People think of prayer as a mental activity that happens, at times, to involve physical actions. After believers master the ritual movements of their religious traditions, personal and theological concerns about the mental side of prayer tend to overshadow the importance of such bodily actions. In contrast, the studies proposed here approach prayer as an embodied activity through which integrated physical and mental processes enhance and sustain religious and spiritual experience. The project begins with the hypothesis that prayer’s physicality is not a secondary concern unrelated to religiosity and spirituality but an important component of their everyday processes, even within cognitive systems that carry out high-level mental functions (like consciousness).
Scholars have discussed at length the physical aspects of prayer rituals, with special regard to their theological significance. But these discussions have not inspired a program of empirical research that specifies how such physicality causally interacts with the mental activities of prayer. Such discussions remain symbolic and theological in nature. Among scientists, quantitative research on prayer has examined its relationship with physiological and neurological processes (and health outcomes in particular) but such studies have not explored its intrinsic physicality at the level of cognition. The aim of the research proposed here is to change the way we think about prayer, so that we come to regard it as a deeply physical activity—not one that merely uses the body in some trivial sense but one that is bound up with ordinary bodily experience.
This project investigates the link between prayer’s higher and lower cognitive processes using a theoretical framework known as embodied cognition (or embodiment). For roughly two decades, embodied cognition has challenged a popular view among researchers that cognition involves computational-like processing of abstract symbols (instantiated in neural substrates). Accordingly, I argue that prayer research must also, to some extent, de-mentalize its theoretical assumptions. Using experimental designs and quantitative measurements primarily, this project explores the embodiment of prayer by showing how low-level sensorimotor and visual processes causally interact with higher-level processes associated with prayer and religiosity such as memories, attitudes, judgments, and attention.