Language center of the brain is not under the control of subjects who 'speak in tongues'

October 30, 2006

(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 in tongues.

Researchers 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 in tongues."

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.
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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 http://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.

Editor's Notes:

To schedule an interview with Dr. Andrew Newberg, please contact Susanne Hartman at 215-349-5964 or susanne.hartman@uphs.upenn.edu

PDF of the study and images available upon request.

Suggested caption: "From a new brain imaging study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, SPECT scans were taken of subjects while worshiping versus speaking in tongues. The speaking in tongue images primarily show a decrease of brain activity in the frontal lobes, which is what normally makes us feel as if we're in control. There was also a decrease in activity in the left basal ganglia, which is involved with focusing attention and emotional responses. Finally, the thalamus activity increased during speaking in tongues which supports it is an active state of the brain."

Please courtesy images: "Courtesy: University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine."

Dr. Newberg is the director of the new Center for Spirituality and the Mind at PENN. To learn more, go on-line to: http://www.uphs.upenn.edu/radiology/CSM/index.html or email mindreligion@uphs.upenn.edu Through the collaboration of distinguished scholars from the University of Pennsylvania, the interdisciplinary group works to promote future research and scholarly dialogue on the mind, religion and ethics.

PENN Medicine is a $2.9 billion enterprise dedicated to the related missions of medical education, biomedical research, and high-quality patient care. PENN Medicine consists of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (founded in 1765 as the nation's first medical school) and the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

Penn's School of Medicine is ranked #2 in the nation for receipt of NIH research funds; and ranked #3 in the nation in U.S. News & World Report's most recent ranking of top research-oriented medical schools. Supporting 1,400 fulltime faculty and 700 students, the School of Medicine is recognized worldwide for its superior education and training of the next generation of physician-scientists and leaders of academic medicine.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System includes three hospitals, all of which have received numerous national patient-care honors [Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania Hospital, the nation's first hospital; and Penn Presbyterian Medical Center]; a faculty practice plan; a primary-care provider network.

University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

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