Neurotheology case study: speaking in tongues
God = interesting. Brain = interesting. God + brain = interesting x 2.
Welcome 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 the 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 ThePositiveBrain.com as I sift through the stories being discovered by this intriguing field.