Monday, April 2, 2007

Research on Speaking in Tongues

For those of us who have learned how to pray in the Spirit, the recent study of brain activity is fascinating. The fact that some scientist would find this form of prayer interesting, is in of itself, positive. Moreover, discovering that this form of prayer sets off different patterns of brain activity than that found with other types of praying, is something we have suspected. Finally, having empirical findings match up with phenomenological experience is always interesting to us psychologists.

What did the scientist find which was so interesting? First of all, was the difference in the brain activity of a person praying in tongues, and someone praying in understandable English. When a person is talking, the expectation is that the part of the brain that creates and controls language will light up. That, however, is not what happened with those speaking a language that they believe is the language of the Holy Spirit.

The brain activity in the language centers and in the centers that control speech were quiet in those who believe the Holy Spirit is praying through them. Thus, that brain finding fits the belief that the person praying is a passive observer of his or her own inner state. At the same time, the centers that control awareness were active, indicating the prayers were not in an uncontrollable trance. They knew what was going on around them.

There was one finding however that does not match up with experience. That had to do with emotions. Because those of us who pray in the Spirit, experience incredible ecstasy, one would expect the areas that control emotion to light up. However, that did not happen.

What if besides hearing the Holy Spirit internally, we are also feeling the ecstasy that the Holy Spirit is feeling as He prays? Then, just as we speak His language without activating the brain, we experience His feelings without activating the brain.

As a psychologist, the thought intrigues me.


ceomeo said...


I have prayed for two different people this week who received the gift of praying in tongues for the first time. Both people described the experience in the same way. The syllables of the spiritual language seemed to be given to them - apart from their mind. Both had the same sense of "giveness", so to speak. This is consistent with the biblical description of speaking in tongues - and the psychological research you cited.

How then is it possible to speak in a language of the Holy Spirit and experience the emotions of the Holy Spirit without the mediation of the mind? In Mark 16, Jesus says, "These signs will follow them that believe. In my name they will speak with new tongues." Jesus says that believers are doing the speaking and not the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2, Luke notes that on they day of Pentecost "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues." Scripture never describes tongues as the Holy Spirit speaking. Instead, the person is speaking and the Holy Spirit is providing the ability to speak. Describing tongues as the language of the Holy Spirit could blur this important distinction. Early pentecostals missed that distinction and thought speaking in tongues was the Holy Spirit actually speaking through us.

I believe Paul adds clarity to this in 1 Corinthians 14 when he says, "When I pray in tongues, my spirit prays." Here Paul is saying that speaking in tongues in not the language of the Holy Spirit. It is the language of my born-again spirit praying through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul notes our three-fold nature: spirit, soul and body. So praying in tongues comes from the deeper aspect of my nature - my spirit - that is born-again and shares in the divine nature of God through that new birth. My spirit has senses just like my body. Through my spirit I interact with the spiritual realm - positively and negatively. The research you cite here seems to witness to this triune nature. Our spirits are able to experience speech and emotions - as well as vision and spiritual sensing - without the mediation of my brain. In fact, it seems likely that my mind needs the mediation of my born-again spirit to function fully in the mind of Christ as God actually desires.

Anonymous said...

Since the Holy Spirit is within us
lets stop being so selfish with our tongue and let Him speak through us His way and for His purpse. By being silent after we have prayed in the Spirit, often great and precious mysteries are given to us, just as the Bible says. Plus we have a command to pray in the spirit for the body of Christ, with all prayer and supplications. The Spirit knows who they are. Our Father God does nothing except through the prayers of His saints.

Rich Tatum said...

Great post and interesting insights!

I have to wonder, though, whether the research matters … or whether it should matter. After all, there's no reason God has to leave any fingerprints behind when working through us aside from the evidence of our behavior and changed character. If the researches had found "proof" that the language centers of the brain were in use, that wouoldn't invalidate, for me, the reality of the Spirit's work. Further, if later research turns up to invalidate this study, my faith will not be lessened.

Regarding the emotions and ectasy, I am reminded of Philippians 4, and the peace of God which transcends all understanding.

Regarding the issue of the Holy Spirit praying "through" us or only facilitating our prayers, I think the discussion is somewhat moot. In 1 Corinthians 12-14, when Paul describes the operation of the gifts of the Spirit, he makes it clear that glossalalia is language directed to God. And in Romans 8 Paul describes the Spirit making intercession for us with groans that cannot be uttered. And in Philippians 4, when talking about taking on the mind of Christ, Paul says that as we work out our salvation, it is God who works within us to do and to will according to his purpose.

