Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Neuroscience and Speaking in Tongues

The New York Times takes note this morning of a study of the brain scans of church goers who speak in tongues:

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 blind trances, and it was unclear which region was driving the behavior.

The images, appearing in the current issue of the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, pinpoint the most active areas of the brain. The images 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, leader of the study team, which included Donna Morgan, Nancy Wintering and Mark Waldman. “The way they describe it, and what they believe, is that God is talking through them,” he said.

What is amazing to me is the statement of Dr. Newberg that seems to suggest that the brain images support the interpretation that God is speaking through the people. While I have no interest in challenging the interpretation of those who experience speaking in tongues as the voice of God flowing through them, it's another thing altogether for a scientist to look at a brain scan and say, or at least seem to say, that the science supports their interpretation. I also have to wonder about the possible bias in a study where one of the co-authors, Donna Morgan, is also a practicing Christian who speaks in tongues.

But it is interesting to read of the different ways the brain lights up in various spiritual practices, like meditation and speaking in tongues. And it will be interesting to see if there are follow up studies to track down in a more systematic way what is happening in the brain when people are in ecstatic states.


ProgressiveChurchlady said...

I don't see talking in tongues differing much from other spiritual practices like meditation. In fact, it seems rather harmless.

In many ways, talking in tongue, seems much less harmless than those who "hear" God talking to them--literally.

Proving or disproving that the sounds "tongue talkers" make is God talking through them is really not so important. It's like getting to zen or achieving a total meditative state. It is what it is and who cares.

Part of the article that wasn't posted said that a study showed that people who "talk in tongues" have less mental illness than other churchgoers. Hmmmm. If talking in tongues can create/maintain good brain biochemistry, I'd take that "gift"!

liberal pastor said...

Well, it has been my experience that speaking in tongues is different than meditation. For this reason - one is done primarily in private (meditation) and one is done primarily in midst of community worship. My meditation affects no one around me. My speaking in tongues does.

I see nothing wrong with pentecostal or "charismatic" communities encouraging the practice of speaking in tongues in the midst of their communities. Everyone knows what to expect; everyone is seeking to have a similar experience.

However, it has been the experience of Christian churches since the time of Paul that the practice of speaking in tongues in many communities is divisive. It disrupts the worship of those who don't share the same worship experience. It can create division in the church if some believe their "gift" is superior to others. This was in fact the issue that Paul addressed in his letter to the Corinthian church that led him to write the "love" chapter: "If I speak in tongues of men and angels but have not love..."

And as for the suggestion that those who speak in tongues have less mental illness, I confess that I am still suspicious of the science. I want to see a more rigorous study of all of this.

ProgressiveChurchlady said...

Yes, I can see that one could definately feel left out in a communal worship setting if you don't get the "gift"--or weren't as "gifted" as others.

I wouldn't have made the historical biblical connection to 1 Corinthians as instructive either. Thank you!

The brain science possibilities of this are fascinating. I too hope that more studies are done with a larger group of people and perhaps comparisons between meditative and ecstatic states. Perhaps speaking in tongues could be useful as a personal spiritual practice for those who have never been successful with meditation for whatever reason.

I've not witnessed someone talk in tongues or really know the first thing about it. I will take up this conversation with my very good Pentacostal friend off blog and get back to you later...

...When we were teenagers she and I used to listen to Cat Stevens together and play his songs on our guitars. Back then I was a Presbyterian and she was a UCC member. Now she's Pentacostal, I'm a member of the Church of the Brethern denomination...and Cat Stevens is Islamic! But we are all just spiritual people on a spiritual journey.