Speaking in Tongues – A Neural Snapshot
“Asaria isa asaria ari masheetee sadabada vena amina gotaya menda meshela mosha nami ki toro ma…”
Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, has fascinated thinkers ever since the “tongues of angels” descended upon early believers as a gift from the Holy Ghost in the New Testament of the Bible. This unusual mental state, characterized by utterances that sometimes sound like an untranslated psalm from Mars, typically occurs during instances of religious excitation, and is primarily associated with Pentecostal religious practices. It has commonly been considered a form of ecstatic trance accompanied by verbal utterances not found in any language.
Tongue speakers typically claim that the outbursts are non-voluntary, but others can sometimes produce instances of glossolalia on demand. Glossolalia has typically been considered a psychopathology, although little has been known about what occurs in the brain during this behavior. Plato asserted that these occurrences were caused by divine inspiration. He suggested that God took possession of the mind while man was sleeping or possessed, and during such a state, God inspired man with utterances that he can neither understand nor interpret.
Research performed in the 1980s at Denison University by the late anthropologist Felicitas Goodman led to a theory that glossolalia was a trance state caused by rhythmic discharges from the reticular formation, an area of the brain stem that plays a role in sleep and dreams. Goodman believed that this represented an alternative neural pathway for language, but more recent research has cast light on activity in other areas of the brain.
In 2006, Andrew Newberg and associates conducted the first functional neuroimaging study of cerebral changes during the act of glossolalia. In the study, published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Newberg and other researchers at the University of Pennsylvania managed to run single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans to measure regional cerebral blood flow in the brains of five people during episodes of active glossolalia. (As controls, the investigators took scans of people singing gospel songs.) Despite the prevailing notion in the biomedical community of glossolalia as psychopathology, the researchers discovered that “the limited number of reported studies have suggested that people who speak in tongues show no differences in personality traits from other population groups.” Indeed, an earlier study in Britain of glossolalia among the clergy found that those who sometimes spoke in tongues showed more emotional stability and less depression than a control group.
In an earlier neuroimaging study of meditation states, Newberg and coworkers had observed increased activity in the frontal lobes, a finding consistent with scans of other attention-focusing activities. But in the case of glossolalia, Newberg, the director for the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, discovered that activity the frontal lobes decreased, including activity in the brain’s primary language processing centers: “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.”
Another area of activity during glossolalia is the left superior parietal lobe (SPL), a region behind the frontal lobes that plays an important role in processing sensory input. In the meditation scans, during which subjects describe a loss of the sense of self, there was a significant decreases in SPL activity. However, glossolalia patients showed no such decreases, a finding consistent with their assertion that they experience no loss of individual boundaries, or submerging of the sense of self, while speaking in tongues.
The study also found increased activity in the limbic system, the seat of emotional responses, but the researchers declined to speculate on “altered emotional activity during glossolalia.”
One of the curious aspects of the study, as pointed out on the Neurocritic Blog, is that the subjects were capable of entering the state of glossolalia more or less on cue. This finding seems to call into question the “spontaneous utterance” aspect of glossolalia.
Spiritual or religious aspects notwithstanding, the study strongly points to the act of speaking in tongues as a verifiable language phenomenon that invites further study.
Francis, L. (2003). Personality and Glossolalia: A Study Among Male Evangelical Clergy Pastoral Psychology, 51 (5), 391-396 DOI: 10.1023/A:1023618715407
Goodman, Felicitas D. (1969). Phonetic Analysis of Glossolalia in Four Cultural Settings. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 8 (2), 227-239.
NEWBERG, A., WINTERING, N., MORGAN, D., & WALDMAN, M. (2006). The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during glossolalia: A preliminary SPECT study Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 148 (1), 67-71 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2006.07.001
Richardson, James T. (1973). Psychological Interpretations of Glossolalia: A Reexamination of Research. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 12 (2), 199-207.