Xenoglossy & the psychiatrists

« previous post | next post »

I just learned that the American Psychiatric Association, at their annual meeting last month, had a Media Workshop on "A Case of Xenoglossy and the Nature of Consciousness", where the organizer, a psychiatrist named Samuel Sandweiss, claimed that he had a patient back in 1983 (!) who spontaneously uttered profound philosophical remarks in a mixture of Sanskrit and Pali.  And here I had been fondly imagining that my 1996 encyclopedia article `Xenoglossy' had succeeded in demolishing claims that some people can speak languages they have not had an opportunity to learn in their current lifetime.   But Sandweiss's proposal — unlike those of the late Ian Stevenson, also a psychiatrist and the best-known promoter of purported cases of xenoglossy — apparently doesn't involve reincarnation; it sounds more like channeling, as if a bodiless entity took over the patient's brain to utter profundities in an ancient(ish) Indic mishmash (as verified…supposedly…by experts in Sanskrit and Pali).  Sheesh.   Surely not all psychiatrists are so credulous, but what's with the APA's highlighting this event as a Media Workshop?



  1. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 1:41 pm

    How is Sandweiss supposed to have guessed it was "a mixture of Sanskrit and Pali"? Psychiatrists of my acquaintance would be hard put to recognize anything more exotic than a common Western European language, if that. A pandit who happened to be passing by? Or did he try all the interpreters he could find until he came up with some philosophical profundities?

  2. Bill Benzon said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 1:51 pm

    He appears to be a devotee of Swami Sai Baba (FWIW, who also influenced the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson). Here's a bit from an interview:

    Sandweiss: Just a quick aside, I wouldn’t consider myself an academic. I’m not heavily intellectual like that nor do I spend much time teaching. I’m inquisitive and I am thoughtful and I’ve thought a lot about Swami, His relationship to Western Behavioral Sciences and Psychiatry. I wouldn’t consider myself academic. How did I come to Swami? Because, probably it’s hard for me to understand from this life so one must posit that there’s been other lifetimes that prepared me. Because here I am stuck in the Western culture…


  3. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 1:57 pm

    Why the exclamation point after 1983?

  4. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 1:58 pm

    Evidently the bodiless entity had progressed far enough spiritually to recognise that the Greater and Lesser Vehicles are as one, anyway.

    Who utters profundities in Sanskrit AND Pali?

    Actually the story would be fractionally less improbable if the supposed utterances were *not* philosophical profundities. If it's not really comprehensible, that's because it's deep, right?

  5. dw said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 2:28 pm

    @Jonathan Gress-Wright:
    Why the exclamation point after 1983?

    The workshop, where this claim was publicly aired for (presumably) the first time, was held last month.

  6. maidhc said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    If his patient was also a follower of Swami Sai Baba, it might not be that surprising that he picked up some bits of Sanskrit by ear and was able to parrot them back. That wouldn't be worth writing a paper about though.

  7. Chris Waters said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

    Wow, if this could be proven, someone should be in line to win James Randi's famous million dollar prize! And if someone comes in making such claims without a million dollars in hand, then, no, I don't think they should be highlighted by a supposedly professional organization. :)

  8. marie-lucie said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

    Of course the bits of Sanskrit or Pali uttered by the patient had to express "profundities". After all, Om mani padme hum is supposed to have a profound as well as a literal meaning. Like most people, I have never studied Sanskrit or Pali, yet I know that phrase although I am unable to analyze it. People raised in a religion whose rituals include at least some recitation in another language "know" bits and pieces of that language without formal teaching, simply from hearing them repeated frequently. It would have been quite another thing if the patient had switched to Sanskrit to say something ordinary such as asking for a glass of water, for instance.

  9. Sally Thomason said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

    @David Eddyshaw — according to the reporter who contacted me about this workshop, and who attended it, Sandweiss is interested in Eastern religions generally, presumably including both Hinduism and Buddhism if whatever he heard sounded to him like a mixture if Sanskrit (sacred language of Hinduism) and Pali (in at the beginning of Buddhism). The APA report on this workshop says that Sandweiss has a video showing experts in Sanskrit affirming that the patient is speaking Sanskrit + Pali.

