Neuroscience and Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Quick, without thinking, what feelings are evoked by those nine words?  And I don’t mean what those words are trying to make you feel, but what feelings do you associate with hearing those words?

Because the 23rd Psalm, more than any other Christian (and perhaps Jewish?) Scripture, trigger memories for us, and often, those memories go deeper than words or events we bring to mind.  Let’s consider what might be going on in people’s brains as they hear these words spoken this week.

This Psalm is used at almost every Christian funeral.  Funerals are almost always rough, emotionally-laden times, even when it’s the death of a person in their 90’s who has been in failing health.  But sometimes funerals are tragic, and traumatic.  And so the memories these words evoke are of two types:

IMPLICIT memories:  These are the trickier memories – the ones that are bodily sensations and emotions, and they often do not make sense to us.  We’ll start having emotional responses, and it seems like it’s “out of the blue.”  What’s going on?  Remember, our brains are master learners, and what they learned was these words are associated with these intense feelings.  And so the feelings come back when the words are heard.  Even if we can’t remember when we heard these words.

BECAUSE: We can’t always access our EXPLICIT memories:  The memories that contain facts, narrative and story – The who, what, where, when, why, and how of a memory.  (Even these are not to be trusted, but that’s a more complicated story.)

So, we hear these words.  Our LIMBIC area remembers how we felt when we heard these words.  BUT if the original feelings were intense enough, like, say, at a funeral of a traumatic death, the HIPPOCAMPUS would not have had the chance to encode the facts of the memory.  This is why trauma is so powerful, and why post-traumatic stress can undo even the most well-functioning person.  Our limbic system, outside of our awareness, will get triggered and start the cascade of emotional responses that were suitable to the original event, but which make no sense now, because we cannot always access the original event.

Which is to say to the preacher using this text:  These beloved words have the power to trigger emotional states that will leave folk feeling vulnerable.   Add in the complexity of feelings, history, and memory stirred by “Mother’s Day,” and it’s a potent mix for this Sunday.  Life, death, loss, celebration, conflict, comfort:  These words have the power to describe, hold, and trigger it all.


Photo by Stacy Isaacs

Psalm 23, King James Version (because that’s the one folk memorized)

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters.  He restoreth my soul.

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;

Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


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