8
$\begingroup$

Basically the title. I would like to know if there are scientific studies on the phenomenon of experiencing sudden body shaking and trembling in religious settings, usually in response to the command of a person who represents a religious authority. Please take a look at the following examples for illustrative purposes: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T

Many people claim they are the result of a supernatural influence acting upon these individuals. Here are some quotes from first-hand experiencers of the phenomenon:

  • Testimony 1: this is by far the best testimony I know of. The context is the Brownsville Revival. In the video a lady testifies about her experience of body shaking and trembling allegedly as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit acting upon her. In fact she begins to shake and tremble on camera as she is narrating her testimony. At 6:46 the lady and the preacher begin to talk specifically about the causes of her tremors. At 7:12 she says "[...]like right now, I think the Glory of God is so strong up here, my body can't really take it and that's why I'm doing this [...]"
  • Testimony 2: The testimony as a whole is powerful, but regarding body shaking and trembling at 4:54 the guy describes his experience. Here a quote: "[...] my body started doing things that defied metaphysics, my body started doing things that I couldn't explain. I started levitating and bouncing off of the chair I was sitting in like a jack hammer [...]"
  • Testimony 3: "[...]I felt an electricity, a fire[...]" followed by the girl trembling and fainting in reaction to the command of the preacher. Then the preacher says "The power of God is the kingdom of God manifesting in our midst[...]".
  • Testimony 4: "[...]I felt an electricity all through my body, in all of my joints[...]", followed by the woman trembling and fainting in reaction to the command of the preacher (just like in the previous testimony).
  • Testimony 5: "[...]I felt a heat, and I felt a peace[...]", followed by the woman trembling and fainting in reaction to the command of the preacher (again).
  • Testimony 6: "[...]I felt a vibrating that I'm feeling right now[...]", followed by the guy fainting and feeling a sort of ecstasy based on his facial expression, in response to the preacher's command.
  • Testimony 7: "[...]I was burning all over, and I felt so free, He just embraces you and makes you feel so loved[...]", followed by the guy losing the equilibrium and fainting, in response to the preacher's command.

Many of these videos pertain to Andres Bisonni's ministry, who has run dozens of "miracle crusades" around the world. In this video he claims that his ministry is about "signs, wonders and miracles" and in this video he claims that his ministry started with a supernatural encounter with the Holy Spirit that changed his life. Andres Bissoni has a YouTube Channel with more than 375K subscribers, from which I borrowed most of the example videos above. Most of these videos are highlight video clips from "miracle crusades" and "Holy Spirit revival meetings" and are intended to showcase "the power of God". In particular, most of those highlight clips show instances of dramatic body shaking and trembling, so the claim that they are supernatural is obvious.

Likewise, Example B took place in an evangelistic campaign in Mexico led by the Hispanic pastor and evangelist Juan Carlos Harrigan, who also has a YouTube Channel with over 1 million subscribers. In the video the preacher says in Spanish "[...] está muy fuerte la unción sobre ella, agárrenla, está muy fuerte [...]" which in English translates to "[...] the anointing over her is very strong, hold her, it's very strong [...]", meaning that the dramatic body shaking and trembling the girl experienced is allegedly the result of God's anointing being poured over her.

So we have live recordings of people dramatically shaking and trembling, multiple first-hand testimonies and at least two very influential preachers claiming these manifestations are supernaturally caused.

So, are these manifestations necessarily of supernatural origin? Is the supernatural the only "reasonable" explanation? Are there scientific explanations? Are there scientific studies explaining the mechanics behind this phenomenon, rendering the "supernatural explanation" unnecessary?

Extra points to be given

  1. @PaulJohnson in Skeptics.SE objects that the question for necessity is trivially answerable with no since in principle everyone could be a paid actor, which would explain away everything. Although I agree with him in principle, in all honesty I really doubt this is the case. If these preachers have been hiring actors to fake these manifestations for so many years, by now there would be whistleblowers exposing them (e.g. someone saying "this preacher is a scammer, he hired me to perform in front of the audience"), but so far I haven't come across a single case (I'm talking about Andres Bisonni and Juan Carlos Harrigan specifically, I know there are scammer preachers out there).

    Moreover, even children are experiencing this (like here, here, here, here), very old people (like here, here) and even prison inmates, and I really doubt they are all paid actors. So there are clearly sincere people experiencing this stuff, and I don't find reasonable to gratuitously disregard the phenomenon claiming they are all faking it.

