Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The New York Times Is Speaking In Tongues

Looks like the New York Times has a case of glossolalia (and a better SPECT image than Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging).
A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues

The passionate, sometimes rhythmic, language-like patter that pours forth from religious people who "speak in tongues" reflects a state of mental possession, many of them say. Now they have some neuroscience to back them up.
Below is Table 1 from the paper of Newberg et al. (2006).

As I mentioned, oh, just the other day, (1) the authors did not correct for multiple comparisons, (2) the spatial resolution of SPECT is not that great, and (3) the rCBF reductions in right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and (especially) the left caudate were their most significant findings.

Now The Neurocritic has been meaning to do a post on the left caudate nucleus and language since, oh, June, when the Science paper by Crinion et al. came out.

Just haven't gotten around to it yet, perhaps it should be my next post.

[After the deadline for submitting abstracts for the Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting. Whatever.]

Crinion J, Turner R, Grogan A, Hanakawa T, Noppeney U, Devlin JT, Aso T, Urayama S, Fukuyama H, Stockton K, Usui K, Green DW, Price CJ. (2006). Language control in the bilingual brain. Science 312:1537-4.

How does the bilingual brain distinguish and control which language is in use? Previous functional imaging experiments have not been able to answer this question because proficient bilinguals activate the same brain regions irrespective of the language being tested. Here, we reveal that neuronal responses within the left caudate are sensitive to changes in the language or the meaning of words. By demonstrating this effect in populations of German-English and Japanese-English bilinguals, we suggest that the left caudate plays a universal role in monitoring and controlling the language in use.
As usual, The Neurocritic was going to find something to criticize about the notion that "the left caudate plays a universal role in monitoring and controlling the language in use." However, if Newberg and colleagues had read the Crinion article, which was available when their revised manuscript was submitted, they could have speculated that reduced rCBF in the left caudate was related to the the loss of control, specifically of "monitoring and controlling the language in use."

But no. Here's what they say instead:
The significant decrease in the left caudate is of uncertain significance but may relate to the altered emotional activity during glossolalia.
Uh, NO. Instead of saying anything insightful about language and the caudate, they cite mostly religious articles.
Ms. Morgan, a co-author of the study, was also a research subject. She is a born-again Christian who says she considers the ability to speak in tongues a gift. "You’re aware of your surroundings," she said. "You’re not really out of control. But you have no control over what’s happening. You're just flowing. You’re in a realm of peace and comfort, and it’s a fantastic feeling."
Isn't that a conflict of interest? Not that she's born-again, but that she participated in her own research study.

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At November 10, 2006 12:59 PM, Anonymous Mark Waldman said...

You’ll find a complete description of the speaking in tongues study in Newberg’s new book "Why We Believe What We Believe," Since I’m one of the authors of the study, let me add some notes to this intriguing discussion. First, speaking in tongues is essentially an altered state of consciousness in which the person deliberately changes the overall neural functioning of his or her brain. Chanting, drumming, and shamanic trance states probably would show similar brain states, with decreases in frontal lobes and unusual changes in other areas. Interestingly, in Newberg's other brainscan studies, nuns praying and Buddhists meditating had similar altered brain patterns to each other, but were almost the opposite of the Pentecostals, who never lost sense of themselves and thus do not feel "at one" with the universe or God. Instead they stay present, in dialogue with the Holy Spirit. Is God just an imaginative construct in the brain? Obviously yes (even if God does exist, the brain has to conceive of God to experience it). But what is most interesting about intense meditations is that they can permanently change the neural structure of the brain. All of Newberg's subjects, including the nuns, Buddhists, and one atheist who attempted to pray to God (see the book, "Why We Believe What We Believe" for a full description of all of these studies) had assymetric activity in the thalamus when they weren't even meditating. The longer you focus on any concept, other parts of the brain will respond as if that idea was objectively real. Focus on peace, you become more peaceful; focus on your anger, and your anger will feel justified and real. If you believe in God, God eventually becomes real. So be careful about what you believe!

At November 10, 2006 3:21 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Hello Mark, thanks for stopping by and clarifying the altered state of consciousness experienced by those speaking in tongues (AND for not taking offense at the cynical, sarcastic tone of this blog!).

Once a looming deadline has passed, I'll meditate on your suggestion that structural changes occur in the brains of people who meditate.

