Why We Need James’ Message (the one from the Greek Bible) to Overcome the Brain’s Wiring

James 2:1-13 one of the four Christian Bible passages suggested for preaching this week.  (Spoiler alert to all in my congregation:  I’m preaching again from James.)

James is famous for his insistence on the integration of faith with deeds, and much can be said about that, neuro-spiritually speaking.

But this passage specifically speaks against stereotyping, and it’s something we need to hear over and over and over again.  Because our brains are wired to stereotype.  What our brains do, it’s not inherently evil.  Our brains are just going along their merry way, trying hard to conserve energy and find shortcuts.  (Remember, our brains consume 20-25% of our calories.  Sadly, your brain won’t necessarily burn off  the extra delicious calories that come from ice cream or m&m binges, even if you think really really hard about this blog.)

So, our brains are wired to stereotype, because it’s a shortcut, and it saves energy.  What is unfaithful, or unreflective, or irresponsible, is to allow our brains to dictate our lives.  Contradictory, I know.  But:  Just because our brains stereotype to save energy, doesn’t mean we sit back and let them be lazy.  No, God gave us this gift of a brain, to use.  We 21st century human beings are called to a higher standard; we’re called to engage our prefrontal cortex.

What does that look like?  Thinking about our thoughts, because

1. We are not our thoughts.

2. We can change our thoughts.

3. Unthinking action leads us into trouble.

4. Our often unconscious bias needs to be dragged out into the open for evaluation, and often more than once.  It didn’t get there overnight, and one good overhaul won’t fix it permanently.  Those new neural pathways take time.

The good news?  We carry the tools we need around with us all the time!  Our brains have the tools to change how they are wired.  Crazy, huh.  But because of our brains, we can take responsibility for how our brain is wired today, and can be changed with our intentional help, for tomorrow.

(And the reason meditation is such a hot topic, and why it is similar to prayer, is that in that quiet time, we can become aware of, and think about, and evaluate, our thoughts that we didn’t even realize we were thinking.  Because our brains are also sneaky little buggers.)

Neuroscience and Christian Scripture

Let’s apply neuroscience to scripture!  Yay!  I love cross-disciplinary discussions.  

I’m guessing that most people just clicked away after the first sentence.  But for the 3 of you left:

You know that Scripture is a dicey topic.  My published researcher PhD sister Rebecca reminds me the science community thinks all Christians are probably Rick Santorum.   This is not a compliment, but rather evidence for why we (people of the Christian faith) must be nutty.  

Do folk of other religious traditions get the same bad rap?  Somehow, I suspect not.  Because you don’t see many – any? in the Jewish faith claiming “intelligent design” is a viable scientific theory deserving of public school resources.  And that’s just one example.  Maybe because their flock is more intelligent?  (To my friend Rabbi Jill:  What say you?  See her work at http://www.ravjill.com/the-jewish-mindfulness-network/)

On the other hand, many, if not most, Christians dismiss science as irrelevant to faith.  In spite of how neuroscience supports the power of prayer, or how quantum mechanics supports a theological perspective on creation, or any of the other amazing intersections of faith and science.  

And few Christians of whatever brand can agree to what our shared text means.  That, at least, is universal: Whatever sacred text we read, we all miss the point a lot of the time.  We just differ in the humility of our claims. But that sure doesn’t stop us from getting into lots of fights about it, and people can’t run away fast enough, assuming there’s nothing of value in the Christian Bible.

But, well, my number one job responsibility is to figure out what to say on Sunday mornings, using one of the four scheduled scripture texts of the common lectionary.

Preaching:  I love it; It’s a burden; I hate it; I’m astounded by it; I dread it:

Be inspiring! Don’t be boring!  Be practical!  Make God/divine love come alive for us!  Make us FEEL the Spirit!

It’s quite a job description.

So, I thought, why not see what new angle my (admittedly limited & simplistic) study of neuroscience might reveal in the text?  Maybe other folk would be interested as well!  Even though the science community isn’t thrilled to talk with a “person of the cloth,” neither is the institutional church all that excited by the implications of scientific research on the practice of faith.  O well. To me, it’s a fun exercise.  So my goal is to offer a “neurological” perspective on one of the lectionary passages on the weeks I am preparing a sermon.  Which is most weeks.  