  2. @PaulJohnson in Skeptics.SE also mentioned mass psychogenic illness, which is very interesting, and I thank him for sharing that, but I would really love it if he could elaborate more on that in a formal answer to the question (I wish it was reopened) instead of lightly mentioning it in the comment section. However, looking at the symptoms table in the article, none of the symptoms in the table corresponds to dramatic body shaking or trembling, the closest one is "nervousness" but equating that to "feeling a fire and electricity through your body that makes you shake and tremble, accompanied by feelings of love and peace" is a little bit of a stretch.

  3. @TonyMobbs presents two candidate hypotheses: H4) Conformance to social norms and H8) Attention seeking (since the other hypotheses were dismissed). These hypotheses in essence assert that people are actors intentionally faking it all (in H4 out of peer pressure, in H8 out of love for attention). In other words, H4 and H8 are equivalent to the "Paid Actors" hypothesis, except that without the "Paid" part (since the incentive is other than money). Although in principle this could explain the outer behavior (shaking, trembling, etc.), it fails to explain the multiple reports of very strong sensations and emotions that seem to co-occur with these experiences. In particular, there is a pattern of people reporting strong sensations that they describe with expressions such as "waves of electricity", "fire", "heat", "burning all over", sometimes in combination with "joy", "love", "peace", etc. This is confirmed by a peer-reviewed paper acknowledging that people report these overwhelming feelings and emotions. Also, here is an example testimonial in written form, and here are some example video clips of this: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M.

    There being so many reports of overwhelming emotions and sensations co-occurring with shaking/trembling, how do H4 and H8 account for them?

$\endgroup$
4
+50
$\begingroup$

The exhibited behaviours are episodic glossolalia, collapsing, fainting, trembling, jerking, convulsing, contorting and shaking. The individuals performing these episodic behaviours report experiencing overwhelming emotions of love, peace, ecstasy and euphoria. The exhibited behaviours are inconsistent with the claimed emotions, so perhaps another way to understand the question is to explain why individuals behave in a manner that is inconsistent with their emotions. Examples of behaviour associated with euphoria do not generally include glossolalia, collapsing, fainting, trembling, jerking and shaking. The exhibited behaviours are more congruent with the emotions of stress, anxiety, fear, and confusion.

The exhibited behaviours and reported emotional experiences are observed in both religious and nonreligious settings including:

The adoption by some Christian sects of the exhibited behaviours appears to be relatively recent with the "Toronto Blessing" in the 1990s appearing to be significant. In all cases exhibited, the behaviours and emotions appear to occur in the presence of, and behest of, a charismatic and captivating authority figure.

In the absence of peer reviewed literature on the topic, eight strawman hypotheses are proposed. In accordance with the principle of parsimony, the hypothesis without discrediting evidence and the least number of assumptions will be tentatively selected.

The strawman hypotheses identified are:

The behaviours and emotions may result from:

  1. an unidentified invisible force (e.g. a spirit or god) causing electro neurological impulses that result in such behaviour,
  2. a hysterical state induced by the leader or other Mass psychogenic illness,
  3. a hysterical state self-induced by the individual,
  4. the individuals are conforming to the directions of an authority figure and/or conforming to the social norms of the group,
  5. the individuals suffering from a Functional Neurological Disorder (FND),
  6. the individuals being paid actors,
  7. the individuals being in a state of hypnosis, or
  8. the individuals are attention seeking

Each of these strawman hypotheses will be examined in turn:

  1. Unidentified invisible force. No confirmatory evidence has yet been tendered supporting the existence of invisible forces, other than the four fundamental forces of gravity, electromagnetism and strong and weak nuclear forces. As the exhibited behaviours are widespread across non-intersecting religious and cultural groups, a further unanswered question is which of the unidentified invisible forces is capable of inducing the emotions and behaviours or whether all unidentified invisible forces are equally capable of inducing such emotions and behaviours. The Christian sects shown in the exhibited videos subscribe to their religion by way of faith, which is ordinarily defined as a belief in the absence of supporting evidence. There being no scientific evidence of the involvement of unidentified invisible force(s), this hypothesis is dismissed.

  2. Hysterical state induced by the leader: The presence of a charismatic and captivating leader in all the videos provided suggests credence for this option. The causes of Mass Psychological Illness remain speculative. The psychological mechanism capable of inducing a hysterical state are not yet understood and the mechanisms used by the charismatic leader are not uniform between the ghost dance ceremonies, Hindu Kundalini Awakening ceremonies, particular martial arts and Christian sects. There being no identified scientifically established mechanism capable of inducing hysterical states, this hypothesis is dismissed.

