tongues of fire

Swamijenluc_3There's very little these days that will keep me up past my usual bedtime; chalk it up to one too many all-nighters in college, but unless I get engrossed in a really good novel and just have to see how everything ends, I'll usually opt for a good night's sleep. But Saturday night (or, technically, early Sunday morning), I had the rare opportunity to make my first guest appearance on the Coast to Coast AM radio program with host Art Bell.

I was a bit nervous about the prospect. It had been an especially hellish week, and I was exhausted, physically and mentally. I almost never listen to any kind of radio (no particular reason, I just don't), so I only had a passing acquaintance with Bell's show, and therefore had no idea what to expect. Plus, it meant staying up all night: on the East Coast (where I'll be until April), the show runs from 2 AM to 5 AM. This is not a time frame in which I am at my most cogent and articulate, and Bell likes to talk about some pretty far-out subjects, only some of which I'm familiar with, so it would be a tough gig even when all the neurons are firing. So I was pleasantly surprised to find I genuinely enjoyed the experience, and snagged a good book recommendation in the process (Tess Gerritsen's Gravity).

Much of the credit for this belongs to Bell, who is a gracious, genial host, skilled at putting his guests at ease, without letting them off too easy. I was an obvious outsider — an avowed skeptic amidst his loyal late-night following. It was a bit like walking into a cocktail party where everyone knows everyone else, and trying to join a conversation that's been in full swing for quite some time. But Bell made me feel welcome, and while neither one of us changed the other's mind about anything, I felt we had a friendly, interesting exchange. Among other things, we discussed my religious upbringing and current agnostic status (a rare area of agreement). It reminded me that I've been meaning to write something about glossolalia — a.k.a., speaking in tongues — since last fall, when researchers at the University of Pennsylvania briefly made headlines with the first real-time images of the brain's activity while speaking in tongues.

My first experience with the phenomenon occurred at the age of 9 or so, when my mother took me to a Pentecostal prayer meeting. I was a kid; I was curious; and it sounded kinda cool. But my skeptical tendencies were emerging even then. No matter how much the evangelist laid hands on me and prayed, I just couldn't do it — even though there were kids running around younger than me, babbling away with wild abandon. My strongest inclination was to kick the evangelist in the shins so he'd stop pressuring me to attempt something I clearly had no affinity for.  But I did wonder about the ease with which those with, say, less cautiously reserved personalities than mine engaged in the activity: they literally seemed able to turn it off and on at will.

For those who might not be familiar with the Book of Acts in the New Testament, the second chapter tells the story of the very first Pentecost,  in which the Apostles gathered together to pray after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Tongues of fire appeared over their heads, and they began speaking in unknown languages, so that other people in the room who spoke foreign languages could understand their words. It was kind of the antithesis of the Tower of Babel in the Old Testament, where god supposedly scrambled the tongues of men to keep them from building a tower to heaven and putting themselves on the same level as god. Or something. (In literary terms, this would be known as hubris).

Even among evangelical Christians, the practice of speaking in tongues tends to be a bit controversial. There are those who think it was a one-time event, not something that should be practiced in modern times, and those for whom it is part of their daily prayer vigil, and people in between. Historically, it's popped up regularly among church practices. For instance, there are references to speaking in tongues in the writings of Justin Martyr (150 AD) and Tertullian (circa 200 AD), and in the 1100s Hildegard of Bingen spoke and sang in tongues. Ditto for the Moravians in the 1300s, a sect of French prophets called the Camisards, and the early Quakers in the 1600s

For all its association with Christianity, the second chapter of Acts is not the first time in the history of the world that such a strange phenomenon has been recorded. The famed Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece housed a female oracle (a pythia) who would make sacred utterances — a.k.a., "gibberish" — while in a trance-like state most likely brought on by the inhalation of noxious fumes emanating from faults beneath the temple. There's a lively debate going on between scientists in Rome and Connecticut, as to whether those emissions were carbon dioxide mixed with methane, or ethylene. (The latter stimulates the central nervous system, causing hallucinations, and also emits a sweet odor — a detail that appears in the writings of Plutarch.) More recently, glossolalia has been observed in Haitian voodoo rituals, and in shamanistic practices, and it can be induced by taking certain hallucinogenic drugs.

