(Philadelphia, PA) - Glossolalia, otherwise referred
to as “speaking in tongues,” has been around for thousands
of years, and references to it can be found in the Old and New Testament.
Speaking in tongues is an unusual mental state associated with specific
religious traditions. The individual appears to be speaking in an
incomprehensible language, yet perceives it to have great personal
meaning. Now, in a first of its kind study, scientists are shining
the light on this mysterious practice -- attempting to explain what
actually happens physiologically to the brain of someone while speaking
at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
have discovered decreased activity in the frontal lobes, an area
of the brain associated with being in control of one’s self.
This pioneering study, involving functional imaging of the brain
while subjects were speaking in tongues, is in the November issue
of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, the official publication
of the International Society for Neuroimaging in Psychiatry.
Radiology investigators observed increased or decreased brain activity
- by measuring regional cerebral blood flow with SPECT (Single Photon
Emission Computed Tomography) imaging - while the subjects were
speaking in tongues. They then compared the imaging to what happened
to the brain while the subjects sang gospel music.
“We noticed a number of changes that occurred functionally
in the brain,” comments Principal Investigator Andrew
Newberg, MD, Associate Professor of Radiology, Psychiatry,
and Religious Studies, and Director for the Center for Spirituality
and the Mind, at Penn. “Our finding of decreased activity
in the frontal lobes during the practice of speaking in tongues
is fascinating because these subjects truly believe that the spirit
of God is moving through them and controlling them to speak. Our
brain imaging research shows us that these subjects are not in control
of the usual language centers during this activity, which is consistent
with their description of a lack of intentional control while speaking
Newberg went on to explain, “These findings could be interpreted
as the subject’s sense of self being taken over by something
else. We, scientifically, assume it’s being taken over by
another part of the brain, but we couldn’t see, in this imaging
study, where this took place. We believe this is the first scientific
imaging study evaluating changes in cerebral activity -- looking
at what actually happens to the brain -- when someone is speaking
in tongues. This study also showed a number of other changes in
the brain, including those areas involved in emotions and establishing
our sense of self.”
Newberg concludes that the changes in the brain during speaking
in tongues reflect a complex pattern of brain activity. Newberg
suggests that since this is the first study to explore this, future
studies will be needed to confirm these findings in an attempt to
demystify this fascinating religious phenomenon.
This preliminary study, done only at Penn, examined five subjects
in a laboratory setting. The study, set for publication in the November
issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, can now be
accessed on-line at www.sciencedirect.com.
The article is titled, “The Measurement of Regional Cerebral
Blood Flow During Glossolalia: a Preliminary SPECT Study.”
Co-authors include: Nancy Wintering, Donna Morgan, and Mark Waldman.
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