Wheaton magazine

Volume 20 // Issue 1
Wheaton magazine // Winter 2017
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illustration by carl wiens

Neuroscience and Faith

As new technologies for brain mapping are developed, our understanding of the brain is increasing at a revolutionary rate. But how does this new information relate to our spirituality? How much authority should we give these new insights about brain function? Is it possible that neuroscience is overrated or being misused?

In the following interview, Visiting Scholar in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford and Professor of Psychology Dr. William Struthers sorts out fact from fiction in the exciting new frontier of neuroscience. A recipient of a “Neuroscience, Religion and the Media: Fostering Dialogue in the Public Square” grant from Scholarship & Christianity in Oxford (SCIO), Dr. Struthers’ work for the Oxford Interdisciplinary Seminars in Science and Religion: Bridging the Two Cultures of Science and the Humanities includes research on the integration of neuroscience, faith, and culture. Here’s a closer look at what his research has to teach us.

What led you to this research focus?

In 2012, I read a paper in Oxford about neuroscientists as “The New High Priests.” It was tied to my experience with my book Wired for Intimacy, in which I explained some of the neuroscience behind pornography and addiction. I was unsettled by people who would approach me after I talked about the book and seemed to misunderstand what I was saying in it. It seemed to me that they were using neuroscience to confirm their biases or to justify beliefs without truly understanding what the neuroscience was saying. 

Wheaton's New Neuroscience Certificate

Neuroscience is one of the fastest growing fields of study in the 21st century. Wheaton’s new interdisciplinary certificate program is designed for undergraduate students to engage in the scientific process, develop research skills, and become critical evaluators of scientific research in an area that has significant theological implications regarding human personhood and the Imago Dei.

It was then that I became more aware of how the media was misunderstanding or misrepresenting brain research and that brain scientists were unintentionally allowing that to happen or were unaware of the speculative manner in which we talk about our research. It’s also fair to say some of the research was being used as a bludgeon to attack opponents—whether it be people from different political positions, societies, or cultures—so I wanted to investigate this.

I spent time in Oxford the past two summers looking at the relevant research on how the media reports on neuroscience research. From this I put together a list of what I am calling “Neuro-Proofs,” or ways in which neuroscience is used to foster “Neuro- Agendas” across culture. Why is it that when you add the prefix “Neuro-” in front of anything our critical thinking goes out the window?

That’s fascinating. What does some of your initial research reveal?

There are new brain imaging technologies coming out—such as Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) and Magnetoencephalography (MEG)—and the striking artistic representations of brain data can be incredibly powerful. There are significant questions to be asked when the neuroscience is combined with the arts: How do we represent our brains? Our brains are used as a way of describing our internal psychological experience. For example, “This is an image from one of the EEG machines we use in the biology department” or “This is my brain while reading The Lord of the Rings.” Everyone loves pictures of the brain, especially when heat maps show what parts of the brain are active or quiet. 

In 2008, we received a grant from the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion to examine uses and abuses of neuroscience research in society. In the study, we explored the nature of media reports, focusing on entertainment, pathology, or a religious topic. With a religious topic, a brain image accompanying the article is considered to be far less convincing than a bar graph or nothing at all. Meanwhile, articles on video games or drugs were perceived as more persuasive if brain images were included. So, when the brain science doesn’t fit with your biases, there can be a backlash where you are more critical at evaluating the research than you would have been if it had confirmed your biases.

Keeping that in mind, why is neuroscience an important field for “the average person” to understand?

Neuroscience is important because it’s becoming one of the privileged ways of understanding our embodied nature. It has become a cultural authority—we need to be savvy in recognizing when neuroscience is being misused and when people are saying things the science doesn’t actually say. You want to know when you’re getting your leg pulled. 

In your book Wired for Intimacy, you focused your research on pornography addiction and neuroscience. What is the relationship between the two?

As humans, when we’re isolated, we tend to self-medicate. Pornography and sexual compulsivity are ways to do that. You see that when people are caught up in sexual compulsivity, oftentimes there are spiritual consequences. Changing your spiritual habits and disciplines is one way to bring about transformation, and it is reasonable to speculate that there are neurological changes involved in this process whereby we break unhealthy patterns and move to a better place of mental and spiritual health. Scripture is not a source to be underestimated. It has some things to say about addiction and how we can move to a place where we are slaves to Christ, not to a drug or an unhealthy behavior.

Let’s talk more about the integration of faith and neuroscience. Why is considering faith when it comes to neuroscience (and other disciplines) important? 

