November 09, 2006
The neuroscience of speaking in tongues:
The New York Times has covered a recently published brain-scanning study of five individuals who ‘speak in tongues’ – an experience also known as glossolalia – where someone appears to be speaking in an incomprehensible language over which they seem to have no control.
This is usually linked to religious and spiritual worship, particularly for Christians in the charismatic tradition. A team of researchers, led by Dr Andrew Newberg, used a type of brain-imaging called SPECT to compare blood flow differences in the brain between when participants were singing hymns and when they were speaking in tongues.
The main findings were that when participants were speaking in tongues compared to when they were singing, there was a decrease in activity in the prefrontal cortex, the tip of the left temporal lobe and a deep brain structure called the caudate nucleus.
Although brain areas are known to have multiple functions, the prefrontal cortex is known to be involved incognitive control, while the left temporal pole is associated with naming and the caudate nucleus has been associated with the ability to switch between multiple languages.
The authors suggest that these findings may indicate a loosening of control over language functions in the brain, potentially leading to the production of apparently unstructured language that the participants experience as outside their control.
Notably, there were also relative increases in activity in the left parietal lobe (linked to our sense of body and spatial awareness) and the amygdala – an area known to be heavily involved in emotion.
However, this is not the first time that neuroscientists have studied speaking in tongues.
Dr Michael Persinger reported a case in 1984 where he used EEG recordings to look at the electrical activity in the brain of a 20 year-old female who experienced the same phenomenon.
The graph on the left shows EEG recordings taken from the temporal lobes during a period of speaking in tongues that show increased ‘spike events’.
This indicates that, like the more recent Newberg study, changes in temporal lobe function may be an important part of the experience.
Link to NYT article ‘A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues’.
Link to abstract of SPECT study on speaking in tongues.
Glossolalia vs meditation
Delta spikes occurred within the temporal lobe during protracted intermittent episodes of glossolalia (speaking in tongues) by a member of a Pentecostal sect. There are other reports of delta activity during TM practices (Stigsby et al. 1981, Pagano et al, 1976), but these delta waves were mostly reported to be associated with stages of deep sleep.
*** interesting note: speaking in tongues produced the same results as those in deep relaxation, or deep sleep.
So tongue speaking is not due to increased mental effort. It is due to relaxing the mind.
Summary of scientific findings
1. Tongues does produce measurable changes in brain activity and blood flow in the brain.
2. Certain part of the brain experience decreased activity-those that reflect conscious (cognitive) control, structuredlanguage, and learning and memory.
What this means is that the mind is
a. not controlling the tongues,
b. language become unstructured and something the person is NOT familiar with
c. real tongues is NOT a learned, or remembered, manifestation.
3. Speaking in tongues is not due to increased mental effort. It is equated with deep sleep or deep relaxation.
4. There are spike events with Tongues, showing momentary decreased blood flow. Spikes are also found in epilepsy, but at a more intense level.
Before one becomes concerned that tongues is harmful, one needs to understand what epilepsy is, and how the EEG (brain electrical activity) is different from tongues.
Epilepsy reflects abnormal, excessive or synchronous neuronal activity in the brain. This means that during the disease state, excess neurons are firing in unison, causing a seizure. In this case, the spikes are continuous, and excessive.
However, during tongues, the neurons are firing in spikes at much lower frequency intervals. There is a certain advantage to neurons firing in unison, to achieve a successful effect. But in tongues, they are “working together” but the participation is NOT excessive.
What can also cause brain malfunction, is if the neurons never work together, in unison. Tongues seems to be a condition between the two extremes of excess spikes, and none at all.
Glossolalia and Temperature Change in the Right and Left Cerebral Hemispheres
Authors: Ron Philipchalk a; Dieter Mueller b
Affiliations: a Trinity Western University.
b Surrey, B. C., Canada.
A NEW INTEGRATIVE MODEL FOR STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS
Gordana Vitaliano , M.D.
Published in NLP World, July 2000, Volume 7, No.2 pp. 41-82
Publication Frequency: 4 issues per year
Published in: International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Volume 10, Issue 3 July 2000 , pages 181 – 185