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 Tongues and Scientific Research

John Hoole March 22, 2009

Is there scientific data that corroborates what the Bible says about speaking in tongues?

A few months ago I was driving in my car listening to the radio. I don't remember the specific program I was listening to, but information given by one of the speakers caught my attention. This person was relaying what he had learned from a medical doctor at Oral Roberts University. The doctor had made the statement that when a person is praying in tongues, brain activity changes, and a part of the brain is active which is not used for any other thing.

As much as is possible, I try to corroborate things or statements like these, rather than accepting and running with it. So I did some research and found that indeed this is the case. On further investigation, I found out the report was made by Dr. Carl Peterson, a brain specialist at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His research came after a previous one conducted in another university. So I will come back to Dr. Peterson's study later in our lesson.

The other study had been conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in late 2006. In a moment I will give you information as to how this research was carried out, and what the resultant findings were. First, I want to look at a couple of passages by the apostle Paul that relate to the findings.

1 Corinthians 14:14-15 NIV

14 For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful.
15 So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my mind; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my mind.

This verse says that when you pray in tongues, the mind is not generating the words spoken, as is the case when we speak in our native tongue.

1 Corinthians 14:32 NIV

32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.

While the first passage tells us our brains are not engaged in what is said in tongues, this verse says that the person speaking in tongues does not lose control of his mind or himself.

As I began reading the criteria for monitoring their subjects and the results, there was another thing that would interest me. If you have been around Pentecost any length of time, you have seen variations on how speaking in tongues is expressed. Some speak in tongues with great energy and bodily motions, while others speak in tongues with almost no physical movement. Some are loud and boisterous, while others are only faintly audible. I wondered if the brain activities would point to any particular reason.

Now, to the research done at the University of Pennsylvania. The branch of study doing the research was the neuroscience department in the medical school. Specifically, brain scans were taken. These scans would measure the flow of blood in the brain. If an area of the brain is more active, it requires more blood to flow in that area.

The doctor in charge of the study was Dr. Andrew Newberg. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of Radiology and Psychiatry and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Nuclear Medicine, and Nuclear Cardiology. He is the director and co-founder of the Center for Spirituality and the Neurosciences, also at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Newberg is also considered to be an authority in religion and medicine, and has written many books in this area. From all the sources I could find, I don't think Dr. Newberg is himself a Christian.

When you do scientific studies, you need to establish a "control mark" as a standard. You need something against which to compare results. So, in addition to taking brain images of the subjects as they spoke in tongues, they did the same while each subject sang gospel songs.

The study involved monitoring the brain activity of five females who spoke in tongues. That takes away the possibility of someone faking it. Each of the ladies said they regularly spoke in tongues. Additionally, one of the doctors on the research staff was also a Pentecostal, and allowed herself to be one of the five subjects.

Radiology investigators observed increased or decreased brain activity by measuring regional cerebral blood flow with SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography). This imagery was taken while they were either speaking in tongues or singing.

I don't know exactly the date of the research study, but most of the early reports in various publication and periodicals were in late October and early November, 2006. The results of the study were published in the Nov. 2006 issue of Psychiatry Research.

Let me quote Dr. Newberg as to the findings of this research in his own words.

"Our finding of decreased activity in the frontal lobes during the practice of speaking in tongues is fascinating because these subjects truly believed that the spirit of God is moving through them and controlling what was being spoken."

The frontal lobes of the brain are the areas that control speech. When they sang gospel songs, this area was active, showing the ladies had to think about the words being sung. Dr. Newberg says, "Our brain imaging research shows us that these subjects are not in control of the usual language centers during this activity (when praying in tongues)."

He goes on to say, "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 where this took place." At another place in the study's findings, he says, "the fact that this occurred in all five candidates is very significant."

This finding fits perfectly with what the apostle Paul recorded when saying that our brain is not engaged in speaking in tongues. The research didn't show what was controlling the speaking in tongue. The apostle Paul gives us the answer - it is controlled by the Holy Spirit.

The study revealed a couple other things. While blood flow to the frontal lobes decreased, activity in the area that controls self awareness was active. That means they knew what was going on around them, and that they were not in some kind of uncontrollable trance.

That is in agreement with the apostle Paul once again. He said, in 1 Corinthians 14:32, the "spirit of the prophet is subject to the control of the prophet." While the person speaking in tongues does not control the words spoken, they still control whether to speak in tongues or not. A person speaking in tongues is totally aware of what is going on around them.

Another thing that came out of this study occurs when comparing these results with a study of other subjects in an earlier research project. That study wasn't with subjects speaking in tongues, but were subjects participating in transcendental meditation and other meditations. While the frontal lobes of a person speaking in tongues shows less activity, the meditation candidates had increased activity, being more focused on what they were thinking.

One finding of the tongues research study did not match up with what looked like the experience of the participant. That has to do with the area of the brain that reflects emotions. Some of those who spoke in tongues had incredible emotions, and they expected the area of the brain that controls emotion to light up. That did not happen in any of the subjects - showing less emotion than expected. The researchers are not sure what to make of this.

Now, let's move forward to Dr. Peterson's research at Oral Roberts University. His research did not focus just on brain scans to show blood flow. He has found, however, that as people pray and worship God in tongues, the brain releases two chemical secretions which give our immune system a 35-40% boost. This promotes healing in our bodies. As amazing as this seems, the secretion comes from a part of the brain which has no other apparent activity in humans. And the only way to activate it is by praying in the Spirit.

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