“Speaking in Tongues” — Translating the Spirit

“Speaking in Tongues” or glossolalia is most often associated with Pentecostal worship.  It is an interesting phenomenon that has attracted some scholarly interest.  A recent post over at Brain Blogger discusses some of these studies:

Research performed in the 1980s at Denison University by the late anthropologist Felicitas Goodman led to a theory that glossolalia was a trance state caused by rhythmic discharges from the reticular formation, an area of the brain stem that plays a role in sleep and dreams. Goodman believed that this represented an alternative neural pathway for language, but more recent research has cast light on activity in other areas of the brain.

In 2006, Andrew Newberg and associates conducted the first functional neuroimaging study of cerebral changes during the act of glossolalia. In the study, published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, Newberg and other researchers at the University of Pennsylvania managed to run single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans to measure regional cerebral blood flow in the brains of five people during episodes of active glossolalia.  Newberg, the director for the Center for Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, discovered that activity the frontal lobes decreased, including activity in the brain’s primary language processing centers.

As noted elsewhere in the blog, I have serious doubts about the practice of imaging brains in an effort to identify localized regions of activity and interest.  It is not like the rest of the brain is disengaged or shut down, and using questionable statistical techniques and false coloration to specify small areas of heightened activity does not tell us much about what is happening inside the brain.  It is akin to high-tech phrenology.

The more interesting studies of “speaking in tongues” have been done by linguists, who uniformly conclude that the utterances of those under the thrall of the spirit resemble no known human languages, and fail to display any of the aspects of universal grammar identified by Noam Chomsky.  These words, in other words, appear to be gibberish, or languages spoken in another part of the universe.  You can find one such study here.

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  1. Pingback: Tower of Linguistic Babel: Speaking in Tongues

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