I confess to being something of a neuroscience junkie. Granted, my knowledge of the subject is limited to the level of what one finds in those books on the shelves of the popular science section of Barnes & Noble, or-alternately-in the articles of Discover. In other words, my interests may be a mile wide, but my knowledge is only an inch deep. Still, I find the brain beguiling. I have commented on this subject before, but I think we are overdue for another excursus in “neuro-theology.” I hesitate to do, knowing that the Internet is awash-more like drowning-in articles linking “spirituality” (usually “mindfulness”) with MRI studies and the like. Still, this is a subject that the classical Christian ignores at her peril.
I have lost count of the number of times I have seen a meme on Facebook attributing the following gem to C.S. Lewis:
You don’t have a soul.
You are a soul.
You have a body.
Lewis, mercifully, never said any such thing. And its a good thing too, because the truth of the matter is, we are our bodies. Granted, we are our souls too, but we are embodied souls; the soul apart from the body is not the “real person,” not the genie freed from the bottle, but only a fragment of ourselves, unable to function apart from the body. The truth of the matter is, classical Christianity “fits” just fine with contemporary neuroscience; better-in fact-then the worldview of the neo-Gnostics. Also, when you think about it, it rather makes sense that there are no “second chances” after death-the soul cannot truly function as a human person without the body, cognition as we know it disappears and the separated soul relies on a divine infusion of knowledge, as the Angelic Doctor knew well. As one commentator has explained:
The separated soul no longer has cognition through the abstraction of forms from material being, nor does it have cognition solely through the forms that are retained in the passive intellect from the time of its bodily existence. Its new mode of understanding is like that of the other separated immaterial substances, coming from a participation in the divine light of God.
…Aquinas reminds us of the two modes of intellective understanding: the first is through abstraction of form from phantasms; the second is through an influx of forms directly from God in divine illumination
Those bolded lines, incidentally, wax a bit Eastern.
Anyway, I’m not interested in the soul “side” of the equation this time, but rather with the bodily “side,” and specifically with the brain. In a certain sense it is fair to say that we are our brains. In another sense, of course, we are not. And it is this paradox that I am interested in here. As embodied creatures, our neurology plays a key role in our spiritual lives. I would like to briefly consider 3 ways in which this is the case: Induction, Transformation, and Perception. Without further ado:
I would like to let James Alison have the first word here:
Mirror Neurons were discovered by a group of Italian scientists working at the University of Parma in 1996. They noticed that when a monkey whose brain had been wired to a neural electrode picked up a raisin, certain of the neurons in its brain fired. What astounded them was that when by chance one of the scientists himself picked up a raisin while the monkey was watching, the same brain neurons fired in the monkey as had fired when the monkey itself was performing the activity. These results were replicated across many other experiments, and so it was that the neurons which enable mimicry were identified. These neurons literally mirror the activity of another in the brain of the one watching. Thus they allow actors other than the monkey to be reproduced by and in the monkey and enable its socialization.
When it comes to humans, who are vastly more accomplished imitators than monkeys, scanners are discovering more and more areas of the brain which demonstrate this mirroring activity, suggesting that we have many more, and more widely distributed, mirror neurons than monkeys and that these are fired off from birth onwards by the activity of adults towards infants. So, for instance, within half an hour of birth a baby will stick its tongue out at an adult who sticks its tongue out at it. Within a very short time indeed a baby will be able to defer its imitation of an adult. When an adult makes a face at a baby who has a dummy, or pacifier, in its mouth, and then resumes a neutral face, the baby who is temporarily restrained from responding by the dummy will imitate the facial gesture later, when the dummy is removed.
Even more significant, from much earlier than had been thought, a baby is able to distinguish between an adult doing something (for instance, putting a rubber ring on a stick) and an adult failing to get the rubber ring on the stick, so that the baby is able to get right what the adult got “wrong”. This means that it is not merely adult activity which is being imitated, but adult intention. And so it is that we learn to desire according to the desire of the other in the phrase which is at the root of everything which my own principal teacher, René Girard has taught. And thus it is that we as humans no longer have simple instincts, for food, for sex, for safety. Rather, our very way of being in contact with our instincts is received by us through a pattern of desire which is interiorised within us through our imitation of what is prior to, and other than, the self of each one of us.
A simple related example might be that if an infant is perceived as a gift by its principal carer, then it will receive itself as a gift. If it is perceived as something frightening by its principal carer, then it will mirror the fear in the attitude towards it, and learn to hold itself in fear: it is always the eyes of the other who let me know who I am, and as I detect them perceiving me, so will I find myself to be. And of course, all of us are used to any number of variations of the mixture of love and fear in the eyes of those before whom we are vulnerable.
