Speaking in Tongues – A Neural Snapshot




Mixed languages

“Asaria isa asaria ari masheetee sadabada vena amina gotaya menda meshela mosha nami ki toro ma…”

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, has fascinated thinkers ever since the “tongues of angels” descended upon early believers as a gift from the Holy Ghost in the New Testament of the Bible. This unusual mental state, characterized by utterances that sometimes sound like an untranslated psalm from Mars, typically occurs during instances of religious excitation, and is primarily associated with Pentecostal religious practices. It has commonly been considered a form of ecstatic trance accompanied by verbal utterances not found in any language.

Tongue speakers typically claim that the outbursts are non-voluntary, but others can sometimes produce instances of glossolalia on demand. Glossolalia has typically been considered a psychopathology, although little has been known about what occurs in the brain during this behavior. Plato asserted that these occurrences were caused by divine inspiration. He suggested that God took possession of the mind while man was sleeping or possessed, and during such a state, God inspired man with utterances that he can neither understand nor interpret.

Research performed in the 1980s at Denison University by the late anthropologist Felicitas Goodman led to a theory that glossolalia was a trance state caused by rhythmic discharges from the reticular formation, an area of the brain stem that plays a role in sleep and dreams. Goodman believed that this represented an alternative neural pathway for language, but more recent research has cast light on activity in other areas of the brain.

In 2006, Andrew Newberg and associates conducted the first functional neuroimaging study of cerebral changes during the act of glossolalia. In the study, published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Newberg and other researchers at the University of Pennsylvania managed to run single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans to measure regional cerebral blood flow in the brains of five people during episodes of active glossolalia. (As controls, the investigators took scans of people singing gospel songs.)  Despite the prevailing notion in the biomedical community of glossolalia as psychopathology, the researchers discovered that “the limited number of reported studies have suggested that people who speak in tongues show no differences in personality traits from other population groups.” Indeed, an earlier study in Britain of glossolalia among the clergy found that those who sometimes spoke in tongues showed more emotional stability and less depression than a control group.

In an earlier neuroimaging study of meditation states, Newberg and coworkers had observed increased activity in the frontal lobes, a finding consistent with scans of other attention-focusing activities.  But in the case of glossolalia, Newberg, the director for the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, discovered that activity the frontal lobes decreased, including activity in the brain’s primary language processing centers: “Our finding of decreased activity in the frontal lobes during the practice of speaking in tongues is fascinating because these subjects truly believe that the spirit of God is moving through them and controlling them to speak. Our brain imaging research shows us that these subjects are not in control of the usual language centers during this activity, which is consistent with their description of a lack of intentional control while speaking in tongues.”

Another area of activity during glossolalia is the left superior parietal lobe (SPL), a region behind the frontal lobes that plays an important role in processing sensory input. In the meditation scans, during which subjects describe a loss of the sense of self, there was a significant decreases in SPL activity. However, glossolalia patients showed no such decreases, a finding consistent with their assertion that they experience no loss of individual boundaries, or submerging of the sense of self, while speaking in tongues.

The study also found increased activity in the limbic system, the seat of emotional responses, but the researchers declined to speculate on “altered emotional activity during glossolalia.”

One of the curious aspects of the study, as pointed out on the Neurocritic Blog, is that the subjects were capable of entering the state of glossolalia more or less on cue. This finding seems to call into question the “spontaneous utterance” aspect of glossolalia.

Spiritual or religious aspects notwithstanding, the study strongly points to the act of speaking in tongues as a verifiable language phenomenon that invites further study.

References

Francis, L. (2003). Personality and Glossolalia: A Study Among Male Evangelical Clergy Pastoral Psychology, 51 (5), 391-396 DOI: 10.1023/A:1023618715407

Goodman, Felicitas D. (1969). Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in Four Cultural Settings. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 8 (2), 227-239.

NEWBERG, A., WINTERING, N., MORGAN, D., & WALDMAN, M. (2006). The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during glossolalia: A preliminary SPECT study Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 148 (1), 67-71 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2006.07.001

Richardson, James T. (1973). Psychological Interpretations of Glossolalia: A Reexamination of Research. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 12 (2), 199-207.

