From the archive, originally posted by: [ mmm ]
A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues
By BENEDICT CAREY / November 7, 2006
The passionate, sometimes rhythmic, language-like patter that pours
forth from religious people who “speak in tongues” reflects a state of
mental possession, many of them say. Now they have some neuroscience
to back them up.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania took brain images of
five women while they spoke in tongues and found that their frontal
lobes — the thinking, willful part of the brain through which people
control what they do — were relatively quiet, as were the language
centers. The regions involved in maintaining self-consciousness were
active. The women were not in blind trances, and it was unclear which
region was driving the behavior.
The images, appearing in the current issue of the journal Psychiatry
Research: Neuroimaging, pinpoint the most active areas of the brain.
The images are the first of their kind taken during this spoken
religious practice, which has roots in the Old and New Testaments and
in charismatic churches established in the United States around the
turn of the 19th century. The women in the study were healthy, active
“The amazing thing was how the images supported people’s
interpretation of what was happening,” said Dr. Andrew B. Newberg,
leader of the study team, which included Donna Morgan, Nancy Wintering
and Mark Waldman. “The way they describe it, and what they believe, is
that God is talking through them,” he said.
Dr. Newberg is also a co-author of “Why We Believe What We Believe.”
In the study, the researchers used imaging techniques to track changes
in blood flow in each woman’s brain in two conditions, once as she
sang a gospel song and again while speaking in tongues. By comparing
the patterns created by these two emotional, devotional activities,
the researchers could pinpoint blood-flow peaks and valleys unique to
speaking in tongues.
Ms. Morgan, a co-author of the study, was also a research subject. She
is a born-again Christian who says she considers the ability to speak
in tongues a gift. “You’re aware of your surroundings,” she said.
“You’re not really out of control. But you have no control over what’s
happening. You’re just flowing. You’re in a realm of peace and
comfort, and it’s a fantastic feeling.”
Contrary to what may be a common perception, studies suggest that
people who speak in tongues rarely suffer from mental problems. A
recent study of nearly 1,000 evangelical Christians in England found
that those who engaged in the practice were more emotionally stable
than those who did not. Researchers have identified at least two forms
of the practice, one ecstatic and frenzied, the other subdued and
The new findings contrasted sharply with images taken of other
spiritually inspired mental states like meditation, which is often a
highly focused mental exercise, activating the frontal lobes.
The scans also showed a dip in the activity of a region called the
left caudate. “The findings from the frontal lobes are very clear, and
make sense, but the caudate is usually active when you have positive
affect, pleasure, positive emotions,” said Dr. James A. Coan, a
psychologist at the University of Virginia. “So it’s not so clear what
that finding says” about speaking in tongues.
The caudate area is also involved in motor and emotional control, Dr.
Newberg said, so it may be that practitioners, while mindful of their
circumstances, nonetheless cede some control over their bodies and
RE : posted by [ deknow ]
a couple of things to consider.
2. looking at images of 5 subjects (including one of the study
authors?) is of course a small group…but there seems to be a built
in assumption that “speaking in tongues” is differant
than “vocalizing nonsense”….it doesn’t seem suprising that
differant parts of the brain are used for singing gospels
and “speaking in tongues”…but the real question would be
if “speaking in tongues” uses differant parts of the brain
than “vocalizing nonsense” in an athiest, or even a christain who
does not believe that god is talking through them. after all, it’s
not suprising that the brain does something when “speaking in
tongues”, but the real story would be that something unique happens
when it’s done in a christian (and/or ‘spiritual’) context.
3. i remember terrence mckenna saying something about such things in
relation to groups of humans taking psycadelics in the pre-language
days…that these vocalizations, although “empty”, tend to contain
some of the structures of languange, and that this is perhaps how
language developed in the first place.