Modern Discoveries and Ancient Wisdom

Bookstore shelves are lined with self-help and child psychology books, and frankly, I tend to walk right past them.  I’m not attracted to their catchy titles and quick fixes, nor do endorsements from Oprah and Dr. Oz get me excited.  So much of what these books offer encourages us to center ourselves (read:  become more self-centered); there isn’t much interest in growing ever more Christ-centered.

So I don’t pick up these books on my own, but if someone I trust and admire offers a recommendation, I’m happy to read something from these shelves.  I see that so much progress is made in neuroscience and psychology–but for those of us who are not educated in the field and who are reading the softer self-help books, we do well to rely on the wisdom of those who actually understand these things.

Recently, Fr. Timothy Pavlatos gave a wonderful retreat at our parish, and in his talk on connecting with our children, he recommended, The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD.

I was happy to receive that recommendation, and ordered the book right away.  I trust Fr. Timothy–he is an Orthodox priest, a practicing Licensed Family & Marriage Therapist, and a very likable and wise father of nine children. I’m delighted to explore any book he recommends.

I just finished reading the book, and I’m so impressed.  I recommend it to you, as it teaches clearly and credibly how the brain’s various regions are integrated, and how these processes are beginning to work in fits and starts as the child develops. The authors offer clear examples of how to put this knowledge to work in your own home, providing sound strategies for dealing with your own children’s irrational outbursts and overwhelming emotions.

What I really love, though, is how today’s neuroscience simply expresses in a new way, the same wisdom that the Church has always taught.

The first two-thirds of this book offer really useful and smart insights, but in the final pages, some of the little revelations the authors provide blew me away.

Look, for instance, at this:

What do you picture when you think about the brain? Maybe you recall an image from high school biology class: that weird organ floating in the jar, or a picture of it in a textbook. The problem with this ‘single skull’ perspective–where we consider each individual brain as a lone organ isolated in a single skull–is that it neglects the truth that scientists have come to understand over the last few decades: that the brain is a social organ, made to be in relationship. It’s hardwired to take in signals from the social environment, which in turn influence a person’s inner world. In other words, what happens between brains has a great deal to do with what happens within each individual brain. Self and community are fundamentally interrelated, since every brain is continually constructed by its interactions with others. Even more, studies of happiness and wisdom reveal that a key factor in well-being is devoting one’s attention and passions to the benefit of others instead of just focusing on the individual, separate concerns of a private self. The ‘me’ discovers meaning and happiness by joining and belonging to a ‘we.’  (The Whole Brain Child, p. 122)

We are ‘made to be in relationship’ — indeed, God created us specifically for relationship. This is completely in accord with the Orthodox understanding, as we always look to the Holy Trinity (a community of three persons, one God) as the perfect relationship, and we strive to become one in relationship to each other as we form the Body of Christ.

As the Holy Trinity, our God is One Being, although Three Persons, so, likewise, we ourselves must be one. As our God is indivisible, we also must be indivisible, as though we were one man, one mind, one will, one heart, one goodness, without the smallest admixture of malice–in a word, one pure love, as God is Love. ‘That they may be one, even as We are One’ (John 17:22) (St. John of Kronstadt)

These are Orthodox teachings, and this book on child brain development is not about Orthodoxy, but its wisdom lines up with the wisdom of the Church: God created us as relational beings, quite literally built for community.

Look how this is unfolding in the discoveries of neuroscience, specifically in the area of ‘mirror neurons’:

In the early 1990s, a group of Italian neuroscientists were studying the brain of a macaque monkey. They had implanted electrodes to monitor individual neurons, and when the monkey ate a peanut, a certain electrode fired. No surprise there–that’s what the researchers expected. But then a scientist’s snack changed the course of our insight into the mind. One of the researchers picked up a peanut and ate it as the monkey watched. In response, the monkey’s motor neuron fired–the same one that had fired when he had actually eaten a peanut himself! The researchers discovered that the monkey’s brain was influenced and became active by just watching the actions of another. Whether the monkey witnessed an action or performed that same behavior himself, the same set of neurons became activated.

Scientists immediately began scrambling to identify these ‘mirror neurons’ in humans. And while there are far more questions than answers about exactly what they are and how they work, we are actively learning more and more about the mirror neuron system. (The Whole Brain Child, p. 123)

As the authors continue, they point out that “we could also call these special neural cells ‘sponge neurons’ in that we soak up like a sponge what we see in the behaviors, intentions, and emotions of someone else. We don’t just ‘mirror back’ to someone else, but we ‘sponge in’ their internal states.” (p. 124)  That’s a high level of inter-connectedness, and God built it right in to the structure of our brains.

The Orthodox understanding in which we are all saved in community, resonates with this understanding of the brain and its function. We are all quite literally formed by our relationships with one another, so of course we experience salvation together, the Body of Christ being one with so many different and unique members. Of course we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves–we are truly and profoundly interconnected, and our neighbors actually help to define who we ‘ourselves’ might be.

I wonder what these mirror neurons and sponge neurons make of our prayer experiences. Can it be that the time we spend with God is also firing interesting neurons?  Can deification or theosis turn out to be a function of something like this process?  As sponges, we absorb one another’s actions, intentions and moods into our brains–is there an analogous spiritual process by which humans become more godly through our contact with Him?  It’s likely that modern science won’t take on such a question, but perhaps in our explorations of the desert fathers, we can ponder such a question.

Ultimately, we Orthodox look to the Fathers, to the Saints–to the Church–for our answers.  Why study brain development? This book offers great insights for parents, to help us develop a more peaceful family dynamic and more emotionally healthy children. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the heavenly Physician of body and soul, will appreciate our sincere efforts at being good stewards of the little ones He places in our care.

Ultimately, while it is not necessary that modern science supports ancient wisdom, it is encouraging to know that we are sometimes coming to the same conclusions. When scientists seek truth, and when Christians seek Truth, we should all be arriving in the same place. When we do, it gives me hope for this modern world.

P.S. What if we think about sponge neurons + Elder Thaddeus?  (thanks, Jay Mary Jensen.)




    1. You are very welcome!

      I just learned that one of the authors wrote a book on the teenage brain, which I can assure you is my next read! It’s called “Brainstorm” and looks great.

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