Tests show speaking in tongues is not willful
New York Times News Service
Nov. 6, 2006

Benedit Carey

The passionate, sometimes rhythmic, language-like patter that pours forth from religious people who "speak in tongues" reflects a state of mental possession, many of them say. Now they have some neuroscience to back them up.

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 a blind trance. It was unclear which region of the brain was driving the behavior.

The images, appearing in the current issue of the journal Psychiatry
Research: Neuroimaging, pinpoint which areas of the brain are most active.
They are the first of their kind taken during this spoken religious practice, which has roots in the Old and New Testaments and in charismatic churches established in the United States around the turn of the 19th century. The women in the study were healthy, active churchgoers. "The amazing thing was how the images supported people's interpretation of what was happening," said Dr. Andrew B. Newberg, the leader of the study team, which included Donna Morgan, Nancy Wintering and Mark Waldman. Newberg is also a co-author of a book, "Why We Believe What We Believe." "The way they describe it, and what they believe, is that God is talking through them," he said.

In the study, the researchers used imaging techniques to track changes in blood flow in each woman's brain in two conditions: once as she sang a gospel song, and again while she was speaking in tongues. By comparing the patterns created by these two emotional, devotional activities, the researchers could pinpoint blood-flow peaks and valleys unique to speaking in tongues.

Morgan, a co-author of the study, also served as a research subject. She is a born-again Christian who says she considers the ability to speak in tongues a gift. "You're aware of your surroundings, you're not really out of control, but you have no control over what's happening; you're just flowing," she said. "You're in a realm of peace and comfort, and it's a fantastic feeling."

Contrary to what may be common perception, studies suggest that people who speak in tongues rarely suffer from mental problems. A recent study of nearly 1,000 evangelical Christians in England found that those who engaged in the practice more emotionally stable than those who did not. Researchers have identified at least two forms of the practice, one ecstatic and frenzied, the other subdued and nearly silent.

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, Newberg said, so it may be that practitioners - while mindful of their circumstances
- nonetheless cede some control over their bodies and emotions.