How the media and scientists understand the impact of the brain’s physiology and its connection to spiritual experiences is one issue I’ve explored. Most people won’t deny that human beings are religious, and most people won’t deny that the brain is the organ of consciousness, so how do you fit those two things together? 

Is your brain an antenna to God? How do we understand divine inspiration? Ezekiel sees a wheel in the air: is he having a seizure or is God revealing truth to him? Can it be both? Do we have to assume that the authors of the texts were neurologically healthy? Does it change your brain when you experience God or have a conversion experience? All of these are significant questions to be asked. 

There are many theological traditions that seek to understand what it means to be human. I am more sympathetic to those who see human beings as embodied creatures who are souls, rather than ghosts operating a body like a machine. From an embodied perspective, it makes sense that any change in the brain could impact your spirituality, and this view has many theological consequences. If true, it also means that any spiritual experience you have or spiritual discipline that you pursue impacts your neurological nature. For me, there’s a seamlessness between the two; they’re both part of a singular garment of what it means to be a human being. The late Dr. Roger Lundin ’71 shared this metaphor with me over a decade ago, and it transformed the way I think about the integrative process. 

I am also attracted to the idea of bridging philosophy, the arts, science, and the hard natural sciences. As a neuroscientist who is a person of faith in a psychology department, I’m happy to be a human bridge that connects these things together because of my great love for science, music, the visual arts, philosophy, and my love of Christ.

How does your faith influence your research and vice versa? 

My faith influences my research in that I understand that I am limited, and be-cause of that, I am open to detecting things that those without theological, spiritual, or philosophical sensitivities are blind to. Being trained as a neuroscientist, I read Scripture through the eyes of someone who understands the embodied motivations and decisions that people make. I also recognize the need for some of the prohibitions that are put upon us, as well as our inability to follow all of those. 

I keep coming back to Romans 8: it’s the things I don’t want to do that I do. A brain scientist sees this and understands why this is the case through a neurological filter. While someone who may not have familiarity with the brain’s structure may interpret a ghost at war with its machinery, I see it as part of our embodied predicament. Why those mental circuits sometimes sabotage our good intentions makes complete sense to explanation.

What should we expect in the future in the field of neuroscience research? 

Glial cells—the often ignored “other half” of the nervous system—are now being understood as major players in the brain. These neglected cells were long considered to be mere helpers to the more important neurons, but we are just beginning to discover the role that these mysterious and beautiful cells play. The next great frontier of neuroscience research will be in glial cells. 

I also see a new wave of researchers using a big data approach. We’re seeing more and more brain imaging data from research and clinical and diagnostic centers. Computational neuroscientists are taking this data and discovering regions of the brain that are responsible for functions we don’t fully understand. For example, in July 2016, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science magazine published an updated human brain map that reveals nearly 100 new regions of the brain that we’ve never seen before.

What’s next on the horizon for you? 

In my forthcoming book, I will look at these things: How does neuroscience play out in public policy and advocacy? How does neuroscience play a role in how people make decisions? Can neuroscience research be used to intentionally mislead and how can it be misused? I’m trying to be generous when considering the motivations of the scientist and the people writing up the media reports, as well as the public that reads it. I’m excited about the new Christ at the Core curriculum and for the Advanced Integrative Seminar issues.

Talk a bit about how Wheaton’s new Neuroscience Certificate will equip students to usher in a new generation of research. 

As coordinator of the neuroscience certificate program that just launched this year, I’m very excited. This interdisciplinary program will draw on faculty across several disciplines and give students a better understanding of what an embodied human being is. This will help students as they go on in business, industry, or if they decide to go into a helping profession or ministry. It will also open up opportunities for students to pursue further graduate study or to go straight into positions in neuroscience. 

Related to my current research, the program will hopefully make students more aware of how neuroscience is used in the popular media for good and ill. As part of their coursework, students will be required to do collaborative research with a faculty adviser and complete a capstone project to be presented at a professional conference. 

Any closing thoughts? 

I don’t know how anyone could not be giddy about the prospect of studying neuroscience. It is a place where we desperately need theologically informed Christians to speak into the scientific community—there aren’t enough of us, and we need more. I’m hoping that we will see a generation of scholars come out of Wheaton who will begin the process of helping the church move into that space, and educating the church in the wise sifting of the scientific research for Christ and his kingdom.

FURTHER READING:

1. Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain by Bill Struthers (InterVarsity Press, 2010) 

2. Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld (Basic Books, 2015) 

3. “Updated Brain Map Identifies Nearly 100 New Regions,” The New York Times, July 21, 2016 

4. The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist (Yale University Press, 2009)

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