From Ashes 12: Metamorphosis and Sophronismos – Neuroplasticity and the Renewed Mind

Rene Descartes' illustration of the mind-body problem Wikimedia Commons
Rene Descartes’ illustration of the mind-body problem
Wikimedia Commons

As I approach my 30th birthday, which brings with it much reflection on all that God has done in my life so far, I have found myself drawn again to one of the most well-worn parts of my the Bible – Psalm 139. For many, this is their favourite psalm, and it is certainly one of mine. Perhaps its comfort derives from the fact that it is one of the clearest places where we learn of God being deeply invested in us as individuals; and, say what we might about western culture being far too individualistic for its own good, for better or worse we desire the sense that God is intimately acquainted with us. What comfort, then, it is to read:

O Lord, you have searched me

                  and you know me.

You know when I sit and when I rise;

                  you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;

                  you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue

                  you know it completely, O Lord.

And what comfort too to read that God has “knit us together”, that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. In a world in which the church sits awkwardly somewhere between secular views on self-esteem and a desire to recognise the depths of human sinfulness, it is a powerful tonic to read that, for all our sin, the Bible declares us, as God found on first creating us, to be “very good”.

This, of course, is not the whole story. We have all learnt sinfulness from a very early age, both being corrupted from birth as affirmed by David in Psalm 51:5 and learning sin as we become more acquainted with this world of sin. Seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan expressed something of this process in his poem, “The Retreat”, when he speaks of the time when he “understood this place”, in the sense of knowing its ways, and “taught [his] soul to fancy” sin, “dispens[ing]/A several sin to every sense”. Certainly, the contrasting view he presents of early childhood, in which he “shined in [his] angel infancy”, seems to over-idealise childhood innocence. Yet the picture Vaughan gives is nonetheless a powerful one. The word “retreat” implies “re-treading”, an act of walking back over a path which needs to be reversed. “Some men,” he writes,

            a forward motion love;

But I by backward steps would move,

And when this dust falls to the urn,

In that state I came, return.

Simplistic though Vaughan’s theology is, he reminds us of something helpful: that it is necessary for us to affirm both that we possess sin in us from birth and that we have learnt to sin more and more throughout our lives. Though no-one had to teach me to be selfish, I did have to learn to yell, to steal, to cheat, to lie, to lust. There are many sins that I know now how to commit which, at birth, I did not know. My sinful nature seized upon those sins as it encountered them, yet I did not at birth possess the same knowledge of sin that I now have.

Recognising this complexity to the nature of human sinfulness can, I think, help us make steps towards bypassing the age-old “nature vs. nurture” debate which has bogged down the church at least since Rousseau, if not for longer. The book of Proverbs affirms several times that the company of sinners corrupts the company of the righteous (see Proverbs 1:8-19, 13:20 and 22:24-25), thus acknowledging that righteousness can be encouraged or discouraged by the environment we are in. Yet this is not to say that we are innately good and that only a bad environment creates bad people. Augustine of Hippo, one of the most significant formalisers of the doctrine of original sin, charted in his Confessions the journey from his infancy into adulthood through which he both learnt to sin and learnt to cry, motion, speak. His childhood impulse to cry when not getting what he desired indicated the innate, sinful sense that his rights were more important than those of others, yet this was still a sin which, once given birth, could grow and manifest itself in many different ways. Nature and nurture, I would suggest, need not be an “either/or” proposition; they walk together throughout our lives.

Avoiding this kind of dichotomy can be highly productive, especially in the realm of understanding mental health. If we take a reductionist view of mental health, then we may understand our impulses, both good and bad, to stem primarily from our nature. In contemporary neuropsychology, this would suggest that our neurological make-up determines the way that we think and act. In this view, our moral impulses, thoughts and feelings are nothing more than chemical signals in the highly complex organism that is the brain. The other extreme, however, is to over-spiritualise our concept of “mind” in a way that divorces it from the physical brain, or indeed the body, as was often done from antiquity into the Enlightenment. Rene Descartes, in a theory now termed “Cartesian dualism”, proposed that the disembodied mind had control over the brain through the pineal gland, arguing in his Passions of the Soul that the

part of the body in which the soul directly does its work is…a certain very small gland deep inside the brain, in a position such that…the slightest movements by it can greatly alter the course of the nearby spirits passing through the brain, and conversely any little change in the course of those spirits can greatrly alter the movements of the gland.

