As soon as the tongues began, her frontal lobe went dark. At the same time, measurements of the limbic/emotional centers in her brain spiked off the scales. Her thalamus, which is responsible for relaying information from the sensory receptors to proper areas of the brain where it can be processed, lit up like a Christmas tree.

Essentially, the subject lost conscious control of her brain and “something else” took over. It was right there on the scans. With her frontal lobe shut down, the test subject was not thinking about the song, or the words, or the tune while singing in tongues. She wasn’t even thinking about God, in any way we would normally recognize as “thinking.” Yet the rest of her brain was “supernormally” active, and communicating with itself in ways that never occurred outside the specific context of the tongues experience.

Okay. First of all, everything you describe is presenting detectable physical symptoms. There may be no indication of illness or injury, but nonetheless what she’s doing (speaking in tongues) consistently manifests itself through her “thalamus…lit up like a Christmas tree.” That would lead us to believe that whatever the ultimate cause, at the very least the proximate cause(s) are physically present in the subject’s thalamus. Since “she wasn’t even thinking about God,” there would be no reason to think God correlated with the experience. Indeed, there would be reason to rule God out as a place to begin our investigation given its absence according to this hypothetical, at least initially. Of course, in addition to not having any evidence of injury we have no physical evidence of God, but that’s another story.

An hallucination is commonly defined as “an experience involving the apparent perception of something not present.” Speaking in tongues doesn’t quite fit that definition no matter what the cause. It’s a behavior as opposed to a specific perception. That said, we know that strong beliefs do actually manifest themselves in a variety of behaviors. I don’t think that this fact by itself in any way detracts from religious experiences as such. Strong secular beliefs will manifest themselves in certain behaviors and attitudes too, after all. What good is a belief if it has no influence on the person holding it?

I have some background in anthropology, but I don’t claim to be a brain expert by any stretch of the imagination. What I will say is we consistently see religious behaviors acted out in ways that are culturally relevant to the individual. So, a religious experience for someone in SE Asia will almost always come in a form that’s readily identifiable to those within that culture. Likewise with a Pentecostal living in America. We don’t see Buddhists or Taoists speaking in tongues, for example, (at least not that I’m aware) and we don’t see Pentecostals having past life memories. I suppose there may be a very few exceptions, but they will be exceptions that prove the rule.

In an earlier response you suggested scientists might want to interview a million or so people that have had religious experiences and then set aside all the specific doctrines and just focus on the commonalities. I failed to respond to that particular idea. However, social scientists, at least, do and have been conducting such research for over a century. William James wrote a book on religious experiences. Freud and Jung both tackled the issue in their own unique ways. I’m not saying these early psychologists got it either right or wrong when it comes to religion. Only that they did make what I would describe as good faith efforts. And, of course, anthropologists conduct these sorts of interviews all the time. On the physical science side we’ve seen a lot of recent work done to document what if any physical impact religious practices of various sorts have on the individuals engaging in them.

However, to separate the specific beliefs and cultural practices from the experience isn’t possible because these beliefs/cultural practices are what give the experiences so much meaning to the practitioner. Even if we take religion as such out of it, we can’t imagine feeling the sensation of awe in a vacuum. The awe emerges from the context in which it occurs, including both the attitudes of the person experiencing it and their physical surroundings. To be in awe of nothing at all isn’t possible.

There are particular rituals and certain perspectives that one begins with that can’t simply be subtracted from the experience to get at some sort of universal objective spiritual condition that has nothing to do with personal history or cultural context. I was raised in a religious family and at no time did any of them consider their feelings to be independent from the tradition in question. The feelings they had confirmed and reinforced the tradition.

What if no one thinks of the right answer, and so it is never tested for? Do scientists then probabilistically conclude the wrong answer? The answer that is more “likely to be true” based on all the incorrect explanations they did test for? How often does that happen? How would scientists know?

We don’t know what we don’t know. We might be aware of our ignorance — that we haven’t found an explanation for a given phenomenon yet. And, of course, we may reach the wrong conclusion but we wouldn’t have any way of knowing the extent to which we had it wrong until additional information came to light. Technically scientists don’t “know” in the sense that I think most people commonly use that word. They reach probabilistic conclusions based upon the fact that particular things occur together, at least usually. Scientists reach a kind of consensus, not certainty. The more often we get wet when we walk in the rain, the more likely it becomes that rain and wetness have something to do with one another and since we all experience rain as wet we all agree that’s the case. After a while correlations can become so consistent that the use of the word “know” can be forgiven, but there’s always the possibility that there’s something about rain, for example, that we still don’t understand and we just don’t have any idea what that might be at the moment.

