Holy Roller

“I will poor out my spirit on all flesh… He said I’m gonna raise you… God never asked you to do anything he doesn’t give you the power to do it with… if you don’t put on the Truth, you cannot stand…”  The hypnotic song-like rhythmic cadence of a charismatic Pentecostal Christian healer often results in the “laying on of hands” and the interesting phenomenon known as “speaking in tongues” as shown in this video:

Pentecostal Christians assert that divine assurance is instantaneous and occurs when a Christian experiences the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” by a supposed healer. This baptism is “revealed” by worshipers speaking in tongues. The sociologist Max Weber defined charismatic authority as “resting on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.”  A new study offers neurophysiological evidence that worshipers suspend their skepticism when they respond to the influence of someone with authority who they view as having the power to heal.

Uffe Schjødt of Aarhus University in Denmark and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate how assumptions about religious speakers’ abilities change the Blood-Oxygen-Level Dependence (BOLD) response in both secular and Pentecostal Christian participants.  BOLD response is measured as the MRI contrast of blood deoxyhemoglobin.  Schjødt’s team found that parts of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices in the brain (the frontal network), which play key roles in vigilance and skepticism when judging whether a statement is true, were deactivated when the Pentecostal Christian subjects listened to a healer.

During the study, Schjødt and his colleagues scanned the brains of 20 Pentecostal Christians and 20 “secular” believers while playing them recorded prayers. The subjects were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian, and six by a healer. An independent analysis across subjects revealed that the deactivation of the cortices “predicted the Christian participants’ subsequent ratings of the speakers’ charisma and experience of God’s presence during prayer.” 

A New Scientist article characterizes this deactivation as “shutting off the brain.” A Boing Boing post hints that it might apply to “religiously devout people.”

A New Scientist article characterizes this deactivation as “shutting off the brain”  and a Boing Boing post hints that it might apply to “religiously devout people” in general.  While the researchers conclude that “observations point to an important mechanism of authority that may facilitate charismatic influence,” they also acknowledge that the neurophysiological responses could be present in other authoritarian “interpersonal interactions” — Adolf Hitler’s hypnotic, charismatic speeches come to mind.  But whether this deactivation occurs with other religious devotees such as Baptists, Unitarians, or even Buddhists is simply conjecture.  In fact, fMRI studies suggest that there is activation in the left medial prefrontal cortex extending to the anterior cingulate gyrus during compassionate meditation.  But suspending judgment due to belief in a leader’s charismatic powers may well start to explain how certain leaders are believed without question by the faithful, no matter whether what the leaders say is true.

An atheist listening to Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens is most likely going to encourage rational discourse and not “shut down” and suspend judgment based on the speakers’ abilities.  However, it’s dangerous to generalize Schjødt’s study to conclude that all religious followers are necessarily less skeptical than atheists.  The interesting finding in the study is that one Christian sect responded with deactivation of an area of the brain associated with judgment and skepticism, but under the influence of someone with authority who they viewed as having the power to heal.  But with further fMRI research, it may well prove that fanatical adherence to any authoritarian figure invokes a similar response.

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