'Speaking in Tongues' Result of Different Brain Function

Glossolalia, otherwise referred to as "speaking in tongues," may be a religious practice, but is also the subject of new medical research on the brain.

"Speaking in tongues is an unusual mental state associated with specific religious traditions. The individual appears to be speaking in an incomprehensible language, yet perceives it to have great personal meaning. Now, in a first of its kind study, scientists are shining the light on this mysterious practice -- attempting to explain what actually happens physiologically to the brain of someone while speaking in tongues.

"Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine have discovered decreased activity in the frontal lobes, an area of the brain associated with being in control of one's self. This pioneering study, involving functional imaging of the brain while subjects were speaking in tongues, is in the November issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, the official publication of the International Society for Neuroimaging in Psychiatry.

"Radiology investigators observed increased or decreased brain activity - by measuring regional cerebral blood flow with SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography) imaging - while the subjects were speaking in tongues. They then compared the imaging to what happened to the brain while the subjects sang gospel music.

"We noticed a number of changes that occurred functionally in the brain," comments Principal Investigator Andrew Newberg, MD, Associate Professor of Radiology, Psychiatry, and Religious Studies, and Director for the Center for Spirituality and the Mind, at Penn. "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."

"Newberg went on to explain, "These findings could be interpreted as the subject's sense of self being taken over by something else. We, scientifically, assume it's being taken over by another part of the brain, but we couldn't see, in this imaging study, where this took place. We believe this is the first scientific imaging study evaluating changes in cerebral activity -- looking at what actually happens to the brain -- when someone is speaking in tongues. This study also showed a number of other changes in the brain, including those areas involved in emotions and establishing our sense of self."

"Newberg concludes that the changes in the brain during speaking in tongues reflect a complex pattern of brain activity. Newberg suggests that since this is the first study to explore this, future studies will be needed to confirm these findings in an attempt to demystify this fascinating religious phenomenon.

"This preliminary study, done only at Penn, examined five subjects in a laboratory setting. The study, set for publication in the November issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, can now be accessed on-line at http://www.sciencedirect.com. The article is titled, "The Measurement of Regional Cerebral Blood Flow During Glossolalia: a Preliminary SPECT Study." Co-authors include: Nancy Wintering, Donna Morgan, and Mark Waldman."

Source: University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

I experimented with speaking in tongues for a while -- it didn't feel like someone else was in charge (who other than me?) -- though I suppose my frontal lobes had decreased activity (and increased activity occurred elsewhere). I certainly didn't believe I was speaking in a foreign language, though there's no reason that wouldn't be possible. A loosening of control was definitely called for, but that is a function of any trance state.

This was all part of my Seminary experience, described in A Friend of All Faiths, and training in Ericksonian hypnotherapy (described in A Question Of Time). And the bridging of science and spiritual states fits in with the them of the newly released Healing at the Borderland of Medicine and Religion.