Speaking in tongues

By • Published: March 30th, 2007
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

References to “speaking in tongues” are common in pop culture and have been documented in the Old and New Testaments.

Now scientists are learning more about this odd phenomenon, technically known as glossolalia [glah-so-lay-leah].

It occurs when someone strings incomprehensible words together that seem to have meaning for the person who is speaking… religious meaning in particular.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine tested five women who were self-proclaimed “practitioners” of glossolalia [glah-so-lay-leah].

Using advanced imaging techniques that measure blood flow in the brain, the scientists monitored brain activity as the volunteers sang gospel songs, then as the women began to speak in tongues.

When the women were singing, their frontal lobes, commonly associated with self control, were active. But their frontal lobes seemed to step aside when they began to speak in tongues.

Researchers find the result fascinating, because the volunteers say they believe the spirit of God moves through them and controls their speech when they speak in tongues.

Indeed, the brain analyses showed the women did lose control of their usual language centers, as if they were being taken over.

This could be because other brain regions step in to play a larger role during the act of speaking in tongues.

But in this small, first-of-its-kind study, researchers could find no evidence of heightened activity elsewhere in the brain.

Far more research is needed before science truly translates what happens when someone speaks in tongues. Until then, the process remains as mystifying as the “speech” itself.