November 7, 2006

Speaking in tongues, now, with brain imaging.

But what does it mean?
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 amazing thing was how the images supported people’s interpretation of what was happening,” said Dr. Andrew B. Newberg.... “The way they describe it, and what they believe, is that God is talking through them,” he said....

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.
I'd like a little more analysis and contrasting opinion in this article, which reads too much like a press release from Dr. Newberg. For example: Are these brain patterns similar to dreaming?


Edward said...

Just because brain scans confirm that these women don't have conscious control over what they're doing, that doesn't mean God is controlling what they say when they "speak in tongues."

When I was a child and first learned that some religious denominations have a practice called "speaking in tongues," I naively thought that these people were suddenly able to speak actual languages that they had never previously studied or been exposed to before.

I later learned that the "tongues" that these people speak is little more than gibberish to outside observers. In other words, they're not speaking any actual, recognizable human language.

To me, that makes the whole activity kind of suspect. It certainly detracts from any claim that this activity is supernatural or miraculous.

Anyone can speak gibberish whenever they want to, regardless of what brain scans show.

Ann Althouse said...

But the article appears to suggest that the women aren't just faking (and aren't mentally ill).

Edward said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Edward said...

Ann: It all depends on what you mean by “faking it.”

No, they’re not faking it, to the extent that they’re telling the truth when they say they don’t have conscious control over what comes out of their mouths when they “speak in tongues.”

But their ultimate claim about what they’re doing is very grandiose, as we all know.

They claim, apparently, that God or the Holy Spirit takes hold of them and controls the movement of their mouths when they speak in tongues. They may even have agreed to take part in this study in the hope that the brain scans would confirm the spiritual or supernatural nature of this experience.

Well, the brain scans do seem to confirm that these women don’t have conscious control over their utterances, which means they aren’t exactly “faking it.”

But further research into these experiences would probably demonstrate -- as you yourself suggest in your original post -- that these women are simply working themselves into a trance-like or dream-like state.

The conscious mind does not operate in trances and dreams, but I don’t think anyone would suggest that a trance or a dream is supernatural or miraculous.

And you don’t have to be mentally ill to go into a trance or a dream. So the whole question of mental illness is kind of irrelevant here, in my opinion.

bill said...

Big Snow Crash excerpt on glossolalia. Neal Stephenson references a C.W. Shumway, who appears in this history of "speaking in tongues" and the Pentecostal church.

At the time, Stephenson was influenced by The Origin of Consciousness in the
Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes.

Chris said...


I haven't read the article but it is true that the pre-frontal cortex is shut down during dreaming, as it appears to be in this state.

The interesting part is that these women can "turn off" their caudate, and that language areas aren't active - which would wouldn't be the case if they were just deliberately babbling.

Paddy O said...

Edward, There are different views on tongues, and many different expressions. I've heard of actual languages being spoken, which is what Acts chapter 2 mentions as tongues.

There is also an accompanying tradition in these circles of interpretation of tongues, where one person speaks and another person divinely interprets the message.

St. Paul said that the only excuse for speaking in tongues out loud in a congregation setting was if there was an interpreter. Occasionally, there will be times where two separate people will be "interpreters" and have matching translations.

My suspicion is that there would indeed be a great difference between a anyone speaking gibberish and someone who genuinely finds themselves speaking in tongues. The sounds might be the same, maybe, but the reaction in the brain and biochemistry would be different.

It would be interesting to see how this relates to a dream state. My impression, also, is that speaking in tongues is a nonverbal worship expression meant to speak that which words aren't able to form. Which makes me curious how these brain scans would match up to, say, a jazz improviser or other musician.

Christy said...

As a child I went to one of those churches when I stayed over with cousins for the weekend. I remember thinking it totally bogus and show-offy. But then, I'm one of those who always believed that one should communicate privately with whatever gods may be. And why does it always seem to be women? shades of Delphi!

EMC said...

I'm a linguist, and I also sometimes speak in tongues when praying. I can attest that glossolalia is both relaxing from a biological point of view and of some value religiously. Phonetically most tongues-speaking is not as rich in phonetic repertoire as most human languages, and in my opinion is something different than what we understand as language. Nevertheless, the cadence and articulation of most glossolalia is language-like enough to distinguish it from just "gibberish". I've heard other linguists refer to it as "jargon aphasia." Descriptively, that's not a bad summing-up, but I wouldn't myself exclude the element of transcendence from a full description of the phenomenon.

Harry Eagar said...

It's like riding a bicycle. You can learn how to do it, and once you've learned, you can perform complex maneuvers without 'thinking through' them.

Anonymous said...

Apart from the other reasons mentioned, I'm fairly skeptical of "speaking in tongues" from a biblical point of view, at least as it's currently practiced in most churches.

But the idea of speaking in tongues with synchronous brain imaging in a worship service -- now that would be cool!

TMink said...

I am Presbyterian, so my tongue does not work that way. But I worked with some wonderful Pentecostal friends who did indeed speak in tongues. They were neither faking nor crazy, and I wonder why anyone would think along those lines?

For these kind (and sane) folks, they understood what was happening as their prayer language. The idea is that their spirit could pray without their brain being involved, and that their spirit could do a better job that way. They did not speak in tongues to communicate with each other, but to communicate with God.

