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32 | What do brain scans reveal about people speaking in tongues?

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Hi my name is Dean Smith and in this podcast I will talk about the intriguing things that showed up in brains scans of people speaking in tongues.

Speaking in Tongues, also called Glossolalia, is one of the spiritual gifts given to people after they have been with the Holy Spirit. It is also one of the more curious phenomena found among Pentecostals and Charismatics and in 2006, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania decided to use neuroimaging to scan the brains of people speaking tongues to see what part of the brain was being used during this religious exercise.

The researchers basically tracked the blood flow to the different areas of the brain as they spoke in tongues, with higher blood flows indicating usage.

The results including images of the scans were published in the journal called Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging and later recounted in an article in the New York Times entitled: “A neuroscientific look at Speaking in Tongues”.

What the research team, led by Dr Andrew Newberg, discovered surprised them.

But let me set up this study by taking a closer look at the first demonstration of tongues in the Bible because it is important to understand the study results.

Recorded in Acts 2, it took place when the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples who were in a prayer meeting during the Jewish Feast of Weeks also called Pentecost. During the feast, tens of thousands of Jews from around the Roman Empire descended upon Jerusalem for the celebration.

When the disciples poured out into Jerusalem’s crowded streets, they were speaking in the tongues which allowed people from different regions of the Roman Empire to understand what was being said because it was being spoken in their native language.

But notice how the Bible describes this:

And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Acts 2:14 ESV

The Bible says that the Holy Spirit was giving them the utterance. In other words, it was not the disciples’ speaking, rather this was the Holy Spirit speaking through these human vessels.

With this understanding let’s take a look at the study.

As part of their study, the researchers from the University of Pennsylvania scanned the brains of five women as they performed two religious activities. The first involved singing Gospel songs and the second speaking in tongues.

They noticed a remarkable transformation took place when the women moved from singing to tongues.

First, there was a fall off in blood flow to the frontal lobes of their brains, that indicated it was not being used. This was interesting because the frontal lobe of the brain is where we do our thinking and it is where we make decisions of what we are going to do.

In other words, as these women started speaking in tongues, this area of the brain stopped being used meaning at the very least it was something they were no longer thinking about or choosing to do.

Secondly even though they were talking in a physical sense, there was also a drop off in the area of the brain responsible for language. It was no longer being activated.  

A third area of the brain also indicated fall off– an area called the “left caudate.”

This was puzzling because this area of the brain is responsible for both emotional and motor control. This seemed to suggest that when the women were speaking in tongues they were somehow ceding some control over what they were doing. 

But there was an area of the brain that was being activated, the self-conscious area. In other words, the women were fully aware of what they were doing meaning they were not in a trance.

The study noted that the women stated when they spoke in tongues, they did not feel like it was them speaking but rather the Holy Spirit was speaking through them and the brain scans seemed to confirm this.

And this is very similar to my experience when I was filled with the Holy Spirit and eventually started speaking in tongues.

I got saved in what was basically a Jesus people church in the early seventies. It was a hippy church where everyone had long hair even the girls. It was a young people’s church, the pastor was the oldest person, I think he was about 21 when the church started.

And we believed in the filling of the Holy Spirit and all the gifts of the Spirit that were on display regularly during church services including speaking in tongues and interpretation.

But our church was also part of the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination. Though it did not officially reject speaking in tongues, its position was essentially, “Seek Not, Forbid Not”, with the biggest emphasis on Seek not.

This was because denomination founder, AB Simpson, who died in 1919 spoke in tongues and so they couldn’t outright reject it, but in practice they essentially did.

Shortly after I was saved I started attending an Alliance bible school located in the same city where I attended the Jesus people church. Now none of the teachers at the seminary publicly spoke against tongues, in fact the school even had a charismatic group. But many of the students were opposed to tongues and I started picking up some of their attitudes.

I began despising the people in my Jesus people church who were speaking in tongues.

But during a prayer meeting in the home of one of the elders, I felt an urge to be filled with the Holy Spirit and asked for prayer. I was saved, but hadn’t yet been baptized in the Holy Spirit. A group gathered around, laid hands on me and prayed. Instantaneously, the Holy Spirit came upon me and I experienced an overwhelming feeling of joy.

But then I felt a strange burning sensation that started at the pit of my stomach and then begin to travel up my chest and started to travel up my throat.

Though I describe it as a burning sensation, there was no pain.

I immediately suspected this was the gift of tongues and by an act of my will I pushed it down and stopped it.

This same sensation returned a couple more times and each time I purposefully suppressed it. After the third time, the sensation stopped.

Over the next few days, I felt what could only be described as overflowing exultant joy.

But this took a dramatic change a couple of weeks later when I volunteered to work at a Christian book table at our local university.

I was sitting at the table, still feeling this incredible sense of joy and peace, when I noticed a good friend from the church walking down the hallway.

I was trying to catch his attention, when suddenly this burning sensation returned, but this time, and because I was partially distracted by my friend, the sensation rapidly traveled up my throat before I could stop it, and I was speaking in tongues.

As soon as this happened, I felt the Holy Spirit speak to me, it was such an odd statement. The Holy Spirit simply said, “now you are numbered among them.” I was now among the group that I had despised.

Like the women in the study and the people on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was speaking through me.

