Brain imaging is a useful tool, but in the wrong hands it can be little more than hi-tech phrenology. Being able to say that you used single photon emission computed tomography to come to your conclusion sure sounds pretty, and it can seem like you know what you’re doing, but all too often the use of a fancy buzzword is only a ploy to get you noticed, no matter how trivial or even drecky your work is. Here’s a perfect example: a boring paper with almost nothing of interest in it gets published and highlighted in the New York Times, and why? Because the author couples expensive medical gear to religious nonsense, and obviously is very good at self-promotion. He’s a witch doctor in a nice white lab coat.
Andrew Newberg is an author of some rather New Agey popular books, an M.D., and a dualist. He’s the head of the “Center for Spirituality and the Neurosciences” (which is funded in part by the Templeton Foundation, wouldn’t you know it), and he thinks there is something outside the brain responsible for mind. How putting people in fancy gizmos and looking at cerebral blood flow is going to affirm his ideas is a complete mystery to me, but that’s what he does. And then afterwards, he waves his hands around and says the pretty colored pictures that most of his audience don’t understand support his claims.
For instance, this recent paper examined people with glossolalia—”speaking in tongues”. They put themselves into a trance-like state, babbled for a while, Newberg injected them with a compound that would be absorbed in quantities relative to the amount of cerebral blood flow during the episode, and then scanned their brains for the compound. They found a few areas that show differences in activity between singing and “speaking in tongues”, and they show a table of numbers and a pretty picture.
OK, it’s another small piece of data to throw on a growing pile from all of these brain imaging studies; nothing dazzling, nothing particularly bad about it, except maybe that more random studies using gee-whiz techniques are not exactly helpful any more. His conclusion is reasonable, even if it does highlight the triviality of this particular exercise.
The results from this preliminary study have begun to elucidate the neurophysiological correlates of glossolalia. That there were changes in several brain structures suggests that there is complex brain activity during this unusual practice.
Now, though, look at what happens to this mundane study when it gets into the popular press, and when Newberg talks about it without any critical reviewers peering over his shoulder.
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.
I’ve read the paper. No, they don’t. This is a paper that reports quite ordinary changes in the level of brain activity during glossolalia; there are no traces of possessing spirits or other extra-cranial meddling entities, and there is no provision in the work for detecting them if there were.
This isn’t just a clueless reporter mangling results he doesn’t comprehend. This is Newberg actively making exaggerated claims.
“The amazing thing was how the images supported people’s interpretation of what was happening,” said Dr. Andrew B. Newberg, leader of the study team, which included Donna Morgan, Nancy Wintering and Mark Waldman. “The way they describe it, and what they believe, is that God is talking through them,” he said.
People believe this is the Holy Ghost taking control of them; the images do not support that interpretation. Look at the image I’ve included. It shows a slight change in the cerebral blood flow to left caudate. Anyone see any ghosts in that picture? Any reason to assume the changes aren’t physiological? Any reason to think the individual’s subjective interpretation of a phenomenon reflects the objective physical causes in any way?
I’m afraid that all I’ve learned from this is that here’s another glad-handing quack on the spirituality bandwagon who is milking attention for some extraordinarily poor, unscientific interpretations of some murky data. If you want to test for mind-brain dualism, go ahead, design an experiment that does that (I can’t imagine one, but then I’m not promoting the existence of spirits); don’t just fling around some impressive-sounding technical jargon and pretend you’ve got evidence. Competent people can see right through that, and can also see that you’re just trying to defraud the rubes. And maybe yourself.
Newberg AG, Wintering NA, Morgan D, Waldman MR (2006) The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during glossolalia: A preliminary SPECT study. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 148(1):67-71.