Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships

Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships

by Curt Thompson

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Overview

Do you want to improve your relationships and experience lasting personal change? Join Curt Thompson, M.D., on an amazing journey to discover the surprising pathways for transformation hidden inside your own mind. Integrating new findings in neuroscience and attachment with Christian spirituality, Dr. Thompson reveals how it is possible to rewire your mind, altering your brain patterns and literally making you more like the person God intended you to be. Explaining discoveries about the brain in layman’s terms, he shows how you can be mentally transformed through spiritual practices, interaction with Scripture, and connections with other people. He also provides practical exercises to help you experience healing in areas where you’ve been struggling. Insightful and challenging, Anatomy of the Soul illustrates how learning about one of God’s most miraculous creations—your brain—can enrich your life, your relationships, and your impact on the world around you.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781414334158
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Publication date: 05/24/2010
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 100,406
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Curt Thompson, MD, is a psychiatrist in private practice in Falls Church, Virginia, and the founder of Being Known, which helps people explore the integral relationship between deep, meaningful connections with God and the development of healthier minds, healthier communities, and ultimately, a healthier world.

Sean Pratt, a working actor for over twenty-five years, has performed at numerous regional theaters around the country. He is the author of To Be or Wanna Be, and he has recorded over seven hundred books in just about every genre, earning eight AudioFile Earphones Awards and four Audie Award nominations.

Read an Excerpt

ANATOMY OF THE SOUL

Surprising connections between neuroscience and spiritual practices that can transform your life and relationships
By Curt Thompson

TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.

Copyright © 2010 Curt Thompson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4143-3414-1


Chapter One

NEUROSCIENCE: A WINDOW INTO THE MIND

Cara was in her early thirties when she came to see me. She sought help to ease the depression she had been battling since high school. She had friends, but much of what they had already achieved-marriage, professional advancement, and outward happiness-served only to remind her of what she had not.

Single, but longing to be in a committed relationship, Cara saw herself as less than desirable. She had already taken a year longer than most of her peers to finish the coursework for her doctorate in economics and was pessimistic about completing her dissertation within the next year. She wanted to teach in a university setting but hadn't pursued this possibility very aggressively.

Although she had run track in college and claimed that fitness was important to her, she rarely exercised. She ate poorly and occasionally drank too much alcohol to try to disconnect from her feelings of sadness and shame. The wine did little more than put her to sleep, and she would wake up to a dull drumming in her head the next morning.

Cara came to see me when the anxiety attacks began. They would waken her from sleep, and as her heart pounded and raced, she felt inexplicable fear coursing through her body and mind for what seemed an eternity. The wine clearly wasn't doing its job.

She said she wouldn't mind if she died in her sleep or got hit and killed by a bus, but she would never consider suicide. I asked her why. "I don't want to go to hell," she said, explaining how her life had changed in college when she began following Jesus. She had felt the first glimmer of optimism after becoming a Christian, but even her keen intellect and newfound faith could not keep the emotional wolves away from her.

She described her childhood years as a somber progression of grief. She believed her parents loved her, but she was frequently deeply sad without knowing why. Although conversations in her home were intellectually stimulating, they rarely, if ever, wandered into the realm of emotion or what members of her family were feeling.

When Cara was fourteen, her father died unexpectedly from a heart attack. Her mother responded by burying herself in her work as a physician. Her older brother responded by going off to college and never returning home. Cara responded by becoming an all-state athlete and honor student. Everyone she knew assumed that she was fine. But she wasn't fine. Not then, and certainly not now.

As Cara sat in my office, her mannerisms put her troubles in plain sight. Though obviously attractive, she slumped in her chair. She fidgeted with her hands. Her demeanor vacillated from nervous laughter to easily spilled tears, punctuated by moments of great effort to regain her composure-along with apologies for "being upset." It was as though she was holding back an entire reservoir of grief and had little remaining energy to keep it in check. Perhaps she feared that if the dam broke, she and everything she knew would be swept away into oblivion by a tidal wave of emotion.

Cara had tried psychotherapy. She had tried medication. She had prayed. She had read Scripture and devotional literature. She was part of a worshiping community and a small group of women who met regularly to deepen their spiritual lives. These helped, but nothing sustained any sense of stability or confidence. Most troubling to her, she could not understand why her relationship with Jesus did not seem to make a difference. Why was her psychological distress so unresponsive to prayer? Why was God so unresponsive to her plight?

Recent discoveries in neuroscience and related fields provide relevant answers to Cara's questions. Still, she was skeptical when I suggested these findings might give her direction and help her make sense of her life. It is for Cara, and others like her-you and me-that this book is written. Written to announce a new way of understanding and experiencing our life with God, using the language of neuroscience and attachment-integral elements of God's good creation-as our guide.

