The Brain and Christianity

Forgive me if I ramble.

But this is literally going to be me processing my week….which has been filled with a lot of trauma and substance abuse. (Just so it’s clear…neither of those things happened to me personally, I just happened to hear extremely traumatic stories from students and took a weekend long substance abuse and addiction course.)

On that note…my brain is about to explode.

Not only did I hear about some extreme trauma that a child went through (and is still going through), but then I learned about how these horrific things impact the brain…and potentially set the stage for addictive behaviors in later life. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little discouraged about people…well…humanity.

This world is so weird.

We hurt each other…a lot.

There is abuse, violence, neglect..and just sheer evil.

And it’s not like these things are outside of us. We are the ones performing evil actions towards others and severely damaging others in ways that will impact them for the rest of their lives.

And it’s real people that are doing these actions.

People that were once innocent children and babies.

But it makes sense when you hear their story.

Children don’t grow up dreaming of being addicts, criminals, abusers, or anything terrible and evil.

Children just don’t aspire to be those things….

It was extremely interesting to learn about the predictors of addictive behavior in my weekend class.

My mind was challenged in so many ways.

Research has shown us that there is a HUGE relationship between childhood adverse experiences and later addictive behaviors in life (Felitti, 2004).

And I continued to learn that up until the age of 3-5, the brain is  in a very critical period of development.

Literally…the brain is “hardwiring” itself to survive. And it specifically hardwires itself to best survive in the environment it is placed in…with “emotion” regulation being the first network created.

So…if an infant is in a neglectful environment and does not receive physical touch or expressions of security, love, affection, nurturance, or any sort of consistency…the brain will not make any connections or networks that can understand what any of those things mean.

An infant in a dangerous and abusive environment will network itself to be hyper-vigilant and anxious and nervous because that’s what the infant has to do to survive. It has to be constantly aware of danger or anything that could be threatening.

So…(huge summarization of soooo much more that I learned) children are incredible and their brains literally program themselves to survive in their particular environment. But…if their environment is not loving or nurturing, they literally do not form those brain “experiences” and connections because the brain is just a sponge that takes in what it is taught…and more importantly does not take in what it is not taught.

Now…I find it unbelievably interesting that the very first “brain networks” that are formed during the critical period (0-3 years) are the “emotions networks”.

Emotional experiences are babies’ first real experiences and they form the strongest network. Unfortunately, that critical time for forming this network is cut off before the age of 5.

So, all the love (or lack of love) a baby receives in the first couple years of life pretty much establishes their entire emotion network and way of processing and understanding emotions.

So you can see how this poses a problem for the babies who may be neglected or abused or mistreated.

Their brain is hardwired to be continually sad, anxious, timid, nervous, fearful, hyper-vigilant, distrusting, and a whole host of very painful emotions.

And this is their emotional network that they live in…and it is the strongest network because it was the first one formed. Once the critical period of developing this network is over (before the age of 5) it is extremely hard to change that without very intense, consistent, and intentional emotional experiences that can compete with that first network created.

And so then…this emotional turmoil causes a huge amount of pain and suffering in life.

I mentioned that I thought it was very interesting that our “emotion network” forms first…before any of the more “advanced/intellectual” networks speech or spatial awareness, etc.

And..the “emotion network” is also one of the strongest networks in our brain, impacting soooo many things that we do.

Well…maybe I’m crazy, but I think this is a sign for those of us Christians out there.

So, as a Catholic I have been taught a lot about “Theology of the Body” which ultimately states that we are made in the image and likeness of God, so therefore something about our bodies (biology) says something about our purpose, our nature or “essence”, and about God.

So…if the brain specifically develops “emotions” FIRST….before forming more advanced and “intellectual” abilities….

Then maybe it follows that we come to understand God based on our “emotional experiences” BEFORE our intellectual understanding of the reasoning or doctrine behind God.

So…if we did not receive proper emotional experiences (such as real, raw, authentic, genuine, unconditional love), then we are going to have a hell of time intellectually grasping God as those things.

Because let’s face it….we are emotional beings.

If we acted out of pure reason….we would live in a perfect world.

Because reasonable people don’t hurt others, they wouldn’t sin…they would think things through and behave in reasonable ways.

But we aren’t reasonable. 

We are a very strange combination of rapidly changing emotions, physical drives, and some occasional intelligent thoughts sprinkled throughout.

And I would argue…about 99.9% of the time we do something harmful or stupid it’s because we are not using logic or reason, but we are doing it to change our emotional state from being uncomfortable (whether it’s sad, anxious, angry, etc.) to comfortable (whether it’s happy, excited,  relieved, etc.)

So there is something to be said about the importance of emotions.

I have often heard in the Church that we should discount emotions…they change too much and they are unreliable.

But…they are also the most powerful network in our brain.

So…I think (this is pure speculation) that God designed us that way to tell us that the emotional level of love we receive is the most powerful and the most crucial and most important connection that we can make.

And I’m not talking about lovey dovey, butterflies, and skipping around type of love.

I’m talking about the real, raw, vulnerable, unconditional love.

The love that forgives.

The love that creates new life.

The love that heals.

The love that sacrifices without expecting anything in return.

The love that lays down it’s life.

The love that gets spat on, and whipped endlessly, and tortured, and humiliated, and nailed to piece of wood to be laughed at.

The love that conquers death.

The bloody love…as I like to call it.

This is where it is at. This is how lives are changed…this is the foundation for everything else….just like it is in the brain.

We can’t be successful at explaining something like God at an intellectual or logical level if the truth of human experience in love is not there….no better can we explain to a person who has endured such turmoil and suffering in life that they should just stop abusing drugs because it “doesn’t make sense”.

Now I hope after reading this you don’t think I’m trying to minimize the importance of intellectual conversation about faith and reason and doctrine…because that is certainly not the case.

I am simply saying we should not minimize the power of the emotional experience.

Because the loved and nurtured babies who created emotional networks that “felt” love and care will still go on to experience things like sadness and anxiety and fear, etc. But because they had a “loving” emotional network created, they can then handle and cope with the uncomfortable feelings in much healthier ways and aren’t driven to destructive behaviors that others do who did not create loving emotional networks.

So…those who have experienced a Christ-like love are better prepared to deal with the uncomfortable emotions and can move past emotion and start talking about theology and philosophy and doctrine.

But for the rest of those out there that are hurting and suffering without that “emotional” groundwork rooted in love…we need to remember to simply love.

It’s the most powerful connection that is made.

Don’t ignore it.

“Truth without love is empty” -Pope Benedict XVI


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