In the end, the more submitted we are to God, as living sacrifices (Romans 12), the boundary between our will and his, our actions and his, should become much less distinct. As Jesus said, "I only do what I see my Father doing."

May it be so for us, as well.



Fr Charles said...

The mechanism by which any gift operates through us is of great interest and importance to us. Wrong thinking about the operation of a gift causes many distortions and prevents the full value of the gift. Whether the study can be replicated or discounted will be determined by future research. And it does not invalidate speaking in tongues - regardless of the findings. But I have seen many people struggle with speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts because they didn't realize that they were involved in the equation. I have known more than my share of classic pentecostals who thought the Spirit only worked through possession phenomena. Since real spirtual gifts can be ministered inappropriately, it seems to me that any insight we gain in how that gift functions adds clarity.

Rich Tatum said...

Fr. Charles wrote:

"I have known more than my share of classic pentecostals who thought the Spirit only worked through possession phenomena. Since real spirtual gifts can be ministered inappropriately, it seems to me that any insight we gain in how that gift functions adds clarity."

I agree with the clarity, but that clarity only helps as long as the researcher's conclusions support our claims. If (and likely, when) another researcher shows up to say that there's some evolutionary process that makes this possible, it may well muddy the waters for others once again. So, for me, I find the research results interesting, but not conclusive, and not something I would teach from a pulpit. It might be something I'd use as a persona anecdote, but not much more. Simply because scientific researchers biases really do affect what they look for and what they find. :: shrug:

As to the classical Pentecostals (or even contemporary charismatics) who view glosallia as a form of "possession," I put that down to unbiblical teaching and illiterate teachers who fail to read 1 Cor. 12-14 with any grasp of Paul's argument. For in these pasages (esp chapter 14) Paul makes it clear that "the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets." There are many more clues in this passage that the exercise of the gifts are under the conscious control of the gifted, and if a preacher/teacher fails to make this clear, they simply aren't worth their salt.

Sadly, the classical Pentecostal tradition is over-rife with ill-educated preachers -- even today.



Fr Charles said...

Rich says, "If (and likely, when) another researcher shows up to say that there's some evolutionary process that makes this possible, it may well muddy the waters for others once again."

I share Rich's concerns. We don't need the scientific method to affirm biblical practices. The research is only as good as the research methodology. Rich points out a real danger - researcher bias. Healing studies are a prime example. Many research studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of healing prayer. Some concluded that the type of prayer was not important - Christian, Buddhist, Meditation - all the same positive results. Then a recent study appears claiming conclusively that healing prayer shows no positive impact. In my opinion, none of these healing study results have been friendly towards Christian claims that the ministry of Jesus continues through the Church. The studies showing positive results in healing prayer muddies the water just as much as the negative study. The problem increases when Christians with no training pick up fragments of studies and begin to teach as though they were experts in quantum physics or psychology just because they caught a show on a science channel or saw a counselor on a talk show. When a contrary theory lands on the table, these kinds of teachers loose credibility.

While I was critical of old-line Pentecostals in my previous post, I owe them a tremendous debt. Some of these people have carried very weighty anoitings. The power of God worked through their simple faith. In Luke 10, Jesus rejoices in spirit that the Father has hidden spiritual mysteries from the wise and prudent and revealed them to babes. The old-line Pentecostals that I knew when I first started in charismatic ministry would come under extremely powerful anointings. The presence of God's power would feel almost like electricity in the air. And when they laid hands on me, I received many impartations that still empower my current ministry. These early Pentecostals also maintained a connection between being baptized with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues. In contrast, many modern charismatics are moving away from speaking in tongues. Early Pentecostals believed that speaking in tongues was a necessary sign of Holy Spirit Baptism. Now some recent studies show that many modern Pentecostals/Charismatics don't speak in tongues at all. From my experience, most people shy away from speaking in tongues if they are not encouraged to eagerly seek the gift.

In spite of the problems that arise from differing research data, I am still just a little excited about the study Fr. Don cited. Even with the cautions I expressed, I still long for a day that I hope is soon coming when the knowledge of the Lord will cover the earth like waters cover the sea. I long for a day when heaven invades earth in such magnitude that the biblical signs of the gospel that were promised by Jesus in Mark 16 are the normal life of the Church - when empty wheel-chairs and disrupted funerals witness to Jesus and the power of His Name in a way research studies can't.

Sista Cala said...

Check out this link for more on science and speaking in tongues.

USA Today

Sista Cala said...

please delete previous comment, I put in the wrong link. try this one for some scientific info related to speaking in tongues.


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