Since to the main topics of debate, starting

Since the
beginning of human consciousness, fear of the unknown and the question of what
may live amongst us has plagued man and continue to do so to this day.
Suggesting that we do not live alone but that we share life with the un-living
may be viewed as ignorance by the scientific community. However, belief in the
supernatural is a relatively commonly held conviction even in Western society.
One study found that three out of four Americans believed in the existence
supernatural beings. (citation needed). If this is a commonly held belief, why
is it shunned by the western scientific community as ignorance? This research
will debate the question of whether the phenomena of spirit possession and
glossolalia (speaking in tongues) are evidence for the supernatural or if they
can be explained scientifically.

This report will first summarize the
background information and key literature needed to understand the topic. It
will then move on to the main topics of debate, starting with the argument that
spirit possession is brought on by neurological issues; then that glossolalia
is also the consequence of neurological issues. The report will then move onto
the other side of debate, starting with how glossolalia has a paranormal cause
and then the last part of the debate with similarly argue that spirit
possession also has a paranormal cause. It will then end in a conclusion,
summing up each argument and restating the key research.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now


There will be two focuses of this essay;
spirit possession and glossolalia. Both have their roots in religion, with
spirit possession sometimes thought to be a manifestation of the devil and
glossolalia is most commonly seen in the Pentecostal Christian Church.
Christian glossolalia began during Pentecost with St. Paul, himself being a
glossolalist. There are many references in the bible (old and New testament) of
this gift. “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in
other tongues as the Spirit enabled them”. ( (Various, 1973)Acts 2:4)
Speaking-in-tongues is seen as a divine gift. Incidences of glossolalia carried
on into the Middle Ages; St. Hildegarde is said to have been able to speak and
write in Latin without having learned this language. (May, 1956) However, the
Anthropologist G J Jennings in 1968 observed this behaviour amongst aboriginal
people of Australia, North America and Asia as well as other continents. (citation
needed) showing how 
Glossolalia spans the extent of the globe and is observed in many
cultures throughout the world, some with no religious commitments. The umbrella
term of Glossolalia can be broken into a subsection called Xenoglossia. This is
the use of a foreign language spoken by an individual who has no previous
conscious understanding of the language. (Slotegraaf, 2005) This essay will
focus on Glossolalia as a whole. The definition of Glossolalia differs from
place to place as an explanation for it is still unknown, hence the need for
this enquiry.  According to the New
Encyclopaedia Britannica it is a “neutrotic or psychotic symptom”, in sharp
contrast the New Catholic Encyclopaedia label is “a charisma that enables the
recipient to praise God”.

Janice Boddy defines Spirit Possession as “the
hold exerted over a human being by external forces or entities more powerful
than she. These forces may be ancestors or divinities, ghosts of foreign
origin, or entities both ontologically and ethically alien.” (Boddy, SPIRIT POSSESSION
REVISITED: Beyond Instrumentality, 1994) Spirit Possession is
a belief shared across the globe with a 1969 study concluding that spirit
possession beliefs are found in 74% of 488 societies taken from across the
world. (Bourguignon & Ucko,



The concept of possession has been recorded in almost every
country in the world. (Rajendra., 2009) In the Western
world, the belief that a supernatural spirit can enter the body of a living
human and control it seems like a clear sign of insanity. In Great Britain,
only 18% of people believe that it is possible for someone to become possessed
‘by the devil or some other evil spirit’. (YouGov, 2013) This is a relatively
low number compared to some Central and West African countries. Here it is
customary to believe that possessions are just part of life as their ancestors’
spirits are constantly around them anyway. In Britain, 18% of people believe in
the possibility of spiritual possession whereas in Ghana, 18% of people believe
that they themselves have actually been possessed.( citation needed) This is thought to be down to traditional
societies taking symptoms the Western world would associated with mental
illnesses like psychosis, hysteria, mania, Tourette syndrome, epilepsy,
schizophrenia as symptoms of a spirit possession. (Dein & Illaiee, 2013)

