Though often the first thought is of the Catholic rosary, the use of beads in prayer is a spiritual practice which predates recorded history and spans nearly every culture and spiritual path on the planet. There is nothing magical about the beads or stones – they are a tool. A tool with multiple uses to structure prayer, measure time, make thoughts tangible and find new ways to discover sacred intersection.
The most obvious use is as a counting device, but this is only one level at which prayer can be used. The deepest effect seems to be the tangible aspect of holding beads while praying. This deep effect is magnified when each bead is tied to a specific thought. Just as writing down a thought makes it more real (such as writing down goals), handling a bead which is tied to a thought keeps the mind from wandering and provides a grounding effect during prayer.
I also know one person who keeps a set of beads – she calls them her “prayer stones” – in her car as a constant visual reminder of the weird and wonderful ways her Higher Power shows up in her life. (She was given a set of 12 step prayer stones on the anniversary of her 12th week in a program.)
There is another person who is inclined to lose track of time during prayer and by keeping one thought to one bead finds the structure to end the prayer time and move on with the day.
There is also a study relating meditation and praying the rosary to a timing of breathing while speaking which affects the level of brain activity. I’m just starting to investigate this and will post more about it as information becomes available.