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Brain scans examine “speaking in tongues”

Nov. 1, 2006
Courtesy University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
and World Science staff

When mem­bers of cer­tain re­li­gious sects “speak in tongues,” they mouth what sounds like an in­com­pren­si­ble lan­guage, which to them has great mean­ing. Now, re­search­ers have tak­en what they say are the first brain scans of peo­ple speak­ing in tongues.

St. Paul, men­tioned in the Bi­ble as an ad­vo­cate of speak­ing in tongues, in a stained glass win­dow by Ed­ward Burne-Jones (1833-1898).


The sci­en­t­ists, at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia School of Med­i­cine, found de­creased ac­tiv­i­ty in the fron­t­al lobes, a brain ar­ea be­hind the fore­head as­so­ci­at­ed with self-con­t­rol. 

It’s “fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause these sub­jects tru­ly be­lieve that the spir­it of God is mov­ing through them and con­trol­ling them to speak,” said the uni­ver­si­ty’s An­drew New­berg, one of the re­search­ers. 

The “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.”

The study ap­pears in the No­vem­ber is­sue of the jour­nal Psy­chi­a­try Re­search: Neu­ro­im­ag­ing.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion com­pared the brains of those speak­ing in tongues to people sing­ing gos­pel mu­sic. “We no­ticed a num­ber of changes,” New­berg said, in­clud­ing in re­gions tied to emo­tions and the sense of self.

“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.”

New­berg con­clud­ed that the changes in the brain dur­ing speak­ing in tongues re­flect a com­plex pat­tern of brain ac­tiv­i­ty. Fu­ture stud­ies will be needed to con­firm the find­ings and de­mys­ti­fy the phe­nom­e­non, he added.

Speak­ing in tongues, which has ex­isted for mil­len­ni­a and is men­tioned in the Bi­ble, is tech­ni­cal­ly called glos­so­la­lia. In Chris­ti­an­i­ty it is particularly as­so­ci­at­ed with Pen­te­cos­tal de­nom­i­na­tions.

The re­search­ers used Sin­gle Pho­ton Emis­sion Com­put­ed To­mog­ra­phy, a type of scan in which a bit of a ra­di­o­ac­t­ive drug is in­jected in­to a vein. The scan­ner then makes de­tailed im­ages of tis­sues where cells take up the drug. The pro­cess can give in­for­ma­tion about blood flow and me­tab­o­lism.


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When members of certain religious sects “speak in tongues,” they mouth what seems to be an incomprensible language, yet perceive it to have great personal meaning. Now, researchers have taken what they say are the first brain scans of people speaking in tongues. The scientists, at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, found decreased activity in the frontal lobes, a brain area associated with self-control. It’s “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,” said the university’s Andrew Newberg, one of the researchers. This study appears in the November issue of the research jorunal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging. For comparison, the investigators 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,” Newberg said, including in regions tied to emotions and the sense of self. “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.” Newberg concluded that the changes in the brain during speaking in tongues reflect a complex pattern of brain activity. Future studies will be needed to confirm these findings and demystify the phenomenon, he added. Speaking in tongues, has existed for millennia and is mentioned in the Old and New Testament, is technically called glossolalia. In Christianity it is particularly associated with Pentecostal denominations. The researchers used Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography, a type of scan in which a bit of a radioactive drug is injected into a vein. A scanner is then used to make detailed images of tissues where cells take up the drug. The process can give information about blood flow and metabolism.