When people speak in tongues, they make unrecognizable noises and change their pitch, volume, and intensity at an often frenzied pace. Sometimes they dance, bend toward the floor, or clap fervently. People say they feel as though they’ve lost control—as if their body is a conduit for the spirit or voice of God.
But what’s happening in the brain?
In the first study to use brain imaging to examine this practice, also known as glossolalia, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania monitored the brain activity of five females as they spoke in tongues. The study found decreased activity in a part of the brain associated with self-control.
Speaking in tongues is a ritual referenced by the New Testament, and it is still practiced by some members of the contemporary Charismatic and Pentecostal Christian traditions.
The subjects in the study each said that they regularly spoke in tongues. Though glossolalia can’t be achieved on demand, those who do it habitually find it easier to start the process, said Andrew Newberg, a radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and lead author of the study.
The subjects slipped into speaking in tongues within minutes, Newberg said, while the researchers used single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging to analyze blood flow—and therefore activity—in the brain. They compared the results to images created while the subjects sang gospel music.
Brain images revealed that there was a decrease in activity in the subjects’ frontal lobes while they spoke in tongues.
“That is a part of the brain that normally makes us feel as if we’re in charge of our actions,” Newberg said. “The fact that activity is decreased makes a lot of sense. [Those who speak in tongues] feel like they’re not in charge,” said Newberg, who is also the director of the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at Penn.
One of the challenges of examining a spiritual practice is the difficulty in validating such a subjective experience. “How do you know they’re really speaking in tongues rather than faking it?” Newberg asked. “But the fact that we found similar changes in the brain in all our subjects suggests that something is really happening.”
Michael Persinger, a behavioral neuroscientist at Laurentian University in Ontario, praised the study, saying it sheds scientific light on religious sensations.
“It tells us a great deal about spiritual, mystical experiences,” said Persinger, who has studied glossolalia. “It’s tied to good old-fashioned human brain activity.”
Originally published November 9, 2006