  3. Hysterical state induced by the individual: No established mechanism by which an individual may self-induce a hysterical state was identified, therefore, this hypothesis is dismissed.

  4. Conformance to the social norms: There is strong evidence that individuals seek to conform with the directions of authority figures and social norms. Conformance is due to the desire to avoid behaviours that would exclude them from the group(Burger, 2019; Milgram & Gudehus, 1978; Philippe & Durand, 2011; Schmidt et al., 2019). YouTube records examples of individuals participating in such behaviours but later ceasing the behaviours. These individuals report conforming to the behaviours due to social and situational pressure. It seems inconceivable that individuals who can participate in activities (in some cases for many years) that reliably induce feelings of love, peace, ecstasy and euphoria would ever seek to depart from such behaviours, yet the internet abounds with stories of individuals ceasing to perform such behaviours. The prevalence of individuals reporting conformance to social and situational pressure and the abundance of established peer reviewed literature identifying the basis of socially conforming behaviour suggests that this hypothesis is not immediately dismissable and worthy of more rigorous scientific analysis. References to individuals departing from these behaviours can be found here, here, here, here and here.

  5. Functional Neurological Disorder (FND): Individuals suffering FND exhibit behaviours for many years and do not describe the concurrent emotions as love, peace, ecstasy and euphoria. There being no similarity between FND and the relevant behaviours and emotions, this hypothesis is dismissed.

  6. Paid actors: Given the number of observed occurrences of the exhibited behaviours, it seems inconceivable that at least one paid actor would not have published their experiences in either paid media or a blog. The absence of individuals claiming to be paid actors discredits this hypothesis and it is therefore dismissed.

  7. Hypnosis: Hypnosis is defined as a human condition involving focused attention, reduced peripheral awareness, and an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion. It is unclear from the exhibited behaviours that the process of hypnosis matches the behavioural expectations of hypnosis (Williamson, 2019; Mayo Clinic) and nor does the hypnotic induction process appear to match those in the exhibited videos. For these reasons, this hypothesis is therefore dismissed.

  8. Attention seeking:

Of the eight strawman hypotheses, only one avoided immediate dismissal. The hypothesis that avoided dismissal undoubtedly requires more formal scientific assessment, presumably by way of surveying a substantial number of individuals who have previously participated in such behaviours.

Note: No peer reviewed research was identified in the preparation of this response. All research was therefore restricted to Wikipedia and YouTube (except where specifically identified).

A sample of resources accessed:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossolalia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slain_in_the_Spirit

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kundalini

https://www.recoveringfromreligion.org

https://www.restorationcounselingseattle.com/

https://youtu.be/SwjCuyuKf3s

https://youtu.be/F6c4BxktCdU

https://youtu.be/bZIrU7m0gx0

https://youtu.be/1YTZkHKN6l4

https://youtu.be/kD3g5rg0CqE

https://youtu.be/WaT06FX85G4

https://youtu.be/FEYW2vqqNDQ

https://youtu.be/TUvNW0ZZoDw

https://youtu.be/8L1Fslf3g2M

https://youtu.be/Q5LpMxYfHn4

https://youtu.be/G22hZ81Vku0

https://youtu.be/LDRPOxqVw90

https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/hypnosis/about/pac-20394405

References

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the super complete answer. In short the phenomenon has not been the subject of rigorous scientific research yet, the real causes of the phenomenon remain a mystery and the best we have today is educated guesses. I just have a few comments: 1) given the prevalence in most videos of an authority figure performing some form of signal that triggers these dramatic somatic reactions in people, do you think hypnosis is playing a role in all of this and should be included among the hypotheses? $\endgroup$ – Spirit Realm Investigator Aug 15 at 3:43
  • $\begingroup$ 2) In hypothesis 4 you talk about abundant cases of former experiencers of shaking and trembling who eventually ceased to have these behaviors. I think it would be helpful for the reader to explicitly reference a few examples, say, the best 3 or 4 testimonials you found on this. $\endgroup$ – Spirit Realm Investigator Aug 15 at 3:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Hypnosis added as a seventh hypothesis and five testimonials included. $\endgroup$ – Tony Mobbs Aug 15 at 6:06
  • $\begingroup$ Not sure if this is worth being considered an 8th hypothesis, but during informal conversations with people in other sites someone put forward the idea that maybe the shaking / trembling is just the body's natural way of releasing pent up stress / anxiety / trauma, like this polar bear. I don't know if this phenomenon has a name, how common it is in humans and to what extent it could account for the details and nuances of the manifestations exhibited in the OP's examples. $\endgroup$ – Spirit Realm Investigator Aug 15 at 7:21
  • $\begingroup$ What makes the original question interesting is explaining the incongruence between the self-reported emotions and the exhibited behaviours. The emotions of stress, anxiety, fear, trauma, and confusion are congruent with collapsing, fainting, trembling, jerking and shaking. Testing whether (and under what circumstances) some individuals conform to social norms and the directions of authority figures out of fear, confusion, stress and anxiety is itself and interesting hypothesis? The YouTube testimonials suggest that this is the case. An interesting line of future investigation. $\endgroup$ – Tony Mobbs Aug 15 at 23:18
5
$\begingroup$