Maybe it will help some preachers.  Maybe some who find the Christian Bible “yucky” will be pleasantly surprised.  

Let me know what you think!  


Let’s talk some dope (amine)

Remember the Pythagorean Theorem?  Yeah, me neither, until mathematician April reminded us in Sunday School class.  It’s the set-in-stone mathematical law that if you add up the angles of a triangle, it always equals 180.  (The angles are where two legs of the triangle meet – how close or far apart they are.  A circle = 360.)  You learned this in school, trust me, and you learned it as an absolute.  Every triangle’s angles add up to 180.  

And then, April blew my mind.  Se told us this never-to-be-disputed mathematical law only works on a flat surface.  If you draw a triangle on the surface of the earth, the angles will add up to more than 180 degrees.  WHAT?  Yep, context matters.  What I’ve believed my entire life.  What a thrill to hear my sense of the world confirmed by a mathematical theorem!

But this is not a blog about math.  No, this is a blog about my brain, and how this new idea  sent a surge of dopamine straight through my neural pathways, making me feel excited and happy.  Okay, this also reveals the nerd I am – that a new exciting idea is my form of a drug rush.

But here’s the question:  What gives you a rush of dopamine?  What excites you?  Do you even know anymore?

Daniel Siegel in his latest book, “Brainstorm:  The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” suggests our (adult) frustrations with teens come in part from our envy of their passion.  The resting level of dopamine drops in adolescence, but is much more easily spiked.  Hence, their passions are easily excited, and we see that, and as adults, we miss that for ourselves.

In the book “Overwhelmed: Work, love, and play when no one has the time” by Brigid Schulte, she presents all the research on the importance of playtime not for children, but for adults.  If we want to be creative – and let’s face it, our lives demand creative problem solving at home, at work, in our relationships – We need to play.  And she rightly points out how hard it is for adults to play, yet how crucial it is.  

So why don’t we?  Well, who has the time?  The research says playing makes us more productive and creative.  Obviously we’d be happier and better off if we played.

But for those of us living a life faith in this culture, our every minute is measured by our immediate productivity.  “Playing time” looks like “wasting time.”    What will people say?  That we’re lazy, frivolous, childish.  

Plus for those of us who are Christian, our Puritan heritage immediately puts a stop to play.  Consciously or not, we think we must “Come, labor on – Who dares stand idle” as the (awful!) Protestant hymn suggests.  O, we’ll play, sure, – once the list is done.  Once all our responsibilities are fulfilled.  Except the list, and our responsibilities, by their very nature, never will get done.  

Instead:  The research on work, on how our brains are wired, on adolescents, on mental health all agree:  We must play.  And for Christians, we can drown out the “Come, Labor On” message by turning to the God of the hymn, “Morning Has Broken:” which says, “God’s re-creation of the new day.” If we are to be about God’s work in the world, well then, we are called to participate in “re-creation,” that is, “recreation.” 

So, when was the last time you had a dopamine rush?  Do you remember what caused it?  Have you gone seeking it by trying new adventures, going outside your comfort zone, pushing against your edges?  And in spite how exciting I found the limitations of the Pythagorean Theorem, all the research says the dopamine rushes that restore us involve our whole being – Not just our mind – but our bodies, too.  Which is play.  Image

It’s Not Fair! now what……

What’s a baby brain to do?  We come pre-wired for detecting when we’re being treated unfairly – We know this because of how primates react.  

See this video (It’s less than 60 seconds)


Here’s a picture from the video of the monkey having a tantrum because  she just realized her friend is getting a juicy delicious grape in exchange for a rock, and she’s only getting a lousy slice of cucumber.  If you didn’t watch it, really, you should.  It will make you laugh.Image

Researchers with primates and babies (at the Yale Baby Lab) recognize that we do seem hard-wired for fairness, and for spotting “moral” behavior.  That’s a good thing, right?  

When we’re a year or so old, we start being told, “Share  your toys!  It’s only fair!”  

