The neuroscience of speaking in tongues

The New York Times has covered a recently published brain-scanning study of five individuals who ‘speak in tongues’ – an experience also known as glossolalia – where someone appears to be speaking in an incomprehensible language over which they seem to have no control.

This is usually linked to religious and spiritual worship, particularly for Christians in the charismatic tradition (there’s some footage on YouTube).

A team of researchers, led by Dr Andrew Newberg, used a type of brain-imaging called SPECT to compare blood flow differences in the brain between when participants were singing hymns and when they were speaking in tongues.

The main findings were that when participants were speaking in tongues compared to when they were singing, there was a decrease in activity in the prefrontal cortex, the tip of the left temporal lobe and a deep brain structure called the caudate nucleus (see image on right).

Although brain areas are known to have multiple functions, the prefrontal cortex is known to be involved in cognitive control, while the left temporal pole is associated with naming and the caudate nucleus has been associated with the ability to switch between multiple languages.

The authors suggest that these findings may indicate a loosening of control over language functions in the brain, potentially leading to the production of apparently unstructured language that the participants experience as outside their control.

Notably, there were also relative increases in activity in the left parietal lobe (linked to our sense of body and spatial awareness) and the amygdala – an area known to be heavily involved in emotion.

These findings were a lot harder to explain, however, although the parietal lobe in particular has been linked to meditation, although a previous study found the area showed decreased, not increased activity, as was the case in this instance.

However, this is not the first time that neuroscientists have studied speaking in tongues.

Dr Michael Persinger reported a case in 1984 where he used EEG recordings to look at the electrical activity in the brain of a 20 year-old female who experienced the same phenomenon.

The graph on the left shows EEG recordings taken from the temporal lobes during a period of speaking in tongues that show increased ‘spike events’.

This indicates that, like the more recent Newberg study, changes in temporal lobe function may be an important part of the experience.

Interestingly, people with temporal lobe epilepsy are known to be more likely to have religious or mystical experiences during seizures.

One of my favourite case studies is of 25 year-old female patient with temporal lobe epilepsy who had “seizures characterized by repetition of certain religious statements and a rather compulsive kissing behavior”.

Well, they do say God moves in mysterious ways.

Link to NYT article ‘A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues’.
Link to abstract of SPECT study on speaking in tongues.

A little white fMRI

fingers_crossed.jpgThe Washington Post investigates the neuroscience of lying in a recent article on whether new brain-scanning technologies will be able to separate facts from falsehoods.

This technology is of particular interest to governments interested in whether neuroscience can get more reliable information from suspects, and to companies willing to pay to ‘interrogate’ clients about their truthfulness.

The article mentions a company called No Lie MRI Ltd which claims to use “the first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history”, which surely must violate any number of laws regarding truthfulness in product advertising – considering that the recent research on fMRI lie detection suggests a poor reliability with current methods.

Presumably, they took their own lie detection test and convinced themselves they were telling the truth.

This is not to say that this technology will develop in the future to be more reliable, though.

This prospect has sparked concern about the potential legal (pdf) and ethical issues of this technology and spurred the American Civil Liberties Union to submit a freedom of information request to the US Government earlier this year to see if they are already using fMRI ‘lie detection’ on terrorist suspects.

Some of the hype around brain-scan lie detection harks back to similar claims that were made for the polygraph tests in the past, despite evidence of their poor reliability and high levels of false positives.

Whether fMRI based lie detection turns out to be anything other than a similarly unreliable detection method (but with prettier pictures) remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, one method which does seem to be generating a lot of interest is the Guilty Knowledge Test (pdf), which relies on the fact that the brain tends to produce reliably different automatic responses for items that are recognised compared to items that aren’t.

The idea behind this is that you could show items to suspects that were taken from the ‘crime scene’ and look for the traces of successful recognition measured from the brain.

This technique is now reliable enough that it is starting to be admissible in court. The success of this technique has given researchers hope that successful lie detection may be possible for more than simple recognition situations.

Nevertheless, as every good conman knows, the best lies have a kernel of truth and it’s not clear how well these techniques will detect economies of truth when compared to outright whoppers.

Link to article ‘Brain on Fire’ from The Washington Post.