As the OP notes, this has been a difficult topic for Skeptics.SE. I'm going to try to answer here, but over on Skeptics this would probably be labelled as "Original Research".

The problem for Skeptics.SE is that the claim being challenged is that these shaking movements have a supernatural cause. All we can say for certain is that we can't rule out a psychological cause, but psychological or neurophysiological explanations backed by evidence don't seem to be available.

In the absence of a proper evidence-based theory of what is going on here we can only fall back on "mass hysteria", or as its more politely known these days, "mass psychogenic illness" (MPI). However this is really only a label for a bunch of phenomena that we guess are related. There is also the problem that MPI is the diagnosis used when nothing else can be found.

Having said that, Wikipedia quotes the following list of attributes of MPI outbreaks, so we can at least compare this phenomenon with it:

  • symptoms that have no plausible organic basis; Yes.

  • symptoms that are transient and benign; Yes.

  • symptoms with rapid onset and recovery; Yes.

  • occurrence in a segregated group; I think this may mean a group segregated for weeks rather than hours. On the other hand some preachers call on their congregations to separate themselves from the sinful world; it would be interesting to score these events against that criterion.

  • the presence of extraordinary anxiety; No. However other strong emotions are certainly present, and this might well have the same effect.

  • symptoms that are spread via sight, sound or oral communication; All three are present in these services, but that doesn't prove it is how this is spread.

  • a spread that moves down the age scale, beginning with older or higher-status people; Unknown, but a review of videos of these events might provide data.

  • a preponderance of female participants. Again, the videos might provide data.

The Wikipedia article also lists medical symptoms that occur in MPI. As the OP notes, shaking and fainting is not in the list. However these events are not socially constructed as "illness", so if this is MPI it is not surprising that harmful medical symptoms are not present (although the shaking and falling does bear a resemblance to Parkinson's Disease).

In conclusion, MPI or something like it appears to be the most plausible explanation for this phenomena, and a review of videos of these events might shed further light on this.

| improve this answer | |
$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ This is an interesting plausible explanation that could be explored further, although as you acknowledge it is just speculative at the moment. However, I have some doubts. If I understand correctly, MPI would make sense in social settings where everybody is shaking and you begin to imitate the behavior. That could potentially explain the shaking and trembling observed in massive Holy Spirit revival events and similar. But what about cases where there is no one else to imitate, such as here and here ? $\endgroup$ – Spirit Realm Investigator Jul 27 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ @SpiritRealmInvestigator Imitation doesn't need to be immediate. These people have likely seen examples in the past. $\endgroup$ – Paul Johnson Jul 28 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ I know we would need to take their for word it, but in those examples I provided, the shaking they experienced was unprecedented for them. In the first case, the girl never experienced shaking before and the phenomenon began during the revival. In the second example, the guy was an atheist and he only had prior experience with traditional Catholicism where shaking and trembling are not common at all. I talked with the guy in the comment section and he confirmed that he didn't know that these kinds of manifestations even existed. $\endgroup$ – Spirit Realm Investigator Jul 28 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ The other objection I have with the MPI hypothesis is that it doesn't explain the origin of the phenomenon, only the "contagion" aspect of it. Why is there shaking and trembling in the first place? For the phenomenon to spread by contagion, there has to be an initial group of people who got the ball rolling. The shaking/trembling experienced by this pioneer group cannot be explained with imitation (because there was no else prior to them to imitate), so what caused them to shake/tremble in the first place? The MPI explanation does not address this point which I think is crucial. $\endgroup$ – Spirit Realm Investigator Aug 9 at 3:18

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.