Neurotheology

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Neurotheology on Values

One interesting area of discussion within neurotheology compares the design of the nervous system with the values expressed in various religions. Another way to say this is to ask if the central nervous system works the way that a religion says will be good for you. For instance, if the nervous system is set to maximize staying alive, nurturing life and passing on life to the next generation a religion that focused on celibacy would not seem to fit as one that supported family, a religion that advocated sex without reproduction would not do as well as one that taught reproductive values. Our actual nervous systems strongly favor attachment relationships beginning before birth. Buddhism teaches detachment “Viraga” which refers to an absence of possessive craving that might not be the same as teaching a high value for attachment. Early attachment is distinctly a possessive craving in both mother and child that forms the center of this necessary process for growing a healthy brain. One would want to see if the totality of Buddhist practice leads to detached or attached parenting. Before we go running off with one word as the basis for understanding Buddhist detachment, we might want to see if it might mean something different than the first impression from the translation. Could viraga refer to the ability to see beyond oneself that is necessary for the mutual-mind states necessary for healthy brain training? Still, the nervous system places an even higher value on bonding than mutual-mind states and it remains for the Buddhist exponents to make the case that they place an equally high value on attachment.

The central nervous system also has cycles and rhythms that must be synchronized internally and externally. These values are prominent in Wicca, neo-pagan as well as animist religions. These groups join the discussion when they can show that the same rhythms and synchronization taught by their beliefs are central to the nervous system and will improve brain functions. But most religions have little reason to care about neurotheology unless they claim that the force behind their beliefs is the same force that formed human life. If those beliefs coincide then there should be a strong similarity in values between their values and the values inherent in the care and cultivation of the brain.

Christian belief

This little introduction to neurotheology will not attempt to do comparative religions; instead we will focus on a discussion of Christian values as they relate to the central nervous system. Christians go so far as to claim that God created the world intentionally and created the human body knowing full well that God would need to live in a human body through an Emmanuel event. For that plan to succeed, it would demand a close match in value systems between the creation and the creator. 

The Brain The Bible

Joy is the deepest motivation and need for the nervous system

For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; Romans 14:17

Joy means relationship

I hope to come to see you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.  2 John 1:12b

Joy is transmitted relationally

These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. Jesus in John 15:11

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. Romans 15:13

Joy is best transmitted with our faces

You have made known to me the ways of life; you shall make me full of joy with your face. Acts 2:28

Brain reality is relational

There is…one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:6 

A secure attachment relationship is central

I am with you always. Jesus in Matthew 28:20

Quietness and rest are needed to thrive

In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength. Isaiah 30:15
Rest/quiet is relational not detached and individualistic The LORD your God in your midst, The Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing." Zephaniah 3:17

We have limited capacity and must rest when the younger/weaker party needs rest

Then we who are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Romans 15:1

Rhythm and synchronization form identity

Until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed without and within, fully alive like Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13 The Message
Identity grows out of shared-mind states Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, Philippians 2:5
Fear states should not last long or be dominant There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. 1 John 4:18

A full discussion of some ideas presented here could easily be a whole book on their own. We will start the discussion with a short paragraph instead.

Truth and the brain: The brain places a high value on truth. If our tacit knowledge of the world and ourselves in our right-brain matches our beliefs in our left-brain those beliefs remain stable and unchangeable. If the left-brain contains beliefs that are not true the right-brain will experience a conflict with tacit knowledge and tacit knowledge wins. We become upset when our identity and reality no longer work correctly. The right-brain then signals the left-brain that the left can now change its beliefs. So the brain is stable when it knows the truth and becomes unstable and upset every time it tries to use false beliefs no matter how long ago the beliefs were formed. It is hard to find any religions that put greater stock in truth than the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Mindsight and Godsight: The order of operations in the brain is to first affirm our relationship, second notice any problems with others, third load in a careful understanding of what goes on in the other person’s mind (mindsight), fourth remember what it is like us and our people to do that will calm and satisfy the situation, fifth see this in perspective and see what it really means (Godsight,) and sixth, finally open our mouths to talk. James 1:17-19 states that the first sign that someone is being saved (and restored to normal function) is that they are quick to listen, slow to anger and slow to speak. That is a fairly good match for normal brain function.

Christian practice

Other topics that merit their own books are how the maturing brain brings changing identity. Biblical religion expects a growth and change of identity in maturity stages that match brain capacities. The brain is also incapable of determining ultimate good and evil for itself or applying ultimate truth to circumstances effectively. In the Biblical view, people were not designed to know good and evil. The brain demonstrates “built in” recovery mechanisms for all kinds of emotional and physical changes but does not seem to have a recovery mechanism for death of a loved one. Oddly, the Biblical view is that people were not designed to die. Mirroring produces identity development in the brain and the Christian life is designed around people seeing others as God sees them and helping them live according the spiritual view of their identity while they form new identities and updated minds.

Now that we have looked at some of what Christianity teaches, it would be interesting to see what Christians practice. Brain architecture would predict that if these values are transmitted by verbal teaching, reading and speaking alone the result will be people who say the right things when things are calm and going well. When they get stressed, anxious, angry, threatened or hurt they will act the way they talked earlier. Decisions and commitments, values and beliefs will be gone from their actions but they will still justify themselves in religious terms when their attitudes and behaviors are something else again.

Brain design, intelligent design by Christian standards, predicts that those who have learned these Christian beliefs while sharing upsetting life experiences with more mature believers who can live them will develop healthy brains that can maintain their identity under pressure. This group will be glad to be together whether the day is good or evil. They will be a source of life to others – even, and perhaps especially, when others are malfunctioning.

One of these two patterns seems to have developed and been propagated by European and North American Christians in particular. There even seems to be a tendency for the loudest and most dedicated proponents of Christianity to select the least effective method to produce identity change that will hold up under trouble. Have a look at the evidence for yourself and have a thoughtful discussion.