But to your question “What if someone thinks of the right answer, and so it is never tested for?” Well, we can’t say it’s the “right” answer (probabilistically/scientifically speaking) until it is tested for. Rightness follows from evidence and tests, it doesn’t precede them. Now, it may be true that every time you meditate it produces a particular positive effect on you personally, and I have no problem with such claims with regard to the personal impact of this or that belief/behavior. It may even be the case that particular practices/rituals consistently trigger certain visions in your case or that other people claim to have the same or similar experience. But to say that therefore we “know” these visions are manifestations of something “out there” as opposed to something “within” is simply wrong without first exploring these claims in far more rigorous and controlled ways than mere anecdotal accounts allow.

Had your original article said, “I believe these phenomena are the right answer/really exist,” I’m not sure I would have said anything. The problem I have with religious/spiritual explanations isn’t that they are religious or spiritual, but that they are so often presented by believers as facts or something that we/they know, when in truth the claims being made are often not even testable. In addition, I don’t think religion/spirituality was ever intended to function as an explanation for physical reality or to provide an account of actual historical events. Monotheism and the advent of the written word led too many of us to begin attributing a kind of literal truth to our mythologies that we don’t typically see in polytheistic religions, Eastern religions or oral traditions. Spirituality should be a means to an end rather than an end unto itself, but I digress.

To be clear, I am not asking science to verify the soul, or God, or any specific religious claim. Only to take seriously the question, “What is this experience that millions upon millions of people describe?”

It does. Psychology, anthropology and sociology in particular do so. The physical sciences don’t nearly as much, but then how could they? They can verify that particular religious practices and experiences manifest themselves in this way or that in the brains/bodies of those having them, but that behaviors and bodies are linked and influence each other in often complex feedback loops should no longer come as a surprise to anyone whether they consider themselves spiritual or not. Is the behavior causing the brain to change or the brain influencing the behavior? A little bit of both. With the discovery of epigenetic impacts we now see that culture and historical events can even have a profound impact on our genome, often lasting generations. It’s not nature or nurture, it’s just nature all the way down.

Again, that the things people describe as spiritual experiences are grounded in the natural world doesn’t for any obvious reason I can think of necessarily detract from the meaning that people ascribe to them. If something exists, it’s natural. I’ve never understood the phrase “supernatural.” If we find out something is there that we didn’t previously know about, whatever it is we can be certain it will comply with the laws of nature somehow. How could it be otherwise? It’s not that spiritual experiences are incompatible with science, but that certain explanations for what’s going on are. There’s no such thing as a supernatural explanation. There’s only natural explanations that we haven’t uncovered yet.

As for the cancer analogy, I really don’t think it fits all that well. What (I think) you’re asking science to look for doesn’t, according to the typical definitions for it that people use, manifest itself on an MRI or any other scanner. To the extent we look at spiritual experiences (and we have), we do see changes to the brain and other physical impacts in at least some cases. See the work done on meditation as a prime example. Work has also been done on the impact of various rituals or the benefits to the individual of attending church, etc. But this research will never be able to confirm that the beliefs inspiring these behaviors are literally true. False beliefs can often have very positive impacts. What we should strive to do is find a way to interact with the world that’s compatible with reality AND provides us with the physical/emotional/cultural benefits of spirituality.

However, you at least seem to want science to look for or consider something else. You keep alleging science has ignored religion/spirituality. It hasn’t. There still seems to be a hypothesis you want science to test, but I can’t figure out what exactly it is. If we could detect something like a soul — which you indicate you aren’t asking science to confirm — it would necessarily be a physical natural phenomenon (thus the detectability). But that isn’t typically how a soul is defined. Have you ever considered the possibility that the brain is the “soul” and you just aren’t willing to accept that we’ve already found it? If the soul or other spiritual experiences are ineffable, no one can research them directly, so why should we expect science to make the effort? The ineffable can only be experienced. We can write good poetry or stories about these experiences, but they make for lousy research proposals. On the other hand, if the soul is tangible then who is to say we aren’t studying it already and science just calls it by a different name?

Sorry, this was a long response. I’m sure there are a few grammatical and other errors here and there too, but I’m only on my first cup of coffee.

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US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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