Neuroscience and Jesus

This is my dog, Hobbes. And he barks.

A lot.

A car goes by. My dog barks. A neighbor walks past our house. My dog barks. The mailman drives past. My dog (cliché that he is) barks. And heaven help the little Girl Scout who rings the doorbell. The only threat she poses is to my wallet, and I am convinced that if dogs could understand the joy of chocolate, Hobbes would stand on his hind legs, put on a pair of reading glasses, and write her a check himself for a truckload of Thin Mints and Peanut Butter Patties.

But instead, he barks. Why? Because somewhere deep within Hobbes’ dog brain he has created an emotional truth for himself that is comprised of two parts: 1) all strangers are dangerous and 2) barking keeps the dangerous people away from his family. It may not be rational. Or true. But to Hobbes, it feels true.  In other words, Hobbes’ barking is not the problem at all. It is merely the best way that his brain has come up with to cope with the anxiety that his family will be hurt.

If any of this sounds familiar, perhaps it is because we humans also operate in an eerily similar way. For example, suppose that our hypothetical Girl Scout (let’s call her Sarah) came to my door and Hobbes not only barked at her but he also got out of the house and bit her. After all the crying, stitches, and pain had passed, Sarah may develop a belief that all dogs are dangerous. Just seeing a dog, or hearing one bark, may cause her to feel anxious or have a panic attack. This is annoying, but she soon discovers that she can moderate her anxiety if she avoids dogs. This technique works well throughout her childhood; however, in her teen years Sarah’s anxiety escalates after a distracted driver runs a stop sign and hits her car. Although she is not seriously injured, she begins to have difficulty sleeping. Nightmares replay the accident daily for her, making her terrified to sleep, and each day her mind refuses to shut off as it constantly reviews every possible threat. What she once believed only about dogs has now become a generalization about life, and since avoidance worked so well in the past, she distracts herself from worrying by focusing on school and household chores. This leads to an immaculate report card and a pristine room, but it also helps Sarah realize that she feels safer and more at peace when her world is in order and structured. Rigid routines, performed in a specific sequence and with an even number of steps, calm her, but over time they become more of the rule than the exception. The adults in her life affirm her for her “maturity” and “responsibility” and “leadership qualities.” The need to oversee situations and group decisions causes her friends to label her as “controlling” and “bossy.” But nobody knows, except for Sarah, that she is a compressed cork within a champagne bottle and only a thin wire cage wrapped around her head keeps her in place.

Some might say that Sarah is Type A, but this is an oversimplification. Her ambition and drive and controlling nature are the direct result of what Sarah has learned about a) how the world works and b) how to keep herself safe in it. As with Hobbes, Sarah’s behaviors may not be rational. Or true. But it feels true to her. This is why psychologists call such learnings “emotional truths.”

Emotional truths are a type of “knowledge” that resides outside of conscious awareness. They are often created during experiences involving strong emotion and are then abstracted to create patterns or models in one’s mind about how the world works.  Emotional knowledge is stored in a different place in the brain than autobiographical knowledge, but it responds to our current experiences via strong behaviors, emotions, and thoughts, such as depression, rage, shame, fear, etc. For example, Sarah’s memories of the dogs and the car wreck were not altered but the way she responded to these events was through anxiety and an intense need to know that every variable in her life is accounted for. This does not mean that Sarah is crazy. It just means that her obsessive/compulsive nature is the best solution that the emotional part of her brain can come up with to cope with the autobiographical memories that haunt her.

For most of the 20th century neuroscientists believed that these emotional learnings were permanently embedded in the brain and could only be helped with therapies that provided ways to counteract them, such as relaxation techniques, positive thinking, or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). But in the 1990s and early 2000s scientists learned that the brain is more plastic than originally thought and that these old emotional truths for people were not only open to change but could also be erased (or revised) altogether.

This process is called “memory reconsolidation” and is accomplished through a 3-step process that: 1) reactivates or re-evokes the old emotional learning 2) concurrently creates an experience that significantly contradicts the old learning’s model and expectations of how the world functions, thereby unlocking synapses and making the brain susceptible to being “updated” and 3) Erasing or revising via new learnings that become the new emotional truth for the individual. This last step occurs during a five-hour window before the synapses relock and must be both experiential and emotionally true to the individual. What this means for our hypothetical friend, Sarah, is that she no longer has to believe that the world as so unpredictable and dangerous that she must counteract every possible danger by controlling every possible variable. Now there is a way that she can retain her memories of the situations that occurred while rewriting her emotional interpretations (both intellectually and viscerally) so that she can be free of the OCD symptoms.

To be clear this is not the same thing as false memory implantation, which can occur under hypnosis. First, memory reconsolidation does not induce a state of consciousness wherein the client responds only to the power of suggestion. Second, false memories are autobiographical in nature and memory reconsolidation does not tamper with these types of memories. Rather, it targets emotional memories that have created beliefs/predictions about how the world works. And finally, it is all based off experiences and the power that experiences have on helping us learn new truths or revise old ones. To clarify, false memory implantation would make our Girl Scout, Sarah, remember breaking her leg as a child, even though that did not happen to her. Memory reconsolidation, though, would help her revise her emotional belief that life must be controlled and rigidly structured for her to remain safe in the world, without altering any of the autobiographical memories that formed this belief.

