Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 6, 2008

Faith and the New Brain Science

I’ve seen several television programs recently, and done a bit of reading, on the connection between mind and body, and also the connection between body and what we call “spirit” (for lack of a more accurate term).

Interestingly enough, much of the work I did last month at the Men’s Rites of Passage program/retreat– coordinated by Father Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Contemplation– bears out the truthfulness of the science I’ve been learning. We’re not bodies that happen to have spirits, energies, or emotions. We are actually spirits that happen to have physical bodies, and our spirits (and our physical brains) are changed (grown or chipped away at) by our physical bodies and our real experiences (experiences that we put the spirit & body through, intentionally or unintentionally).

We do have some “control” over our brain and body development (through our choices, disciplines practiced, what we eat, etc.), but if one believes in an active God, then one of the main tasks for discipleship and growth is surrendering our need for control to The God Who Is There  (title of a very good Francis Schaeffer theology/apologetics book that I found helpful as a young man).

For no reason in particular, other than “listening to the Holy Spirit”, I picked up a DVD copy of the film What the Bleep Do We Know? and watched it last week. It was a bit weird overall, trying to draw connections between quantum physics, human physiology, psychology and spirituality. But it did stir up some interesting questions for me. It’s clearly a New Age-influenced film (one of the main “speakers” is a woman said to be “channeling” a long-dead spiritual leader), but a good portion of the hard science, the quantum physics and biology, is well-established (but new and esoteric) ideas. Some (30% or more?) of the science is definitely theoretical, but as any casual student of quantum physics would be able to tell you, twenty centuries of so-called “proven fact” came into question once the ideas of quantum mechanics were seriously explored and tested.

The universe does not “owe us” any explanations, unfortunately. From a Christian perspective, maintaining an openness to the mysteries of God, to the hard, real questions that scripture or experience leave unexplained, is one of the central tasks in being of a disciple of Jesus. Jesus spoke in parables, stories and riddles partly because true scientific awareness did not exist in the first century.

As an exercise in considering these New Brain Science ideas, below are some notes I took on the most recent PBS program I saw, called “Happy for No Reason”. Look them over, take what you need, see if it makes sense to you. Though I’m no big fan of the tendency of “self help” books to put the onus entirely on our weak, lazy, sinful selves, still the call remains for us to find our True Selves, root them in Christ, and continue to grow in love, happiness and productivity throughout our lives.

Happy for No Reason – book and suplemental materials

by “Transformational Expert” Marci Shimoff

Official PBS program description:

Transformational speaker Marci Shimoff on how to achieve happiness. Guests include author-life coach Martha Beck (“Steering by Starlight”); Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer; Richard Davidson (University of Wisconsin); actress Mariel Hemingway.

Is this “New Age” ?  _ I don’t know.  Based on the hard science I’ve read about the brain, the program struck me as at least 70% scientifically accurate. I have no doubt some of the speakers interviewed are extrapolating philosophical or personally biased ideas from the hard science about brain and body chemistry. And certainly (other than Buddhist thought) the religiously relevant language about “soul” or “spirit” has been scrubbed from this program. It’s not Christian, per se. But there’s room for Christian faith and practice, especially practicing monastic-style prayer and social action, in the overall approach. So I think the program overall is helpful, accurate, and meaningful. Evidence of New Age connections: mentions Sedona, AZ (traditional “harmonic convergence” zone); Santa Fe Productions produced the show (New Mexico -another mecca for many New Age spiritual seekers); at least one of the sicentists I saw quoted was a genetics expert(?) also featured in the more questionable film What the Bleep Do We Know?

Another quoted PhD psychologist is connected with something called the Wellspring Institute. Don’t know more about it, but his principles seemed pretty sound.

[Note: In doing a websearch on Wellspring, I discovered an upcoming conference of note: Neuroscience and Spiritual Practice: an “interreligious” conference at Claremont School of Theology in California. Among the speakers is Fr. Thomas Keating, who I’ve heard good things about.]

