There's very little these days that will keep me up past my usual bedtime; chalk it up to one too many all-nighters in college, but unless I get engrossed in a really good novel and just have to see how everything ends, I'll usually opt for a good night's sleep. But Saturday night (or, technically, early Sunday morning), I had the rare opportunity to make my first guest appearance on the Coast to Coast AM radio program with host Art Bell.
I was a bit nervous about the prospect. It had been an especially hellish week, and I was exhausted, physically and mentally. I almost never listen to any kind of radio (no particular reason, I just don't), so I only had a passing acquaintance with Bell's show, and therefore had no idea what to expect. Plus, it meant staying up all night: on the East Coast (where I'll be until April), the show runs from 2 AM to 5 AM. This is not a time frame in which I am at my most cogent and articulate, and Bell likes to talk about some pretty far-out subjects, only some of which I'm familiar with, so it would be a tough gig even when all the neurons are firing. So I was pleasantly surprised to find I genuinely enjoyed the experience, and snagged a good book recommendation in the process (Tess Gerritsen's Gravity).
Much of the credit for this belongs to Bell, who is a gracious, genial host, skilled at putting his guests at ease, without letting them off too easy. I was an obvious outsider — an avowed skeptic amidst his loyal late-night following. It was a bit like walking into a cocktail party where everyone knows everyone else, and trying to join a conversation that's been in full swing for quite some time. But Bell made me feel welcome, and while neither one of us changed the other's mind about anything, I felt we had a friendly, interesting exchange. Among other things, we discussed my religious upbringing and current agnostic status (a rare area of agreement). It reminded me that I've been meaning to write something about glossolalia — a.k.a., speaking in tongues — since last fall, when researchers at the University of Pennsylvania briefly made headlines with the first real-time images of the brain's activity while speaking in tongues.
My first experience with the phenomenon occurred at the age of 9 or so, when my mother took me to a Pentecostal prayer meeting. I was a kid; I was curious; and it sounded kinda cool. But my skeptical tendencies were emerging even then. No matter how much the evangelist laid hands on me and prayed, I just couldn't do it — even though there were kids running around younger than me, babbling away with wild abandon. My strongest inclination was to kick the evangelist in the shins so he'd stop pressuring me to attempt something I clearly had no affinity for. But I did wonder about the ease with which those with, say, less cautiously reserved personalities than mine engaged in the activity: they literally seemed able to turn it off and on at will.
For those who might not be familiar with the Book of Acts in the New Testament, the second chapter tells the story of the very first Pentecost, in which the Apostles gathered together to pray after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Tongues of fire appeared over their heads, and they began speaking in unknown languages, so that other people in the room who spoke foreign languages could understand their words. It was kind of the antithesis of the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament, where god supposedly scrambled the tongues of men to keep them from building a tower to heaven and putting themselves on the same level as god. Or something. (In literary terms, this would be known as hubris).
Even among evangelical Christians, the practice of speaking in tongues tends to be a bit controversial. There are those who think it was a one-time event, not something that should be practiced in modern times, and those for whom it is part of their daily prayer vigil, and people in between. Historically, it's popped up regularly among church practices. For instance, there are references to speaking in tongues in the writings of Justin Martyr (150 AD) and Tertullian (circa 200 AD), and in the 1100s Hildegard of Bingen spoke and sang in tongues. Ditto for the Moravians in the 1300s, a sect of French prophets called the Camisards, and the early Quakers in the 1600s
For all its association with Christianity, the second chapter of Acts is not the first time in the history of the world that such a strange phenomenon has been recorded. The famed Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece housed a female oracle (a pythia) who would make sacred utterances — a.k.a., "gibberish" — while in a trance-like state most likely brought on by the inhalation of noxious fumes emanating from faults beneath the temple. There's a lively debate going on between scientists in Rome and Connecticut, as to whether those emissions were carbon dioxide mixed with methane, or ethylene. (The latter stimulates the central nervous system, causing hallucinations, and also emits a sweet odor — a detail that appears in the writings of Plutarch.) More recently, glossolalia has been observed in Haitian voodoo rituals, and in shamanistic practices, and it can be induced by taking certain hallucinogenic drugs.
Early in the 20th century, psychiatrists linked glossolalia primarily to schizophrenia and hysteria, but that explanation is (a) unfair, (b) overly simplistic, and (c) no longer the widely accepted scientific view. Those who practice speaking in tongues don't generally suffer from mental illness and actually experience less stress, although psychologist John Kildahl observed in 1972 that such people "tend to have more need of authority figures." Nor is it a trance; in fact, it might be an acquired ability to which some people might be more naturally inclined, in the same way that some people pick up sports or knitting more easily than others. (I suspected as much as a child.) But even so, it still requires a bit of practice to achieve the polished, flowing glossolalia.