Here I am melding together two fields of enquiry, one concerning mirror neurons and another concerning infant imitation, fields which according to their own leading exponents are converging. What is staggering about this convergence is that it brings to an end the assumption that imitation is something “we learn how to do”, starting from something else, and which makes of imitation a secondary, and rather an undervalued, mode of interaction. Instead we discover that humans are exceptionally finely prepared imitating bodies for whom imitation, at which we can indeed improve, is the normal conduit through which we acquire language, gesture, memory and empathy and so receive ourselves as ourselves. In other words it is not the case that we reason about something or someone prior to imitating it or them. Imitation is pre-cognitive and it is as a result of the flowering of our highly developed imitative capacity that we come to know.
Now, the subject of mirror neurons is controversial, a recent book argues that there is no merit at all to the arguments Alison makes. When I mentioned this to Alison, in a recent email correspondence, he dryly observed:
The problem is one, as you say, of the over interpretation (or under interpretation) of such data as it becomes available. The battle between cognitivists and pre-cognitivists, one where the preconceptions of each party’s lenses dominate their explanations entirely, will, I suspect be going on long after we are food for the worms!
Incidentally, those who are curious about this particular debate, will find the works of Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky highly intriguing. But I digress. My point is that a significant amount of human nature is embedded in the “wiring” of our brain, and it is becoming apparent-slowly and shakily-that the brain plays a key role in our being “inducted” into being human beings. This ties into a point that Father Freeman has made with respect to the “tradition of being human“:
The primary mode of cultural education is not choice – rather – it is tradition. Most of what and who we are is “handed down” to us (literally “traditioned”). For the most part it is an unconscious process – both for the one who delivers the tradition as well as for the one who receives it. From the smallest actions of speaking to a baby, slowly passing on language, to the highest actions of belief and understanding, the vast majority of what forms and shapes us will have come through a traditioning. Free choice is largely exercised within the tradition: chocolate and vanilla are choices but both exist within the same tradition of ice cream.
Now, the nature vs. nurture debate is a whole subject onto itself, and it is clear that there is a fixed nature (again c.f. Pinker and Chomsky), but many believe that “nature vs. nurture” is a false debate, and in any case, whatever their relationship, the brain is involved. Tradition-that body of practices that defines classical Christianity-is of vital importance, because-as Alison tirelessly says-the Way is a path of induction. In The Forgiving Victim Alison states:
I want to work through some notions that have had, until recently, a bad reputation. I call these elements of grammar of our escape from a mentalist world. The first is the most obvious: the notion of induction, the notion of being led by other people into something over time. And this is of course how any of us are brought into any sort of skill. Not only advanced skills like those displayed by professional musicians, but basic infantile things like being able to speak a language at all. Other people induct us into something. This is because we are animals and, as animals, we are muscled creatures. Even our brain, which is not strictly speaking a muscle, responds to stimuli as though it were — in other words it can be stretched, exercised and so forth. And the whole point of muscles is that in order to work they need to be exercised. As they get exercised so they function better and better. This means that one of the things we are inclined to despise, habits, become tremendously important. Habits are stable dispositions which you have acquired over time to be able to behave in certain ways.
Isn’t it interesting that when we hear the word “habit” we tend to supply the value “bad”, so that a habit is automatically a bad habit. And this is especially so in matters religious: if something is habitual, that tends to be a sign that it’s bad, because it’s not sincere, not felt, not authentic.
All I want to point out is that habits, which we often regard, and especially in the religious sphere, as bad things, are in fact what make excellence possible, they are what make skills work. And there is nothing new about saying this. In fact, Aristotle said it a long time ago, but we have tended to junk it since the seventeenth century. However, it is a good idea that from time to time we remember Aristotle, because in this at least his observation about how this sort of animal works is true.
The life of virtue is a life of building habits, stable dispositions that become ingrained in our neurobiology. But that brings me to Point 2.
First, on the subject of virtue and the brain, N.T. Wright (After You Believe) will get the first word:
We move from ancient philosophy to contemporary brain science. When people consistently make choices about their patterns of behavior, physical changes take place within the brain itself. Some might regard this as common sense, but for many it will come as a fascinating and perhaps frightening reality. There is a great deal of work still to be done in this field. Neuroscience is still in comparative infancy. But already the clear indications are that significant events in your life, including significant choices you make about how you behave, create new information pathways and patterns within your brain. Neuroscientists often use the metaphor of the “wiring” of the brain, which is not inappropriate since, though of course there are no wires as such involved, information is indeed passed here and there within the brain by what are basically electric currents.