  • shafaq

    the ability of brain to store information, regarding different languages while coming across various natives of the world ,in the so called ‘sub conscious part’, might give an answer to glossolalia. this involuntary storage of information can later lead to events of glossolalia…
    what say?

    • http://www.msn.com/ Karen

      I am a Christian and have spoken in tongues (otherwise known as a spiritual language)for 32 years. I can speak in tongues at will, as do most people who pray in the spirit. It is a gift from God and has to do with faith not with emotion. When I use this heavenly language it makes it easier for me to sense things in the spiritual realm. It is also a wonderful way to pray when I don’t know how or what to pray. If you don’t believe that people are created with a spirit (not just a soul & body), then it is easy to come up with all sorts of ideas for the origin of tongues.

      • ELISABETH

        The study showed increased limbic brain activity which translates to glossolalia being an EMOTIONAL state. Full stop.

        • https://www.aspwrgernauts.co.uk/forum Jiheishou-no Daigakusha

          The study showed increased limbic brain activity which translates to glossolalia being an EMOTIONAL state. Full stop.
          Which explains why it happens to me. Thank you for that information, most useful.

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  • Javaid Akhtar

    My guess

    I expect that in their childhood…free flowing care free childhood speech patterns became abruptly political..The socio -political nature of words became important and more so as we move through childhood.Words and their implications/meanings became heavily implicated with consequences and I expect it happened so suddenly in these cases ..possibly within a few moments …a clearly defined moment ..where a realisation that their words were no longer innocent and that they had become heavily laden with consequences .

    I could give you an example…say a as a child..you get a new stepfather…and the whole family politics changes the moment the person walks through the door.Anger , jealously , fear , anything could trigger a sudden onset .
    The childhood speech flow is lost forever.It becomes measured .
    But in these cases..the overwhelming emotional freedom that the childhood speech patterns permitted…get airtime again.Through Glossolalia.
    Meaningless speech ( no frontal cortex ..which was the culprit in recognising the original ‘politics’ ) …Glossolalia allows the adult to relive ( and relieve ) the limbic parietal childhood nexus..unfettered.
    I would have thought that Glossolalia would re-capture the speech tempo that existed in their childhood.With the ubiquitous family video records we all keep…I ‘m sure that would’nt be difficult to explore.

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  • http://kickingpinay.blogspot.com Kicking Pinay

    I used to attend Christian church activities before and I did witness people speaking in tongues. I was a skeptic then and I thought it was just some scheme to attract more people. Now I know there’s really a scientific evidence on this. Thank you for shedding some light on my Christian faith. It really amazes me when science and religion seem to not contradict each other from time to time.

    • abbie

      yeah.. i also got the same experience. Even, I used to speak in tongues, but it later on frightened me, cause it might only be because of some psychic powers/supernatural entities, which are not holy.

      • allen

        Hi Abbie,
        I hope you will keep praying in the spirit! Only the Enemy can interfere with your freewill in a way to benefit itself.
        If it was truly of the Devil, you would still be doing it.
        The Devil would never want to allow any kind of spiritual praying actually focused on God. So, he turns the tables making you think its actually him your praying to in your mind.If it was brought on by the Enemy, you would still be doing it.
        It is such a special gift given to you from your father.
        Amen

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  • Zora

    I can “speak in tongues”, or babble something that sounds like language, at will. I’m not in a trance and I don’t believe that what I’m doing has any religious significance. I can just let go of focus, that’s all.

    • jjrayray

      sounds dumb

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  • elvis2

    Thanks for the post. The “limbic system” paragraph, you mentioned “increased activity”. I know some who pray in tongues who do not get emotional about the whole event. For me though, many times when praying in tongues, I get very emotional (and I am a guy). The emotion is so strong at times I have to stop so I won’t loose control. Many times weeping comes about (when I am alone).

