All posts by Rich Lopez

The Human Will: Shackled and Redeemed

We often do not pay much mind to our habits, especially innocuous ones like brushing teeth or checking the weather before deciding what to wear. Habits entail those behaviors that have become relatively automatized, so they can be executed with ease and efficiency. Cognitive resources in turn become freed up and can be devoted to more effortful, deliberate thinking. But here’s a disquieting thought: in reality, a wider swath of our behaviors, which should otherwise be subject to deliberation and possible revision, tends to land on the habitual side of this automatic/controlled spectrum—if we’re honest with ourselves.

Think about the last time you or someone you know started gossiping about others, almost effortlessly. Or, think of someone quickly launching into an unchecked, villifying tirade or tantrum. Indeed, we seem to be too good at falling into habitual patterns of thought and action. Sayings in English reflect some awareness of this fact. When attempting to account for erratic or harmful behavior, we’ll say things like, “S/he just couldn’t help it.”

This comes to a head in the case of more severe addictive and compulsive behaviors. Those who suffer from drug or alcohol dependence, as specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), will openly acknowledge the destructive effects of their addiction, but also claim it’s incredibly difficult to inhibit their drug-seeking behaviors. In the past decade or so, research in psychology and neuroscience has begun to shed light on the neural bases for these powerful and seemingly inescapable compulsions. The brain’s reward system, which usually promotes healthy and adaptive reward-seeking behaviors (e.g., acquiring food and drink, selecting a mate), effectively gets hijacked when drugs take on affective and motivational value. Then, the perfect storm of sensitization (i.e., a lower threshold of activation when a drug cue is present) and tolerance (i.e., diminished responses to the drug after repeated exposure and intake) occurs, severely compromising one’s ability to resist the impulse to seek out the drug.

In discussing the topic of drug addiction here, I hope to illuminate a wider issue about the will and nature of the human heart. That is, the reality of sin has penetrated even into our neurochemistry, such that our God-given capacity to freely decide between different courses of action becomes constrained and sometimes threatened altogether. Now, a captive will does not mean it is no longer free. But, this dire example screams of the need for an all-encompassing change whereby the human heart is renewed and no longer prone to destructive, compulsive ruts of thought and behavior. Although a very learned man and righteous in the eyes of many, St. Paul saw this need in himself when he was writing to the Roman church: “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Later in the same letter, he admonishes his audience to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2).

How is this transformation possible, especially given the unshakeable nature of habits and addiction? In Jesus Christ, we are entirely new creatures, with re-fashioned hearts that enable us to freely love God and others. God, speaking through prophet Ezekiel, made the following radical promise that finds its consummation in Christ:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God (36:26-28).

The human will is indeed fragile and fickle, but the hope of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ freely and willfully chose the brutality of the Cross, so that our wills and capacities could be redeemed and re-purposed in such a way that we can freely respond to the amazing love of God in Christ.

Separation and Cosmic Love in the Tesseract

When you love someone, whether that someone is a child, parent, friend, or spouse, suffering will sometimes come in spurts, other times all at once, but it is a raw, inevitable reality. And needless to say, an obvious cause for suffering is explicit harm that hurts the lover or the beloved. I do not make light of that kind of suffering, especially when patterns of abuse and co-dependence trap two people in a stasis that only the grace, love, and forgiveness of God can break. However, and in my 27 short years that I’ve walked this beautiful, broken world, I am led to believe that separation from one’s beloved is a much deeper suffering—often plunging both the lover and beloved into a pit of despair and irresolution.

Yet, the Judeo-Christian story should at least give us pause and ideally a living hope on which we can stand and from which we can stare brokenness and separation in the face and shout, “You will not have the last word; this is not the end!” Across the pages of Scripture, an epic drama unfolds in which we encounter a loving Creator God who relentlessly pursues His beloved to minimize the cosmic separation created by the beloved’s chronic unfaithfulness—ultimately at the cost of Himself being beaten and brutally executed on a Roman cross. That first Good Friday was anything but good, for the very Tri-unity of God was cosmically and violently ripped, with the Father and the Son experiencing a harsh separation infinitely more intense than we can ever fathom.