Over many months of therapy, Cara began exploring the connection between her mind and her relationships with God and others. The following concepts-many of which are functions of the human brain-were the key to her healing, and one or more of them may be the key to your own. Since each concept builds on the next, they also serve as an outline of the coming chapters:

Being known. Our Western world has long emphasized knowledge-factual information and "proof"-over the process of being known by God and others. No wonder, then, that despite all our technological advancements and the proliferation of social media, we are more intra- and interpersonally isolated than ever. Yet it is only when we are known that we are positioned to become conduits of love. And it is love that transforms our minds, makes forgiveness possible, and weaves a community of disparate people into the tapestry of God's family.

Attention. What we pay attention to affects our lives. That may seem obvious, but what is often less apparent is exactly what we're focusing on-after all, so much of it occurs automatically or unconsciously. Furthermore, we often direct our attention primarily on what exists outside ourselves. Neuroscience has much to tell us about why it is so critical for each of us to pay attention to our own feelings, physical sensations, and thoughts.

Memory and emotion. Neuroscientific research reveals how profoundly both memory and emotion, much of it below our conscious awareness, influence all our relationships. Awareness of these functions of our minds leads to greater intimacy with God, friends, and enemies.

Attachment. In order to fully engage our relationship with God, it is most helpful to be fully aware of the patterns by which we have attached to our primary caregivers. The ways we have connected have important correlations with the structure and function of our brains.

An integrated mind. We'll explore how the mind, when left to its own volition, tends to disconnect. It often conspires to hide the truth (the depth of our emotion, memory, and relational patterns, as well as the reality of a God who loves us beyond belief) from ourselves and others. We then suffer the personal and communal consequences. And what does it mean to have the mind of Christ? I propose that it includes having a fully integrated mind-what the Bible calls "an undivided heart"-which draws us closer to and makes us more like Jesus. When we pay attention to disparate aspects of our minds that we sometimes (even often) ignore, we become more like him.

Sin and redemption. One way to comprehend the dynamic of sin is to see it as a matter of choosing to be mindless rather than mindful, which ultimately leads to our minds becoming dis-integrated. (I use the term disintegrated throughout the book to refer, not to something that is decaying or falling apart, but to the opposite of integration, particularly between various parts of the brain.) In fact, the story of Eden shows how, like Adam and Eve, we are more interested in knowing right from wrong (a dominantly left-brain hemisphere function used to cope with fear and shame) than knowing God, which requires the integration of all parts of the brain. Through our redemption, this inclination can be reversed, making it possible for each of us to live with an integrated mind and play a larger role in God's redemptive plan. We can experience this as individuals and, more significantly, in the context of a community that is a living demonstration of God's love, mercy, and justice.

Community. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul lays out God's vision for community, one that is more achievable than we might ever have imagined. When we attend to the various functions of the mind, we can experience God's mercy and justice in the context of a community that is both differentiated and integrated. This is accomplished through giving and receiving love, which we experience most powerfully in the process of being known.

Like Cara, we live in a world that seems more desperate than ever before for healing, awakening, and transformation. While this is often most apparent in our internal struggles and interpersonal conflicts, it shows up elsewhere. For instance, as we become more technologically advanced, we invariably become more intra- and interpersonally isolated, and so push against the irrevocable principle that states flatly, "It is not good for man to be alone." Beyond that, global challenges such as terrorism, human trafficking, and global warming polarize nations, dividing us even further. As followers of Jesus, we believe that he is the answer to all forms of brokenness and division. New findings in the fields of neuroscience and attachment offer a fresh means by which we can understand and experience the abundant life to which Jesus has called us.

These new discoveries about how the brain and interpersonal relationships shape each other are a reflection of what has been passed down in the oral tradition; written in the stories, poetry, and instruction of the Scriptures; and experienced by the people of God for nearly four thousand years. In essence, God is using his creation as a signpost, supporting and sharpening our understanding of him, as well as pointing the way to Jesus. What we are learning is how part of God's good creation-neuroscience and attachment-speaks to us, serving as a counterpart language that affirms and enriches our faith dialect, which is comprised of Scripture and our spiritual experiences.

CREATION AND NEUROSCIENCE

The apostle Paul tells us that "since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse" (Romans 1:20). The intricacies and complexities of everything from earthquakes to sea urchins to quarks to planetary orbits all point to God's power and God's nature.

Such is creation. And Paul suggests that when we pay attention to it, we discover things about God's power and his nature. Creation points to God. It of course does not define God completely-we do not fully understand God by fully understanding creation. The capriciousness of a tidal wave that kills hundreds of thousands of people is not an indication that God is volatile, nor should it be used as a measurement of his mercy. Rather, taken as a whole, creation points us in the direction of God's strength and personality.

One part of creation is humanity. And one very important element that makes us uniquely human is the brain/mind matrix. In the last ten years, research in various fields of scientific inquiry about the brain and interpersonal relationships has yielded exciting new data that helps us describe more fully than ever how they shape each other.