    I have not seen this mentioned online (not yet so far) or in our church, but many times when I am in a crowd or around new believers I pray silently, but in tongues. I hear the sounds that normally come out when praying aloud, in tongues. I get the same emotional response as well. It would be interesting to have the research team to find others who can pray silently in an unknown tongue, and see if the brain patterns are the same.

    I am glad to know that science and spiritual truths are complementing eachother.

    • Pam

      I can also pray in tongues silently. I’ve also experienced the same overwhelming emotional response while praying in tongues.

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    I would like to say that it is cool to know that someone discussed it.

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  • Anonymous

    I too can pray in tongues an I also weep while in prayer.It would be interesting to see findings on what happens to the body when adrenaline is released and bodies begin to shake, sometimes violently.

    • http://www.facebook.com/whemfellowship Bervel-Nyamekeh Philip

      The experiences that people go through when praying in tongues come with many concepts from people who do not speak the angelic language. The give many reasons trying to condemn the unique spiritual process. But when you talk to them on scientific issues they quickly easily understand because it has to do with the human senses. Tongue speaking, as research has proven, has nothing to do with the senses. What one goes through in the body is purely spiritual and has no negative effect whatsoever. But to link it to science for understanding, let me say that when anything is introduced to the body, whether internal or external, the body reacts for a period of time and later adjusts to it. This could be noticed in pregnancy, immunization/ some drugs, the wearing of new garment or footwear, etc. Some people also have some sort of change or feeling when the HOLY SPIRIT comes to them. it is not to harm them or have any side effect on them. The result is remarkable and glorious. (Please to avoid a long message you can contact me on whemfellowship@yahoo.com or whemfellowship@facebook.com) Thank you.

  • Barbara

    I do speak in tongues since I became a believer. I have seen signs and wonders in a middle of group of christian praying in tongues. It’s funny my sister in christ move to North Carolina and the church she is attending dont speak in tongues like the one we attended in Miami. So that is why we look up for this article. I am glad we found it because there was some doubt or not interested in tongues in my friend part. About one day ago I was singing in my car a christian song, and I stated weapping and praying in tongues, but the tongues was different from the one it comes out all the time. I was praying for my supervisor that believe in communicating with spirit and putting a glass of water to absorved the bad vibes in the atmosphere. The holy spirit spoke to my heart and told me interced for her soul so she can received Jesus as her personal savior and be delivered from withcraft. There was a battle in the heavenly realm for her soul. God Bless Jesus is alive.

  • https://sites.google.com/site/speakingintonguesglossolalia/ Raymond Bond

    I have written some unusual thoughts I have from my experiences with Speaking in Tongues.

    See them here: https://sites.google.com/site/speakingintonguesglossolalia/

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  • abbie

    I wanna learn more about Glossolalia, because I am speaking in tongues, and It is very involuntarily, and at the same time, it is very tiring, when i can hardly breathe normally.

  • Jiheishou-no Daigakusha

    My glossolalia is entirely involuntary, produced during bouts of frustration or moments of physical pain. Oh, and I don’t attend church, I simply happen to be a fully verbal Autie. Maybe the research didn’t go far enough?

    • Arabella

      What you are experiencing is not the Holy Spirit. It is yielding to the wrong spirit.

      • http://www.aspergernauts.co.uk/forum Jiheishou-no Daigakusha

        @ Arabella: I never claimed that my glossolalia is from God, merely that it’s a feature of my Autism. In light of your comment, allow me to hazard a guess as to what was on your school reports: “Seems to try hard, but fails utterly at reading comprehension.”

  • Dawn

    18. Dawn Says:

    Wow, some of you people need to wake up. Anyone that can speak in tongues on cue have serious issues. What about “as the spirit gave the utterance” don’t you understand? Either the holy spirit is uttering something or you are. I don’t believe those disciples were operating their own tongues when the people who heard them outside were so amazed at how they knew their own language. I’ll pay anyone who can start speaking in a clear defined foreign language at their own will. (of course one that they’ve never learned). The bible says in the last days that people would have a form of godliness but deny the true power of God. By saying God does not control the tongue is denying his power to do so. Instead you have your own form of tongues that is detesible to me and certainly to God.