With this in mind, I cannot help but think that God cannot and will not sit idly by as the separation between Himself (lover) and fallen humanity (beloved) dis-integrates into chaos, apparently sealed by the finality of death. With God Himself being a relation of three Persons, any ruptures in the relationality of the Universe must go against His very nature and His intentions for this Universe to reflect the inherent relational nature of his being. So, what is God’s answer to reconciling humanity to Himself and people to one another?

Love.

Specifically, the incarnate love in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Gospel accounts there are events and utterances that repeatedly shock us with the radical, inclusive love of God that Jesus embodied. But you’d be hard pressed to find a more illustrative example of love than Jesus’s reaction to the death of Lazarus. It was haunting, beautiful, and so…human:

“….Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her sobbing and the others with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?”

“Master, come and see,” they said.

Jesus wept. [And they] said, “Look how deeply he loved him.”

-The Gospel of St. John

The combined anger and heart-rending pain Jesus expresses here is not only a signal of how much He loved Lazarus, but also of how much this death-induced separation is an affront to the Ever Living God, in whom every creature lives, moves and has being. We know that despite the grief and loss that was keenly felt by Lazarus’s family, friends, and Jesus Himself, that is not the end of the story. Christ, in the privileged position of having both human and divine natures, was and is not limited by the patterns and constraints of biological and physical laws, to which any other human being must accept and succumb. Fueled by his deep love for Lazarus and the goodness of life, Jesus resurrects him from the cold, lifeless abyss of death. This kind of love has true power, power to effect changes in our spatio-temporal realm because it points to the God of Love, who, in and through Jesus “upholds the Universe with the word of His power” (Hebrews 1:3).

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Where else do we see this kind of love that is cosmic in scope, yet so real and palpable as once-dead human flesh that has been revitalized and restored? Funnily, I think we get a picture of it in Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. Nolan paints a not-so-distant, future earth where most natural resources have been exhausted and the surviving humans lead a frugal, fearful existence marked by a “just get by” mentality. Humanity’s days are numbered, at least on earth. The protagonist, Cooper, along with a team of scientists leave our solar system to probe the feasibility of colonizing other worlds. Their precise mission is incredibly daunting: after a two-year journey from earth to Saturn, a wormhole will take them to a distant star system where there are several candidate planets. One catch is these planets are proximal to a dying neutron star that is being consumed by a black hole. This black hole distorts the surrounding space-time, creating intense time dilation effects. In turn, Cooper and the rest of the crew will not age as quickly (normally) as everyone else on earth.

Cooper is depicted as a devoted, loving father who holds out a promise to his daughter (Murph) that seems awfully difficult to keep: that he will survive this epic, intergalactic journey and return to her. Of course, he’s probably consumed with great fear and doubt as he faces potential eternal separation from his daughter, should the mission face any setbacks or mishaps. When her father makes this promise, Murph protests fiercely. She is enraged and feels that her father is abandoning her.

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Although the movie is visually stunning and sets a new bar in the space science fiction genre, Nolan uses human elements as the engine to drive the plot forward. In doing so he asks the audience two key questions: (1) What if human beings, in their current state, are limited by their experience of four dimensions (3 space, 1 time), and are maybe meant to experience and pass through others? (cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12); and (2) What if love is the mechanism by which we may be able to access and ascend to higher dimensions?

In an incredibly trippy but nonetheless poignant scene in the film, Cooper finds himself in an awe-inspiring three-dimensional structure called the tesseract, which affords him the ability to perceive time as just another spatial dimension. The confines of the tesseract are tantalizingly transparent and reveal Murph in her bedroom at a multitude of time points. Just like Jesus outside the tomb of Lazarus, Cooper is angry because he is separated from his beloved daughter and wants nothing else but to be with her again. Also like Jesus, Cooper is in the privileged position to access multiple dimensions of reality to which humans aren’t otherwise privy. In a final desperate act, he attempts to reach her by shrieking her name and pounding at the edge of the tesseract, which in Murph’s room is the back of her bookshelf. He is able to successfully manipulate the gravity in the room to communicate with her, and she realizes that it is not a gravitational anomaly but her father reaching out to her from another realm. By the end of the film, we learn that the love between a father and a child has saved the human race.

Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. 13 But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

-St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians

Love is where we came from. And love is where we are going. When we live in love, we will not be afraid to die. We have built a bridge between worlds.

-Fr. Richard Rohr

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.