It isn’t just that new patterns of wiring are being put down all the time, corresponding to the choices we make and the behaviors we adopt— though behavior is of course massively habit-forming. Parts of the brain actually become physically enlarged when an individual’s behavior regularly exercises them. For example, violin players develop not only their left hand (I once knew a boy at school whose left hand was several glove sizes larger than his right due to playing the violin incessantly for years), but also the section of the brain that controls the left hand. “These regions [of the brain],” writes John Medina in his fascinating book Brain Rules, “are enlarged, swollen and crisscrossed with complex associations.” As Medina stresses, “The brain acts like a muscle. The more activity you do, the larger and more complex it can become.” What’s more, he says, “our brains are so sensitive to external inputs that their physical wiring depends upon the culture in which they find themselves.” As a result, “learning results in physical changes in the brain, and these changes are unique to each individual.” In other words, as we learn to connect various things in new ways, our brain records those connections. The result is rather like a gardener’s discovery that a patch which has been dug over before is much easier to dig a second time. A particular set of associations in the brain, especially if it is connected with intense emotions or physical reactions, whether pleasurable or painful, will make it much easier for those associations to be triggered a second time. Contemporary neuroscience is thus actually able to study and map the way in which lifelong habits come to be formed.
One of the most famous instances of this phenomenon concerns the brain structure of London taxi-drivers. The work of E. A. Maguire and others has revealed some remarkable evidence. London is not only one of the largest cities on the planet; it is also one of the most complex, with more one-way streets, twisting back alleys, curving rivers, and other traffic hazards than it’s easy to imagine. Before a cabbie is allowed to start work, he or she has to pass a rigorous examination testing mastery of what’s called “The Knowledge,” a process that involves memorizing thousands of street names and ways to get to those streets at the different times of day or night as the traffic conditions change. The result is not just that they are the most effective taxi-drivers in the world, hardly ever having to consult a map, but also that their brains have actually changed. The part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is where we do spatial reasoning (among a wide variety of other things), is typically much larger in cabbies than in the average person. Like bodybuilders who develop muscles the rest of us don’t know we’ve got, cabbies develop mental muscles most of us seldom have to exercise.
This kind of research, so far as I know, is not normally undertaken with a view to religious or moral issues, but the implications in those areas are enormous. We are all aware that we have strong memories of particular events. Some of us may have reflected on the way in which our imaginations and emotional reactions have been conditioned by particular moments of joy or shock, delight or horror, intense pleasure or intense pain. But the thought that not only these special events but millions of “ordinary” ones as well leave traces in the physical structure and “electrical wiring” of our brains comes as startling and striking news to most of us.
What Wright is referring to is neuroplasticity, the catch-all-term used to describe changes that take place in the wiring of the brain over time. To repeat some quotes from a previous post:
the brain is the physical manifestation of the personality and sense of self.
Thoughts are an important part of your inner wisdom-and they are very powerful. A thought held long enough and repeated often enough becomes a belief. A belief then becomes your biology.
Again, a word of serious caution is in order. Archbishop Lazar Puhalo (in his fascinating little book The Neurobiology of Sin) writes:
The concept of infinite changeability in human beings can cause a great deal of harm and misery. It can also prevent people from seeking professional assistance in determining the real basis of serious problems and issues. While it is true that neuroplasticity has been demonstrated and used to good effect, it is not true that every construct in human behaviour and even attitude can be changed. There are constructs that are hardwired in the human brain at birth and they cannot be changed. Insisting that these condition can be changed can, in some cases, cause psychological damage, not least of all to parents or primary caregivers.
Again, neuroplasticity is a controversial area, that has been subject to a myriad of distortions, exaggerations and exploitations by self-help gurus. Those who are interested in fairly sober, down-to-earth commentary, should consult the works of Norman Doidge, Raymond Tallis, and Iain McGilchrist. All of these gentleman have provoked controversy. Still, I can’t resist quoting Tallis here:
In other words, behind the quasi-involuntary action of catching a ball, there is a huge back-story of complex actions — actions that it is very difficult to imagine happening without your deliberate intent, and that tap into great stretches of your self. You would have engaged in a vast quantity of voluntary activity in order to enable yourself to perform an action that might in isolation seem involuntary. Much of this preparatory work would have involved positioning yourself to have experience and acquire requisite knowledge — taking many intermediate steps in order to do so. So much of our life consists of this extended web of action — of acting on ourselves in order to change ourselves: from going to a pub to have a drink to cheer yourself up, to improving your ability to cut a figure in Paris by paying good money to polish your French.