Early in the 20th century, psychiatrists linked glossolalia primarily to schizophrenia and hysteria, but that explanation is (a) unfair, (b) overly simplistic, and (c) no longer the widely accepted scientific view. Those who practice speaking in tongues don't generally suffer from mental illness and actually experience less stress, although psychologist John Kildahl observed in 1972 that such people "tend to have more need of authority figures." Nor is it a trance; in fact, it might be an acquired ability to which some people might be more naturally inclined, in the same way that some people pick up sports or knitting more easily than others. (I suspected as much as a child.) But even so, it still requires a bit of practice to achieve the polished, flowing glossolalia.

Around 390 AD Augustine of Hippo mentioned the practice among certain believers who sang god's praises in a way that "may not be confined by the limits of syllables." That turns out to be a pretty accurate description of glossalalia, lingustically speaking. William Samarin is a professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Toronto who has conducted an extensive study of the practice worldwide. His conclusion:

Glossolalia consists of strings of meaningless syllables made up of sounds taken from those familiar to the speaker and put together more or less haphazardly. The speaker controls the rhythm, volume, speed and inflection of his speech so that the sounds emerge as pseudolanguage in the form of words and sentences.

According to Skepticwiki, the inventory of sounds is simple, the sequence highly repetitive, there are almost no predictable structural units or systematic word or sentence meaning. "Glossolalia is language-like because the speaker unconsciously wants it to be language-like. Yet in spite of superficial similarities, glossolalia fundamentally is not language." People want to believe, plain and simple, and no amount of scientific evidence to the contrary will change any True Believer's mind about his/her beliefs, because the experience is very real to them. And no wonder. The University of Pennsylvania imaging results demonstrate that this stubborn mindset might have a scientific basis: "[S]omeone in the throes of glossolalia is having an experience which they find genuinely inexplicable because they are not consciously thinking about the stream of syllables which pour from their tongue."

Heading up the Pennsylvania study was Andrew B. Newberg, director and co-founder of the Center for Spirituality and Neurosciences, and author of Why We Believe What We Believe. He studied the brain activity of five Pentecostal women, all of whom regularly spoke in tongues. To do so, he used a nuclear medicine imaging technique called single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), which detects gamma rays after the patient is injected with a radioactive tracer chemical (usually hexamethylpropylene amine oxime). This enables scientists to "see" which areas of the brain are most active during given behaviors — in Newberg's case, when his test subjects were speaking in tongues, and when they were singing Gospel tunes (the control activity). A gamma camera takes pictures as it rotates around the subject's head from multiple angles — this can take 15-20 minutes — and this data is fed into a computer, which uses it to construct a 3D image. The study results were published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.

Newberg's findings were quite interesting. Specifically, he measured a near-shut-down of the part of the brain (frontal lobe) related to reason and self-control — indicated by decreased blood flow to that region — and a sharp increase in activity in that part of the brain (parietal region) which takes in sensory information and tries to create a sense of self relating to the world. In the most simple terms, activity in the conscious language centers of the brain decreased while activity in the emotional centers of the brain increased. This is actually opposite to what happens when people practice meditation: there, the frontal lobe becomes more active, while activity in the parietal region decreases. That's because glossolalia is concerned with giving up control and feeling like the self is relating to god, while meditation is about losing the sense of self and controlling focus and concentration.

The study supports Newberg's basic hypothesis that "we are biologically driven to find meaning and wholeness throughout our lives. In fact, our brains have the capacity to create and maintain a system of beliefs which can take us far beyond our survival-oriented needs." However, he also points out that "we are also born with a biological propensity to impose our belief systems on others." 

Science has a way of off-setting the risk of wishful thinking, which is why I'm such a big fan of the scientific method. I'm as prone as anyone else to self-deception, but Newberg's hypothesis rings true to me — especially the bit about the pronounced need for those with strong belief systems to impose them on others. That does seem to be a particularly ugly, ingrained aspect of basic human nature. It's not just present among evangelical Christians, either, the current political environment notwitstanding. (And boy, is it prominent in politics!)