I have heard a credible story of speaking in a language that the person did not learn. The story was told by a dear family friend, Ms. Brakefield, an actual saintly person. One of her best friends was Jewish, and called Ms. Brakefield. Ms. Brakefield listened to the woman's sad story, then asked her friend if a prayer would help. The friend said yes, and Ms. Brakefield prayed for her friend over the phone. The usual type of prayer, thanking God for the woman's mother, thanking God for His love of the Jewish people, asking God's healing and blessing on her friend. You know, the way all us kind Christains pray for our Jewish brothers and sisters. Well, most of us.

At the end of the prayer, Ms. Brakefield's friend asked "Where did you learn that?" in an amazed voice. "Learn what?" Ms. Brakefield asked. "Learned Yiddish? My mother prayed that prayer for me every night before I went to sleep as a child."

I did not hear the story from Ms. Brakefield, but from a mutual friend. I confirmed it with Ms. Brakefield who could not describe what happened. "Isn't that amazing? I was just praying like I always do" she said.

Estactic religious practices are widespread. As they go, speaking in tongues and prayer languages are nothing to get worried about. Certainly nothing to cry insanity or faking about. I am certain that some people who speak in tongues are indeed insane, and some are fakers, but the people that I am speaking of are kind, loving people, that I would trust with my children.


Beth said...

bill, thanks for that citation of Snow Crash. It's a good day when I get to re-read some Stephenson. That book is one of my all-time favorite audio book experiences.

Anonymous said...

I believe something similar to glossalalia occurs in other religious venues. I would suspect we would we see the same effect.

Anonymous said...

"Please. Please, Please, Please. Please. Please. Please. Honey, please! Don’t. Yea! Oh, yea-ah. Oh. I love you so. Baby! You did me wrong. Whoa’! Whoa-oh. You done me wrong. You know you done! Done me wrong. Whoa. Oh yeah! You took my love. And now you’re gone. Please! Please. Please, Please, Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Honey, please. Don’t! Whoah. Oh, yeah. Lord. I love you so. I just want to year you say, I…I…I…I…I…I…I…I! Honey, please. Don’t. Oh! Oh, yeah. Oh. I love you so. Baby! Take my hand. I want to be your love man. Oh, yes, Good God almighty. Honey, please! Don’t. Ohhh. Oh. Yeah. Lord. I love you so! Pleeeeease. Don’t Go. Pleee-ee-ee-ease. Don’t go. Honey, please don’t go. Oh. I love you so. Please. Please."
-James Brown, “Baby Please Don’t Go."

(As quoted in The New Yorker.)

TMink said...

George, it works for me!

I was listening to James Brown with my then 4 year old daughter. She was listening intently, turned to me and asked "Why he say "hey" daddy?" I thought about it and answered "Because some things you feel so deeply that you just cannot say them in words. So he says "Hey."

Kinda pertinent to this thread I guess. Thanks for reminding me.


TMink said...

Edward wrote: "Anyone can speak gibberish whenever they want to, regardless of what brain scans show."

You miss the point. It is the brain scans that are interesting, not the gibberish.


Revenant said...

It is the brain scans that are interesting, not the gibberish

This is true. Of course, the guy seems to be saying that the brain scans confirm that God is speaking through these people, which is a silly assertion. There is no known way of distinguishing the brain scans of people who are talking with god(s) from those of people who aren't.

Bleepless said...

A stage hypnotist I know once told a pentecostal minister that glossolalia almost certainly was the result of self-hypnosis. The minister invited him to a service and gave him unrestricted access to the parishoners. The hypnotist had to admit that he saw none of the physical indicia of a hypnotic trance.

Harry Eagar said...

Hypnosis does not involve a trance-state, Bleepless. It's voluntary.

Trey apparently knows people who use tongues as a sort of vocal version of a prayer-wheel, but glossalalia is not so innocent.

I quote from the liner notes to 'The Sweet Presence of Jesus' by Dr. Rodney M. Howard-Browne, concerning the recording of glossalalia at a 1997 camp meeting. The 'songs,' he says, 'came forth supernaturally as we worshipped the Lord in spirit and in truth.'

It ain't supernatural and it ain't innocent.

TMink said...

Hey Harry, I am intrested in your concerns that "talking in tongues" is not innocent. Could you please expound on that thought a bit.



P.S. I like the metaphor of the verbal prayer wheel! Good thinking.

Harry Eagar said...

At the very least, taking money under false pretenses.

More generally, glossalalia is part of a package deal that includes some pretty nasty social constructs (like hate campaigns) and bad practical outcomes (like avoiding effective medical treatment in favor of casting out demons).

I don't think glossalalia ranks very high on the list of social problems, either absolutely or relatively. But I have seen some unhappy to tragic individual outcomes from what might be called participation in the glossalalia complex.

TMink said...

I get your point, it is not the glossolalia itself, but the other sleazy aspect which are often co-travelers. I see your point.


Melecia said...

Speaking in tongues is real it is one of the beautiful experience. If u have faith in Jesus Christ in due time u will speak in tongues. "And these are the signs that follow them that believe...." Don't try to understand spiritual things with ur physical mind. Learn of Jesus Christ and in time He will fill u with the Holy Spirit so that ur eyes will be opened and u will be a child of God and better person. For without faith it is impossible to please God for he who comes to God must believe that He is....

Unknown said...

I speak in tongues and I am fully aware, no trance like state or other funny stuff abounds in me when I do.
All though I do not understand what I am saying it is as natural to me as if I where talking in my own language.
Effort not required.
I guess what I feel from it is that I am heard and have fully expressed myself, perhaps better then I could have done through regular prayer.