When Neurochemistry Meets Religion

Many people are hesitant about trying to combine science with religion. These are two areas that have long been defined with strict boundaries and very little overlap. However, as scientific discoveries and advances continue to expand the boundaries of knowledge, Christians must adapt to understand and interact with their findings.

Often, the fear of science is really a fear that someone is trying to change our ideas about God. But redefining the world around us does not mean erasing old beliefs; instead we can look at this as an opportunity to broaden the boundaries of how we understand God. After all, God doesn’t need us to defend Him, He only asks that we represent His love in the world. In order to do that we must be willing to take down the boundaries, such as those between science and religion. Instead of letting questions divide us, we can find common ground and actually let science help us improve our lives of faith.

Someone recently sent me an article from the Harvard Business Review titled “The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations.” Although the article focused on applying neurochemistry to managerial communication and business environments, there is still a beneficial message for Christians.

The following chart, which was included with the article, reminded me why this is applicable to Christians.

This chart gives us a hint about how the  neurochemistry associated with positive and negative behaviors is useful knowledge for Christians

This chart gives us a hint about how the neurochemistry associated with positive and negative behaviors is useful knowledge for Christians.

Notice the common behaviors of managers they include: they are similar to the behaviors of Christians trying to talk about religion or engaging with other people. How many times have you heard someone say they can’t converse with a Christian because the person is focused on convincing others, not understanding the other point of view, and they are always suspect of a non-Christian’s intentions? Those are the same negative behaviors that caused problems for managers in the workplace.

 

On the other hand, the positive behaviors are strikingly similar to the ideal, loving interactions Christians should be having as followers of Jesus. It isn’t out of line to say that Jesus showed concern for others, was truthful about what was on his mind, stimulated discussion or curiosity, painted a picture of mutual success, and was open to difficult conversations.

 

So what can we learn from this? The article’s emphasis are the effects of those negative and positive behaviors. Neurochemistry has shown that negative interactions produce high levels of cortisol in the brain; positive interactions produce the feel-good hormone of oxytocin.

 

As Christians, we can benefit from understanding this neurochemistry as we attempt to spread God’s love to other people. Many Christians don’t realize how powerful the effect of their negative behaviors can be on others.

 

The article details this problem:
“When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists.”

 

This sounds like the case of most non-Christians today. They have been criticized and rejected in such a way that their brains push them into sensitivity, defensiveness, and aversion to further interaction. This is true not only of their interactions with Christian followers, but with God.

 

In the book The God-Shaped Brain (InterVarsity Press), Dr. Timothy R. Jennings explains how the way you think about God actually changes your brain. If you only think of God as judgmental and angry, it will influence your brain to constantly associate threats or fear with negative emotions. But, when you understand God as loving and good (which He is) your brain becomes programmed to think in more positive ways.

 

As Christians, if we want to share the love of a truly good God, we need to remember that everyone we interact with is wired to be neurochemically influenced by how positive or negative the interaction is. If we focus on making our conversations about faith, God, or life in general more positive then we are forging a pattern of openness that can improve the way people think about and relate to Christianity.

 

Dr. Judith E. Glaser summarizes the lesson here perfectly at the end of the article:
“Be mindful of the behaviors that open us up, and those that close us down, in our relationships. Harness the chemistry of conversations.”

How does this change the way you think about your behaviors?

 

Do you think Christians can benefit from scientific knowledge like this?

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Sleepy Dreams and Eccentric Reality

The theme this year for chapel and our University Ministries organization is “eccentric.” Pastor Judy spoke both last Sunday at collegelife and Wednesday in chapel to introduce this theme to us as students.

photo from http://www.geekologie.com – sunrise over the pacific ocean

But I need to stop before I get ahead of myself, because the truth is that my brain is not really flowing well at the moment. I honestly don’t feel like doing much but going back to sleep, which is partially why I didn’t get around to posting consistently this week. Some people struggle with temptations like lust, selfishness, greed, or gluttony. Although I am not immune to those things, my current trap lies in complacency. This is my third year at the same school, there isn’t a lot going on for me this semester, and all I want to do spiritually is nap. Why not right? I’ve worked hard the last few years, gotten through many challenges, and encountered God in all new ways. So I would be fine to rest for awhile where I am right?

Surprised by Joy… at the DMV

Yesterday morning I had an appointment at the DMV. Similar to most, I was not excited about the prospect of grumpy office workers and long trains of people herded from here to there.

I arrived a half hour before my scheduled appointment time in anticipation of lines more tedious than Disneyland. After parking and walking the long trek to the building, I was faced with the first of such lines before even entering the doors. I was in a pleasant enough mood that this wasn’t too upsetting, I stood patiently watching one person after another disappear through the wooshh of an automatic sliding glass door. I imagined it similar to watching people stand at the gates of heaven or hell – no one really knew what awaited us next.

Shortly enough my time approached. The door almost closed shut on me as I tried to enter, halting my thoughts and starting more fearful questions.

“Did I bring my paperwork?”
“What am I even doing here?”
“Oh right my license renewal.”
“But what if she gets mad at me for being earlier than my appointment?”
“or for asking a stupid question?”
“What if she just gets mad at me?”
“Darn it I already did something stupid – that line over there has a sign for registration appointments”
“Oh well just stay where you are, getting out now would be more stupid.”
“I’m a friendly person, she can’t be too mean. just smile.”

