In this post I will show how neurological and cultural evidence suggests that the auditory and vestibular (balance) senses are related, in surprising and significant ways, to certain aspects of religiosity. I will start with a discussion of the underlying neurology, followed by supporting evidence connecting the vestibular and auditory senses to fervor, religiosity/spirituality and the sense of certainty.
The neurological connection
There is a neurological condition that can result in a person becoming “hyper-religious”. It is a form of epilepsy where a scar or a blood clot located in the brain’s temporal lobe causes localized seizures (not necessarily the grand-mal seizures that epilepsy is best known for), resulting in various symptoms, one of which is frequent mystical/religious/spiritual experiences, high levels of fervor, absolute certainty, and over-attributing relevance to their actions (for example, thinking that how they arrange things in their room affects earthquakes). A patient suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy can be seen in this video.
The fact that such a condition exists (regardless of how common it is) should lead us to look closely at the temporal lobe, to see if there are functions associated with that part of the brain that might also be connected in some way with aspects of religiosity. The brain’s temporal lobe is associated with the olfactory (smell), vestibular (balance) and auditory senses, and it harbors various brain structures (or parts of structures, such as the caudate nucleus that extend into the temporal lobe) connected with emotions, language, dreams, memories and literacy.
The symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy connect the temporal lobe with certain aspects of religiosity/spirituality. In the following sections I will examine whether there is cultural evidence supporting a connection between the auditory and vestibular senses and religiosity/spirituality, the feeling of certainty and the state of fervor.
The auditory sense and fervor
Neurologists tell us (see Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations) that people hallucinating visually are likely to be aware that they are hallucinating; but in the case of auditory hallucinations, there are many cases where voices in a person’s head are authoritative and compel obedience. This is supported by the fact that accounts of prophets who “hear” God talking to them are much more common than those where a god is seen.
Further evidence for the connection between the auditory sense and fervor can be seen in how audio recordings and radio are important tools used by groups to proselytize, and how listeners to political talk radio tend to be political zealots. The golden age of radio, between the 1920’s and 1950’s, was an era with high levels of political fervor. Leaders who could be heard on the radio enjoyed high levels of support. Examples can be seen in Adolf Hitler, whose speeches were blared by loudspeakers installed on German city streets, and Franklin D Roosevelt, who had a weekly “fireside chat” with the American people, and was re-elected an unprecedented four times.
Since Bill Clinton’s 1999 deregulation of the media, talk radio has been dominated by a company called Clear Channel Communications (now iHeartMedia). As a result, talk radio became almost exclusively right wing, dominated by extremists like Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Mark Levin, Alex Jones, Laura Ingram, Steve Bannon (Donald Trump’s senior counselor and presidential campaign manager), Sean Hannity, and Glen Beck. Mike Pence, soon to be vice president of the United States, was a right wing talk radio host before turning to politics.
Today, people who listen to right wing radio are more likely to be zealots and are susceptible to believing (and strongly) in paranoid conspiracy theories. No other sense modality is associated with this level of conviction and fervor.
The vestibular sense and spirituality
The vestibular sense, related to balance and sensations including lightness, heaviness, floating, flying and vertigo, is not usually thought of in the context of religiosity or spirituality. And yet spiritual “things” – including souls, spirits, angels, ghosts, and deities – are usually thought of as floating, flying, or being weightless. Heaven, a place that one “ascends” to, is often depicted as floating in the clouds.
The vestibular-spiritual connection can be seen in the way that many religious and spiritual traditions stimulate the vestibular sense by having people sway, daven, dance or spin. Overwhelming mystical experiences often include vestibular hallucinations that can result in people losing their balance. Often, when Pentecostal Christians go on stage to be blessed by the minister, there are people ready to catch them if they fall.
Out-of-body experiences include the sensation of floating or being weightless, as do near-death experiences, where people feel that they are “floating” towards a light. Many descriptions of religious and awe experiences include a sense of floating or being uplifted, feeling lighter or being unburdened. Finally, things that defy gravity, such as light, flames, birds, butterflies, and the heavenly bodies, are symbols and metaphors that appear in many religious traditions.
I have been arguing for a connection between the vestibular and auditory senses and spirituality, religious experiences, fervor, and certainty. The main message to take from noticing this connection is the power of auditory messages to shape people’s opinions and to elicit powerful motivations and unshakable certainty. Because political talk radio in the United States is almost exclusively right wing, we have a sector of the population believing in right wing propaganda with high levels of fervor and certainty.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Do you have a story about religious or political fervor that you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!
 Marshall McLuhan noted the connection between radio and high levels of political fervor in Understanding Media (1964)
 Glen Beck and Shaun Hannity have (or in Beck’s case, had) both radio and television shows.