Why do we speak in tongues cover image

Why do we speak in tongues

Dorian Minors • February 20, 2015

This article has been updated, but first appeared on our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and make it intelligible. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. This article was fun enough to keep.

'Speaking in Tongues', or glossolalia refers to the phenomenon in which people speak words that are apparently in languages unknown to the speaker. Often the speaker reports feeling 'possessed' or 'filled up' by some foreign entity and, as Walton to Margaret, their

swelling heart involuntarily pours itself out thus.

With emphasis on involuntary. Glossolalia is an almost exclusively religious phenomenon, most often reported in Christian texts as early as Gnosticism (around the second century). But records are also prominent in Voodoo, Paganism and Shamanism, which predate Christianity quite substantially. Indeed, many Christians view it as taboo: Jesus was apparently unkeen (in Matthew 6:7, with some who translate the original Greek as an invocation not to use meaniningless repititions). It's a phenomenon that has been documented across ancient Greece, Egypt, and Assyria, and beyond.

As with any religious phenomenon, there's a great deal of debate around the topic. The debate centres on whether it's true, whether it's truly involuntary, and whether it's something spiritual or something pathological. Fortunately, the debates mean plenty of research has been conducted. Unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily leave us with an ultimately conclusive answer, although it does narrow down to something quite interesting indeed.

When I get that feeling...

Let's start with what people feel. Those that practice glossolalia report feeling as though the speaking is involuntary and with a unique aspect that distinguishes it from other involuntary actions (like blinking, or breathing). Speakers also experience euphoric or ecstatic states whilst practicing. Unfortunately for the skeptics, a psychopathological explanation is unlikely (i.e. it can't be explained away by mental illness). It simply doesn't meet any of the criteria. And there's plenty of objective brain activity going on to show that it's not just being 'put on', that matches peoples self-reports. Here's a quick rundown of some results of a series of neuroimaging work:

Not ordinarily known for its religious properties. Not ordinarily known for its religious properties.

A language that's native, kind of

So, the neural patterns definitively match subjective accounts. However, the true involuntary nature of glossolalia appears to be limited only to the actual sounds of the utterances themselves. Studies done by Felicitas Goodman and later William Samarin interestingly found strong links between language patterns of glossolalia with the language patterns of the native language of the speaker. Basically, the 'tongues' appear to be a re-structuring of the natural sounds that exist in that language into words that don't make sense in that same language; a pseudo-language, much like those spoken between twins or made up by children. Goodman also tells us that this particular finding is consistent cross-culturally; Japanese glossolalia is going to sound a lot like Japanese.  But, we can't get carried away, because, as Samarin noted, these sounds aren't organised by the person and there is no link between this kind of speech and their cognition of the world. If you'll remember from those brain scans, this isn't a language that's created intentionally by the speaker.

Glossolalia can be learned

So undoubtedly, the produced sounds aren't under conscious control but they are sounds that we are already familiar with. In addition, Nick Spanos and his colleagues persuasively demonstrated that glossolalia can be initiated and terminated on request by speakers. He, along with Newberg (from the aforementioned brain scans) demonstrates that it doesn't follow known hypnotic or trance-like states, which appears at odds with subjective reports.

These findings have all led to speculation that glossolalia is a learned behaviour. Indeed, Spanos' group taught some people how to 'speak in tongues', simply by showing them clips of people doing it. He suggested that it might be something learned by observing peers. And now it gets really interesting.

Nothing is safe from 'influencers'

Patterns of glossolalia experienced within groups of speakers are often heavily influenced) by those in positions of prominence within those same groups (for instance, famous Pastors or televangelists). From Kildahl's later book on the subject:

The importance of the leader was well illustrated by the fact that the style of glossolalia adapted by the group bore a close resemblance to the way in which the leader spoke

- The Psychology of Speaking in Tongues

So, not only is glossolalia phonetically similar to a persons native language, it also often sounds the same as everyone else in a group, changing based on prominent speakers. Like picking up the slang from a T.V. show. Although it is important to note that glossolalia is not limited to group situations, but as Spanos found, is often spoken whilst alone which doesn't endorse any kind of mob mentality.

Where does that leave us?

It would appear then, that while the order and structure of the sounds that are uttered by those prone to glossolalia are not under conscious control, there is certainly a learned element to the phenomenon. The patterns of glossolalic speech are often shared among groups of speakers and are influenced, or ‘shaped’ by prominent speakers that interact with those groups. However, it is similarly clear that glossolalia is not the result of mob mentality, trance-like states or any psychopathological cause. The neural evidence is nevertheless consistent across speakers. So it would appear that while glossolalia is clearly not an example of language as we know it, it is certainly the product of an altered mind and an intrinsically heightened emotional state that appears to be tied almost exclusively to religion. Not only that, but the experience is the same across the world.

This begs the question, is glossolalia truly the result of the Holy Spirit (or its equivalent in other religions) filling the speaker and flowing from them in a societally acceptable route of expression? Or is it simply a release of religious fervour, an entirely artificial phenomenon created and mimicked across time and culture? Of course the answer must depend entirely upon your faith; either your faith in a higher power or your faith that there is no such thing.

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.