Okay.  We get that – We may not like it, and we may not do it, but we get it.  We like things to be fair.  It upsets us when things aren’t fair.

And then, about a year later, we hear something completely different.  We want a cookie NOW, and we’re told “No, eat your peas first.”  And we yell “That’s not FAIR!”  And we are horrified – HORRIFIED to hear in response, “Life isn’t fair.”  What?  Wait just a minute here!  We’ve been told to share, because that is fair, and now no cookie until we eat our peas, which we do not like?  Who made the rules here?

So, another adjustment.  

Adjustments are not easy for our brain.  And understanding that we may be prewired for “fair” and “right” doesn’t mean we are born committed to justice.  We have these mirror neurons that have to come on-line, through being “mirrored” ourselves in a caring relationship.  Then we start taking another’s perspective.  And then, more experiences, watching and observing, and we realizes that sometimes it is in our longer-term interests to act fairly.  That takes delayed gratification. (Think, the marshemellow test.  Here’s a clip if you aren’t familiar:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QX_oy9614HQ

And then, true maturity:  We are wired for community, but we’re also wired for “us-them” dichotomy, and to look out for “us.”  We are capable of expanding “us” to include “them,” but we need to be taught.  Religion is great at this: 

Love your neighbor.  Love your enemy.

Be generous, and ready to share.

Show hospitality.

If someone is in need of a coat, offer them your shirt as well.

Every time you were kind to the stranger, you were kind to me.  (jesus)

(These aren’t direct quotes, just good summary snippets.)  And it seems pretty obvious to me that the wiring for spotting injustice may already be there, at least when we’re the ones being injured.  But it may take some careful guidance and experiences to learn how to spot injustice when it’s our sibling – Then we need to be taught how to work for justice for our clan, and then taught that every person is in our clan.  And then the real leap, in some ways right back to where we began:  That even other creatures, indeed all creation, is in our clan.  And deserve justice.


As my faith tradition begins the season of Lent, I think about God’s invitation to us to use what we’ve been given in these amazing brains.  Practice sharing.  Practice giving.  Practice spotting injustice (it isn’t always easy because we’re blinded by what already is.)  We may be hard-wired for fair and right, but those neurons won’t get us very fair until we use them regularly.  





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What will we do this summer without snow days?

Several weeks ago I blogged about the deliciousness and necessity of doing nothing on our last snow day.  As this next one loomed – We have a foot of snow on the ground and more to come – I had this awful thought:  What will I do this Spring, Summer and Fall, when I desperately need a snow day, but Mother Nature will not comply?  (Okay, global warming not-withstanding.  Who knows what other weather surprises are in store.)  

Brene Brown talks about the bragging of our busyness, as a measure of our worth.  A clergy friend just posted an editorial  from the New Yorker by Tim Kreider on what he calls “The Busy Trap.”  http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/opinionator/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/

He says, “(We’re) busy because of (our) own ambition or drive or anxiety, because (we’re) addicted to busyness and dread what (we) might have to face in its absence.  Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.”  Make no mistake – Those people barely making ends meet, working 3 jobs, or our sisters hauling potable water 3 miles a day – they are exhausted, not busy.  This “busy-ness” from which we all claim proudly to suffer?  It’s a first world, middle and upper middle class compulsion, (and as clergy, since our work is so intangible, we are even more susceptible.  After all, don’t we only work on Sundays?)  As I re-read the Little House on the Prairie books to my niece, I think of Ma and Pa:  THEY were busy.  But for us in the 21st century?   Everyone I know?  We wear our busyness like a badge of honor, as though it’s a given.

And we don’t think about how we ended up here, or whether this is a good place to stay.  It doesn’t occur to us we have a choice.  Our religious communities don’t necessarily help, either – Too infused with the good ol’ Protestant work guilt – O, I mean, ethic.  See what good Christians we are!  We’re busy!  So who has time to stop and think, meditate and reflect on how we are to live this life?  We’re too busy!