The fields of psychiatry, genetics, developmental and behavioral psychology, psychoanalysis, neurology and neuropsychology, developmental neurobiology, and structural and functional neuroimaging (creating visual images that represent the brain's anatomy and physiologic and electrical activity) add to our understanding of how we have come to be who we are and why we do what we do over time. Each of these distinctive fields, however, describes the human experience from its particular perspective, without integrating information from other areas of study.

The result can be summed up in the old story of several blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and describing the entire animal in terms of the particular part each man is touching. For one, the animal is smooth and hard, like a tusk. For another, it is leathery and tough, like the hide, and so forth. In the same way, knowledge from the many scientific fields has not been integrated into a single coherent body of knowledge that describes how the mind works.

In 1999 Daniel Siegel wrote a landmark book entitled The Developing Mind, in which he describes what it would be like to understand the mind through a more integrated approach. In other words, how would each of those blind men more fully understand the whole elephant if he were talking to the others, integrating data from each of their particular perspectives? It is likely that each would form a more accurate picture. Such is the model that Siegel proposes for understanding the mind. By connecting common findings from disparate fields of study, we will have a more complete picture, not only of how the mind works, but also of what changes will most effectively promote the health and healing of the mind-and subsequently everything else from relationships to communities to a bruised creation.

Siegel calls this integrated model for understanding the mind interpersonal neurobiology. This term expresses the reality that the mind is ultimately a dynamic, mysterious confluence of the brain and experience, with many aspects of it deeply connected (or potentially so) in ways that often go unnoticed. The interactions within interpersonal relationships deeply shape and influence the development of the brain; likewise, the brain and its development shape and influence those very same relationships. We will explore the details of how this mystery unfolds by considering several neuroscientific concepts that have great significance to the community of faith.

It is worth mentioning that these varied branches of study of human behavior have rarely considered spirituality in general, or Christian spiritual experience in particular. For decades, the perception among many behavioral scientists was that spiritual development is anathema to mental health. This led to a backlash of distrust and fear among people of many faiths against the organized scientific community of mental health researchers and providers, and the reaction was understandable.

Since the early 1990s, however, the place of spirituality in the evolution of mental health and the understanding of the mind has become more accepted. The influential book Handbook of Religion and Health, written by Harold G. Koenig, Michael E. McCullough, and the late David B. Larson and published in 2001, brought this discussion into the mainstream. In fact, the importance of spiritual development is now acknowledged by many researchers and respected clinicians as one of the more important lenses through which we should view our lives.

In his articulation of interpersonal neurobiology, Siegel sheds further light on the significance of the intersection of neuroscience and mindful spirituality. Integrating our understanding of the mind and behavioral development, along with our spirituality, is now becoming a well-accepted, necessary paradigm for engaging our interpersonal and intercultural problems.

I mention intercultural problems for good reason. It is not difficult to imagine how a discussion of the brain might enhance your inner life. It might even affect how you interact with your spouse or children. But could it really have anything to do with peace in the Middle East? That may seem like a stretch. Yet consider Jesus' interaction with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4 of John's Gospel. Think how Jesus' self-awareness (albeit not as a neuroscientist) enabled him to bridge the deep cultural and gender chasm that separated them.

We will see how interpersonal neurobiology (part of God's creation) points us to justice and mercy, two fundamental themes to which Scripture calls us. And we are asked to extend that mercy and justice, especially where cultural brokenness and conflict reside. God's Kingdom is one of justice and mercy that he intends to proliferate to the uttermost parts of the earth, enveloping all aspects of life. He invites us to join him in creating that Kingdom, in ushering it in until it reaches its fullness in the appearance of Jesus. (We will address these issues of community, justice, and mercy in chapter 13.)

TO KEEP IN MIND ?NO PUN INTENDED?

A matter of trust

As a psychiatrist, I see how difficult it can be for people to make sense of all the information, feelings, and impressions that hit them. My job is mostly to listen well, ask (hopefully) good questions, and wonder aloud about the discoveries that may lie waiting just outside the door of a patient's awareness.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from ANATOMY OF THE SOUL by Curt Thompson Copyright © 2010 by Curt Thompson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction xiii

1 Neuroscience: A Window into the Mind 1

2 As We Are Known 11

3 Love the Lord Your God with All Your . . . Mind 27

4 Are You Paying Attention? 49

5 Remembering the Future 63

6 Emotion: The Experience of God 89

7 Attachment: The Connections of Life 109

8 Earned Secure Attachment: Pointing to the New Creation 135

9 The Prefrontal Cortex and the Mind of Christ 157

10 Neuroscience: Sin and Redemption 183

11 The Rupture of Sin 205

12 The Repair of Resurrection 221

13 The Mind and Community: The Brain on Love, Mercy, and Justice 235

Epilogue 257

Bibliography 267

Reflection Questions 273

Acknowledgments 281

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