After my brain had finished it’s spiral-loop-double twist I’d made it to the front of the line. Breathe. It’s just the DMV, they are just people, no reason to be intimidated.

She grumbled, “What do you need?”
“Well I have an appointment, but I’m kinda early, but I just need my license renewed,” I flubbered.
All in one breathe she responded “Here’s your number. Give me that appointment sheet. Take a seat.”

Exhaaalllleeeeee. Phew. Ok. Where do I sit? Well right there looks about right, sure ok. I found a place on the end of the row, figuring that at least gave me one side that wouldn’t be smashed against someone else. I had made it through the first line and hadn’t suffered any terrible blows yet. Now I indulged in the only bonus of having to wait – reading my book.

Consumed by the tale of Adam Trask and his haunting wife Cathy, I didn’t hear when they first called it out – “number F004?” The second time only barely rang louder in the back room of my brain – “NUMBER F004?” I fumbled for my ticket stub and paperwork, clutching my book and bag at the same time, I looked around for who could have possibly made the call. Lucky for me, the first window in front of me seemed to be empty, so I tried there first, ready to meet the real beast. It felt like reaching a final level of Zelda, I approached the boss, ready for the worst, but unsure of how to conquer it.

“Good morning! Are you F004?” He smiled with not just his face but his eyes too, filled with a brightness that was mysterious in my imagined dungeon. The Disney lanyard around his neck was dotted with pins for various causes: a light pink breast cancer ribbon, a purple one for Alzheimer’s, and a small waving American flag.

Startled as I was by the sunshine he had just splintered into my cloud fortress, I gathered myself and told him what I needed. “Well I need to renew my license, but I noticed awhile back that my  middle name is spelled wrong, though I don’t know if that matters.”

He kindly explained that it wasn’t a big deal as long as it still looked similar, really they don’t ever look at more than the first initial of the middle name because it is the first and last that matter. Plus, unless I had official documentation showing the correct spelling we couldn’t change it so I told him I was fine to just proceed with renewing the license.

As we went through the required transactions, he kept up a friendly conversation with me of genuine interest. He asked if I’d seen Prometheus, wasn’t too surprised when I explained that no I don’t really enjoy alien movies, but then proceeded to tell me how it is actually an amzing movie because it is all about keeping faith in God.

This was again surprising, because somehow I was discussing God in the DMV. Yup you read that right – religion and civil service had just crossed lines.

Soon enough I learned that he was Catholic, and not a lax one but one who has his family say the Rosary every night before bed. He went to get me change for the $34 my renewal cost, came back singing American Pie.

He tells me “That song is about God too, you know?”
Then resumes singing as he counted out my bills from the Treasury –

“And the three men I admire most-
the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost-
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died
And they were singing

Bye Bye Miss American pie…
bum buh duh dum duh da da da dum”

 
Somehow I was still a little shocked at what was happening – is this guy still smiling? I’m in the DMV right? Did he just ask me about God again?

Stuck in my head again, he woke me up by handing me the six dollars of change and my receipt of temporary license.

Before sending me on my way, he simply mused  “It’s cool how God shows up in things like that huh? Movies or music or just ordinary stuff.”

Then he jumped clouds to tell me about his upcoming family vacation to go jet skiing on the lake, and with a smile and a “Have a great day!” he wished me off.

 After getting my picture taken the next line over, I couldn’t help smiling as I left the DMV that day. It certainly wasn’t what I had prepared myself for, and somehow the surprise of joy I found in that one Catholic DMV worker was enough to keep me smiling all day. Because it is truly amazing how God can show up in things like that, the places where you don’t expect him, like Alien movies or the DMV. It wasn’t an epiphany or a huge revelation, but it was pure, unhindered joy that spreads a sunshine of hope in our lives that there is light out there in the darkness, even in the darkness of government services.

 Where have you had a moment of joy in the last week?
Have a great weekend everyone :)

Call Me CRAZY

I’ve been listening to this classic a lot lately – Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Although it brings up nostalgic memories of high school for me, that’s not why I brought it back out of the closet. Nope this time its because I want to remind myself to live a little crazy.

Does that make me crazy?

Possibly.

Has anyone every called you crazy because of something you were doing for God?

Of all the things I have done in my life, there have only been a few where I was 100% confident it was a God thing, and that’s because for everyone one of them someone told me I was crazy.

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Not of this World… but What Would Jesus Do?

“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” – John 17:14-15

I read this verse the other day as part of a daily exercise I am trying, but it made me think a lot about what this means for our relationship to the world and the culture around us.

This verse, and other similar ones, have certainly left a trail of misunderstanding in some places where some Christians decided that they can simply disengage from the rest of the world because they are not of this world. This also leads some Christians to adopt a nose-in-the-air attitude as they consider themselves above this world and superior to it. On the other hand, it has also led many to understand their responsibility to engage in this world as representatives of the kingdom of heaven.

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Define “Christian”

When I imagine someone saying the words above, I hear it in a very specific way. Someone has asked -“Are you a Christian?”

The response is a hesitation, an exhale of consideration that weighs everything a yes or no carries with it. The air hangs with a tension thicker than the smog in LA, one that makes your lungs hurt to breathe in because of fear. Fear spreads that smog through your brain, making the decision hard – what do I say?