    • Ines

      Hi! Could not contain myself having read so many interesting, great comments… Thanks to all of you! Here is my contribution… Since quite lengthy it will require some patience though… Hope it’ll be worth it!

      Once my son and his friend from Afghanistan overheard my friend and me praying in tongues mine sounding something like Arabic. He asked my son if I had ever learned Persian, having recognized my prayer language as Persian, his family’s mother tongue! At that time (pls. forgive my ignorance!) I did not even know Persian to being one of two languages spoken in Afghanistan. This confirms what the Bible describes in the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples speaking in an unknown (to them!) language, yet people from other nations heard them speak in their own mother tongue as my son’s friend heard me pray in Persian! A confirmation that this gift (as others) has not ceased to exist! Thank God!!

      Years ago a sudden extreme urgency to pray, accompanied by excruciating back pain as if carrying a very heavy load, interrupted housework I was doing, recognized as intense prayer burden for someone in acute danger! I started praying in tongues immediately, trusting God’s Holy Spirit to fill my mouth with His Words (not mine!) needed to bring about a miracle (=God’s divine intervention), or to communicate the angels’ assignment for protection, comfort…! After over 1 hour in such prayer the pain lifted as sudden as it had occurred, an intense peace filled me with the knowing that whoever and whatever God had me pray for was well now! So I stopped praying, documenting day, time, event-description. Five weeks later I spoke via phone with a Christian friend from another town. I had not heard from her for several weeks. She told me that a car had hit their van head-on five weeks ago. She, her husband, and their children in the van with them had contracted only bruises, very minor injuries, called by Paramedics and others on site a “miracle” in sight of the severity of the collision…! I finally knew who I had been praying for and why! Comparing date and time of the accident with notes of my intense prayer burden, we noticed that God in His grace had called me (and most likely others, too,) into prayer fifteen minutes prior to the collision!
      Prayer spoken in a familiar language with intellect/ knowledge of circumstances, triggers pride and bears the risk of someone taking the credit for themselves… Praying in tongues is not about our ability, but about giving God our availability, our trust (=faith!) so He can use us and our prayers to help others; we cannot take credit not really knowing what we pray for, so God alone receives all the honor and glory!!!

      I received tongues as a gift from God over a decade ago. It developed over time just by using it from babbling like a baby starting to speak, to the complexity of different languages that often change within the prayer(communication with God) without wilful interference on my part; it can sound like a Semitic-, European-, Asian- or African language, usually not understood by myself, except for a very few words I occasionally recognize from learned languages as e.g. Latin. I can start and stop as I please, yet a prayer burden can be so strong that it might be difficult to stop. Regarding tongues, I have no control over words and pronunciations; if I do try to manipulate it, the flow is interrupted drastically; it does not feel right- nor does it sound authentic anymore! Tongues do not negatively affect/ interfere with controlling self, cognition, any activities, not even those that require focus. Some benefits: less stress since no need to know the situation in order to pray, get heard by God, and later hear of or witness miracles?! It refreshes, strengthens, lifts up, exhorts, encourages, takes away fear, it gives comfort, confidence, peace, hope, joy! Initially I had been very skeptical, scared, its origin might be of the occult, yet Bible study brought revelation and peace! Angels hearken to Gods Own Words to get active on our behalf; when we don’t know how to pray, God’s Holy Spirit with our permission does it through us (=Tongues).

      May God bless you all!

  • MrsK

    @Dawn – I agree with your statement. I have spoken in tongues during my prayer time. I have been a Christian for years and only in the past month, have I been given the gift of tongues. The first time, I prayed in Hebrew yet I did not know the true meaning of the words I spoke. I researched the meanings in a Hebrew/English dictionary online and found the meanings of the words. I was praising God in Hebrew but was unaware of most of the words that I spoke. However, I have also spoken in a language which did not seem to be any I had heard before. God gave me the meaning of the words I believe. However, I am completely unable to utter either of these languages “at will”. I have even asked God to give me this gift and had to wait on God’s timing. May we continually seek God’s will rather than trying to force His hand.