If you really must be neuroscientific about it and talk about “neuroplasticity” (the research showing that there are changes in the brain when one acquires a skill), then you should be reminded that neuroplasticity is often self-driven, and that the self that does the driving cannot be understood without invoking the collective and individual transcendence that is the intentional world greatly expanded through language and culture. And we could extend the application of the term “plasticity” far beyond neuroplasticity: there is also bodily plasticity, plasticity of consciousness (including increased confidence in my abilities, which can be self-fulfilling), plasticity of the self, and plasticity of the world of selves (as when I decide to cooperate with others to ensure that one of us makes that so-important catch). It is a mistake to try to stuff all of that back into the brain and see it solely in terms of changes in synaptic connections at the microscopic level, or alterations in cortical maps at the comparatively macroscopic level. Stuffing it back in the brain, of course, is the first step to handing it all over to the no-person material world, and then tiptoeing back to determinism.
John Polkinghorne makes a similar point:
Much of the vast web of neural networking within our skulls is not genetically predetermined, but it grows epigenetically, in response to learning experiences. It is formed by our actual encounters with reality.
The risks in speaking of neuroplasticity aside, it does seem apparent that the human brain does, indeed, ‘evolve” from its interactions with the world. And we have at least some measure of control in that evolution. Even Puhalo cannot resist:
We are intentionally over-simplifying our discussion for the sake of our readers. Briefly, when a stimulus enters the brain it goes to the diencephalon region of the brain (the location of the thalamus and hypothalamus). From there the signal is directed to the amygdala region. This occurs without any thought and the reason for this is that, in the face of danger, an instant reaction may be necessary without any time for reasoning. This is what the holy fathers meant when they said that this initial signal was not sin, really nothing. Next the stimulus proceeds through the regions of the neo-cortex, in which cognition and reasoning take place, and we find the order to be quite close to what the early fathers understood. While we will assert that the conscience must be brought into play in this process, we will not define the conscience at this time. At the end of this process, when the stimulus is being prepared for long-term memory potentiation in the hippocampi, we should work to train ourselves to have reference to our conscience during this process also. We can see that there is a clear neurobiological element in what we call temptation and in how we decide to respond to this temptation. This will be true of everything that we refer to as “sin.” Let us look briefly at some other common threads in this. The end of the system of development for a temptation, as expressed by the holy fathers is the prefrontal cortex and frontal lobe, particularly the medial prefrontal cortex, the seat of moral cognition and a major regulator of social cognition and the self-control of gratification instincts. This region of the brain gives us the possibility of self-control, regulating our behaviour and making it possible for us to postpone gratification. The prefrontal cortex allows us to take control of our responses to stimuli and override the immediate gratification motivation generated in the limbic region of the brain where a stimulus is first encountered. In using the prayer for the “guarding of the mind,” we are striving to give this rational area of the brain dominance over the emotional brain. Since we humans have a bidirectional communication in this area, we are capable of doing this. I would like to suggest that the early fathers had some vague notion about what we call neuroplasticity, and had an idea that the focused use of the Jesus Prayer actually helped to retrain elements of the brain. They would not have held any such concepts in these terms, but there was some understanding that certain changes could be made in the structure of thinking and awareness, or “mind.” It seems that this was forgotten by many in later times, and counting the knots on the rope became more important than what had been called by the early fathers mental work. In part this was a transference from the concept of healing to a more legalistic and ritualistic concept related to punishment.
Puhalo is not alone in recognizing the therapeutic benefits inherent in the practices of Eastern Orthodoxy (see, e.g., Erik Bohlin’s writing). From Judaism, Jonathan Sacks gets in on the fun:
We can rephrase this a little more technically nowadays. Cain is experiencing a rush of emotion to the amygdala, the so-called reptile brain with its fight or flight reactions, including anger. God is urging him to use his prefrontal cortex, more rational and deliberative, capable of thinking beyond the immediacy of me, here, now. Neuroscience has shown us where in the brain the battle for freedom is fought, but it has not shown us freedom itself, which we can know only introspectively from within.
