Neuroscience and Tongues

From the New York Times
November 7, 2006

A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues

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 Pentecostal churches established in the early 1900s. The women in the study were healthy, active churchgoers.

"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 nearly silent.

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 emotions.


  1. I saw this too, and thought about bringing it up.

    I don't understand what this proves. Yes. Noises are coming out of people's mouths, and they are not logically formed noises. This does not make them spiritual, nor does it make them unspiritual. It just means that they are neurologically "trackable."

    I believe in tongues, though I seem to be utterly unsuited for them. This article might teach me how to have the neurological experience, but I don't see how it could teach me to have the spiritual experience.

    People have been told to repeat a seemingly complex phrase over and over until it loses its meaning, and just becomes a stream of noises. Once that happens, just kind of unmoor from that phrase, and keep letting noises come. They will change, and eventually you will be "speaking in tongues." Given this neurological input, it seems like that is probably pretty sound advice.

    But does that make it more spiritual?

    Is this neurological experience the same thing to which Paul was refering?

    I don't know.

  2. I mostly agree with you CP. Coming from a Charismatic church background I have seen a bit of abuse on tongues myself. For me tongues was something I never wanted but got anyway - go figure. Never-the-less, experiencially I did resonate with the article but agree with you that it doesn't really prove anything.

  3. Well, it's good to hear that from you. I was born again "Assemblies of God," and stayed with them for about a decade, through all my most formative years. So, I have always felt a degree of loss at never having been so blessed.

    But, just listen to me write. Do I sound like someone who could ever let himself go like that?

    Ah well.

  4. BTW, your weekend story has never left me. I probably think directly of it monthly, as things in my life move north and south. Thank you again for sharing it.

  5. Thanks for the nice words CP. Sounds like we have had similar A/G experiences. For me, I'd rather see a genuine move of the Holy Spirit in someone's life without tongues than an artificially religiously induced tongue-talking experience. Sadly many of our Pentacostal relatives are so fixated on the oral results that they rationalize the means for the end. To me this dilutes the power of the end result and people wind up with an experience rather than an encounter.


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