Does the Brain Reign?

T.J. Dawes, over at, referred to a book in a recent post, A Mind Of Its Own:How the Brain Distorts and Deceives, by Cordelia Fine. Intrigued, I downloaded it to my Kindle, and read it during a ridiculously wet holiday in Kauai. Despite her breezy and humorous style, Dr. Cordelia Fine, a cognitive psychologist, referred to experiment after experiment that collectively painted a rather unflattering portrait of the human condition. St. Augustine could well have used her research findings to substantiate his doctrine of original sin.

Please don’t let the following brief chapter summary dissuade you from reading this remarkable book, but I do want to convey this strange and unexpected agreement between conservative Christianity and cognitive psychology.

Chapter 1, The Vain Brain, in which we discover that we distort reality habitually to cast ourselves in the best possible light, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Chapter 2, The Emotional Brain, in which we discover that even though we’d like to imagine otherwise, it’s our emotions and not our thoughts that determine our actions. A thought is nothing but a state of arousal attached to an experience that our brain indiscriminately selects from its vast store of experience, typically resulting in a story that has nothing to do with the actual source of our thought.

Chapter 3, The Immoral Brain, in which we discover that our moral character is paper-thin. Theological students, who have just finished waxing eloquent on the parable of the Good Samaritan, have no problem breezing right past a stranger in obvious distress to stay on task. Afterward, they have no problem rationalizing their behavior.

Chapter 4, The Deluded Brain, in which we discover that the difference between psychotic delusion, and your average run-of-the-mill delusion that runs the lives of “normal” human beings is one of degree, and not kind.








Chapter 5, The Pigheaded Brain, in which we discover that once we make up our minds, we will hold fiercely and irrationally to our version of reality despite mountains of contrary evidence. Apparently, close to one-half of American citizens believe that Iraq is still concealing weapons of mass destruction.




Chapter 6. The Secretive Brain, in which we discover that the unconscious is in charge, and sees no good reason to let the conscious mind in on its secret motivations. Even the existence of what we call “free will” is dubious.

Chapter 7, The Weak-Willed Brain, in which we discover that will power is like a muscle. The good news is that we can take it to boot camp and strengthen it. The bad news is that once we exhaust it, say by eating a single Pringle, when the full cylinder remains open taunting us to indulge our appetite, the will is useless for other tasks—like being polite to your mother-in-law.






Chapter 8, The Bigoted Brain, in which we discover that we are hopelessly bigoted because of something brain researchers call schemas. This just means that everything that we’ve ever known about a subject gets clustered in the same neuronal bed. When a theme like “a black man” is mentioned, the whole neuronal bed is awakened, including every stereotype we’ve ever internalized. New York police officers, and black men alike, are more likely to mistake a black man holding a cell phone for a gun and fire their experimental weapon, than they are for a white man holding the same cell phone.

9. And finally, the epilogue The Vulnerable Brain, offers faint hope. The brain itself is vulnerable to our management. This is a short chapter, which I have to say, felt a bit like a half-hearted effort that the author’s publisher forced her to add. “You cannot leave the reader this depressed!”

The author of Ephesians comes to basically the same conclusion about the human condition, without the benefit of very clever experiments. By nature we are “children of wrath” having given in to the desires of the flesh and the senses (Ephesian 2:1-10). Dr. Fine counsels us to “rise loftily above ourselves”, but how? Our deceitful, weak-willed brains? Can a kingdom divided against itself stand? On the other hand, the author of Ephesians believes that G_d makes us whole and lifts us up to be seated with Christ in high places (2:9-10). Or in the words that the author of John’s gospel, there is an intelligence and love at work in the universe with which we may align ourselves with/surrender to and be born again, from above.

 The biblical writer did not have the benefit of evolutionary science, but what Dr. Fine is saying is  that our brains are pre-programmed by three billions years of animal life, and 200,000 years of  human life, for survival. Essentially, we are that unconscious urge to survival wearing a human  body. But evolutionary spirituality  (and Christianity) makes the claim that another sacred  impulse, born of a sacred Heart and  Mind, is hidden with these early instincts for sex, security,    status, and sustenance. We have a  small “d” desire, and an capital “D” desire, that latter a  yearning to become unified with the  Heart and Mind out of which a universe is born and is  evolving. This Desire is an impulse to  transcend (yet include) our instinctual nature. This  doesn’t exempt Christians from the desires of  the flesh, nor does it mean that these desires are  bad. But they can wreak havoc if we’re unconscious of them.