At November 14, 2006 12:47 AM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

I haven't read Why We Believe What We Believe, but I did a quick check of PubMed to find published journal articles on structural changes with meditation, and found the following:

Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, Gray JR, Greve DN, Treadway MT, McGarvey M, Quinn BT, Dusek JA, Benson H, Rauch SL, Moore CI, Fischl B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport 16:1893-7.

Previous research indicates that long-term meditation practice is associated with altered resting electroencephalogram patterns, suggestive of long lasting changes in brain activity. We hypothesized that meditation practice might also be associated with changes in the brain's physical structure. Magnetic resonance imaging was used to assess cortical thickness in 20 participants with extensive Insight meditation experience, which involves focused attention to internal experiences. Brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls, including the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula. Between-group differences in prefrontal cortical thickness were most pronounced in older participants, suggesting that meditation might offset age-related cortical thinning. Finally, the thickness of two regions correlated with meditation experience. These data provide the first structural evidence for experience-dependent cortical plasticity associated with meditation practice.

First, a brief comment. Experience-dependent cortical plasticity occurs after many (most) activities. So of course the brain is plastic and changes with training. Imaging studies in highly trained musicians and expert bird watchers do find differences in
motor systems and high-level visual regions (e.g. fusiform gyrus),
respectively, compared to people who don't have expertise in those
fields. We know a lot more about motor systems and object recognition
than consciousness, however.

Second, I'd love to read a peer-reviewed publication on asymmetrical activity in the thalamus during a resting state.

At December 20, 2006 9:52 AM, Anonymous Mark Waldman said...

Actually, Andy Newberg and I are currently outlining a peer-reviewed article on asymmetric activity, so I thought I'd share with you some of the "off-the-record" thinking that goes on in the science community. As we brought to light in our book, scientists are just as prone to biased thinking as anyone else; we're just better at creating logical arguments. Even the study on Prozac is so highly flawed (the researchers even suppressed the fact that they had to give their test subjects an anti-agitant!) that it's amazing they haven't lost any of the lawsuits brought against them.
When you read about spirituality-and-the-brain studies, you'll find that few studies have been replicated, and when they are, often different findings emerge. And you are right when you question that structural changes often occur in the brain. If not, we'd not be able to learn anything new, or change an old behavior, etc.
To return to the lopsided thalamus (and to the cortical thickening in the other study you cited), this could also reflect the fact that advanced meditators are never really "resting;" instead they might always be obsessing on some spiritual concept--thus the unusual activity. After all, most people, when getting brain scans are wondering if they have a tumor or some other damage to the brain.
Another speculation: asymmetric thalami are found in schizophrenics. The skeptic might argue that thinking about God is a somewhat crazy idea that involves an arbitrary dissociative process. Someone else, however, could equally argue that the creativity and openmindedness needed to tap into spiritual perceptions involve the same neural activity that drive schizophrenics mad. Schiz patients have no control, whereas spiritual practitioners have learned how to go in and out of profound and even bizarre altered states. In this sense, mental illness is defined as how ineffective your behavior is when dealing with yourself and the world.

At March 22, 2007 1:23 PM, Blogger Nick said...

Your thoughts about the left caudate tally perhaps with the analysis of the most famous self-reporting tongues-speaker of all time, the Apostle Paul, who said this in First Corinthians 14:14 :

"For if I pray in an unknown tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful."

Thus it's commonly taught in Pentecostal/Charismatic circles on the basis of this and other passages that the person speaking in tongues is speaking forth a stream of utterance which is communicated by the Holy Spirit to his "spirit," as distinct from the "mind" or "understanding."

In this theology, the spirit ("pneuma" in Greek) is the part of human beings which is designed to interact directly with the Divinity. The mind ("nous" in Greek)is the intellectual faculty. In tongues-speaking, then, Paul is saying that there is indeed a transrational flow of speech not generated by the mind of the individual but originating in the mind of God Himself and then coming out as speech through another part of the human inner person.

So it would seem he has accurately described the mechanics of the practice, presumably without knowing about the left caudate.

(Full disclosure: I'm a charismatic minister and have spoken in tongues for 25+ years.)

At April 07, 2007 12:59 PM, Blogger Father Don said...

But we are still out here trying to sort all this out. Thanks for your contribution.


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