A Response to “Anatomy of the Soul: The Neuroscience of Christian Spirituality”

A Response to Dr. Curt Thompson’s “Anatomy of the Soul: The Neuroscience of Christian Spirituality”

Open any newspaper or scroll through a blog roll and you will encounter a story highlighting (and probably sensationalizing) the latest neuroscience study, accompanied by a headline that reads “Scientists find love in the brain!” or “Stock traders don’t feel fear—brain studies show.” Notwithstanding these exaggerated claims, non-invasive neuroimaging methods have duly allowed brain scientists to observe the mind in action and to uncover the neural bases of various phenomena, such as how we perceive and form impressions of others, or how we experience and regulate our emotions.

To date, those within the neuroscience community have had relatively little engagement with scholars in disciplines that appear to be completely at odds with the basic tenets and assumptions of neuroscience. An example of this lack of cross talk has occurred between neuroscience and Christian theology. Indeed, there have been few serious efforts to see how our increasing knowledge about the structure and functions of the brain can speak to the Christian worldview or deepen our understanding of how the Christian faith is applied and lived.

In his book Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships, psychiatrist Curt Thompson argues that neuroscience and Christian spirituality can and should be brought to bear on one another.i Throughout the book Thompson uses the interdisciplinary field of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) as the scaffolding upon which he builds his case, tipping his hat to Dr. Daniel Siegel, who launched the field with his influential book The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are.

One of the key principles of IPNB is that there are continuous, reciprocal relationships between our experiences and our brain development. This idea renders the perennial nature versus nurture debate inconsequential, since it is not a matter of genetic and environmental factors influencing the brain unidirectionally. Rather, there is such fluidity with which brain activity influences behavior, which then modulates brain function, which then affects future behavior, that it becomes nearly impossible to establish a neat chain of cause-and-effect.

In the book, Thompson is careful to make sure readers understand this nuanced dance between brain and behavior, for he maintains that once people do understand it, they can begin to change how they approach their relationships with God and other people. Thompson illustrates this in the context of close relationships with others where people share their life narratives: “When a person tells her story and is truly heard and understood, both she and the listener undergo actual changes in their brain circuitry. They feel a greater sense of emotional and relational connection, decreased anxiety, and greater awareness of and compassion for others’ suffering.”ii That is, the fact that our neural machinery is so sensitive and responsive to experience allows it to support empathy and emotional processing, arguably in real time.

Throughout the book, and with IPNB as the guiding theoretical framework, Thompson keeps two traceable thematic arcs in view. The first is the idea of entrainment of brain networks in the course of human development. Specifically, as a person goes through the chaotic mill of life, replete with emotionally charged events and joyous and painful memories, his or her neural networks respond to and are constantly conditioned by all these experiences. In the case of trauma or abuse, a person may show pronounced sensitivity to anything associated with the traumatic event and may even re-experience a flood of anxiety or fear—all due to a preset pattern of neuronal activity. This phenomenon is also common in drug addiction and other compulsive behaviors in which altered brain circuitry associated with motivation and reward increases the likelihood to take drugs or engage in a harmful behavior, despite a person’s knowledge of the negative consequences. The disturbing implication here is that one’s behavior can become automatized due to the ease with which neural networks change and re-organize.

Dr. Thompson points out that as neural networks become conditioned, cognitive processing breaks down (dis-integrates) and becomes biased in favor of the firing patterns of these networks. He claims that God is aware of this fact: “God knows that unless… our neural networks are integrated…we will remain in the narrow, constricting, well-hewn grooves of the networks we have formed over our lifetimes.”iii According to Thompson this also applies to our sense of self and self-knowledge. Something from without is needed to effect a change: “The way we understand and make sense of our story is reflected in the wiring of our brain. This networking (via Hebb’s axiom: neurons that fire together wire together) tends to reinforce our story’s hardwiring…and will continue to do so unless substantially acted upon by another outside relationship.”iv The most important outside relationship, Thompson contends, is with God Himself. And if someone allows him or herself to be known and loved by God, then supernatural transformation of the mind and its attendant brain networks becomes possible—culminating in a rich and integrated mental life pleasing to God. This elicits a strikingly similar sentiment to that in St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”v Given what we now know about the inextricable links between brain function and our mental lives, this renewal must necessarily entail changes in patterns of brain activity and possibly even brain structure.

In many ways, the second major arc of Anatomy of the Soul proceeds from the first. Still maintaining that brain networks are plastic and amenable to change, Thompson asserts that long-held and respected Christian disciplines, such as prayer and confession, are the very means of transformation; these practices actually renew and re-fashion our brains, quite literally, by the re-wiring of neural networks. According to Thompson, confessional living is one of the most difficult but most powerful engines of transformation and sanctification, for ourselves and others:

God does not expect…[us]…to be perfect. He does, however, long for us to be perceptive. He does not expect that we will never make mistakes, but he cares that we are attuned to the mistakes we inevitably will make. God cares that we are honest about our blunders, but not so that we will beat ourselves up until he is satisfied that we have been sufficiently shamed for our behavior. God is interested in integration, in connection. And telling the truth—both verbally and nonverbally—about our mistakes actually enhances the integration of the mind of the one we have hurt—and our own minds as well.vi

If we follow Thompson’s logic here, the implication is weighty. When one intentionally practices the discipline of confession with candor and vulnerability, it opens the door to the most dramatic kind of transformation of mind. The mind of the listener is changed alongside the mind of the speaker. You might call this intra-mind integration. And then, a more lovely and mysterious integration occurs between the two minds, an inter-mind integration. Indeed, recent brain research has revealed that in the so-called interpersonal space between minds, there is brain-to-brain coupling such that activity in one person’s brain is re-represented and instantiated in another person’s brain.vii

To conclude, Anatomy of the Soul offers a novel and provocative case for incorporating findings from modern brain science, namely IPNB, into Christian thought and practice. Throughout the book, Dr. Thompson seamlessly weaves his own counseling experiences with clients with accounts of empirical investigations of the mind and brain, while holding prominently some key ideas that will spark fruitful discussions both in the Christian and psychiatry communities. One such idea worth pondering is that God cares deeply about our embodied existence. That care entails recognition that the central nervous system is an incredibly important part of creation that, while oftentimes subject to the dis-integrating, automatizing effects of sin, can also demonstrate the power of God’s redeeming work to radically transform and integrate our minds—in the service of deeper, enriched relationships with God and others.

 

i. Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Carrollton: Tyndale Momentum, 2010).

ii. Thompson, xiv.

iii. Thompson, 81.

iv. Thompson, 163.

v. Romans 12:2 (NIV).

vi. Thompson, 121.

vii. Uri Hasson et al., “Brain-to-brain coupling: a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world” (Triends in Cognitive Sciences, 2012, 16.2) 114-121.

 

Richard Lopez is from Rockaway, NJ. He is a graduate student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Image: Neurosciences by Nicolas P. Rougier,

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