Neuroscience and Acts 2:14, 36-41

st. peter

Week One of applying neuroscience to a lectionary text – Will it brings any insights?

This Sunday I am preaching from Acts 2:14, 36-41. (The scripture text is below, if you are interested.)

A modern-day version of this story would be trying to convince climate change deniers not only of the scientific evidence, but convince them they can do something about it.

So, this passage has our dear friend Peter talking with his kin, his people, his fellow citizens of Judea, his fellow followers of Judaism.  He is trying to convince them they all carry some responsibility for standing by while Jesus was crucified, without leaving them mired in paralyzing guilt.

Yep, you’re remembering correctly – Peter’s the one who said, “Huh?  That dude getting into trouble over there?  Never seen him before in my life.  I swear!”  He denied knowing his dear friend Jesus 3 times.  Remember that.  It’s a super important point.

Neuroscience gives us some clues as to his success:

1. He was part of their “in-group.”  He quotes from shared scripture; he employs familiar midrash techniques, all soothing them that he is one of them.  See, our brain stems automatically put us on alert when someone from the “out-group” enters our space. We get ready to  “fight, flight, freeze, or faint,”  while unaware, we assess the threat level.  This is not a good place for taking in new information.  Peter isn’t a stranger, so they are literally more open to them, because:

2. When we feel threatened, our field of vision narrows.  We literally see less. (Barbara Fredrickson, Love 2.0, quoting work done by Schmitz, et al, Journal of Neuroscience 29)

We also hear less.  Once our heart beats above 100/minute, we can’t listen effectively.   (See John Gottman’s work on marriage relationships:

Being one of them, Peter starts from a place of trust, with more open hearts, ears, eyes, and minds.

3. Peter “couples” his brain with his listeners, by connecting his story to theirs:  Remember, he too has messed up royally, more than they ever have.  After all, they didn’t know Jesus, didn’t count him as friend.  He did.  His guilt is worse.   “Coupling” is “the degree to which your brains light up in sychrony.”  Did you know that “speaking with and listening to the human voice appear to activitate much of the exact same brain activity at pretty much the same time?”   Because he shares their experience, because he has laid to groundwork of trust, their brains could “actually anticipate (his) brain activity by a few seconds…..”    And “people’s brains come particularly into sync during emotional moments.”   (All quotes from Barbara Fredrickson’s book Love 2.0)

4. So while the New Interpreter’s Bible might conclude that “spiritual reform is possible only with intellectual re-orientation,” I maintain the neuroscience shows it is Peter’s ability to connect with the audience through shared experience, identity, and religious faith that brought the people to see his truth.

So, next time you are trying to bring someone unwelcome news, or convert them, neuroscience tells us:

Connect with them.  Don’t threaten them, scare them, or anger them.  Share your vulnerability, as Peter shared his own guilt.   Offer clear, manageable next steps.  Don’t level people overwhelmed and paralyzed.


Acts 2:14, 36-41 NRSV

“But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say….Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.  Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”  Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”  And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”  So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”




2 thoughts on “Neuroscience and Acts 2:14, 36-41

  1. I remember back in the day at LPTS, in a particular preaching class we looked at short clips of Pastors preaching and then were asked to rate them. I remember that we ended up rating them in good measure to the sincerity they portrayed. I believe your thoughts on connecting and vulnerability of the speaker relates back to that exercise in preaching class. Good to remember no matter what text we are preaching from this week. Thanks for sharing!

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