Sacks reminds us of our paradox: on the one hand, we are our brains; on the other-as the very idea of taking some measure of control over our neuroplasticity gives away-we are not. The internal world-the question for freedom itself if you will-is more than the electrochemical activities of neural networks, even as it is inseparable from said electrochemical activities. If I may be so bold as to put it in a pithy manner: To the extent that spiritual transformation is a genuine reality, it is not reducible but it is tangible. It is that fine-razor thin-distinction that releases from the bondage of neuro-determinism. To quote Dante’s Divine Comedy:
First he heaved a heavy sigh, which grief wrung
To a groan, and then began:
“Brother, The world is blind and indeed you come from it.
“You who are still alive assign each cause
only to the heavens, as though they drew all things along upon their necessary paths.
“If that were so, free choice would be denied you,
and there would be no justice when one feels
joy for doing good or misery for evil.
“Yes, the heavens give motion to your inclinations.
I don’t say all of them, but, even if I did,
You still possess a light to winnow good from evil,
“and you have free will. Should it bear the strain in its first struggles with the heavens,
then, rightly nurtured, it will conquer all.
“To a greater power and a better nature you, free,
are subject, and these create the mind in you
that the heavens have not in their charge.
“Therefore, if the world around you goes astray,
in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.”
And Rabbi Joseph Solovetichik:
Man is born as an object, dies like an object, but possesses the ability to live like a subject, like a creator, an innovator, who can impress his own individual seal upon his life and can extricate himself from a mechanical type of existence and enter into a creative, active mode of being. Man’s task in the world is to transform fate into destiny; a passive existence into an active existence; an existence of compulsion, perplexity and muteness into an existence replete with a powerful will, with resourcefulness, daring and imagination.
There are limits, of course, but a life of virtue and prayer can transform even our brains. The will-when directed to its proper end as Dante noted-allows us to rise above a “purely mechanical existence,” and “place a seal on our lives.” The seal is literal, physical and neural. Who knew.
Point 3. The Christian Way is a paradox. It is fiercely anti-Cartesian (we “go through the motions,” quite literally). The soul, in one sense, follows the body. On the other hand, the spiritual practices of the ancient were designed to instill nepsis and apatheia in the mind. In this situation, the process is pictured in reverse: the body is “deified at the same time as the soul,” to use the Eastern expression. The two are inseparable from one another. And as the “physical manifestation of the mind,” the brain is an integral part of this process. A great deal of the spiritual life is about behavioral, but an equally great deal is about perception. Through contemplation we learn to see the world as it truly is: as a sacrament, albeit bound in the chains of the Fall.
I have stressed many times that faith is a particular form of vision (all the senses, really), and NOT the perception of the obvious. To see the world aright requires an uncomfortable shift on our part, for we are all “blind” (in varying degrees) towards the true nature of ourselves, our world, reality. And-returning again to the subject of neuroscience-the brain is the “organ of perception” par excellence. The transformational process, that painful process which involves a “system reboot,” naturally entails the brain. And the condition of one’s brain can play a hugely significant role in how this “reboot” is accomplished.
Rod Dreher addressed this subject recently. Writing about John Elder Robison‘s fascinating experience with autism (more on that in a minute) he says:
If you were in Robison’s shoes, would you have chosen this treatment? Let me put the question more pointedly: Knowing what Robison now knows about the treatment — that it could upend your life in unpredictable ways — would you still undergo it if it could life the autism veil?
I think that’s really an impossible question to answer from a neurotypical point of view, because we neurotypicals don’t know what the world is like seen through the autism veil. Think of it this way: if you were offered a treatment that would help you experience reality much more richly, and see things that you had not been able to see before, would you take it, knowing that you could never go back to seeing the world as you do today?
Thinking back to the LSD thread we recently had here, we discussed the beneficial experience that some people who try psychedelic drugs have of feeling at one with the universe. I heard privately from a couple of people, one of them a fairly well known writer, who said that their psychedelic experience unexpectedly brought them out of depression and opened the door for them to believe in God. They both said that they believe the drug gave them a temporary view into the world as it truly is — filled with the presence of God — and that shook them out of their misery.
Now, let me put this to you: if a doctor said to you that you could take a dose of laboratory-produced LSD, and would be monitored by physicians the whole time, to prevent you from doing anything stupid, would you do it? That is, if you could be reasonably sure that nothing bad would happen to you physically from this experience, but there was no predicting what kind of emotional and psychological experience you would have, and what its lingering effects (good or ill) might be … would you do it? Why or why not?
The question is not so much “would you do drugs?” as “would you open yourself to the experience that is like having a veil lifted, and giving you an encounter of reality that is substantially different from what you’ve known all your life?” Except in Robison’s case, it wasn’t just for 12 hours, or however long a psychedelic experience lasts. It was permanent.
