T.J. Dawes, over at www.beamsandstruts.com, 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.