The Brain, Speaking In Tongues?

By Neuroskeptic | April 7, 2013 4:45 am

Glossolalia – ‘speaking in tongues‘ – is a practice best known in association with ‘Charismatic’ branches of Christianity. Practitioners, often as part of religious services, produce streams of speech which correspond to no known language.

But could glossolalia sometimes be associated with a brain abnormality? Here’s an interesting case report: Temporal lobe discharges and glossolalia

Ms A was a 44-year-old female who presented to an outpatient clinic complaining of muscle tension and headaches for about 4 months… some of her friends were worried that she had been jerking her left arm while speaking in tongues, an occurrence that is atypical during glossolalia. The jerking movements occurred at no other times. She reported speaking in tongues for about 20 years, learning how to do this while attending church services. She experienced a very deep feeling of peace and tranquillity while speaking in tongues.

Medical tests, including a brain scan, came up normal. EEG revealed normal neural activity during a resting state. But…

Attempts were then made to reproduce the arm jerking. Ms A did not feel comfortable speaking in tongues aloud during the EEG because she thought it disrespectful to record this phenomenon. However she was willing to enter into a meditative state in which she prayed silently in tongues. When she did so, she appeared very relaxed, possibly even in light sleep. After several minutes of silent glossolalia, electrical discharges would begin to emanate from the right posterior temporal region

As we see here:

Now, Neurocase has in the past published some rather dubious religious-experience EEG data; in that case, I’m pretty sure the ‘temporal lobe spikes’ were just a recording artefact. This time around, it looks real enough. The fact that the suspicious signal came from the right temporal lobe also fits with the woman’s left arm jerks, because the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body.

However, so what? These kind of results are always intriguing, but this one should serve as a reminder that brain activity can be caused by behaviour, as well as causing it.

This case doesn’t show that glossolalia in general has anything to do with electrical abnormalities. It doesn’t even show that this woman’s speaking in tongues was caused by a neurological lesion. Ms A had been glossolating (?) for years before the arm movements started, after all, and it’s quite likely that there was no EEG abnormality before then either. Even once the unusual activity started, it was only triggered when she chose to enter into a glossolalia state.

So it seems likely that it just happens to be glossolalia that sets off the abnormality, whatever it is. Maybe, if she’d been an atheist, it would have happened when she was reading Richard Dawkins…

ResearchBlogging.orgReeves, R., Kose, S., & Abubakr, A. (2013). Temporal lobe discharges and glossolalia Neurocase, 1-5 DOI: 10.1080/13554794.2013.770874

  • http://twitter.com/zoasterboy          

    i’m afraid i’ll get brain lesions because I hate my life. I spoke in tongues when I was a kid I think. weird shit. now i’m an atheist.

    • Sherry Austin

      My brain is FULL of lesions and I don’t speak in tongues.

    • Interested american

      Ask God to show you if He is real. Even if you are a major skeptic, a prayer is a prayer, and He may just surprise you. If you hate your life, you have nothing to lose!

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  • penguinsofmadagascarmort

    I still don’t understand what speaking in tongues is… or glossolalia… but right now this article is making me glad I’m not religious. I’m happy that way.

  • http://twitter.com/theNeuroAtheist theneuroatheist

    Think I understand why Ms A would consider it ‘disrespectful to record the phenomena’, but if you consider how reading the musical notation from an orchestra enriches a musicians understanding of a piece, from a mechanistic perspective, it certainly does not take anything ethereal away from the music, quite the opposite.

    If this is a fair assumption then surely understanding how tongues works would enrich her understanding of how, and maybe why, her god flows a message through her, right?

  • Pingback: The Brain, Speaking In Tongues? : Neuroskeptic – speakingintonguesblogs

  • Kevin

    1) Believe that it is available for today. (Luke 11:9-13)

    2) Do not believe any doubts that may be coming against your mind right now as you read this. Or that you are not good enough etc….

    3) Pray to receive the baptism in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in new tongues.

