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 examples below for illustrative purposes.

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 4 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.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Cross-posted at skeptics.stackexchange.com/q/48121/39100 Cross-posting is considered rude behavior on StackExchange, you should choose the stack that best fits your question and post only there. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Jul 14 at 15:03
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause I guess skeptics.stachexchange is the best fit, since people there are more active. The only problem over there is that people are extremely prone to close any question as off-topic, and you have to fight really hard to see your post get through the aversiveness. Crossing fingers. Feel free to close this question if you want. $\endgroup$ – Spirit Realm Investigator Jul 14 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ Just a note that the cross-post at skeptics.stackexchange.com/q/48121/39100 has been closed by their community for lack of any specific claim to review. $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Jul 16 at 9:25
  • $\begingroup$ The question is about to be re-opened at Skeptics. $\endgroup$ – Oddthinking Jul 16 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ I wonder whether the combination of 'peer pressure' the 'need to belong' may play a role. Another example of this effect in a non religious setting. youtube.com/watch?v=KgKY71iiJsQ $\endgroup$ – Tony Mobbs Jul 18 at 5:46

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 | |
  • $\begingroup$ 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

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