Encephalon 10 and new BPS Research Digest

A new edition of psychology and neuroscience writing carnival Encephalon has just arrived online, as has the latest instalment of British Psychological Society fortnightly psychology update, The Research Digest.

A couple of my favourites include a discussion of the possible conscious influences on the Implicit Association Test or IAT, a psychological test that supposedly tests subconscious associations, and an analysis of a study that suggests that our motivations can influence what we see.

There’s plenty more articles at the two summaries of psychology’s latest, so have a look if you’re eager for more information.

Link to Encephalon issue 10.
Link to lastest BPS Research Digest.

The private life of a brain surgeon

Neurosurgeon and author Katrina Firlik is interviewed in the latest edition of ABC Radio’s All in the Mind about her work and motivations.

Firlik wrote Brain Matters, an engaging book about the difficulties of working knuckle-deep in the brain.

The book spilt the beans on the curiosities of the neurosurgery operating theatre and the preoccupations of people who have dedicated their lives to making running repairs to the nervous system.

Katrina Firlik’s business is brains. Carving into the ‘flesh of the soul’ is her day job. The first woman admitted into one of the most prestigious neurosurgery programs, she’s just penned an insiders account of her world. Part mechanic – part scientist, her intimate encounters of diseased and damaged brains offer a unique, and grisly, lens onto our most mysterious and wondrous organ.

Link to audio and transcript of ‘The Private Life of a Brain Surgeon’.

Searching for emotional truth

PsyBlog has posted the first of a new series entitled ‘Emotional Truth: The Search Starts Here’ that will examine how much control we have over emotions and how they link to our thoughts and experiences.

Many people would say their emotions only come when they will and not when they want. So how do thoughts and emotions interact in everyday life and in therapeutic processes like cognitive behavioural therapy? Do we really have any control over our emotions or are they things that just happen to us?

The first part looks at the work of the philosopher Robert Solomon who attempts to unpick ‘common sense’ psychology to show that our everyday understanding of emotions poorly describes how they affect our thoughts and behaviour.

Further parts in the series will analyse some of the latest findings from emotion science that are helping us make sense of our chaotic feelings.

Link to Part 1 of ‘Emotional Truth: The Search Starts Here’ from PsyBlog.

Dracula’s debt to Victorian neurology

While searching for more information on Bram Stoker’s supposed death by syphilis in the medical literature (I found nothing), I did come across this summary of a fascinating paper about the influence of late-Victorian neurology on Dracula.

Cerebral automatism, the brain, and the soul in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Journal of the History of the Neurosciences. 2006 Jun;15(2):131-52.

Neither literary critics nor historians of science have acknowledged the extent to which Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is indebted to late-Victorian neurologists, particularly David Ferrier, John Burdon-Sanderson, Thomas Huxley, and William Carpenter. Stoker came from a family of distinguished Irish physicians and obtained an M.A. in mathematics from Trinity College, Dublin. His personal library contained volumes on physiology, and his composition notes for Dracula include typewritten pages on somnambulism, trance states, and cranial injuries. Stoker used his knowledge of neurology extensively in Dracula. The automatic behaviors practiced by Dracula and his vampiric minions, such as somnambulism and hypnotic trance states, reflect theories about reflex action postulated by Ferrier and other physiologists. These scientists traced such automatic behaviors to the brain stem and suggested that human behavior was “determined” through the reflex action of the body and brain – a position that threatened to undermine entrenched beliefs in free will and the immortal soul. I suggest that Stoker’s vampire protagonist dramatizes the pervasive late-nineteenth-century fear that human beings are soulless machines motivated solely by physiological factors.

The paper is by English Professor Anne Stiles and frustratingly, the full-text isn’t freely available online, although the full reference is listed on PubMed for those with access to the journal.

If anyone does ‘find’ a freely-accessible copy online, please let me know and I’ll be happy to link to it.

However, Stiles was a guest on ABC Radio’s All in the Mind last year discussing the role of neurology in Victoria horror novels, the transcript of which is still available.

Link to PubMed entry for paper.

Five minutes with Nick Yee

Nick Yee is researching the psychology of social interaction in online worlds, and finding some surprising results.