  • kenneth kropf

    Hi all,
    I would greatly encourage you who wish to know more about speaking in tongues to research Dave Roberson. There are hundreds of hours of his teachings on tongues available for free. He also clarifies the different types of tongues, and this will unravel the confusion over tongues; that we can initiate at will, and the form spoken as the Spirit gives us utterance.
    When we grasp the value of praying in tongues, we will, like Apostle Paul, desire to pray without ceasing.
    It’s a truly precious gift. Enjoy it and the benefits of eternal consequence it brings.

  • http://www.facebook.com/whemfellowship Bervel-Nyamekeh Philip

    God bless you for your post. Many should be enlightened to the things of the Spirit than the this of the physical. Once one develops his or her spiritual senses the things of the physical or natural will be understood easily. The supernatural always supersedes and controls the natural. If there is a true life for the human being, it should be his or her spirit living. This is because man is a spirit being with a soul residing in a body. Tongues is one perfect way to develop the spirit of man and build our faith to have dominion over the natural in Jesus’ Name. This is well done when you have a good relationship with the Holy Spirit.

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  • http://none agriba shalazamaca

    I am offended by christians and speaking in tongues. The bible (remember that book?) gives clear answers about tongues.

    In acts, in the early days of the gatherings of the apostles, tongue speaking was just another miracle to prove to people from other cultures to witness, first hand, that the holy spirit actually did exist. Remember that paul, peter, and jesus, did miracles, to prove it. This was the point.

    Note that the “speaking in tongues” was translated. Other people understood what was said – without devine intervention. Tongue speaking was specific.

    Remember making fun of other languages when u were a kid? You said gibberish, but there was some basic linguistic structure. Same here. Just listen to the words. Sentence structure.

    The brain is a powerful linguistic machine, which is why we can speak in tongues, without gods speaking. The words are even the same between ‘tongue speakers’ – claiming devine intervention. They insist that we dont get it, because of our lack of faith. But usually these tounge speakers dont know what they are saying. Neither does anyone else.

    Show me your tongue speaking as being from god, which i suppose, will be evidence of your faith. Show me your faith, without works. Without benefit to humankind, without purpose to prove your faith by translation.

    And i will show you my faith by what i do.

    Faith without works is dead.

    Every instance of tonguespeaking in the bible correlates with some others being able to understand what is said.

    If you dont know what you are saying, it could bway satanic – at worst, and linguistic gibberish at best. It is NOT NOT NOT devinely inspired. Faith without works is dead. If i speak in tongues but have not love (used here as a verb – love is an action), i am nothing.

    Read acts, corint, james, for references.

    May you find God, many will try to get in. Few will.

  • dr. bitswana migalini

    As someone who has studie languages for 20 years, i have an observation.

    Why do all of the phrases sound similar? There is no recognizable difference between the words, intimations, etc.

    In chinese, intonation is part of the language. For example, “you” is nee, in mandarin. But the wway you say “nee” is “kneee?” That means that the inflection and intonation are just as important as the words themselves.

    In several african languages, there are clicks and whistles, but you dont hear any of this when someone’s speaking in tongues. It is in monotone.

    But my biggest observation, is that tongue speaking, doesnt have the variety that is found in normal human languages. Why not?
    Do foreigners speak in tongues, in english? Not ever – no recorded history there.

    And the ancirent hebrew / greek doesnt sound anything like wwhat people who speak in tongues sound like, therefore it is not devinely inspired.

    When you drive a car, do you pay attention to every detail? No.
    When you eat a meal, do u focus on the chewing? No.
    When you have a conversation, do you think about the words used? No.
    When you do these things – it is automatic.
    Speaking in tongues is no dofferent. Just like speaking, eating or deiving, the brain relys on structure of neuro pathways in the language centers of the brain to produce sentence and word structure. Those who speak a certain language will speak in tongues with a distinct similarity to thier native language.

    Therefore, it is ‘of man’, and not of god.