For instance, the flurry of emails I've received since my appearance on Coast to Coast (and if I haven't responded to some people, my apologies, but time is tight these days) run the gamut from True Believers who are angry that I don't have more of an open mind and insist on politely pointing out the flaws in their reasoning, and hard-core skeptics who are angry that I wasn't more rudely aggressive in debunking some of the wilder claims because THOSE CRAZY PEOPLE MUST BE STOPPED AT ALL COSTS! (Jen-Luc Piquant sniffs that she is tolerant of almost anything, except intolerance… and yes, she is well aware of the paradox, and embraces it. It's a faux-French thing.) The common thread: their strong personal beliefs result in outrage that someone is expressing an opinion not 100% in agreement with how they would have expressed it. (In fairness, I've received many very nice emails, too, and not just from my parents.)

Fortunately, I've learned a valuable lesson over the years: it's impossible to please absolutely everyone, so you might as well follow your gut instincts and just please yourself. There's no fancy scientific study backing up that particular hypothesis, but as a simple coping mechanism, it works for me. And I stand by what I said on the show: the sharply polarizing extreme rhetoric being employed on both sides of religion vs. science debate (or science vs. pseudoscience, liberal vs conservative, Democrat vs Republication, apples vs. oranges…) isn't helping convince anyone in the long run. Invariably, such people are more concerned with being right and advancing their own beliefs/agenda than they are with actually being heard. Me? I'd rather be heard, even if it's just by one person.

[UPDATE: It's a holiday for godless heathens: welcome to Darwin Day! Darksyde has a nice musing in Darwin's honor over at Daily Kos, while the indefatiguable Coturnix has compiled a terrific list of links here. Where does that guy get his energy?]

16 thoughts on “tongues of fire”

  1. hat’s because glossolalia is concerned with giving up control and feeling like the self is relating to god, while medication is about losing the sense of self and controlling focus and concentration.

    Shouldn’t that underlined “medication” be a “meditation”? Otherwise, rather interesting and good food for thought!

  2. Congrats on your late night/early AM radio appearance! I love the fact that you’re becoming a cult figure. (And btw, take a page from Scott Adams’ blog – the more people who write in to tell you that you’re an idiot, the righter/more popular you are becoming. lol)
    So, not having been brought up in a religion that favors speaking in tongues, I never once considered trying, until I read this post. And I *instantly* knew that, like you, there was basically no way I could do it. Maybe I care about language too much, and/or wish to remain in control of myself too much, but short of a stroke, I think I’m unlikely to be indulging.
    I wonder though, has anyone companred scans of brains in a state of glossalia and those of autistics? Just wondering whether there’d be any relation or not.
    Hungry for Yuri? Have some Okazu:

  3. I highly recommend H. L. Mencken’s story of his encounter with Holy Rollers during the Scopes Trial. An excerpt:
    “What followed quickly reached such heights of barbaric grotesquerie that it was hard to believe it real. At a signal all the faithful crowded up the bench and began to pray — not in unison but each for himself. At another they all fell on their knees, their arms over the penitent. The leader kneeled, facing us, his head alternately thrown back dramatically or buried in his hands. Words spouted from his lips like bullets from a machine gun — appeals to God to pull the penitent back out of hell, defiances of the powers and principalities of the air, a vast impassioned jargon of apocalyptic texts. Suddenly he rose to his feet, threw back his head and began to speak in tongues — blub-blub-blub, gurgle-gurgle-gurgle. His voice rose to a higher register. The climax was a shrill, inarticulate squawk, like that of a man throttled. He fell headlong across the pyramid of supplicants.
    “A comic scene? Somehow, no. The poor half wits were too horribly in earnest. It was like peeping through a knothole at the writhings of a people in pain. From the squirming and jabbering mass a young woman gradually detached herself — a woman not uncomely, with a pathetic home-made cap on her head. Her head jerked back, the veins of her neck swelled, and her fists went to her throat as if she were fighting for breath. She bent backward until she was like half of a hoop. Then she suddenly snapped forward. We caught a flash of the whites of her eyes. Presently her whole body began to be convulsed — great convulsions that began at the shoulders and ended at the hips. She would leap to her feet, thrust her arms in air and then hurl herself upon the heap. Her praying flattened out into a mere delirious caterwauling, like that of a tomcat on a petting party.
    “I describe the thing as a strict behaviorist. The lady’s subjective sensations I leave to infidel pathologists. Whatever they were they were obviously contagious, for soon another damsel joined her, and then another and then a fourth. The last one had an extraordinary bad attack. She began with mild enough jerks of the head, but in a moment she was bounding all over the place, exactly like a chicken with its head cut off. Every time her head came up a stream of yells and barkings would issue out of it. Once she collided with a dark, undersized brother, hitherto silent and stolid. Contact with her set him off as if he had been kicked by a mule. He leaped into the air, threw back his head and began to gargle as if with a mouthful of BB shot. Then he loosened one tremendous stentorian sentence in the tongues and collapsed.
    “By this time the performers were quite oblivious to the profane universe.”