But it is critical at this juncture is human history that we begin to create a future on the  foundations of something other than our survival instincts. All of our existing systems, (money,  food, energy, and psychological) are based in fear and insecurity. We urgently need to update our  operating system. That’s right, our brains do not really have an executive function. They are programmed, and it’s up to us now to consciously program them according to the operating system of Love.

This requires disciplined spiritual practice, as a response to divine grace, so that we may be lifted up “where we belong” in the words of the Joe Cocker song. This is truly our divine inheritance. The future of our planet depends on this ascension.


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  1. Interesting post, Bruce. What it triggered in my brain was the linkage between evolutionary consciousness and social justice.

    When people are 100% involved with survival they have no time to reflect on the possibilities of creativity and community (human, Earth and Universe). The Evolutionary Consciousness movement is filled with people like me – white, privileged and seeking. How do we get EVERYONE on the planet to have the opportunity to move beyond their genetic survival instincts? The same way we got here – by having a safe, nurturing womb in which to grow and evolve.

    I weep for the young Mozarts and Einsteins who today are drinking water out of a dirty ditch or working in an unsafe sweatshop.

    Only a few million of the seven billion people on the planet today are allowed the luxury of contemplating their Desire rather than struggling to meet their basic desires and needs.

    Sorry for the tangent, but I think Dr. Fine is quite right to “depress” us with the reality of the human condition and not delude us with airy fairy dreams of the privileged few.

    Please don’t take this the wrong way – I LOVE just about everything you do and the Evolutionary Consciousness movement but how do we make this a movement which embraces all? Lenin promised people “Peace, Land and Bread”. Today, that promise has more appeal for the majority of people than getting in touch with their Great Self. If the Little Self starves, the Great Self disappears…

    PS Loved the Living Bridge video – inspiring – no concrete and steel!

    • Just a followup to my initial ramble…

      The “solution” to moving beyond a life controlled by our genetic survival needs is NOT solely material. Our Western Industrial Military Economy is these primal desires writ large on an entire planet. Please don’t misconstrue my initial post as implying that if the rest of the world became “just like us” that that would solve anything.

      The “rich” Western world is far more to blame for encouraging people to indulge their selfish desires than any other part of the world.

      The folks who built the Living Bridge (in your video link) have much more to teach us about getting in touch with Desire (versus desire) than Wall Street or Bay Street.

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      Thanks Don,
      Really important stuff that you are saying. Because we do have a bit of dividend in the West, where we could be more free from functioning from these earliest evolutionary instincts, we have a responsibility on behalf of the whole to do the kind of justice work and consciousness transformation that you are describing. Evolutionary, in my mind, encompasses our systems as well, not just consciousness itself. I’d rather shift from the paradigm of “seeking Self/God” to spiritual practice, that encompasses social justice. Great post on beams and struts by Terry Patten, who challenges the integral community to get their hands dirty.

  2. Hi Bruce – this Question is the one burning in me these days. How can we spiritual people, conscious evolutionists, make integrated sense out of the lessons of spirit and the lessons of science?

    I’ve been running a book club playfully titled “Neuroscience for the Overly Spiritual,” in which we force ourselves to read books like the one you’ve reviewed here. (Reading reductionists and materialists, without dismissing them out of hand, is a great challenge!) It’s a corrective function for the massive UL bias that we seekers have. If science has found that there are only 4 neurons dedicated to the conscious mind (I exaggerate), and that there’s no free will (no exaggeration there), then how can we find authenticity, passion, and transformation? Who is being authentic, and to what? What is transforming, and where did the urge to transform really come from? Can we answer these questions deeply, without resorting to platitudes or incomplete answers?

    It does seem that science is providing a worthwhile counterweight, one that can shift the direction of our spiritual pursuits in important ways. The coming decade will be a most interesting time for this integration.

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      Thanks Jeff,

      I have a great deal of respect for your passionate engagement with these questions that are emerging through neuroscience. I hope you didn’t experience me as offering platitudes. I tried to represent Dr. Fine accurately, if somewhat playfully. And accepted her basic premise that we are evolutionary wired for deception. I found an interesting correlation with the traditional doctrine of sin, which, in one interpretation is ignorance.

      • Haha no, I wasn’t saying you were offering platitudes; I was just riffing on the challenging nature of the issue. It’s nearly impossible to honor ALL of the data (internal and external) and make integrated sense of it. Many of the spiritual people I know will say things like, “I prefer the Buddha’s interpretation of consciousness, it’s all upper-left. I don’t need scientists to tell me about it. Those guys are cold-hearted shmucks anyways.”

        I consider that an extremist ideology, albeit a fairly common one. It just points to how difficult it is for us humans to embrace complexity (let alone paradox).