    @Jonathan Gress-Wright — Right, as dw points out above, this is not exactly breaking news if the patient's utterances are from 1983. Who knows, maybe Sandweiss has been trying to get the APA to let him do this workshop for the past 30 years and he finally wore them down….

  10. Chris Henrich said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

    I am reminded of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in which several people hear some vocalizations that they identify variously as Dutch, Russian, etc., each witness picking a language that he doesn't know. (It turns out to be the gibbering of an "Ourang-Outang." No offense to Dr. Sandweiss's patient.)

  11. marie-lucie said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

    The "mixture of Sanskirt and Pali" may have been because some utterances were in one language, others in the other, or because the patient, not having studied these languages, got similar utterances mixed up.

  12. Piotr Gąsiorowski said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

    It would be nice if the "profundities" had been properly recorded, transcribed, examined and interpreted (independently by more than one experts) to demonstrate their intelligibility (and perhaps profundity) in a more objective way. Extraordinary claims… etc.

  13. Lazar said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 7:26 pm

    @David Eddyshaw: The complexities of the usage of Sanskrit and Pali are something that still perplexes me – from the perspective of Indic languages, where Pali terms were, in many cases, long ago supplanted by revived Sanskritic terms, we have the crazy situation where the Pali of thousands of years ago presents more phonologically progressive words than the Indic languages of today. It's particularly confusing in the case of Sinhalese, the only major Indic language spoken by Theravadin Buddhists: as best as I can tell, even their language was dominated by Sanskritic academic revivals, meaning that they still use terms like "karma" and "dharma" despite the fact that their liturgical Pali uses "kamma" and "dharma". It's as if modern Italians used Classical Latin words in vernacular speech while reserving modern Italian words for liturgical use.

  14. Lazar said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 7:27 pm

    Sorry, should be "'kamma' and 'dhamma'" above.

  15. David Morris said,

    June 3, 2013 @ 9:29 pm

    Is a Xenoglossy a women's magazine featuring a photoshoot of an ancient Greek philosopher?

  16. Jason said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 3:17 am

    @Piotr Gąsiorowski

    It would be nice if the "profundities" had been properly recorded, transcribed, examined and interpreted (independently by more than one experts) to demonstrate their intelligibility (and perhaps profundity) in a more objective way. Extraordinary claims… etc.

    Or as I like to say, isn't it funny how often extraordinary claims are rarely accompanied by even minimal hard evidence? It's a bit like Hitler's big lie: the more extravagant the claim, the less certain people are likely to to be skeptical, because you wouldn't be making such an outrageous claim if you didn't have some basis for it.

  17. richardelguru said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 6:00 am

    David Morris:
    Is that an a basis in fact?

  18. marie-lucie said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 7:57 am

    (I wrote a comment, pressed the Submit button, but the comment did not register. Perhaps it will register later? here is an approximate paraphrase of what I wrote).


    I doubt that the patient started to deliver a philosophical lecture in Sanskrit and Pali. It is much more likely that he spouted a few phrases and sentences he had learned in the course of his religious or spiritual endeavours, without attempting to learn the languages they were in (or even knowing what they were called). What he said must have been recorded in some way, since people familiar with those languages were able to identify them (even if the utterer made some mistakes). Similarly, an English speaker might not have learned French but still choose to fancy up their speech with comments such as C'est la vie, which any French speaker will recognize, even if the pronunciation is off and "la" sounds like "le". A written phrase such as Sic transit gloria mundi is obviously Latin even if the writer ignorant of Latin made a mistake such as writing "mundus" for "mundi" or even omitting one of the words. Such use of frozen bits and pieces of foreign languages does not mean that the utterers have actually learned the languages in question and are able to translate the phrases, let alone analyze them. It is also easy enough to elaborate on the meaning of common phrases in order to make them sound more "profound", philosophical or spiritual. Consider how the meaning of the greeting Namaste, literally '[I] bow to you' (in salutation), gets transformed into something like 'The spirit in me acknowledges the spirit in you'. I am sure that English Thank you, which is no doubt known to many non-English speakers, could similarly be translated and transformed into something which could be said to carry some profound message.