    • http://www.aspergernauts.co.uk/forum Jiheishou-no Daigakusha

      Therefore, [glossolalia] is ‘of man’, and not of god.
      As somebody who experiences glossolalia, I have to agree with this statement.

    • lucy

      Really? You have “studie language” for 20 years? Why is your spelling so bad then? Your claim of being someone who has studied language for so long loses credibility when you write so poorly. I say this as an English teacher.

      I speak in tongues and I completely disagree with you. The people who hold these opinions are always the people who don’t speak in tongues. I know some Thai and understand that it’s a “tonal” language, meaning, the way you say syllables changes their meaning. My prayer language sounds very tonal. It’s not a single repetitive syllable, but rather, very diverse and growing. The more I practice it, the more my vocabulary grows, much like any language. I’ve heard myself say the same syllable in different ways — which implies a tonality to the language I’m speaking. It’s easy for people to say, “Oh, it’s no language I recognize!” Well, do you recognize ALL the languages that have ever been on the face of the earth? Could someone from the Middle Ages come and speak Old English to you and you’d recognize it instantly? Come on. There are probably millions of dialects that are now and/or have been on the earth since creation. Who’s to say that someone’s prayer language isn’t one of these old languages or dialects from the jungles of Africa or something? Just because it’s not recognizable French or Italian or some easily identifiable language doesn’t invalidate its origin.

      You said, “the brain relys (relies) on structure of neuropathways in the language centers of the brain to produce sentence and word structure. Those who speak a certain language will speak in tongues with a distinct similarity to thier (their) native language.”

      Uh, did you read the article and the research here? It shows that the language centers of the brain are QUIET when someone is speaking tongues. That suggest that someone is NOT consciously making up babble but, rather, that someone else IS speaking/praying through them. Also, you assume someone will speak in tongues in a language similar to their own? Hahahahaha. I’m a native English speaker and my prayer language sounds NOTHING at all like English. It’s frustrating to hear people speak (poorly, I might add) about something they MAY have witnessed but never personally experienced.

      Please continue to “studie language.” I think it’s important that you do, as a matter of fact.

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  • Steve

    FYI your picture is the Korean alphabet on a wall.

  • http://www.latronbrown.com LaTron

    I was a skeptic until it happened to me.

    Being an introverted person, I don’t typically respond with “amen” and “preach, preacher” encouragement that many people yell out during service, so I could never fathom speaking in tongues. But what happened to me was, I was praying in during service when I started to feel this sensation of warmth and tingling in my body almost like pulsating. My stomach began to quiver (almost like a vibration) and contract a bit…I was wondering “what in the world is going on” but I loved this feeling and wanted more of it, so I kept praying. I started subtlely swaying back and forth (I’m still trying to be inconspicuous and no let anyone see this) and this utterance seemed to just come up out of nowhere –that I tried to keep silently contained by putting my hand over my mouth. The feeling still pulsating throughout my body. Then I let go. The sounds that came out of my mouth were flowing like it was another language. (I’ve tried to make up ‘language’ before and this is nothing like it.) I tried to stop but it just kept coming. I was conscious of the experience, yet I was in this state of bliss- total bliss like I had never seen or experienced before. Now whether that was a gift of the spirit or my own neurchemicals re-routing or decreasing in certain areas of my brain and body, what I do know is this: It was the most amazing and exhilarating experience that I have ever known. If you have never experienced it, I’m sorry that you don’t truly understand what it is like. I dont practice it everytime I pray, only when I truly feel that sensation in my body. For those Christians that say , ‘I stopped because I dont believe its real anymore’, and try to persuade others to believe the same. I believe that it’s just no longer new to you. I urge you to look in your Bible a Roman 14:1-23. verse 2-4 pretty much sums it up: “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?

    And before I get response about ‘eating anything’ and ‘eating vegatables’ you can subsitute with “speaking in tongues”.

Dirk Hanson, MA

Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of "The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction." He is also the author of ''The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution.'' He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog, and is senior contributing editor for the addiction and recovery website, The Fix.
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