Around 390 AD Augustine of Hippo mentioned the practice among certain believers who sang god's praises in a way that "may not be confined by the limits of syllables." That turns out to be a pretty accurate description of glossalalia, lingustically speaking. William Samarin is a professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Toronto who has conducted an extensive study of the practice worldwide. His conclusion:
Glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly. The speaker controls the rhythm, volume, speed and inflection of his speech so that the sounds emerge as pseudolanguage in the form of words and sentences.
According to Skepticwiki, the inventory of sounds is simple, the sequence highly repetitive, there are almost no predictable structural units or systematic word or sentence meaning. "Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia fundamentally is not language." People want to believe, plain and simple, and no amount of scientific evidence to the contrary will change any True Believer's mind about his/her beliefs, because the experience is very real to them. And no wonder. The University of Pennsylvania imaging results demonstrate that this stubborn mindset might have a scientific basis: "[S]omeone in the throes of glossolalia is having an experience which they find genuinely inexplicable because they are not consciously thinking about the stream of syllables which pour from their tongue."
Heading up the Pennsylvania study was Andrew B. Newberg, director and co-founder of the Center for Spirituality and Neurosciences, and author of Why We Believe What We Believe. He studied the brain activity of five Pentecostal women, all of whom regularly spoke in tongues. To do so, he used a nuclear medicine imaging technique called single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), which detects gamma rays after the patient is injected with a radioactive tracer chemical (usually hexamethylpropylene amine oxime). This enables scientists to "see" which areas of the brain are most active during given behaviors — in Newberg's case, when his test subjects were speaking in tongues, and when they were singing Gospel tunes (the control activity). A gamma camera takes pictures as it rotates around the subject's head from multiple angles — this can take 15-20 minutes — and this data is fed into a computer, which uses it to construct a 3D image. The study results were published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
Newberg's findings were quite interesting. Specifically, he measured a near-shut-down of the part of the brain (frontal lobe) related to reason and self-control — indicated by decreased blood flow to that region — and a sharp increase in activity in that part of the brain (parietal region) which takes in sensory information and tries to create a sense of self relating to the world. In the most simple terms, activity in the conscious language centers of the brain decreased while activity in the emotional centers of the brain increased. This is actually opposite to what happens when people practice meditation: there, the frontal lobe becomes more active, while activity in the parietal region decreases. That's because glossolalia is concerned with giving up control and feeling like the self is relating to god, while meditation is about losing the sense of self and controlling focus and concentration.
The study supports Newberg's basic hypothesis that "we are biologically driven to find meaning and wholeness throughout our lives. In fact, our brains have the capacity to create and maintain a system of beliefs which can take us far beyond our survival-oriented needs." However, he also points out that "we are also born with a biological propensity to impose our belief systems on others."
Science has a way of off-setting the risk of wishful thinking, which is why I'm such a big fan of the scientific method. I'm as prone as anyone else to self-deception, but Newberg's hypothesis rings true to me — especially the bit about the pronounced need for those with strong belief systems to impose them on others. That does seem to be a particularly ugly, ingrained aspect of basic human nature. It's not just present among evangelical Christians, either, the current political environment notwitstanding. (And boy, is it prominent in politics!)
For instance, the flurry of emails I've received since my appearance on Coast to Coast (and if I haven't responded to some people, my apologies, but time is tight these days) run the gamut from True Believers who are angry that I don't have more of an open mind and insist on politely pointing out the flaws in their reasoning, and hard-core skeptics who are angry that I wasn't more rudely aggressive in debunking some of the wilder claims because THOSE CRAZY PEOPLE MUST BE STOPPED AT ALL COSTS! (Jen-Luc Piquant sniffs that she is tolerant of almost anything, except intolerance… and yes, she is well aware of the paradox, and embraces it. It's a faux-French thing.) The common thread: their strong personal beliefs result in outrage that someone is expressing an opinion not 100% in agreement with how they would have expressed it. (In fairness, I've received many very nice emails, too, and not just from my parents.)
Fortunately, I've learned a valuable lesson over the years: it's impossible to please absolutely everyone, so you might as well follow your gut instincts and just please yourself. There's no fancy scientific study backing up that particular hypothesis, but as a simple coping mechanism, it works for me. And I stand by what I said on the show: the sharply polarizing extreme rhetoric being employed on both sides of religion vs. science debate (or science vs. pseudoscience, liberal vs conservative, Democrat vs Republication, apples vs. oranges…) isn't helping convince anyone in the long run. Invariably, such people are more concerned with being right and advancing their own beliefs/agenda than they are with actually being heard. Me? I'd rather be heard, even if it's just by one person.
[UPDATE: It's a holiday for godless heathens: welcome to Darwin Day! Darksyde has a nice musing in Darwin's honor over at Daily Kos, while the indefatiguable Coturnix has compiled a terrific list of links here. Where does that guy get his energy?]