    4) Begin speaking in faith as the Holy Spirit enables you. (Acts 2:4)

    5) Send your testimony to this magazine.

    Pray this prayer: Father I believe I have received the gift of salvation from You. I now want to be filled with the Spirit and speak in tongues. So, right now I ask you by faith for you to fill me with your Spirit. I recieve the supernatural empowerment from heaven. I believe I am being baptized in the Holy Spirit just like those who gathered in the upper room. I think you for giving me this new language. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.

    Now your first step is to just open your mouth and begin to speak words you don’t understand. Some of you may feel heat or a bubbling up from you belly. That is okay. It is normal. Some of you may only get a few words and others of you it may flow like a river. Let the river flow! Let the Holy Spirit develope this language for you. It will come word by word, faith by faith. Blessings!

  • Ephuah-Kelewele

    not understanding tongues speaking is a normal thing. because for one thing you are not a Christian (religious) but when you come to understand it you feel very blessed and lucky.scientists must be very careful on how they portray tongues speaking because they understand it not.

    for all who want to understand tongues speaking you must believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you would be saved.

  • LaTron

    I was a skeptic until it happened to me.
    Being an introverted person, I don’t typically respond with “amen” and “preach, preacher” encouragement that many people yell out during service, so I could never fathom speaking in tongues. But what happened to me was, I was praying in during service when I started to feel this sensation of warmth and tingling in my body almost like pulsating. My stomach began to quiver (almost like a vibration) and contract a bit…I was wondering “what in the world is going on” but I loved this feeling and wanted more of it, so I kept praying. I started subtlely swaying back and forth (I’m still trying to be inconspicuous and no let anyone see this) and this utterance seemed to just come up out of nowhere –that I tried to keep silently contained by putting my hand over my mouth. The feeling still pulsating throughout my body. Then I let go. The sounds that came out of my mouth were flowing like it was another language. (I’ve tried to make up ‘language’ before and this is nothing like it.) I tried to stop but it just kept coming. I was conscious of the experience, yet I was in this state of bliss- total bliss like I had never seen or experienced before. Now whether that was a gift of the spirit or my own neurchemicals re-routing or decreasing in certain areas of my brain and body, what I do know is this: It was the most amazing and exhilarating experience that I have ever known. If you have never experienced it, I’m sorry that you don’t truly understand what it is like. I dont practice it everytime I pray, only when I truly feel that sensation in my body. For those Christians that say , ‘I stopped because I dont believe its real anymore’, and try to persuade others to believe the same. I believe that it’s just no longer new to you. I urge you to look in your Bible a Roman 14:1-23. verse 2-4 pretty much sums it up: “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?
    And before I get response about ‘eating anything’ and ‘eating vegatables’ you can subsitute with “speaking in tongues”.

  • Jon Skuland

    I am a christian, and I spoke in tongues/glossololia for the first time when I was 12 years old. To me, it is the most natural thing to do….I do not feel more “spiritual” og better then others, but praying this way kind of “charges” my inner being, brings strength and clearity in a way I can not do myself! ….sometimes one feels something when doing it….and sometimes one feels not much at all. BUT I do notice when I do not pray in tongues for some days…..just as I notice if some days passes and I do not pray to God with my own words! The combination of the two, is a good way of praying to God, I have found! There are about 600-700 million christians that does this practice, among them 100 million Chatolics. DO THEY ALL HAVE THIS ARM-ABNORMALITY ? ofcourse not!!!! We are ALL kinds of people, from ALL walks of life. So a basically found this article very biased…..hehe but it is interesting to see that this practise draws attention! Personally I think this practis will be a natural part (not the whole!) of most christians within 15 years…..just as natural as praying to God with ones own words….or going regulary to church…..or wanting to help your neighbor! And by the way, the sign of a really spiritual person is not praying in tongues, but one who loves his neighbor!!!

  • Interested american

    Mr. Dawkins can tell you now if his assertions about God were true or not. But I don’t know if they have asbestos paper to write on down there……

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Neuroskeptic

No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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