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Neurotheology case study: speaking in tongues

May 13, 2009

God = interesting. Brain = interesting. God + brain = interesting x 2.

born to believeWelcome to the formula for neurotheology. I just finished the first of three books that I am reading by Andrew Newberg. This book, Born to Believe, was a great primer for this exciting new field of study. Don’t get me wrong—people have long been interested in the relationships between the mind and religious experiences. But to take a look into what is actually going on inside the brain—physically—during peak spiritual and religious experiences? That is reasonably ground breaking.

One of the things that I liked the most about Dr. Newberg’s style of inquiry and reporting is his persistently optimistic tenor for the contributions of both religion and science to the collective experience of humanity. Contrary to pop media portrayals of visceral attacks between science and religion, the authors (this book is cowritten by Mark Robert Waldman) weave an even-keeled story that deliberately respects the diverse modalities of experience. The authors exhibit a consistent resistance to the temptation that insidiously haunts commentators on religion and science: namely, the authors go to great lengths to avoid extrapolated assumptions or hasty conclusions about the empirical findings. They report the data like they see it, and—significantly—in addition to stating what the data do tell us, they likewise pay deliberate attention to what neurotheological data do not reveal.

For example, take the religious experience of speaking in tongues. To a Pentacostilist, this is a highly meaningful experience in which the person speaking in tongues claims to be connecting to the will of God. Neuroanatomy 101: the part of the brain that makes us intricately human is the cerebral cortex, and the parts of the cerebral cortex that makes us individual as humans are (largely) the frontal lobes (situated pretty much behind your eyes). The frontal lobes are pre frontal lobesthe regions of the brain associate with the experience of will and agency. Dr. Newberg reports SPECT data recorded from the volunteer subjects to capture the brain’s activity during the peak experience of speaking in tongues. Reproduced in the book, the images of these individuals’ brains show severely decreased activity in the frontal lobes during the peak intensity of their experience speaking in tongues. A skeptic of the practice of speaking in tongues would argue that this decreased activity of the frontal lobes is proof that the process of speaking in tongues is—as many skeptics conclude—a frenetic babble of meaningless sounds, since it is produced without any input from the frontal lobes of the brain. To a believer in the practice, however, the absence of frontal lobe activity could be interpreted entirely differently: they could see the absence of frontal lobe activity as evidence that the phenomeon of speaking in tongues is, in fact, not generated by the human mind, by rather by the will of God that overtakes the person speaking in tongues.

The dual interpretations of the data collected from subjects in the study are representative of Dr. Newberg’s refreshing ability to tell the story of the brain’s activity without applying his own biases to his fascinating areas of exploration. If any biases about religion exist, they are spelled out by the author in his preface to the book:

We believe that people who engage in spiritual practices are learning how to alter neural patterns of cognition voluntarily, in ways that promote measurable degrees of happiness, compassion, and peace. Indeed, this may be religion’s greatest gift to humanity.

Look for additional neurotheology case studies to pop up on as I sift through the stories being discovered by this intriguing field.


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One Comment
  1. One of the failings I see in Newberg’s study as reported (I haven’t read it) is that he does not seek to prove or disprove the practice as valid in any way. He is simply taking for granted that these people are doing what they say they’re doing and measuring. That’s fine insofar as it allows us to see that a person engaging in glossolalia is not using his understanding to inform the words formulated, but it fails to answer a significant question that can be asked and tested: are they faking it?

    It is possible to fake this experience. William Samarin, the linguist whose research on glossolalia is still cited favorably 40 years after its first publication, describes in detail how the end product of tongues is absolutely not language (alarming, since “tongues” MEANS “languages”), and postulates that the speaker is “highly motivated” to produce something that sounds LIKE a language. He attributes the end result to human creativity, not divine manifestation. Verm Poythress, a theologian who conducted a respected survey of the existing research more recently, compares the practice of glossolalia to something he calls “free vocalization,” something that can be done by Christian and non-Christian alike and produces a speech pattern he calls indistinguishable (linguistically) from glossolalia. Glossolalia, he concludes, is pretty much free vocalization in a religious setting.

    Did Newberg compare the brain imagery of a non-religious free-vocalizer to the imagery of a glossolalist? In other words, is there any way to objectively compare an admitted fake with a purported genuine? The results could be quite telling.

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