What’s God Got to Do With It?

As a therapist, the discovery of memory reconsolidation is exciting on a treatment level, for it offers my clients a hopeful approach to overcoming issues that have plagued them for years. But it is also enlightening for me as a Christian, for it helps me move from an understanding of what God does for us and possibly explains how!

Unless you haven’t been paying attention over the last 2000 years, the Christian story revolves around the idea of resurrection, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense. Without the passing from death to life, without the old creation passing away and the new coming to fill us, there is no hope. There is only a one note symphony that crescendos and then fades into silence.

But God gives us hope by not only providing rules to pattern our lives around but also a person who was willing to take the punishment for our sins so that we may live a new story. We no longer have to be confined to the broken, hurting, despairing life that ends only in death. We can now live in peace, triumph, and healing, despite our external situations. Now, we understand life through a new lens and predict its operations through a new paradigm. We are like a seed that has died within the soil and finally found new life above the earth to be full of color and rain and sun and wind. And the deeper we sink  our roots into the reality of our death, the higher we grow within our new life.

But the question remains: HOW does God do this?

The answer is most clearly stated in Ezekiel 36:25-27 where God makes a bold promise for His children in the future. He says:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

In other words, God takes an active role to do for us what we could never have done for ourselves. He intersects our lives to provide us with a new heart and a new spirit. And although this is done on a supernatural level, He also recodes the mind.

In Hebrews 8:10, He says:

I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.

Through the science of memory reconsolidation, God encodes new learnings within the mind and heart by having us encounter a unique, emotional experience that juxtaposes a novel understanding of our condition and His sovereignty against a lifetime of clouded, sinful thinking (in layman’s terms we call this experience “conviction”). He shows us what life could be like if we will only die to ourselves and follow Him.

There is a hangtime within this process where we must choose to either accept or reject these new truths. In memory reconsolidation, this is the moment of that five-hour window where revisions are made to old learnings. But once the synapses have relocked, the new truths become permanent, effecting the necessary change on the neurological level to match what God has done for us on the spiritual (this is the moment of conversion). And, it is my opinion, that he continually repeats this process throughout our life, perfecting each of us at a pace and in a manner that is tailored to our form. The Bible calls this continuing perfecting process “sanctification.”

But God does not approach us only as intellects. Each time He comes to us it is on a visceral level, offering new knowledge, new hope, and a new life because God understands that experience reinforces belief.

Like any learning, the mindset of the Christian life is a fragile thing, susceptible to revision or erasure. If we only accumulate knowledge about God but don’t practice it, our experiences with the world will call into question the truth we have learned from scripture. We will feel as if we have believed the world is flat only to have an experience that directly contradicts what we have held true for so long. At this point, we must either a) amend our belief b) embrace a delusion c) rationalize our belief or d) find an equally powerful experience that confirms our original belief. For although there may exist a plethora of possible truths about an issue, there is only enough room in our souls for one to stand on top of the hill. While belief confirms a truth through the intellect and the spirit, experience reinforces truth by confirming it through the emotions and the body. Therefore, scripture provides instruction and encouragement on how to live so that we continually experience the revolutionary effects of Christ in our life. Without the continual, unique experience of God’s activity in our life, our belief is incomplete, as solid as wet paper. God does not want us to be like mailboxes that only receive His letters. He wants us to be letter-carriers, interacting with the world and delivering the truth, both in word and in deed. But we cannot do the latter if we are not continually experiencing Him and being changed at a synaptic level.

For this reason, the Bible calls us to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:22-24); to “have the same mindset of Christ Jesus” (Php. 2:5); and to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Rom. 12:2)

From this point of view, then, God’s instructions in scripture no longer become burdensome to us, an overwhelming list of do’s and don’ts. Instead, they become a continual call to adventure with Him. An invitation to walk the hero’s journey with a wise master who knows where the pitfalls lay and how to avoid them. It is a life filled with protecting our minds so that our experiences reinforce His truth. In this way both Hebrews 8:10 (I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts) and Colossians 3:2 (Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth) can simultaneously be true. It is not an either/or process. It is a both/and dynamic. We present our bodies as a living sacrifice. We refuse to be conformed to this world because He put His law into our minds and wrote them on our hearts. And we continue to do this because He continues to reveal Himself to us. This is why Jesus only tells us to follow Him. But what He does not ask us to do is to lead. That is up to Him. He will do the convicting, the converting, and the sanctifying. All we have to do is follow.  Follow Him in our heart. Follow Him in our soul. Follow Him in our strength. And follow Him in our mind.

Memory reconsolidation. A breakthrough in psychology but an insight into Christianity.


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