Western psychologists have been quick to point out that this can be explained
by a clash of cultures. Due to the start of large-scale migration, there is a
mixing of what western medicine perceives to be symptoms of mental illness and
the traditional approach of what they believe is spirit possession. An
interesting case that demonstrates this is a case of a 14-year old girl from
Thailand that had recently moved to Singapore. A month after moving there for
her studies, she was found screaming, shivering, crying and refusing to
communicate. After being seen at A, her vital signs and blood pressure
was deemed normal, however she still refused to communicate. She had not been
drinking or taking drugs and had no previous psychiatric issues nor was she on
any long term medications. She was kept on the ward, uncommunicative for 2
days. When her mother arrived from Thailand, she remained calm and concluded
that she had been ‘visited by a ghost’. She suggested all that was necessary
was to banish the spirit by taking the girl to a Thai temple; she stated that
this was a frequent occurrence in Thailand and was not unusual. After visiting
the temple, the patient became communicative and returned to her normal
activity. (Rajendra., 2009) This demonstrates how other societies
may interpret different states of consciousness or hysteria as evidence of
spirit possession.

explanation for this ‘possession’ can be found in a study which looked at
spirit possession among Thai schoolgirls and the results were that “Compared with the controls their family life was
characterized by more psychosocial stressors and there were significantly
higher rates of psychiatric disorders, anxious and fearful character traits,
histrionic character traits and history of recurrent trance states.” (Trangkasombat, Su-Umpan, Churujiporn, Nukhew, &
Haruhanpong, 1998)
Many psychologists understand that, especially amongst teenage girls, there
will always be a certain amount of mass hysteria. In this case, the patient had
been surrounded the ‘Hungry Ghost’ festival leading up to her admission. The
belief of this festival is that the gates of hell will open and spirits will
visit the living. It is very likely that the patient was influenced by this,
leading to visual hallucinations.

Interestingly, spirit possessions in the
developing world are mostly experienced by women. According to this study into
the z?r ritual (a ceremony to call on spirits possessing a host amongst the
Hofriyat people of Northern Sudan): “More than 40% of Hofriyat women over the age of fifteen and married
claim z?r affliction as opposed to 5% of the population of adult males.” (Hannah, 2014) Psychologists have
attributed this to a strategy adopted by women to overcome their inferior
social and political status. C. Stephenson, summing up
psychologist IM. Lewis’ thoughts that “in oppressive, predominantly patriarchal
cultures, possession works as an obliquely aggressive strategy within which
disempowered or marginalized individuals, especially women, seek to redress
their political subordination.” (Stephenson, 2009)

In the z?r ritual of North Sudan it is easy to see
why women would need to adopt alternative strategies, whether intentional or
not to overcome their inferior place in society. In 2012 Freedom House stated
that Sudan had the lowest possible ranking among repressive regimes in relation
to its treatment of women. (Freedom House, 2013) As well as this, it
is also one of the only countries that are not a signatory on the “Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.” (United Nations, 1979) With this in mind,
it becomes incredible that as part of the z?r ritual, women are able to
experience greater freedom without fear or censure or estrangement from their
society. This part of Sudan is Muslim, Boddy argues that if “women are
constrained by their gender from full participation in Islam, men are
constrained by theirs from full participation in the z?r”. (Boddy, Women and Alien Spirits: Women, men and the
zar cult in Northern Sudan, 1989). Boddy describes possessed women within the Hofriyati  as “smoking, wanton dancing, flailing about,
burping and hiccuping, drinking blood and alcohol , wearing male clothing,
publicly threatening men with swords speaking loudly lacking due regard for
etiquette”. (Boddy, Women and Alien Spirits: Women, men and the
zar cult in Northern Sudan, 1989) Through spiritual possession,
a woman may make demands on her husband and family and comment on village
issues. Women would not usually be given this freedom if the possessions did
not take place.

