Tuesday, November 3, 2009

God Out of Bounds: Brain/Mind Science

This post struck even me as a tad long, so I am starting off with a cheat-sheet with some main points from the post:

* The human brain is wired to connect and cannot help but do so; this seems to be the imago of a trinitarian dei
* We are born with structures and templates already in our brains which guide our development. Some of these structures appear to be moral, and when we talk about utter depravity we must also account for an apparent inborn capacity for altruism
* Our brain has developed as three general 'layers', reptilian, mammalian and human, and theologically we should account for each when we speak of sanctification
* Consciousness is mysterious - how much more so is God's consciousness?
* Though "mental health" is troublesome to define, there does seem to be a collective human intuition about what whole personhood is, including living peacefully with others, forming loving relationships, and being able to exhibit trust - we as Christians might see this as an intuition of Christlike personhood

I want to get back to my Out of Bounds series, because I realized I'd neglected it for a while there, and being only about 2/3 employed, I have a lot of free time compared to most of my adult life.

For this round, I wanted to talk about God and brain/mind science. Brain/mind science is clunky, but terms like neuroscience are a little too limiting, and there isn't a good term in common use (that I'm aware of) that covers the functioning of all levels of the brain (lizard, mammal, human) and nervous system as well as the mind, which I take at the moment to be an emergent property of the brain and nervous system but not synonymous with it.

I'm also not a brain nor mind scientist by any stretch of the imagination. You're getting the collected thoughts of an enthusiastic dabbler here, in case you were wondering. I'll try to cite some of the things I'm drawing upon, and otherwise if this is of interest, feel free to comment or email me or doing research yourself to form your own conclusions.

Limbic Resonance and Mirroring
Most of your communication has nothing to do with the words you use. I think this is part of why the Internet is so chock-full of flame-wars and trolls and fighting and argument, why I have found it to be such a faulty medium for communication - it is missing the most important components.

Sitting across a table from someone and talking to them, your brains are passing cues back and forth to each other in thousands of snippets, far more cues than you could cram in words. These little cues come from the limbic systems in your brains, the parts of the brain that mammals have which reptiles, for example, lack.

Rapport is when these cues line up. It is possible to watch people flirting, for example, and see how their shoulders and pelvic areas align, how they blink at the same rate, how they put their weight on the same side of their body, how they lean at the same time, how their voices change pitch and so on. If these things happen, you know the people like each other. If they don't, buying drinks isn't likely to help you.

You can record someone's face and see hundreds of micro-expressions, changes in facial muscle tension, eyelid adjustment and pupil dilation over the course of a short conversation. The more emotion is at stake, the more these signs become obvious. This limbic information accounts for anywhere between half and 95% of our communication depending on different articles and books I've read.

In short, we are wired to connect. It is impossible to avoid. We are in relationship insofar as we are mammalian - that is to say, constantly and entirely. I can see an easy connection to the Trinity here, that God is in relationship as well at the core of God's being, that God is not sole and alone and impervious like a Greek statue.

We are not born as blank slates. There is already a lot of ground-work done in brain-building and mind-building. I remember holding my neice Grace-Ann literally an hour or two after she was born, and I remember (apart from being petrified I'd drop her or something) thinking "Holy crap, this is a person." She had that glazed, perpetually-startled baby look of course, and had good reason to look that way, but behind it I could already see an intelligence trying to make sense of things.

If we were not born with templates in our brains, it would take too long to make sense of everything. Every brain would have to start from scratch, and we'd never mature - it would be as if everyone had to build their own personal computer from raw materials without any help from others.

We have instincts which are functional from the moment of birth and likely in the womb in our late development as well. Grasping, sucking, crying, making little encouraging noises, following lights and movement with our eyes - those are all present from the start. Branching out with more nuanced noises, laughing, exploring and so on are built on those early templates. Trial-and-error is a method for learning and protecting ourselves we don't have to learn by...trial-and-error. There is even a kind of morality present (see below) upon which more can be built.

Baby birds, fresh from the egg, will exhibit fear when shown an outline of a predator bird, but will not show that fear when shown a very similar outline of a non-predator bird. We are only really beginning to understand what is already hard-wired into our brains at birth and shortly after, but we're a lot more complex than baby birds.

I've alluded to the general structure of the brain, and I want to say a little more without getting too complicated or going farther than I understand. I've seen and heard the human brain described more than once as a lizard with a mammal brain stacked on top of that and a human brain stacked on top of that. We still have the lizard and the mammal, but we also have something that, say, a rabbit doesn't have as much of - that's the human part.

The lizard brain is what lets us predict the flight of a baseball, dodge a falling book-case, fight competitors and run away from predators. All the stuff a lizard can do. It rewards us for eating fatty and sugary foods and tells us we're hungry or have to go to the bathroom. It is the base of our brain, and also seems to house a lot of our base desires.

The mammal brain is the limbic part I talked about earlier and some other parts attached to it. It is the part of our brain that connects us to other brains and, therefore, to other living minds. It is what makes a group of prairie dogs or a pack of wolves behave differently from a school of fish or a swarm of newborn sea turtles. The prairie dogs and wolves have complex communication. They work together. They form relationships with each other of dominance, submission and mutual benefit.

The human brain is what houses our imagination, as well as our ability to conceptualize and plan ahead. It lets us use symbols and complex tools and various kinds of language. It is what separates you from your dog (besides blunt teeth, brittle claws and dull senses).

One thing I like about religion is that it engages all of these levels of the brain. We eat together, dance and play games, and spend time with people who don't provoke our fight-or-flight response. We make relationships and maintain them with personal contact and one-on-one communication, and we acknowledge our connections even to people we don't know personally. We also talk about ideas and use imaginative imagery and manipulate symbols and language to communicate with each other and with God.