  19. Vanya said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 9:33 am

    It's a bit like Hitler's big lie: the more extravagant the claim, the less certain people are likely to to be skeptical,

    Hitler wrote that, or something to that effect, in the context of accusing Jews and Jewish controlled media of using "big lies" as their preferred method of subverting the West. It's probably better not to quote Hitler on questions of rhetoric.

  20. Corey B said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

    @Vanya: True. Unfortunately, Hitler was right in that case. Not about the Jews, obviously, but about people's gullibility. It is painful to have to acknowledge that Hitler had a point about anything, though.

  21. Jeffry House said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

    This reminds me of some of the claims of psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. He said that patients at his hospital could repeat Aryan legends to which they had never been exposed; supposedly, the legends had seeped into their national soul many generations previously. (The idea allowed other Germans to prioritize "race" as the essence of identity.) This was called by Jung the "collective unconscious."

    Later, it turned out that many of the patients' amazing feats of knowledge might have come to them through reading books in the hospital library. Richard Noll's book on Jung has the details. http://www.amazon.com/Jung-Cult-Origins-Charismatic-Movement/dp/0684834235

  22. Dan Lufkin said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

    @ richardelguru — Nice one! Actually the photoshoot was spring fashions for March up in the country.

  23. Ray Dillinger said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

    I have experienced something like xenoglossy, and then later discovered that the phrases I woke up speaking (and inexplicably knowing the meaning of) were phrases I had heard or read before and heard or seen translations of — but the crucial thing that made the experience seem like magic was that I didn't remember the experience of learning them when I reproduced them.

    It is very weird as an English-speaker to wake up muttering something in Low German and being baffled by the question 'how did I know that?!' — and then later, on checking with my mom, I learned that it is one of the phrases that her mother used to use as kind of a catchphrase when I was three or four years old. Another time, I came up from sleep with Latin in my mouth, and that phrase I still remember; "Nil Inultum Remenabit!" This baffled me for years, until eventually I saw again while thumbing through an old book on our bookshelf an old family crest where the motto was written across the top and a laborious tentative hand-translation ("Nothing will be … unrewarded(?) unavenged(?) unrepaid(?)") in my own nine-year-old scrawl above it. Being something I'd read rather than heard, I was probably mangling its vowels badly, but there was no hesitancy or uncertainty when I was speaking it. For an instant, it seemed to be just something I knew, and then the knowledge faded away leaving the memory of saying it.

    These days I don't believe anymore that claims of xenoglossy are necessarily fraud — instead, I think that verbal memory is both deeper and less subject to voluntary recall than we usually think, and that at least some of these people have experienced an episode like mine. There is a logical explanation, but it's not exactly fraud. It's people struggling with a bewildering experience and not being able to voluntarily call up the conscious memory that would have explained it.

  24. marie-lucie said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 10:03 pm

    The case described above (the patient spoke Sanskrit) does not seem to be a case of fraud at all: the patient spoke some words, perhaps only dimly remembered, the psychiatrist thought they were spontaneous utterances "out of the blue", coming from some other dimension, perhaps transmitted through spirits, who knows.

    Ray Dillinger, the experiences you describe with bits of language, half-forgotten rather than spontaneously created, are fairly spectacular because they involve foreign languages, but such experiences also occur in one's own language, whether with ideas, lines of poetry or prose, or even music, which we think arose spontaneously in our minds but which we may later find out to be something we had read or heard, and remembered subconsciously until they burst into our consciousness, interpreted at first as our own creations.

  25. Sally Thomason said,

    June 4, 2013 @ 11:39 pm

    @ Marie-Lucie and Ray: Since there's no data available for analysis (at least none available to me), there's really no good reason to suppose that the patient spoke any actual words at all, in Sanskrit or Pali or a mixture of the two, or for that matter in any other language. In the cases of purported xenoglossy that I've examined — mostly but not entirely Ian Stevenson's cases — fraud was definitely not involved, but neither was knowledge of the language in question. Sometimes a few words (and as you say, Ray, one can learn a few words and forget that they're stored in your brain somewhere), no grammar to speak of. In other cases, what the patient spoke was pure gibberish, with some sounds that happened to be common in the language in question. Sometimes, too, there were claims that what the person was speaking was a mixture of dialects or languages, as in this case — apparently in an attempt to account for the fact that it wasn't the actual language in question and maybe even not all that intelligible.

