Glossolalia, otherwise referred to as “speaking in tongues,” has been around for thousands of years, and references to it can be found in the Old and New Testament. 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.