I believe that a robust theology of sanctification needs to work with each level of the brain and see how it is redeemed.

No one understands consciousness. That's a bold claim but I'll stand by it for now. As I said, I believe that the mind, or consciousness, is an emergent property of the brain and nervous system. This is just because no one without a functioning brain has been recorded to demonstrate qualities we associate with consciousness - that is, knowledge of the self as an individual, object permanence, complex decision-making and communication.

From my own study, I've come to understand consciousness a something that I trust exists but cannot prove. I cannot prove that anything I do isn't predetermined. I cannot prove that my feeling like I make choices means I am making choices. However, trusting that I am conscious makes my life worthwhile and a lot more meaningful, and doesn't seem to detract from my life at all.

If our consciousness is mysterious, how much more so is God's? Can we even say God is conscious? Is consciousness too limited a term for God? What can we possibly mean when we say that God "intends" something, or "plans" something, or "says" something? I take these to be metaphorical statements, since I don't have any idea what it means for an infinite and incomprehensible being to intend or plan or speak. We can trust that these things are meaningful, but we cannot get anywhere near proving that they are, anymore than I can prove that...I am.

This is yet another layer of consciousness, the thing that theoretically human beings have but other very intelligent animals, like dolphins or chimpanzees, do not have.

Self-consciousness is the "I Am" of the mind. It is continuity and identity and various kinds of memory. Like consciousness, I'm not sure we can prove it. I'm not convinced that there is a difference in quality between me and a dolphin, or me and a chimp - more in quantity at best, as in I have more ways to communicate than a chimp, or more tools than a dolphin.

Then again, every time "language" is defined, some ape somewhere demonstrates that it can do whatever language is. So language seems to be becoming 'the thing that other animals can't do', and that's a stupid definition if I ever heard one.

This consciousness and self-consciousness question is a big reason behind vegetarianism and veganism. If no one can point to this magical line between human and animal, how can I justify eating an animal? I have long seen a connection between this view and the Noahic limitations on eating meat. Even in ancient times, there was a sense that animate life was special - after all, it was the animals that God brought to be the first human's companions.

Infant Morality
I heard about this on NPR and was really surprised, and not only because I find babies to be frightening little critters with nefarious plans. Apparently, studies of baby behavior at the Yale Infant Lab have found that altruism can come to the fore very early, and that moral reasoning of some kind, altruistic or not, seems to be present even in six-month-olds.

This is yet another mark against the "blank slate" idea, and I think adds some nuance to the "utter depravity" argument. There is a big difference between being inclined toward evil and being evil, having distorted capacities for good and having no capacity for good. I think Reformed language can get out of control in this arena, and I'm glad the babies are representing.

Mental Health
Our concept of mental health is flawed, but it is also influenced by what I perceive to be a collective conscience. There are traits that we associate with a healthy, functional adult human being, for example, and when these traits are lacking or are perverted in some way, we suspect that something has gone wrong.

For example, if someone commits serial violence, or if they are unable to form close relationships, or if they experience the world to be frightening and adversarial, we seem to have a sense that something is wrong. Conservatives might say that the person in question needs to grab hold of their bootstraps and liberals might say they need to be coddled by government-paid therapists, but we all have a sense that this person's personhood has gone awry.

What this indicates to me is that we have a sense of a potential wholeness, the perfection of which is perhaps out of our grasp, but part of that wholeness is being able to live peacefully, forming close supportive relationships, and being able to exhibit trust that the world isn't out to get you. These are just examples. Mental health is incredibly sticky and difficulty to talk about because it is so subjective, but our collective subjectivity points toward a kind of full personhood that, for the Christian, is found in Christ, and is approached by sanctification.

Sam Harris
Religion does something, even when the world is explainable in other ways, politics can try to divorce itself from overt religion, relationships and communities do not depend on it, and it is not compulsory. It serves a function that seems to be deeply rooted in what it means to be human, what it has always meant to be human.

I don't agree with some things Sam Harris says, but he is an accessible writer who is very interested in the intersection between religion and neuroscience.

My own suspicion is that ultimately there will be no "there" to be found there. That is, we won't find the Easter-egg of the God Gene or the God Lobe or the God Particle. I have this suspicion because I believe God exists and I believe that the world is interesting, and if I combine those two beliefs, it rules out any reducible place where God is located. However, on the way, as we are looking, we consistent find out some really interesting stuff.

Works Consulted and Recommended:
The Bible: esp. Genesis 1-3, 8-9; God in the whirlwind at the end of Job; Jonah
Experimental Theology, Dr. Richard Beck's blog
Dr. Oliver Sachs, author and neurologist

I have a few other books that are in storage and I'm blanking on the names. I'll add them as I find them.

These are all pretty accessible sources - I'm not a genius or an expert or anything like that. I just like thinking about the thing I use to think...


Aric Clark said...

This stuff is AWESOME, Doug. If you haven't you should add Oliver Sacks to your reading list. Also Dr. Richard Beck over at Experimental Theology does great work from the psychology side of things.

Doug Hagler said...

I read through this and it is a little long. I think I'm going to add a brief summary at the beginning, since I seem incapable of being short-winded :)

I am familiar with Experimental Theology. Oliver Sachs is on my reading list. I've seen video of him speaking and have heard interviews about his recent book Musicophilia - definitely good recommendations, and I'll probably move them to the list at the end of the post when I get a minute (or you can feel free to do so).

Doug Hagler said...

...if I ever take leave of my senses and go back for a Doctorate, this will almost certainly be my topic.