This is a view which few would manage to take seriously today, and we may even struggle to understand how it once seemed so reasonable. Regrettably, however, too much of our thinking about mental health still swings between equally spiritualised, dualistic ideas of mind and body and the reductionist, mechanistic views of some contemporary science. Marilynne Robinson explores the weakness of each view in her essay “Freedom of Thought” in which she considers how mind and soul can be understood by Christians in light of behaviourist and neurological schools of psychology. Speaking critically of attempts to debunk faith through neuroscience, Robinson writes:

Religious experience is said to be associated with activity in a particular part of the brain. For some reason this is supposed to imply that it is delusional. But all thought and experience can be located in some part of the brain, that brain more replete than the starry heaven God showed to Abraham, and we are not in the habit of assuming that it is all delusional on these grounds.

The very fact that our brains contain much of our experience, Robinson argues, does not mean that their reality is in any way less factual than that which exists visibly, quantifiably “out there”. Even if neuroscientists were to discover the part of the brain which is responsible for religious faith, this would not need to diminish the truth of that faith. The heart of our struggle with this concept, Robinson suggests, is that we are fundamentally still dualists in matters of body and spirit:

Nothing could justify this reasoning, which many religious people take as seriously as any atheist could do, except the idea that the physical and the spiritual cannot abide together, that they cannot be one dispensation.

In other words, we either struggle to believe either that the spiritual can exist in physical reality or that, once the spiritual is given some sort of physical explanation, it can continue to have spiritual reality.

Some blame Augustine for this dualistic thinking, and certainly it can be found in his writings, though it surely precedes him by a good few millennia. Nor is he quite as dualistic as some would suggest, famously opposing Manichaeism, the most dualistic system of thought to enter the church in his day. Yet, wherever it comes from, it is hardly helpful. Indeed, if we truly take the Incarnation seriously, then we must be able to believe that body and spirit can coexist, that Christ did not cease to be God when He became man, nor that His humanity is in any way negated by His being God. Body and spirit are not separate, nor are “memory” and “mind”, contrary to what Augustine suggested in Book 10 of his Confessions. Rather, they exist together powerfully, in that complex system of transmissions and signals in the brain which we are only now beginning to understand.

When we read what the Bible has to say, then, about the “mind”, we would do well to remember that the brain as we conceive of it had little or no meaning to the ancients. The Egyptians famously removed it through the nose as a piece of liquefied rubbish; the ancient Greek word for brain essentially meant “the top part of the head”. The understanding that the brain, not the heart, was the seat of the emotions would take much time to develop; indeed, the ancient Hebrews used the word “kidneys” in that context. Yet this aside, conceptions of the mind and its ability to be corrupted or transformed are found in several places throughout scripture. When Paul writes, for instance, to the Romans instructing them to “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2), he is suggesting that minds, or brains, can be changed. They can conform to the world, or they can conform to Christ. They can be corrupted or renewed. This view, expressed nearly 2000 years before the world heard of “neuroplasticity”, is remarkably similar to what practitioners of cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) now do: exercising the brain’s ability to change itself through the exertion of an external influence, a view expressed by Richard Lopez in his review of Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul. Quoting Thompson, Lopez writes:

“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.” The most important outside relationship, Thompson contends, is with God Himself.