Positive experiences – our brain & body tend toward “teflon”, i.e. the good (the grace?) “slides off” of us if not allowed to penetrate

Negative- brain operates more like “velcro”:  negative experiences & pain grabs much more easily onto brain’s bio-chemical “hooks”, unless these experiences are transformed or re-wired for usefulness

Therefore, to raise your “happiness setpoint” -learn to register the postives, move experience (esp. positive ones) from short-term memory to deeper or more permanent long-term memory, move simply from firing (chemical movement between neurons) to wiring (creating new synaptic connections that are permanent)

“firing but not wiring” – synapses are always “going off” or firing. But cognition (esp. through meditation, or higher and sustained attention) has the potential to use those firing moments to literally rewire the brain; we can re-organize bio-chemical and physical connections between neurons into new thought patterns and behaviors. You’re wiring the moment into permanent memory and useful learning (hopefully of useful skills, since learning the “bad” patterns happens in much the same way, unless those experiences and patterns are transformed).

Mariel Hemingway interviewed -re: the Hemingway curse – legacy of suicide & mental illness, she had to re-teach herself. She had to learn both to listen, and to stop listening, to various internal and historical voices. Her recovery was about re-connecting with her true self, being present in the moment and rising above those internal storms that she was subject to.

Shimoff – Author of Happy for No Reason (CD, DVD, Hardcover book, course (CD-ROM or workbook?), daily booster kit, and (heart map) quick coherence coach – the PBS pledge person called the materials a “mind spa” or retreat

Regular meditation leads to physical transformation in the brain – compassion meditation increases the connections in the Insula, a sort of body map area- related to brain-body connection; stillness of meditation actually changes some of brain’s motor centers (preparation to “act”)

30 minutes of training a day, for two weeks, produces measurable changes in the brain AND increased compassion

connecting to purpose – richard nelson bowles (Happiness= my deep gladmess meeting the world’s deep need.) …and the “universe” cooperates with you. I have not read Rick Warren’s “Purpose Driven Life”, but I suspect he’s working from many of the same principles, but rooted in Jesus’ example and church history.

Is happiness our “default” brain position? Whether the answer is yes or no, a better connection to who we are, our essence, is always a move toward happiness. Because we are made in God’s image, so knowing our True Self is to get to know God in a new way.

Shimoff’s Seven Steps to Happiness (the habits of happiness)

Step 1- Take responsibility for your own happiness. (Change bad habits incrementally. Don’t get stuck in cycles of blame. Related to recieving things as a victim, or as hero of your own life… a choice in how we tell ourselves and others the story of our lives.)

2- Practice forgiveness – conditions of happiness include compassion, tolerance

3- Express gratitude.

4- Don’t believe everything you think.

5- Practice mindfulness and meditation. (Like physical exercise, mental/spiritual well-being requires working out the brain & biochemical/spiritual states).

6- Live a life inspired by purpose. (Do things on purpose, focus, align self with a purpose)

Step 7 – Cultivate nourishing relationships.

Metaphor: building a home. eg mind heart body soul – four corners of the house, roof=purpose, garden = people around you -correlates to the seven steps above

e.g. Masai tribe in Africa – needy from a material perspective, yet as happy as Westerners. Why?

Book- “Spiritual Evolution” – I missed the author’s name, but the title alone points toward the convergence of spirituality and science in the twenty first century.

“social contagion” – transmission of idea or emotion to others, but this idea was not scientifically backed up in the video.

Shimoff suggests, when one tries out the 7 habits, get a “happiness buddy”, like a workout buddy.

Happy for No Reason materials feature a PARALIMINAL CD – One of the big buzzwords in Men’s Rites of Passage and in Father Rohr’s books is “liminal space”. It’s a reference to edges, places of spiritual openness and learning, or transitional spaces. Being in liminal space makes possible being able to receive or see the sacred, even in the ordinary.


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