  4. Thanks for Mencken link, Blake… certainly his reaction was in keeping with the prevailing scientific attitude towards glossolalia at the time. But I should point out that not all examples of speaking in tongues is of the religious frenzy variety. For many, it’s more of a peaceful, private experience; for others, even when in a group, it’s less about mass hysteria and more conducted in a quieter, prayerful context. Depends on the personal preference of the individual Believer.
    Erica: I’d tend to agree about some of us being less able/willing to relinquish rational control than others (who would dismiss us as being “closed to god’s power” or some such thing). But based on the Newberg study, it may also be related to an affinity for language. I’ve always been a “word person”: talked early, could read by age 4, was endlessly fascinated with trying to make sense of both spoken and written words. It’s a part of my brain that is VERY difficult to turn off, because I compulsively (almost subconsciously) try to parse things, looking for units and sentence structure, even when I’m not consciously doing so. So it’s true: I lack a natural affinity for glossolalia. It’s scientific. Now I can finally put that traumatic childhood episode behind me and repair by damaged self-esteem. 🙂
    Don’t know about studies related to autism; it would be interesting… But I suspect they’re two different things, even though they might share some areas of the brain.

  5. I enjoyed your visit to Coast2Coast, Saturday night. I was quite impressed with your ability to field questions on a myriad of topics. I am an engineering student and a devotee of the scientific method and your perspective was welcome on a program which lends itself to guests with circular logic and questionable “research”.
    I look forward to your book on sound energy. It was a pleasure to hear you.

  6. Thanks for doing Coast to Coast!! Really enjoyed your interview. Don’t assume all listeners tow the line – there is precious little material on any mass media about physics etc – Bell’s forum allows for speculation about the unknown which many scientists are keen to disavow (for some odd reason). Hope to hear you again – I plan to read your book!

  7. Unless I’m mistaken, the “speaking in tongues” event in Acts consisted of the words of the Apostles being understood by everyone in hearing as if it were their native language. It seems this would be an easy-enough phenomenon to test, then.
    Get a group of serious, willing practitioners of “speaking in tongues”. One will do the speaking, the rest will just listen. Immediately after the speaker finishes, hustle the others away to separate rooms and have each of them say what he or she heard. If “speaking in tongues” really works, all of the listeners should give the same “translation” of the speech.
    The only potential “trick” that I can think of would be the possibility that the group were in collusion, and they’d rehearsed the “speech” and “translation”. Therefore, believers who had never actually met would be the way to go.

  8. I LOVED your interview, very intuitive and entertaining. Its very rare that I stay up and listen to an entire radio interview especially with the work schedule and school being so tight. I plan on staying a pretty religious follower of your blogs. Hopefully put my 19 year old, unexperienced brain to work.

  9. Jennifer, I wish you had put up an announcement about your C2C gig. Bummer, I was up late Saturday night, too. I could have compared you to that physics dude over at Cosmic Variance. I’m sure you did great, though. 😉

  10. Jennifer, I wish you had put up an announcement about your C2C gig. Bummer, I was up late Saturday night, too. I could have compared you to that physics dude over at Cosmic Variance. I’m sure you did great, though. 😉

  11. Speaking of twisted tongues, I quite like “notwitstanding” above. It’s more apropos than “notwithstanding” in the context. Perhaps the emotional part of your brain overrode your frontal lobe spelling center in order to suppress the “h.”
    Hope to see you in San Francisco this weekend . . .

