A Gospel Lens on the Brain

Greetings GWBlog readers! It’s a blessing and privilege to be able to contribute to this blog. I’m excited to share various musings and reflections with you, and I welcome any combination of questions, comments, and challenges in response to what I write here.

Now, a little bit about what I’m all about. I currently live in the verdant wilderness of the Upper Connecticut River Valley, where I am doing graduate work in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth. The field of cognitive neuroscience implements tools of modern brain imaging (e.g., functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI) to understand how the brain gives rise to our thought processes and behavior. The daily grind of my work is made up of a smattering of tasks, among which include: designing and running behavioral and fMRI studies, conducting statistical analyses on data sets to measure the direction and magnitude of effects of interest, and, if those effects are noteworthy and interesting, writing up and/or presenting them at conferences and professional meetings.

These tasks may seem stale and academic, and no doubt they can be at times. But thankfully, boredom or complacency never sets in, for I have a portal through which I’m able see my vocation in brilliant arrays of color—not unlike the refractory effects of light hitting and fanning out from a prism. This portal is my Christian faith, and it has provided a robust interpretive grid that helps me make sense of what I learn about the workings of the human brain and how it impacts behavior. The scientific method, at its core, equips human beings with vital information about the systematic regularities and laws of the universe, the “how’s” of reality if you will. It is always up to scientists to interpret and integrate new information with what is already known, and no matter which worldview a scientist explicitly (or implicitly) subscribes to, he or she will bring assumptions and biases to the task of interpreting data. So for me, my Christian worldview necessarily affects how I conduct my science, but first and foremost it requires that I approach it with competence and vigor, carefully probing the truth (inasmuch as we can perceive and measure it), and following it where it takes me (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21; Philippians 4:8).

So,  how does neuroscience inform and unpack the Christian narrative (and vice versa)? I hope to tackle this question in future blog posts. To give you a taste of what is to come, here are some overarching categories with brief teasers:

  • The interface between the spiritual realm and our physical, fleshly existence – namely, how the human brain is a mysterious and awe-inspiring example of that interface. I hope to argue that this interface is a point of contact between multiple levels and dimensions of reality. Like the 2D shapes in Edwin Abbott’s Flatland unsure of what to make of a strange-behaving circle whose diameter constantly changes, we humans are tasked with understanding how the non-physical realm bumps against the physical and acts upon the biochemical processes of the brain.
  • The implications of brain functioning on human conscious will and freedom – For this topic I wish to consider the findings coming out of drug addiction research that reveal how many of our behaviors are prone to become compulsive and automatized, and how this seems to be a general principle impacting how we think and behave. I believe the Christian narrative in this case can account for why this is true, as well as offer real hope for undoing and disarming this susceptibility.
  • The importance of matter – God deeply cares for the physical universe that He created and redeemed in and through Christ. If we are to take the historical (physical) reality of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection seriously, then it necessarily follows that “matter matters” to God, full stop. And of course that includes the 3-pound hunk of grey and white matter that’s abuzz with electrochemical activity as you read this sentence. We would do well to realize that we will have brains in the New Heavens and New Earth, but they will be gloriously refashioned to experience the full reality of eternal, intimate relationship with God and others.

I hope I’m not the only one in the room who gets giddy thinking about these topics. Whether you share my giddiness or not, I hope you’ll consider my perspective and indulge me as I take us on a wild ride across the landscape of our fearfully and wonderfully made brains.

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One thought on “A Gospel Lens on the Brain”

  1. I enjoyed this post and look forward to more! I’m a Christian beginning a neuroscience PhD program this fall, so I definitely look forward to expanding my thinking on these topics and discovering resources and connections with other Christians in neuroscience.

    Blessings,
    Dan

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