Tongues on the Mind

By | November 6, 2006

Tongues on the Mind

Brain scans reveal that people who “speak in tongues” have relinquished self control.

To conduct the study, psychiatrist Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and his colleagues recruited five African-American women who belong to a local Pentecostal congregation. All had been in the habit of speaking in tongues “almost on a daily basis” for the past 5 years, says Newberg. As a control activity, subjects stood and sang gospel songs with musical accompaniment, moving their arms and swaying. Then they were asked to repeat the behavior, but this time the researchers encouraged them to speak in tongues rather than sing. … scientists gave the subjects an intravenous injection of a radioactive tracer that provided, in effect, a freeze-frame of which brain areas were most active during the behavior, as indicated by increased blood flow. This was captured by then scanning the women’s brains in a single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) machine.

Glossolalia produced … a decrease in frontal lobe function, Newberg says. “The part of the brain that normally makes them feel in control has been essentially shut down.” Another notable change was increased activity in the parietal region–the part of the brain that “takes sensory information and tries to create a sense of self and how you relate to the rest of the world,” Newberg says. The findings make sense, says Newberg, because speaking in tongues involves relinquishing control while gaining a “very intense experience of how the self relates to God.” Interestingly, he notes, the glossolalia responses were the opposite of those seen in subjects in a meditative state. When people meditate on a particular sacred object, Newberg has found that their frontal lobe activity increases, while their parietal activity goes down. This conforms with the notion that in meditation one has a controlled focus while losing a sense of self. – scinow

I wonder if my brain does the same things when I improvise nonsense jazz sounds.

One thought on “Tongues on the Mind

  1. Mark Waldman

    You?ll find a complete description of the speaking in tongues study in Newberg?s new book “Why We Believe What We Believe,” Since I?m one of the authors of the study, let me add some notes to this intriguing discussion. First, speaking in tongues is essentially an altered state of consciousness in which the person deliberately changes the overall neural functioning of his or her brain. Chanting, drumming, and shamanic trance states probably would show similar brain states, with decreases in frontal lobes and unusual changes in other areas. Interestingly, in Newberg’s other brainscan studies, nuns praying and Buddhists meditating had similar altered brain patterns to each other, but were almost the opposite of the Pentecostals, who never lost sense of themselves and thus do not feel “at one” with the universe or God. Instead they stay present, in dialogue with the Holy Spirit. Is God just an imaginative construct in the brain? Obviously yes (even if God does exist, the brain has to conceive of God to experience it). But what is most interesting about intense meditations is that they can permanently change the neural structure of the brain. All of Newberg’s subjects, including the nuns, Buddhists, and one atheist who attempted to pray to God (see the book, “Why We Believe What We Believe” for a full description of all of these studies) had assymetric activity in the thalamus when they weren’t even meditating. The longer you focus on any concept, other parts of the brain will respond as if that idea was objectively real. Focus on peace, you become more peaceful; focus on your anger, and your anger will feel justified and real. If you believe in God, God eventually becomes real. So be careful about what you believe!

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