        • Bruce Sanguin says:

          I’m with ya’ on that. Hey, have you read The Master and His Emissary? If so, what’s your take? He acknowledges how hemispheric bilateralization has been grossly misinterpreted in popular culture, and yet in fear and trembling, he interprets history though this lens.

  3. Carol A. says:

    The book sounds interesting. I’m wondering if she gives examples of the studies done in order to come to these conclusions.

  4. helen goodall says:

    Thanks again, Bruce, for keeping my mind active and thinking. I’ve just brought my husband home from a Day Out program for people with dementias. It’s surprising that these folks with limited brain-ability, and their wonderful workers still manage to cast an aura of loving-kindness in their space.
    I was very glad to read your last paragraph where you finally got around to the most important thing.

  5. Gail Tricebock says:

    Thank you, Bruce, for your ongoing insights. I am a layperson who is asked occasionally to fill in when our minister is away. May I use sections of your posts (either transposed or quoted directly) to introduce our congregation to evolutionary christianity. I – of course – not only credit my sources during my reflections but also include references in our bulletin. I would also – most likely – use some of Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos, with your permission.
    Also, somewhere along the line, I missed your lexicon change to your use of “G_d.” What is the significance, or the meaning, of that?
    In Peace:Ubuntu,

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      Hi Gail,

      Yes, it’s all in the noosphere. So use what ever is helpful. The G_d gesture is a tip of that hat to our Jewish brothers and sisters, who count it as hubris to say or spell the name of God—as though we have any clue about the Great and Wondrous Mystery/Heart we are referring to. So, it’s a gesture of devotion and humility. How is that we can know that unknowable One? One of the ways is through acknowledging our unknowing, and resting in the grace of it all.

      Thanks for taking the time to reply.

  6. Hi Bruce,
    Gotta weigh in here. Are you familiar with Dan Siegel’s work (The Mindful Brain, Mindsight, plus many others). He’s a neuroscientist, psychiatrist and psychotherapist, whose work originally was on the impact of secure/insecure attachment between moms and babes on the development of the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain, right behind the forehead is in charge of 9 functions, including emotional regulation, fear modulation, empathy, morality, etc. He has gone on to research the changes in the prefrontal cortex via mindfulness meditation practice and what he has found, is that folks who become skilled at mindfulness change their brains to begin looking like and functioning like those folks who were raised with secure attachment figures. What I find hopeful about Dan’s work is that we can change our brains by intentional practices, by developing secure relationships with people (and I think with God). So, when I’m working with myself and with my clients, I feel like I’m seeing evolution happening before my very eyes, by developing the capacities for the brain to change and evolve it’s highest capacities. He defines well-being as the triangle of mind, brain and relationships. He concludes his chapter in “the Mindful Therapist” with “transpiration” – the capacities to widen our circles of compassion beyond ourselves, family, tribe, etc. Now, whether we can create enough of a critical mass of humans able to develop our mind’s capacities for this to turn the state of our planet around quickly enough – well, I think that is what we are all going for here.

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      That’s great Toni, As you know a lot of my personal work has been around this early healing, but i didn’t know that one of the benefits of mindfulness meditation was that it promotes healing of attachment issues. Another reason to keep meditating! I know that Dan Siegel is a favorite of yours. I’m promoting him to my must read status.

  7. Thanks Bruce.
    There is a lot of science around ‘heart-intelligence’, separate from ‘brain-intelligence’ yet interconnected of course, and as another power of our mystical mind ; and more about the mentioned ‘pre-frontal cortex’ spot as our brain’s meditation centre, or ‘God-spot’ .

    I have worked with some wonderful people with intellectual disabilities who obviously have a loving ‘heart-intelligence’ and an active ‘God-spot’ that way compensates, and transcends, their brain limitations or their so-called lesser abilities. Often, it was as if their physical-survival-ego-selfishness-stuff was switched off. I even became a bit envious . And some, amazingly sensitive nurses, always caring and praying for others, not even conscious that they are ‘disabled’. Great spiritual teachers. Praise God and Thanks Helen.

    • Bruce Sanguin says:

      Thanks for reminding me of this Darryl. What a beautiful reminder. Good to know that G_d seems to have lots of back up plans. 😉

      • Actually Bruce, i reckon God has only One Plan (which doesn’t require any back-ups)
        And it is like a well-cut Diamond IE One precious jewel, with many complimentary facets. Perfect Unity !


  1. […] of Cordelia Fine in her entertaining book, A Mind of Its Own, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Siegel’s research highlights the importance of doing all that we can to strengthen the mind so […]

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