At first sight, multi-player worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft may seem like relatively crude or whimsical simulations of real-life social situations.

But intriguingly, Yee has discovered that ‘personal space’ and other aspects of non-verbal communication are just as important, and that offline romances can blossom in online game worlds.

While these worlds are becoming the centre of new economies, social groups and leisure activities, Yee hopes to understand how the human mind adapts to communication via virtual reality.

He’s also kindly agreed to talk to Mind Hacks about his work and latest discoveries.

Continue reading “Five minutes with Nick Yee”

Brain shake

Alright, hold tight
I want to ball tonight
On my fender, no space defender
I enjoy it on the floor, I get it tight
Toe to toe with a black widow
Fee Fia Foo smell the blood of rock ‘n’ roll
All night drive on the rockin’ suicide
My feet are jumping, she’s a joy to ride
Joy to ride, a joy to ride
She’s an all night drive on the rockin’ suicide

And it’s a brain shake, brain shake, brain shake
All I can take
Brain shake, brain shake, brain shake

Rock group AC/DC give a timely warning about the dangers of diffuse axonal injury when going “toe to toe with a black widow” in their 1983 song Brain Shake.

As the song is presumably a reference to having sex, you’d be having to be doing something really quite frightening to risk diffuse axonal injury, which is a tear in the brain’s white matter that usually occurs after the brain is shaken by a serious fall or car crash.

Perhaps Brian Johnson and his bandmates might consider using a future song to warn about the more realistic dangers of stroke during sex in those with patent foramen ovale, a congenital heart defect?

Trepanation and syphilis

I went to the exhibition I posted about yesterday on visual cognition in painting and surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons and was a bit under-whelmed to be honest.

It was interesting, but was really just some colourful information boards about the study and research project.

However, the Hunterian Museum is always excellent, and I happened across this exhibit of a skull with three trepanation holes in it, and evidence of syphilitic caries (cavities in the skull caused by infection).

There’s no other information about it, except it is pre-1831.

It isn’t known whether the hole-drilling operation was an attempt to ‘treat’ the infection by syphilis, but it is likely, owing to the fact that syphilis often leads to neurosyphilis.

Neurosyphilis is known to cause a number of neurological and psychiatric consequences – psychosis being the most well-known.

Some say that Dracula author Bram Stoker, was suffering from neurosyphilis when he wrote his final, and frankly weird, last novel The Lair of the White Worm.

The Hunterian Museum has an online catalogue, called SurgiCat that allows you to search the museum records and indexes.

A search for ‘trephining’ (an alternative name for trepanation) brings up a number of surgical kits used for the purpose and various bits of skull and brain-covering that show evidence of hole-drilling.

Visual cognition in painting and surgery

The Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum in London has a fascinating exhibition on at the moment entitled How do you look? that investigates the role of visual cognition in painting and surgery.

The exhibition has been conceived and led by Dr John Tchalenko from Camberwell College of Arts, who has a long-standing interest in the cognitive neuroscience of painting-relevant skills.

Also involved is artist Humphrey Ocean, who has previously been brain-scanned by Tchalenko as part of a study into novice vs expert artistic skills.

How Do You Look? examines how a painter and a surgeon use their eyes in their work, how they coordinate their eye and hand movements and how these translate into actions and creative processes. The exhibition explores the similarities and differences in their work and makes comparisons with how we all use our eyes in everyday tasks and when viewing the world around us.

Dr John Tchalenko elaborates, ‘The eye captures and the brain processes the information needed at a particular instant to fulfil the task in hand. It is how the visual system works. In the scientific jargon it’s known as “eye ‚Äì hand coordination”‘. ‘The brain does not know whether it is dealing with art, surgery or everyday life. How you look depends on what the action is, not who you are.’

There’s more at the dedicated website including dates for when the exhibition is touring the UK.

It remains at the Hunterian Museum until 22nd December 2006.

Link to info from Royal College of Surgeons.
Link to ‘How do you look?’ website.

Student Blogging Scholarship are offering $5000 in fee-money as part of their ‘Student Blogging Scholarship’. You can vote for your favourite student blogger from among the top ten finalists here.