  26. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 6:31 am

    "Surely not all psychiatrists are so credulous, but what's with the APA's highlighting this event as a Media Workshop?"

    My take on the history of psychiatry at least from Freud onward is that it is one of near continuous credulity. I am reminded also that not too long ago, psychiatry was the specialty for physicians who couldn't cut it in any other specialty.

    In any case, I expect that it was highlighted as a Media Workshop out of a deep sense of attention whoring.

  27. spherical said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 8:59 am

    I seem to recall now that when I was a boy, my little sister would sometimes start awake in the middle of the night shouting "Ia! Ia! Cthulhu fhthagn! R'lyeh! R'lyeh!!".

    I contacted the APA about this, but then my sister vanished without a trace and we all kind of… forgot… about it.

  28. David W said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

    "… it’s hard for me to understand from this life so one must posit that there’s been other lifetimes that prepared me"

    I don't see how the conclusion "must" follow from the premise!

  29. David Eddyshaw said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

    "Xenoglossy and the Psychiatrists" will be perfect as the name for my new group. We will sing alt-country in Sanskrit and Pali, on the timeless themes of love, divorce, trains …

  30. DW said,

    June 5, 2013 @ 10:17 pm

    Very funny thread!

    Honestly, I think it's something the person heard on television. We have all seen hundreds of old movies and documentaries on a gazillion obscure topics. We hear people interviewed in other languages on the radio or TV, with interpreters, and even if we can't understand it, we may register the some of the sounds and patterns of other languages. Our brain stores everything and can't sort it all, retrieves odd things at odd moments. So we appear to be "channeling" snippets of some exotic language? (I think this is also one explanation for "deja vu" and memories of "past lives." A foreign place that we know we have never been looks oddly familiar because we *have* seen it before – not in a past life but on TV.)

    As to why this person's utterances might appear "profound," maybe that's because if we ever heard a particular language spoken at all, something profound was more likely to make an impression in our mind because it was probably said in a more dramatic or emotional tone, or with added emphasis.

  31. Michael said,

    June 6, 2013 @ 3:02 am

    Richard Hershberger: Can you support your psychiatrist-bashing ["not too long ago, psychiatry was the specialty for physicians who couldn't cut it in any other specialty"] by evidence?

  32. marie-lucie said,

    June 6, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

    DW: Whatever the explanation for the déjà vu experience, it did not start with TV or even movies.

  33. DW said,

    June 6, 2013 @ 9:52 pm

    I don't know when claims about deja vu date to.

  34. marie-lucie said,

    June 7, 2013 @ 10:59 am

    In the Wikipedia article on déjà vu, the oldest reference is from 1928, when television was still in the experimental stages. But the creator of the term is identified in the corresponding French Wikipedia article as Edouard Boirac, a French psychologist who used it in 1876 in a book on the paranormal.

  35. JayPatrick said,

    June 10, 2013 @ 5:44 pm

    Phillip K. Dick supposedly had a few occasions where he spoke languages he had never learned to his wife, who did speak the languages. From the wikipedia entry on VALIS:

    "Another event was an episode of supposed xenoglossia. Supposedly, Dick's wife transcribed the sounds she heard him speak, and discovered that he was speaking Koine Greek-the common Greek dialect during the Hellenistic years (3rd century BC-4th century AD) and direct "father" of today's modern Greek language- which he had never studied. As Dick was to later discover, Koine Greek was originally used to write the New Testament and the Septuagint. However, this was not the first time Dick had claimed xenoglossia: a decade earlier, Dick insisted he was able to think, speak, and read fluent Koine Greek under the influence of Sandoz LSD-25."

RSS feed for comments on this post

Leave a Comment