Likewise, when Christ cites Deuteronomy in His instruction to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27), He is in some senses telling us that all our being, co-ordinated by the “mind”, can work together in an act of collective, unified love. This can be an active choice, and is part of the process of conforming the mind to Christ. We do not need to be concerned by the fact that “heart”, “soul” and “mind” are spoken of here separately, any more than we need be concerned that when we feel something deeply, it is co-ordinated by the same organ by which we think. Understanding the many different sections and layers of the brain only confirms that verbal and non-verbal thinking, for instance, are, although organised in the one brain, separate actions, and that one can be brought to bear upon the other. We can preach to ourselves, for instance, by bringing verbal reasoning to non-verbal emotions. Augustine, albeit in a somewhat dualistic manner, explores this very complexity to emotional memory when he states in his Confessions:

This same memory [which contains knowledge] also contains the feelings of my mind; not in the manner in which the mind itself experienced them, but very differently, according to a power peculiar to memory…Sometimes when I am joyous I remember my past sadness, and when sad, remember past joy.

Augustine explains this ability to feel one thing in the present and yet remember a contradictory feeling from the past by saying that the “mind is one thing and the body another”. Yet this explanation is as unnecessary as it is wrong; neuroscientists now know that the emotional part of the brain, the amygdala, can store emotional memories and can bring them back to “mind” at unexpected times, as seen most significantly in victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Rather than the memory being separate to the mind, memory is as much a part of the brain as rational thought. Yet in treatment of PTSD, for instance, psychologists will often encourage patients to verbalise their non-verbal emotions in order to move emotional memory into rational thought.

Think, then, of what it means for each of our thoughts to be known by God before they enter our heads. Think of what it means for Paul to declare to Timothy, as it is rendered in the Authorised Version, that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). The word for “sound mind” here is sōphronismos, and it is often translated “self-control”, being associated with self-discipline and moderation. Yet what is suggested here is that the “spirit” and the “mind” are connected and that God has given us a sound mind. Indeed, this is affirmed in 1 Corinthians 2:16, when Paul asks, “[W]ho has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?”, responding that “we have the mind of Christ”. There is in this sense of process of mental sanctification exactly like our spiritual one: we are declared saints by God, thus declared right in our standing before Him, yet must also “work out our salvation”. The same goes for our mental state. We are given the mind of Christ, yet we also need to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind[s]”. The word Paul uses in Greek for “be transformed” has the same root as the word “metamorphosis”, a word which, thanks to Escher posters which once bestrewed the walls of my primary school classroom, I will forever associate with one species slowly turning into another. We are declared new creatures, and both our thinking and our being before God must be gradually brought into alignment with that new reality.

There need be no tension then in how we view human brokenness and the workings of the brain. If sin has corrupted all of creation, then it has corrupted our brains as much as it has anything else under the sun. And, if sin has corrupted our brains, then so can God’s redeeming grace renew them just as He renews all that is brought to Him. What that will look like this side of the new creation none of us can know for sure, yet we need not be afraid to make the most of what we can know now about the human brain in order to help exercise the benefits of grace given to us.

If neuroplasticity and CBT tell us that the brain needs new truths to be spoken into it to transform old faulty connections, what better truth to tell us than that we, wondrously, now have the mind of Christ. What better reality to bring our broken minds into; what better way of finding true mental health in a sick and fallen world.

References

Descartes, R. (2010). The Passions of the Soul, trans. Jonathan Bennett. Retrieved online, 28th June 2014. http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/pdfs/descartes1649.pdf

Lopez, R. (n.d.). “A Response to ‘Anatomy of the Soul: The Neuroscience of Spirituality”. In The Augustine Collective. Retrieved online, 26th June 2014. http://augustinecollective.org/augustine/response-neuroscience

Outler, A.C., ed. (2004). The Confessions of St. Augustine. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Classics.

Robinson, M. (2012). “Freedom of Thought”. In When I Was a Child I Read Books. London: Virago Press, pp. 3-18.

Vaughan, H. (1650). “The Retreat”. In Silex Scintillans Part I. Retrieved online, 28th June 2014. http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/vaughan/retreat.htm

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