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.