Another suggestion as to why women more commonly
experience possession than men are is down to physical anthropology.
Anthropologists Kehoe and Giletti argue that this is due to deficiencies in
vitamins including vitamin D, calcium, thiamine and tryptophan-niacin. The
reasons for these deficiencies is down to poverty, worsened by strains of
pregnancy, lactation and menstruation as well as social rules that lower
women’s intake of these vitamins compared to men. They conclude that the
deficiencies affect the central nervous system and muscles, which have been
recognized in these cultures as manifestations of possession. (Kehoe & Giletti,

research is evidence against the belief that spirit possessions are paranormal
occurrences. The research indicates that what, on the surface, appears to be a
spirit possession is in fact a subconscious social escape method, as seen in
the z?r ritual, or in the case of the young girl, a matter of hysteria and
psychological pressures.


evidence if needed CNS lesion causing trance and possession like symptoms



As a difficulty or abnormality of speech has
long been linked with mental abnormalities, it is possible that some cases of
glossolalia are simply psychological abnormalities. Even in 1990, The New Encyclopaedia
Britannica refers to speaking in tongues as a “neurotic or psychotic symptom”.
(citation need).

Likewise, it is always possible that this is
just a learned behaviour. Spanos and Cross carried out a study which found that
after listening to a 60 second sample of glossolalia, “20% of the sample
exhibited fluent glossolalia… 70% of trained sample spoke fluent glossolalia on
the posttest”. (Spanos N. P., 1986). This suggest that
people who participate in glossolalia may subconsciously just be coping
behaviour seen in a church type setting. As, in some circumstances,  glossolalia is seen as a way to have a much
deeper direct connection to God, people may be exhibiting this ‘behaviour’ in
an attempt to deepen their faith.

People who speak in tongues, say that they
feel as though the Holy Spirit is talking through them. If it is in a faith outside
Christianity, it is still a similar feeling of euphoria that is said to be
experienced. However, the language of glossolalia seems to be reflective of the
language patterns within the language native to the speaker.


We saw
earlier that spiritual possession may be explained by cultural beliefs and may
be part of a subconscious expression to escape social pressure and subordination.
However, with 57% of Americans (citation needed) believing it is possible to
become possessed by spirits, it seems improbable that there is no truth behind
it. It is a widely held throughout the world and is common in many religions
including Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Haitian Vodou. The
cultural and geographical diversity of the sources from societies that have
little contact with each other would seem to suggest that it is unlikely that
there is no truth behind this commonly held belief in spirit possession.

and somewhat surprisingly, health organizations recognise a syndrome which
seems to describe possession. The World Health Organization classify
“possession” as a diagnostic entity in their classification reference book “in some
instances the individual acts as if taken over by another personality, spirit,
deity, or “force”. (World Health Organization, 2001). Similarly, the
American Psychiatric Association have a classification called Dissociative
Trance and Possession Disorder (DTPD) “Possession trance involves replacement
of customary sense of personal identity by a new identity attributed to the
influence of a spirit, power deity or other person.” (American
Psychiatric Association, 1994).  If leading authorities recognise a state
resembling spirit possession, surely this cannot be ignored?

are the attempted expulsion of a spirit from a body. It can be seen in
Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Islam and Judaism. In Catholicism, exorcism
is defined as “the act of
driving out, or warding off, demons, or evil spirits, from persons, places, or
things, which are believed to be possessed or infested by them, or are liable
to become victims or instruments of their malice” (Toner, 1909).
His holiness Pope Francis gave exorcism legal recognition in 2014. (Withnall,
2014). The numbers of exorcisms performed by the Catholic church
each year is difficult to define. One well known exorcist, Revered Christopher
Neil-Smith carried out many thousands of exorcisms over a 30 year period in the
UK (Beeson, 1995) and a thousand in a single year.

This is not ‘proof’ exactly that of spirit possession but to
simply ignore a belief that is important in another culture would be

To ensure that people do not have
mental health issues but are indeed suffering from demonic possession, priests
may work with psychiatrists  to
ensure  “that the person involved is
truly possessed or obsessed and not suffering from a psychological or physical
illness”. (Burnell, 2000) There are many reports from history of
demonic possession and exorcism but I am choosing to look at cases from the
last 30 years.

psychiatrists in particular work with priests in the US. Richard Gallagher is a
board certified psychiatrist who works with the clergy to help filter out cases
of mental illness from cases of demonic possession. He believes that there are
“certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other
way.” (Gallagher, 2016)

M. Scott Peck another psychiatrist tells us
that the two patients he observed ”were gravely ill from a psychiatric
standpoint before their exorcisms” (Peck, 1983)
but after exorcisms had been performed their mental health was significantly
improved. After more psychotherapy, the voices died out and both patients made
a full recovery. (Peck, 1983)

Turning now to Islam. According to the Qur’an and Hadith
jinn live alongside us byt cannot be seen, they have a different origin from
humans but like us they have intellect and know good from bad. Several cases of
Jinn possession have been written in articles.