  12. In response to “runolfr” post of 02/12 and his comment as follows:
    “Unless I’m mistaken, the “speaking in tongues” event in Acts consisted of the words of the Apostles being understood by everyone in hearing as if it were their native language. It seems this would be an easy-enough phenomenon to test, then.
    Get a group of serious, willing practitioners of “speaking in tongues”. One will do the speaking, the rest will just listen….”
    This is not so strange since at my first exposure to the practice was at a prayer meeting some 20 yrs ago. It just so happens that I speak French. During this praying time some lady next to me started to “pray in the spirit” and it was in perfect French. Now I happened to know and confirmed that she did not speak French. So there you are! It’s not so strange after all.

  13. If you want more on socially constructed outlandish behavior patterns, check out latah or Dancing Frenchmen syndrome. Speaking in tongues is obviously learned behavior, expected in certain social conditions. You’ll note that no one is expected to actually start speaking in an unfamiliar language, despite the biblical description.
    You might also consider looking up scat, the musical form, not fecal matter.

  14. I’ve also read/heard about instances of people speaking in languages they haven’t learned; one of my friends spoke in Mandarin at one point (although she had taken a semester of Chinese prior to that, so I suppose she might have been recalling forgotten bits of her limited Mandarin).
    My personal experience with tongues has been very in keeping with the neurobiological research. That is, as a skeptic, I’ve been extremely wary of speaking in tongues in front of people. It has on a few occasions taken me a tremendous amount of willpower to engage in something with which I’m completely comfortable in private, even with only one very intimate friend present. So I read the experience as a release of the conscious and reasonable self and a deliberate step into what the New Testament (is it Paul?) calls the foolishness of God. And of course, writing it out in plain view of other skeptics I feel almost ashamed; why would anyone want to surrender their reason and self restraint for the so-called foolishness of some supposedly higher power? And yet I recall the experience as authentic and deeply healing. Decidedly emotional instead of reasonable, but beneficial in some sense nonetheless.
    As far as the idea of interpretation of tongues, I find the suggestion of separating the True Believers and asking them to produce similar interpretations of a glossolaliac (please forgive the neologism) speaker ironically fundamentalist. Doesn’t that assume that God’s words must be interpreted the same way by everyone, that there can be no room for God to speak to different listeners in different ways?

  15. Ha! I know this is an older entry – but, I stumbled acrossed it and felt the need to comment.
    I had a pretty screwed up childhood, that included years of churches where speaking in tongues was the norm. My own mother was pretty good at it herself and can now speak in tongues in over 30 languages today. 😉
    I remember feeling pressured to participate at a young age. I wish I would’ve kicked them in the knees – but, I figured it was easy enough to do it, so I did. I never really felt comfortable doing it though. I also fell down on purpose once when they were laying hands – just because it looked like the thing to do. Talk about peer pressure! LOL
    When I was a teen we switched to an even more dramatic church. Here, every sunday one person would break out yelling in tongues while people raised their hands and prayed and swayed… then, there’d be a brief silence… and then, someone else would miraculously KNOW what the first person said… they would walk over to some poor lost soul, (it was alwaus very suspensful to see WHO was going to get yelled at by God that time), and they would lay their hand on them and say loudly, “and the LORD SAYETH UNTO YOU!!!……”… and proceed to give them a big lecture on something.
    I remember wondering why God didn’t just tell the first person what he was saying and why we had to go thru the tongues translator? And, how could God be doing these miraculous things – speaking thur brother Bob over there or whomever, EVERY sunday? 3, 4 times sometimes? And why was it that the one guy that always seemed to know what God was saying, was in my eyes, one of the biggest ex-losers on earth.. but, now, all of a sudden, I was suppose to take his advice as being GOD’s??
    Anyway – I need to hear the complete interview you did… and read more on this from you. I loved your comments.
    Thanks for sharing!

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top