Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Brain Versus Soul: Being Better Stewards of Our Minds

I recently mentioned in this post that sleep deprivation and emotional stimulation that extends for several days sets up a physical response in the brain that people identify as a spiritual experience. Some people have a greater predisposition for this experience than do others, depending on the unique structure of their individual brains. There is actually a type of personality that is more "religious," a personality that also overlaps with an interesting population: those with temporal lobe epilepsy. This brings up a sensitive issue for some Christians and one that I find very fascinating. Where are the boundaries between brain and mind and soul and spirit.

We do not think that it is immoral if someone we know has a stroke that affects their brain producing undesirable effects. Aphasia, a speech problem that often results from strokes that affect the speech centers in the brain is not viewed as a moral issue. However, I know groups of Christians that believe autism or problems that fall within that classification or spectrum that affect focus, reliability and self-discipline as moral issues instead of physiologic ones. This was also a problem with soldiers that returned from Vietnam, because their persistent trauma symptoms following the war were believed by many to be moral deficits. Based on what research and medicine now understands about the brain, many of these behavioral problems stem from physiologic problems and not moral ones at all.

If a person has chest pain from coronary artery disease and cannot tolerate much activity, or if someone has limited physical ability from multiple sclerosis or muscular dystrophy, we generally do not classify these people as lazy. We understand that their body cannot respond like a person without the disorder because we understand that their behavior and level of activity is limited by a disease process. But when people experience diseases of the mind, we tend not to feel comfortable viewing these issues as a matter of a physical problem in the brain. Sometimes, personality problems have nothing to do with disease in the brain, but often these types of issues do have some physiologic basis. Finding and correcting these physical disorders should not threaten moral principle when they found to be present. I think we are wise to consider factors like good nutrition or healthy “brain care,” employing any healthy interventions that support our best behavior. We would think little of someone using a crutch or a cane to assist them with walking, yet we do not tend to think of the mind and the brain in the same way.

I suppose that some interpret my mention of these factors as an argument for materialism – some kind of argument that alleviates people of culpability for their moral actions. I would like to offer some comments from Dr. Daniel Amen, both a Christian, psychiatrist and nuclear imaging specialist. He’s written several books on this topic, Healing the Hardware of the Soul being but one of them, but this quote comes from an online article of the same name on his website.

The latest brain imaging research has shown that thoughts, feelings, and social interactions all impact brain function, in potentially positive and negative ways. How we live our life matters. In addition, the condition of our soul and the spiritual connections we make has a strong impact on the physiology of the brain. It is a reciprocal relationship. I have seen that sin (doing things that you know are wrong) disrupts healthy brain function and leads to anxiety, fear, and depression, while living with integrity and having a positive relationship with God and others actually improves brain function. A number of research studies have demonstrated that people of faith suffer less from anxiety disorders and depression and they recover 70% faster from these illnesses than those without a strong religious faith. The suicide rate and even mortality rate is lower for religious people than the non-religious. The brain needs a healthy soul, and the soul needs a brain that works right....

When the brain works right, you work right. When the brain is troubled, you generally experience trouble in your relationships, work, or within yourself. Since the brain is recognized as the organ of behavior, it makes sense that brain problems, such as Alzheimer's disease, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia or brain trauma is likely to decrease a person's effectiveness in life. Your success in life is associated with how well your brain works. This principle leads to an important paradigmatic shift: if you see someone who is "not right" then it may not be "his choice" or "his personality," it may not even be his upbringing or environment (directly) but a matter of his brain not working properly. WHY it's not working properly is a question not easily answered by saying he or she has a personality disorder, but the **big triumph** comes when we at least consider not "what's the matter with YOU?" but "What's the matter with your BRAIN?" when someone is behaving poorly...

[T]his next one is critical and often the undiagnosed cause of many "behavioral, learning or emotional" problems. Your brain is very soft, yet it is housed in a very hard skull that has many ridges. Mild traumatic brain injuries can change people's whole lives and virtually no one knows it, because mental health professionals never look at brain function. In fact, you do not have to lose consciousness to have a serious brain injury...

Understanding our patients and clients through the lens of brain science helps us be more effective and less judgmental. It teaches us to focus on brain health as well as the psychodynamics that might be present.

You can also view nuclear imaging of brains on Dr. Amen’s website related to a variety of behavioral problems. You need not know much of anything about the brain at all in order to quite easily identify serious problems and also see how those disorders respond to treatment based on these scans. Review some general information regarding response to treatment here.

Healthy Brain

This particular webpage shows the scans of a husband who started having problematic behavior that caused marital problems. It was determined that he did not have a moral problem at all but was reacting to exposure to
organic solvents in the workplace.

Amen writes at "Mindplace":

The first intervention was to stop the toxic fumes. I had him transferred to another place in the company where he was not exposed to solvents, and put him on a brain healthy program. With the right treatment, his behavior got better as did their marriage.

Toxic Brain

I wonder how many marriages are suffering because one partner has a brain problem that no one is aware of. How do you do marital therapy with this brain? It will never work, until you change his brain.

So I offer information related to how our minds work as a measure to help us be more responsible and effective Christians, not as an argument against God’s work in our lives, our minds and our souls in particular. As Amen states, we can make our good brains great brains so that we might be more responsible and effective people and even better Christians. We can accomplish part of that by making the most of our resources by healing the hardware of our souls through caring for our brains themselves. We need to be good stewards of our bodies and our minds and our behavior. Considering how the brain works as a physical organ can actually help us be better stewards of all that God has given us.
The above SPECT images of a healthy brain and the husband's toxic brain appear at the Amen Clinic's Mindplace, showing altered blood flow and metabolism of a brain affected by an organic solvent.