A patient was initially diagnosed with schizophrenia was treated
with 30 mg of haloperidol per day but did not respond to this medication and no
improvement was seen. He only recovered after six psychotherapy-like sessions
with a social worker and an exorcism ritual involving physical methods (i.e.,
hitting the feet with a stick). In this case the diagnosis of schizophrenia was
found to be incorrect in this case (Al-Krenawi, 1997)

A young woman was diagnosed with mood disorder had electroconvulsive
therapy without any improvement. She did recover after traditional Islamic
treatment with the aid of dkhir (worshipping Allah through recitations from the
Qur’an) and ruqyah (healing from an Imam with his hand on the patient’s head
while reciting verses from the Qur’an; (Khalifa, 2005) She had
no memory and had been unaware of her surrounding during this time, 5 years on
and she is still well with no medication.

Could it be that psychotherapy in the 20th and 21st
centuries is a form of exorcism? – Counsellors talk about “demons”–mental,
emotional or psychological traumas, and memories that need to be addressed.
Exorcism takes their existence of demons completely literally. Several modern
psychotherapist and psychiatrist s suggest that the power




Glossolalia or as it is most commonly known,
speaking in tongues, is associated with altered states of consciousness. At the
start of the 20th century, many psychologists classed it as
psychotic, linking it with schizophrenia and hysteria. However, coming into the
modern age, research has shown that there are significant differences between
individuals suffering with mental disorders and those participating in
glossolalia. (Goodman, 1972) 

Research centring around which part of the
brain is most active has been done by scientists to understand this phenomena.
Neuroscientist, Dr. Andrew Newberg recruited five Pentecostal women who
frequently speak in tongues. He gave the women an injection of a radioactive
tracer which allows scientists to measure blood flow in the brain and see which
areas are most active. He scanned the subjects’ brains when they were simply
singing and then again when they entered the glossolalia state. Newberg found
that while the women were speaking in tongues there was a decrease in frontal
lobe function, the area of the brain that enables reason and self-control.
There was also increased activity in the parietal region of the brain, which
takes sensory information and tries to create a sense of self relating to the
world. (Newberg, 2006)This is interesting
as it shows that speaking in tongues involves a giving up of self-control. As
Newberg says this is “consistent with the kind of experience that they
glossolalia speakers have because they say that they’re not in charge, it’s
the voice of God”.

A response to these findings could be that
there are numerous other states where a subject loses their self-control; for
example, meditating. However, Newberg’s study also noted that the glossolalia
response by the brain was the opposite of people meditating. In earlier studies
Dr. Newberg looked at what happens in the brains of Buddhist monks meditating
and Franciscan nuns praying, it was noticeably different from what happens to
tongue speakers. This suggests that that while performing Glossolalia, although
it takes a giving up of self-control, it is not a meditative state.

Some sceptics may also point to psychological
abnormalities as a reason for glossolalia. This was the thinking at the start
of the 20th century. The psychologist George Cutten subjectively stated that people who spoke in tongues
were “schizophrenics at worst or hysteric neurotics at best.” However, as mental issues like schizophrenia became better understood,
theories like these were disproved. Hine looked into the psychopathology of
glossolalia and wrote that participants of this were sound of mind and that the
“available evidence requires that an explanation of glossolalia as pathological
be discarded.” (Hine, 1969). Ten years later,
Spanos and Hewitt concluded in a test of 48 people that subjects who spoke in
tongues did not show a difference in their psychological abilities. (Spanos, 1979). As these, and
numerous other psychologists, have discredited psychological abnormalities as a
source for glossolalia, it demonstrates that although this is a point many
sceptics cling to, upon further exploration it does not hold that much

Comments are closed.