Put that way, it’s pretty scary to consider, isn’t it? That your entire understanding of yourself and everyone and everything around you could change — and not necessarily for the better.
I think this is one reason why people resist true religion: they fear what the world will look like if they have an experience that convinces them that the religion is true. This was certainly the case with me as a young man. I wanted the comforts of religion, and I even wanted the mystical experience of religion, but I wanted to have them from the safety of a life that I controlled. But that’s not possible. It’s like wanting to experience the ocean in a backyard swimming pool. The ocean can only be the ocean if it can encompass you. The same is true with God.
I knew someone once who was so depressed and unhappy, but who refused to get help of any kind. She was afraid of what might happen if she changed. She preferred the misery she knew to the possibility of being healed and relieved of her pain, but at the cost of changing. This is how we all are at some level, is it not? But I digress…
Indeed, this is true of all of us, on some level-we are all “blind” when it comes to truly seeing the world as it is. Those with autism have a different way of seeing the world, but even as they are impaired in some respects (reading emotions) they have remarkably heightened perception in other respects (as Robison has eloquently noted). When it comes the God question, however, we are all born living in the dark. Our perception of God (through the noetic organ the Orthodox call the nous) is impaired. We don’t see the world as we should.
The thread Rod alludes to regarding drugs may be found here. There he writes:
Now, what does this have to do with the Book of Genesis? I’ve been thinking of how the experiences reported by LSD users closely resemble rare mystical experiences a relatively small number of religious practitioners report — particularly the sense of the ego dissolving into a general oneness with Creation, and a sense that Creation itself is alive, and mystically unified, harmonious.
This is the portrait of the prelapsarian world of Genesis. Adam and Eve live in harmony with God and with Creation. The Fall occurred when the two individuated themselves — that is, became aware of themselves as discrete individuals with the power to turn away from God. They lost that intimate fellowship with him, and with Creation, that they had once had.
Dreher is not the first to make such speculations-Huston Smith wrote about this vividly in Cleansing the Doors of Perception, and Smith was channeling Aldus Huxley. Today even Sam Harris is getting in on the act. For myself, while I am content to remain agnostic on whether LSD can confer spiritual awareness on those who consume it, I think Dreher is making a valid point, one worth consideration.
Vis-à-vis autism, I have noted previously that my younger brother is autistic and the neuroscience of autism has been a particular interest of mine. Those who are intrigued by Robison’s story of being treated with transcranial magnetic stimulation as a real life version of Flowers for Algernon can learn more here and here. I add one note to supplement Dreher’s commentary: “cleansing the doors of perception” is a painful process (which is where I think the LSD line of thought breaks down). When his TMS treatments vested him with a newfound sensitivity to sense emotions, Robison learned the hard way some ugly truths about human nature. The spiritual awakening of Christianity (I’ll wax Protestant and refer to it as being “born again”) is likewise painful, for it entails a heightened awareness of one’s owns sins, and of the power of Sin over the world. The Fall, as I have noted before, is often seen only in the “rearview mirror,” through the lens of the Resurrection and the spiritual awakenings that follow in its wake. To be a Christian means to awake to many hard and painful truths, though always remembering that this bad news is wrapped in the Good News of the Gospel.
One more parallel from neurology, this one from the 1990 movie Awakenings, starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams (based on a book of the same name by Oliver Sacks). The film chronicled Sacks’s clinical trial that awakened a number of patients who had been in a catatonic state for decades. The patients were survivors of the nightmarish encephalitis lethargica (“sleepy sickness”) epidemic which came hot on the heels of the 1918 influenza pandemic (you can learn more here and here). Temporarily awakened from their encephalitic prison by Sack’s administration of L-Dopa, these patients too discovered how jarring an awakening can be. Many were “aware” but unable to move, and their awakening entailed more than learning to see again, but learning to live again.
What is the point of all this? On the one hand, these examples are metaphorical. Autism and encephalitis lethargica are analogies of a spiritual awakening (before God we are all autistic, without grace we are all paralyzed). On the other hand, these examples are also a reminder that in all things humans do as humans we are embodied. Our perceptions and actions are inescapably tied to what goes on in our brains. And to that extent, many among us have experienced-quite literally in the flesh-what it is like awaken.
That has been the overall point of this essay. To speak of “neuro-theology” is not a contradiction in terms. Rather, I say simply: how could we not speak of a “neuro-theology”? We are human, after all.