If you follow any regular news sources, you will hear about recent studies of the brain that claim amazing things. Similarly, nearly every week I receive a brochure about some seminar that will allegedly equip me to help re-wire somebody’s brain through counseling techniques. That seems quite powerful, and should make some of us wonder if Scripture is a less powerful means of help than the neurosciences.
With this in mind, here is a brief update on four types of work going on in this field.
Different variations of evolutionary assumptions are everywhere, including the brain sciences. You are, of course, assumed to be completely ignorant if you are not a card-carrying Darwinist, or if you believe that there exists some kind of substance other than what we can touch. So says Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and others who have agendas that go beyond science. To them, everything about humanity can be explained by evolution and the activity of our neurons—all mental and all spiritual—is physical. They want to know when we non-Darwinists will grow up and put away our childish, old-fashioned ways.
This trend among evolutionists is not so new, but the tools they have to study the brain and to support their beliefs are. The latest tool is the functional MRI.
Functional MRI studies
Functional MRI (fMRI) studies are the rage. They watch the brain in action. They detect activity level in the brain by analyzing changes in blood flow and oxygen—the more active the region, the more blood flow. In these studies, a subject is told to think about something, or do an activity, and researchers watch to see what area of the brain is active.
I think this research will be useful over time, but when it is simplified and offered for mass distribution, it can be misleading. It seems to suggest that whatever area of the brain becomes active is the actual locus of that thought or behavior. Here, once again, we face the blurring of correlation and causation.
For example, say you are one of the subjects in such a study and you are told to think about God. When an area in your brain becomes more active, voila!—that is where all your thoughts about God arise. Careful researchers will be more circumspect and say that the brain is wired to think about God, but for them that neither proves nor disproves God’s existence. Popular interpretations of the research, however, will likely claim that God is in the brain as an evolutionary relic and the brain causes you think about God. (And when these results are whispered down the lane, we get the feeling that this God-processing area is for the less evolved, more-primitive ones among us.)
A more accurate interpretation of this research is that our thoughts and emotions co-exist with certain patterns of brain activity—they go together, they correlate. Every thought about God, every sin, every act of love is rendered in bio-chemical activity. All changes show up in the brain, but that does not mean the brain caused the change. For example, if I show up at a CCEF meeting at the same time as other colleagues, that concurrence does not mean that I caused my colleagues to show up, or my colleagues presence caused me to show up. A reasonable observer would have to remain agnostic about causation.
And those seminars I mentioned earlier? They probably do teach methods that create brain changes through psychotherapy, but any counseling model that gives you a different way to interpret and cope with your world will show up at the brain level. What these advertisements are trying to suggest is that they, uniquely, are doing therapeutic work that is so deep and lasting that it is grooved into our brains. But they mislead.
The phenomenon of consciousness
The Holy Grail for the neurosciences and the final goal of many of these studies is to explain the phenomenon of consciousness. What is the connection between neurochemical activity and the experience of the color red, or love, or self-awareness, or intentionality?
Quantum physics took a stab at the dilemma, but, as far as I can tell, its formulations, though introduced with some fanfare, haven’t made an impact. My sense is that there is little progress on this front (e.g., see Raymond Tallis, Aping Mankind). Since the discussion has been so focused on the brain and reducing consciousness to brain activity, I suspect the field will soon opt for a more communal explanation, i.e., the brain interacts with the body, with the environment around the body, and with culture and people, and, somehow, consciousness emerges from this matrix. This will not solve the consciousness question, but it will make it less robotic-sounding.
Another area of active study in the neurosciences is the search for causal links between brain dysfunction and resulting behavior changes. Alzheimer’s disease is a prominent area of research in this category. The underlying pathology is increasingly clear, and there is research that could lead to fruitful breakthroughs in the next twenty years. Meanwhile, we are all learning more about the cognitive changes in Alzheimer’s and families benefit from this by being able to care for their loved ones with increased patience and kindness.
And there are always new books that provide inside looks at brain dysfunction. Two recent memoirs about memory make helpful contributions here. The Answer to the Riddle is Me, by David Stuart MacLean, describes a very rare reaction to the malarial drug Larium. This is a fascinating look at the human interior and the methodical construction of new memory. I Forgot to Remember, by Su Meck, is a tragic look at traumatic brain injury and the misunderstandings of the medical community and her family. Biblical counselors will always have an interest in these observations because they help us to understand the world of another person.
There is, indeed, much happening in the brain sciences. Yet there is nothing here to jolt our basic biblical understanding of people. The main challenge still comes from Darwinian evolution, which is an important matter for the wider church.