Now when it comes to speaking in tongues there are two main points of views:

  1. First, there are those who believe Tongues is a sign you are filled with the Holy Spirit. This means everyone who is filled with the Holy Spirit is capable of speaking in tongues.
  2. Secondly, there are those who believe the gift of Tongues is just one of the signs of you are filled with the Holy Spirit, meaning not everyone baptized in the Holy Spirit will speak in tongues.

Now my experience, unfortunately, confirms both those opinions. I was definitely filled with the Holy Spirit without speaking in Tongues, because I literally stopped it from happening, but obviously I eventually spoke in tongues so it was a sign, but so was the incredible joy.

But I tend to lean to the later view that tongues is just one of the signs, because in 1 Corinthians 14:5, Paul told the church at Corinth that he wished they all spoke in tongues. Now Corinth was a very charismatic church and yet there were people who weren’t speaking in tongues.

In other words, what Paul was saying it if it was his choice, then everyone would have the gift of tongues.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul breaks down all the gifts of the Holy Spirit and starts by saying in verse 4 that each of these gifts is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The gift of healing is manifestation of the Holy Spirit. The gift of prophecy is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit as is the gift of Tongues. In other words the gift of Tongues is one of many manifestations of the Holy Spirit.

Paul then sums it all up by saying in verse 11, that the Holy Spirit hands out the gifts as “He wills” suggesting that we all get different gifts.  

Now I don’t want to be adamant on this, because I have a close pastor friend who believes that speaking in tongues is available to all believers who are filled with the Holy Spirit. 

He believes similar to prophecy there are different levels of speaking in tongues. In prophecy, we have the gift of prophecy and then a higher level called the office of the prophet. Similarly, my friend believes there are different levels of tongues one that is referred to as speaking in tongues and a higher level called the gift of Tongues.

There is one big difference between these two expressions of tongues.

Speaking in tongues is intended for private use, while the Gift of Tongues that Paul was describing in 1 Corinthians 12 is a higher level intended for public use during Church services provided there is interpretation.

While not everyone would receive the gift of Tongues, all believers baptized in the Holy Spirit will be able to speak in tongues privately.

He believes there are several examples of this in the Book of Acts when people were filled with the Holy Spirit and everyone spoke in Tongues. It happened in Acts 10, when Holy Spirit fell on the gentiles meeting in the home of Cornelius. As soon as it happened, Peter knew that everyone was filled with the Holy Spirit because it specifically says they spoke in tongues.

It happened again in Acts 19, when the Apostle Paul ran into a group of believers, 12 men, in the town of Ephesus who had not been baptized with the Holy Spirit.  After Paul laid hands on them it again specifically says that they “all” spoke in Tongues.

My friend says this is what he refers to as speaking in tongues and this expression is available to all believers filled with the Holy Spirit.

And maybe he has a point.

So aside from the overt evangelistic display on the Day of Pentecost what is the purpose of Tongues?  I believe this expression has two major functions.

First I believe it involves communication between you and God particularly with what Paul describes as the angelic tongues. In other words, it is a prayer language and we see two references to this:

For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.

1 Corinthians 14:2 ESV

We see a second reference to this in Jude who writes:

20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit

Jude 1:20 ESV

In other words the Holy Spirit, who knows the perfect will of God, will pray through us when we are uncertain what to pray. So if you are not sure of what to pray then speaking in tongues may be an option.

The second major reason to speak in tongues is because it will strengthen you personally:

The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church.

1 Corinthians 14:4 ESV

Speaking in Tongues builds up your faith. I don’t believe it increases your faith, but I believe this release of the Holy Spirit in your life will cleanse the doubt and unbelief you have about life and particular situations.

And because tongues has the ability to strengthen our faith, it certainly supports the notion that God would want everyone to speak in tongues.

And this falls in line with a second study conducted by researchers from the University of Albany in New York that was published in 2011 in the American Journal of Human Biology. They found indications that speaking in tongues reduced stress.

In their study led by Christopher Dana Lynn, the researchers analyzed the saliva of 52 people attending an Apostolic Pentecostal Church in New York.

They collected samples on what they described as “worship and non-worship days.” What they discovered is that there was a reduction in cortisol in the saliva on worship days when all the participants, 48 men, 52 women, spoke in tongues. Cortisol is considered a biomarker for stress and this suggested that speaking in tongues reduced stress for those in the study group.

So let me close with this. As believers we are entering very difficult times. Our faith is being openly challenged more than it has ever been before. We are and will face ridicule, discrimination and persecution.

To deal with this, we will need more of the Holy Spirit. If you haven’t been filled with the Holy Spirit, you need to be. This is best done by laying on of hands by people in your church.

Secondly, if you have been filled with the Holy Spirit and at one time spoke in tongues, but no longer do it as regular practice, you need to re-engage this gift.

1 Thessalonians 5:19 warns against quenching the Holy Spirit. The Greek word “sbennumi,” translated quench, literally means to put out the fire. I believe many of us have put out the fire of the Holy Spirit in our lives. This can happen by simply thinking the gift is unimportant. If you have quenched the Holy Spirit, we need to reignite this gift in our life. There could also be other things hindering the release of this gift in your life and you need to ask the Holy Spirit what it is.

We need the Holy Spirit to revive us today.


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