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 (there’s some footage on YouTube).

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 (see image on right).

Although brain areas are known to have multiple functions, the prefrontal cortex is known to be involved in cognitive 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.

These findings were a lot harder to explain, however, although the parietal lobe in particular has been linked to meditation, although a previous study found the area showed decreased, not increased activity, as was the case in this instance.

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.

Interestingly, people with temporal lobe epilepsy are known to be more likely to have religious or mystical experiences during seizures.

One of my favourite case studies is of 25 year-old female patient with temporal lobe epilepsy who had “seizures characterized by repetition of certain religious statements and a rather compulsive kissing behavior”.

Well, they do say God moves in mysterious ways.

Link to NYT article ‘A Neuroscientific Look at Speaking in Tongues’.
Link to abstract of SPECT study on speaking in tongues.

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