Home > Science Follies > Your Brain on God

Your Brain on God

File this under: I have an imaging tool and I need something to do with it that will garner grant support. Hey, let’s study people speaking in tongues! Because we will learn….something! That will be of use for….whatever!


At least as far as I can tell they aren’t claiming the images prove that men have superior math abilities. Which is usually the result of functional imaging studies.
Imaging tool: SPECT
At: University of Pennsylvania
Who studied: Healthy, active, female churchgoers
The New York Times had to go all the way to a pentacostal church in the Congo to find a photo of a black woman in the throes of religious ecstasy. Apparently there were no Southern U.S. churches that would let them take photos. Or none of the ladies from the study were available for photos. Or even the researchers. They eschewed this opportunity to print yet another photo of a white male in order to give us exotic foreign black women to gape at. Very nice, NY Times.

“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.

So what? So SPECT imaging supports that God is talking through them? Is that what you are saying? Sheesh. Dude, I worked on SPECT imaging, and while it may be useful for some things, I do not think it is going to show you God in someone’s brain. Even if She exists.

Dr. Newberg is also a co-author of “Why We Believe What We Believe.”

O-kay.

In the study, the researchers used imaging techniques to track changes in blood flow in each woman’s brain in two conditions, once as she sang a gospel song and again while speaking in tongues. By comparing the patterns created by these two emotional, devotional activities, the researchers could pinpoint blood-flow peaks and valleys unique to speaking in tongues.

At least they had a control. Although I would have suggested comparing the people with glossolalia to people on LSD.

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.”

Um, so the research subject is helping to interpret the results? O-kay.
And hey, NY Times, you couldn’t have given us a picture of Ms. Morgan instead?

Categories: Science Follies
  1. Joe Shelby
    November 7, 2006 at 6:46 pm

    From a Non-sequitor comic a few years back – the three witches from Macbeth around their cauldron: “Gee, maybe if we label it faith-based chemistry we might get some funding?”

  2. writerdd
    November 7, 2006 at 7:09 pm

    Big deal. I used to be a born again Christian and I can still speak in tongues even though I no longer believe in God or even in speaking in tongues. To quote the Bible and Shakespear, it is like a clanging bell signifying nothing.

  3. November 7, 2006 at 7:22 pm

    As this SEED article on fMRI shows, anything can become a neurological just-so story if you can wave some brain images in front of people!

  4. Gene Goldring
    November 7, 2006 at 8:55 pm

    Neuroleptic’s should have been sent instead. That would hold her tongues.

  5. bsci
    November 8, 2006 at 1:35 am

    RANT
    As someone with signifcantly more than a passing knowledge of brain imaging, I really hate these articles. It’s also really lowered my opinion of the NY Times Science section. I assume that in most fields they chose the topics that are most interesting for a lay audience rather than the most interesting for scientists. I’m ok with that. For brain imaging their measures of interest seem to have nothing to do with the actual quality of the research (Is this what physicists think of the reams of articles on string theory?) I remember a couple of years ago they had an article on the imaging of love and the picture in the paper was a classic motion related artifact near the ventricles, and not the caudate. I can’t pull the source article for the speaking in tongues right now, but I’d love to see how they avoided motion related artifacts.
    Zuksa’s comment on the picture choice adds to ridiculousness and shoddy work of the article. I do differ with the sarcastic comment on topics that garner grant support. Probably a huge chunk of grant money studies silly topics like this (Although some of these silly topics do lead to major discoveries, which is why they are funded and the point of generous research budgets) My complaint isn’t that it’s done or funded, but that’s it’s publicized as the best of science.
    The sad thing is that fMRI and brain imaging really have revolutionized our understanding of human brain function, but the constant hype of the worst examples has hurt the whole field. (I partially disagree with Kristin’s linked SEED article) fMRI probably does get a disproportionate amount of the funding pie, but I think the backlash has already begun and it’s going to take good science with bad because too few people learned how to critically evaluate the method.
    /RANT

  6. bsci
    November 8, 2006 at 1:35 am

    RANT
    As someone with signifcantly more than a passing knowledge of brain imaging, I really hate these articles. It’s also really lowered my opinion of the NY Times Science section. I assume that in most fields they chose the topics that are most interesting for a lay audience rather than the most interesting for scientists. I’m ok with that. For brain imaging their measures of interest seem to have nothing to do with the actual quality of the research (Is this what physicists think of the reams of articles on string theory?) I remember a couple of years ago they had an article on the imaging of love and the picture in the paper was a classic motion related artifact near the ventricles, and not the caudate. I can’t pull the source article for the speaking in tongues right now, but I’d love to see how they avoided motion related artifacts.
    Zuksa’s comment on the picture choice adds to ridiculousness and shoddy work of the article. I do differ with the sarcastic comment on topics that garner grant support. Probably a huge chunk of grant money studies silly topics like this (Although some of these silly topics do lead to major discoveries, which is why they are funded and the point of generous research budgets) My complaint isn’t that it’s done or funded, but that’s it’s publicized as the best of science.
    The sad thing is that fMRI and brain imaging really have revolutionized our understanding of human brain function, but the constant hype of the worst examples has hurt the whole field. (I partially disagree with Kristin’s linked SEED article) fMRI probably does get a disproportionate amount of the funding pie, but I think the backlash has already begun and it’s going to take good science with bad because too few people learned how to critically evaluate the method.
    /RANT

  7. November 8, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    I posted two rants of my own on this study:
    Glossolalia
    AND
    The New York Times Is Speaking In Tongues

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