The Big Book, essentially the “bible” for Alcoholics Anonymous was first published in 1939. From that year until the present day, spirituality, in the form of developing a working relationship with a Higher Power, has been considered an essential component of addiction recovery in the 12 step program.
Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the founders of AA, could only guess at the power of prayer, but now we know: they were right.
“Craving” is one of the criteria that physicians use to diagnose addiction. A strong desire for alcohol or drugs can persist for years after people become clean and sober. That is why AA members continue to recite abstinence-promoting prayers that are designed to reduce cravings.
Researchers from NYU Langone Medical Center set out to explore the brain physiology in AA members, the first study of its kind. They sought to determine what transpires in these people’s brains when exposed to alcohol-craving triggers.
The researchers recruited 20 long-term AA members; each reported no cravings for alcohol during the previous seven days. The subjects were placed in MRI scanners and then shown images that involved alcohol consumption. These pictures were displayed twice: first after asking the participant to read neutral material from a newspaper, and again after the participant recited an AA prayer promoting abstinence from alcohol. All participants reported some degree of craving for alcohol after first viewing the images, yet the craving diminished after reciting an AA prayer. Importantly, the MRI data revealed that there were actual changes (increased activity) in parts of the prefrontal cortex in those who prayed. This is the region of the brain that is responsible for attention and emotion.
Whereas previous research examining the role of prayer on drinking behavior found that alcohol abusers who reported a spiritual awakening drank less after treatment for alcoholism, this study proves that physiological changes actually occur in the brain as a result of prayer.
I trust that more and more will be revealed as new research emerges on the neurobiology behind why participation in 12 step communities works for long-term sobriety. Until that time, those of us with experience helping others recover using a bio-psych-social-spiritual approach will continue to do what decades of recovery has proven works.