Almost all my life, I’ve been accused of over-achieving.  My spiritual director’s invitation to live as a “C” student panics me.  I have  wrestled with self-imposed standards that I assumed were external expectations.  I know all about this tug-of-war.  One on hand, “What is wrong with me?  That I can’t keep up with every-day life, let alone if anything goes wrong?  I must be – and fill in the blank.  Weak.  Lazy.  Crazy.  Incompetent.  Suffering from SFS (sensitive-flower-syndrome.)  Regardless, there must be something wrong with me.  Then I flip, and get a huge chip on my shoulder, and get angry at this culture, and it’s pressure, and everyone else’s expectations that I canNOT live up to.  Then, equilibrium.  What does it matter the cause – weak character or crazy culture?  It’s still up to me to decide.  It’s my life.  I can set the pace.

And this is where mindfulness comes in.  Because yes, it brings me angst to think about claiming a slower pace, a mental health day, time away from every day responsibilities – And that keeps me on the treadmill.  Maybe this snow day can be a trial run.  Not just a gift from a gracious God for today, but a glimpse of how calm and centered life could be, if I am willing to claim it, as my right as a precious part of creation.  Maybe it’s okay to only do enough to earn a “C” in this life.  Maybe, if Jesus words are to be believed, the first will be last and the last first, so that the “lazy” ones win.  At the very least, maybe we could use today to practice:  A different pace of life, a pace more humane and less anxiety-driven.  A pace more honest; a pace that looks like we’re wasting time, but in truth, we’re living life.

Neurogenesis: Neuro-theologically speaking (part 2)

O dear.  It’s embarrassing, but apparently I perfectly fit the target audience for the BBC’s show “Sherlock,” which is beloved by teenaged girls and middle-aged women.  At least that’s what my teenage daughter, who got me hooked, tells me.  In my defense, I choose to believe Sherlock’s fans are highly intelligent teens and middle aged women.
Really – even if you are not a teenaged girl OR a middle-aged woman, you should check out this show.  It’s brilliant.  And it provides a brilliant example of neuro-plasticity (see previous post) and redemption as one could hope to see.
You see, Sherlock, while a brilliant solver of mysteries (too many “brilliants?”  Just trying to pay homage to the British-ness of the show) he is also – as he describes himself  – “the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant and all-round obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet.”   He also labels himself a “high-functioning sociopath.”   “Sociopath” is not a clinical term, although some use it interchangeably with psychopath.  One blogger explains it this way:“So when Sherlock describes himself as a “sociopath,” what does he mean?

He is likely referring to his difficulty with empathy, his tendency to disregard others’ feelings, and his ability to feign emotions to manipulate people. He is not describing himself as violent, amoral, or criminal.”  http://thesherlockfandom.tumblr.com

These are the kinds of people we consider “unredeemable.”  These are the kinds of people – usually men – who when they are violent, end up filling our prisons, often with life sentences or the death penalty.  And then we throw away the key and assume there is no rehabilitation. Brain scans of those with psychopathic tendencies show certain consistent patterns, including shrunken amygdalae.  Some see this as in-born and unchangeable as say, Downs Syndrome.  Yet read this excerpt from Sherlock’s wedding toast to the man he now understands is his best friend:

SHERLOCK: “The point I’m trying to make is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant and all-round obnoxious arsehole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet…..I am dismissive of the virtuous  … unaware of the beautiful … and uncomprehending in the face of the happy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend….Certainly not the best friend of the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing.  John, I am a ridiculous man … redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship…  John, you have endured war, and injury, and tragic loss …  so know this: today you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved – in short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that.”  http://arianedevere.livejournal.com/65379.html
Does the end of this speech sound like a sociopath?  The cynical might say it is mere manipulation on Sherlock’s part.  The faithful might say that his friend John’s constant, reliable, steadfast, insistent care and expressions of love have changed Sherlock’s brain, making him (maybe just slightly) more capable of genuine relationship.  Could it be that what Sherlock says is true?  That our relationships can save us?  That redemption, as understood by the Christian faith, is possible?  That our Maker is brilliant in fashioning brains that can be changed by our hearts?  No, that is not a scientific statement.  But again, it reflects the intersection of spirituality and neurosciences, and the hope shared by both.
So what do you think?  Are some people beyond redemption, beyond saving, beyond changing for the better?  I’m curious what you think – what you believe – Let me know!