Jaynes on speaking in tongues

Glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, is a fascinating phenomenon with huge potential for teaching us more about the relationship between the brain and religion. Glossolalistic behavior has been reported in a wide variety of cultures, including Tibet, and is thus by no means specific to Christianity. Julian Jaynes (previous post), not surprisingly, positions it in the context of his bicameral brain theories. (Recent research supports this—showing greater right-brain activation after glossalalic episodes.)

Jaynes emphasizes that speaking in tongues inevitably happens in the context of groups and religious services, after various “induction” procedures such as prayer or ritual, and in the presence of strong charismatic figure. His explanation is that these factors are necessary to produce what he calls the “collective cognitive imperative” necessary to go into a deep trance.

The behavior is also widely viewed as being learned, whether consciously or not. Some researchers think it can be learned outside of a religious context: Nicholas Spanos found that 20% of subjects began speaking in tongues spontaneously after listening to genuine samples, the number rising to 70% after further training. Other reports are that people who learn glossolallia in a religious setting can then perform it anywhere, even while driving a car.

Jaynes cites research that glossolalics of any language, and from any religion, make the same, meaningless sounds, which are not human language but rather a pseudo-language, or, less charitably, “babbling”. The use of the term “babbling” is interesting because it’s often applied to babies’ speech acts, and some researchers believe that glossolalia is indeed a form of linguistic regression. They point out the the number of vowels and consonants uses is restricted (by one account, an average of only six phonemes used compared to the 30 typical of adult language).

Jaynes’ neurological explanation is that “rhythmical discharges from subcortical strcutures are coming into play, released by the trance state of lesser cortical control.”

All of the above, however, would seem to be overly objective in nature. Glossalalics themselves report a feeling of release and happiness after episodes—peace, joy, and inner harmony are some of the words that have been used (some also self-report that their speech was meaningful). Perhaps the relaxed, restored body/brain state resulting from speaking in tongues is related to that achieved through meditative practice. Maybe the practice ties into the neurochemical reward structure. (Other effects reported include relief of pain and a strengthened immune system.)

This is somewhat consistent with 1 Corinthians 14:1-14, where Paul emphasizes that a person who speaks in tongues is talking to “God”, and will grow spiritually in the process.

Art courtesy of Ola Rinta-Koski . Larger version is here.

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