There is only one neuroscientist in the final 10: Shelley Batts, a 3rd-year Neuroscience PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, who blogs at Retrospectacle. Shelley would love to have your vote, and the money would help put her through school, promote blogging and promote neuroscience – all good things in my book!

Vote for Shelley here. Voting ends midnight Nov 5th.

Stalking the wiley user

ABC Radio’s In Conversation has just broadcast a discussion on our relationship with technology with Prof Mike Michael, a psychologist and sociologist who researches how we interact with new devices and scientific developments.

Michael discusses how psychologists and anthropologists are increasingly being employed to understand how technology is used by people in day-to-day life, which can sometimes be quite different from the way the manufacturers originally intended.

…if one thinks of the microwave; when that was initially marketed it was as a brown or black, it was basically aimed at men and it failed dismally. And then it was converted to a white good and aimed at women, and that obviously mapped on to all sorts of gender divisions of labour within the kitchen and so on, and it’s a success. …

Another example is the telephone. The telephone initially was thought to be a business tool for men and it had some success, but it was when women took it over as a social tool for maintaining social contacts with friends and family that it really took off.

Michael argues that as well as the practical uses of technology, these items can also take on social uses, can be used to create or weaken immediate social environments, or to broadcast messages about a person’s identity to others.

The programme covers technologies as diverse as the mobile phone to gene therapy and xenotransplantation.

Link to audio and transcript of In Conversation.

2006-11-03 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:


Erotica has a measurable psychological effect even we can’t consciously detect it, reports Scientific American. Ironically, the study is published in a journal called PNAS.

Modern gimmick or sensible application of attachment theory? Infant psychotherapy is discussed by the Post Gazette.

A study of Asian elders finds that curcumin, an ingredient in curry, helps keep the brain healthy, reports The Times.

Gene ‘flaw’ increases autism risk, reports BBC News.

This month’s PLoS Medicine is a special issue on social medicine.

Researchers are working on a promising blood test for Alzheimer’s disease, reports BBC News.

Alpha Psy has a wonderful guide to sex differences in cognition.

The headline simply repeats a common feature of depression as if it were news but the study suggests a reason why people with depression can have a consistent change in mood during the day (known as diurnal variation).

An intriguing study on the the cognitive psychology of face recognition is tackled by Cognitive Daily.

Concise article from Blog Around the Clock on how babies develop sleep patterns.

The New York Times reviews Marc Hauser’s book that argues we have a ‘moral grammar’. Commentary on the controversial claims here and here.

Having a positive ethnic identity boosts the happiness of teens, reports Medical News.

Keeping trauma victims awake may prevent PTSD

distraught_white_bg.jpgAn article in October’s Biological Psychiatry reports that immediate sleep maintains emotional memories and suggests an intriguing hypothesis – that post-traumatic stress disorder could be prevented by stopping people from sleeping immediately after a traumatic event.

A research team, led by psychologist Ullrich Wagner, asked tired participants to learn neutral texts (such as a piece about dressmaking) or emotional texts (such as a piece about child murder).

Some of the participants slept immediately, others were kept awake for three hours after learning.

Four years later, the participants were tested for how well they had remembered the texts.

Those who had slept immediately after learning had better memory than those who hadn’t, but only for the emotional topics.

This suggests that sleep helps consolidate memory most effectively for emotional material.

The researchers argue that these results suggest a simple way of dampening the impact of intense memories that form one of the main features of post-traumatic distress disorder: intrusive vivid memories of the event.

“From a clinical perspective, our results suggest the use of sleep deprivation in the immediate aftermath of traumatic events as a possible therapeutic measure to prevent a long-term engravement of these events in memory, thereby at least partly counteracting the development of PTSD as a disease thought to reflect overconsolidated emotional memories.”

Although not widely known, sleep deprivation is not a new treatment for psychiatric disorders.

It is known that missing a night’s sleep can significantly improve mood, even in people with severe depression.

Unfortunately, the improvement is often lost when people catch up on their sleep and it is still not clear why these effects occur.

Link to abstract of ‘Brief sleep after learning keeps emotional memories alive for years’.
Link to abstract of ‘Therapeutic use of sleep deprivation in depression’.