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The Brain, Speaking In Tongues?

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskeptic
By Neuroskeptic
Apr 7, 2013 9:45 AMMay 21, 2019 7:15 PM


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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…

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

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