in touch with their feelings.


Scullman said...

When you've experienced a psychic change (12. Having had a spiritual awakening as THE result of these Steps…..” there is no “stepping back from emotions and cravings to submit them to judgement”. Read Jung’s correspondence with Bill Wilson on the severity of the malady and the release hoped for and discovered, in the essence of a "spiritual experience."

It’s not about "stepping back", it’s about a change in consciousness to the degree that those images and places and people that once set off a reaction, have been completely erased. There is no longer a response. “What we really have is a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

But of course one has to come to terms with that Ol' boogey man called “God”. It wasn’t such a hard sell for me, but I was living above CBGB’s in the Palace Hotel on the Bowery and taking my meals at the Municipal Shelter on East 3rd Street. I’d had my belly full.

1979 was a long time ago. Been sober by the Grace of a Power Greater than myself, and the love of strangers and friends, ever since.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: At the least, the prayer did not help them to fulfill the mindless mantra that defines so much psychotherapy today. It did not help them to get in touch with their feelings.

I'll probably never understand Stuart's seeming contempt towards touch and feelings, but since contempt is a feeling, I guess he's already in touch, right?

I got a little confused whether to consider AA working cia a religion or a pseudo-religion. I understand AA talks about a "higher power", while even as an agnostic, I can accept that idea, while an atheist would more likely deny the idea.

As they say, we're nearly all atheists about God as a Flying Spaghetti Monster, but if the FSM is a metaphor for an unknown higher power, and you consider perhaps some of the assumed characteristics of the FSM deity are not 100% known, even if the leaders say so.

Jewish Philospher Martin Buber talked about two ways of seeing our relation to the world, between I-it, and I-thou, the first seeing self as subject and other as object, and the second seeing both self and other as subject in relation.

Perhaps part of Stuart's contempt towards identifying feelings is they don't get you anywhere useful alone, and they can get you in trouble, lost in a subjective world that is never fully knowable, and ever changing. But if you want to know others in a subjective way, it makes sense you can't easily imagine the inner experience of another unless you pay some attention to your own inner experiences.

But for the full picture I go with E.F. Schumacher's 4 fields of knowledge, with self-other on one axis, and inner-outer on the other axis. So we only have direct access to self-inner, and other-outer, but by going into relationship, we challenge ourselves to guess and learn about the self-outer appearance and other-inner experience, and this gives us a more complete picture.

And Buber and Schumacher both would say that our relationship with God can symbolically work like our relationships with other sentient beings. While we know even less about this "higher power" than another person, we can imagine something of what it is, seeing how the whole and the diversity of life manifested itself.

Lastly, I do think any given religion must contain its own psychology, or maybe layers of psychology. Like the childish myths in Catholicism of an angel and a devil on each shoulder, talking into your right and left ears. Ideas like that fit perfectly well within Jungian psychology and the archetypes, and represent psychic structures that we can better manage with symbolic understands of them. Kids might imagine these literally, while adults accept they are tools of self-awareness of our fragmented impulses in need of integration.

It might be nice if we could go back to the garden, before we ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and we knew we were naked and had to wear clothes. I suppose alcohol contains one attempt to go back, and lose inhibitions, and self-consciousness.

I don't know why alcohol never interested me, maybe the world just seems less interested through a muddled mind? But there are lots of paths of addictive behavior, and perhaps there's no simple judgment where the line is between healthy escape or a slow road to hell.

Maybe if you ask "Do I have a choice now to refrain from what I think I want?" and if you can't, then you have something to look at. And then you might need some help.

Anonymous said...

I'm open to the "concept" of a Supreme Being. It's less fantastical than String Theory, Infinite Multiverses, and the Quantum conundrum. To name a few.

But to me, such an Entity is so far beyond my ken, it's unknowable. I'll remain the Agnostic Existentialist I was at 17.

I think most people would go mad without Meaning. -- Rich Lara