Beyond Genes and Brains in Psychology
by Randa Abdelmaseih
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Are we the sum of our genes and physical makeup?
Perhaps at the heart of the matter lies the exploration of human consciousness – it is the core issue central to the understanding of human existence since it sets humanity apart from other creatures. The social and behavioural sciences have rightly observed that this awareness of functions and abilities is not present in animals for instance. It seems that Christian theology and Psychology agree on this point. Reymond, a systematic theologian notes in his Systematic Theology that ‘into man’s nostrils alone does God breathe the breath of life ‘ne-sa-mah’ (Gen 2:7, also Job 33:4, Job 32:8 and Pro 30:27). This is also consistent with the Biblical use of the word ‘spirit’ ‘Roo-akh’ (in Hebrew) applied only to a rational being.*
The field of Psychology is considered here, mainly in light of the contribution of neuroscience to the understanding of the brain/mind functioning synonymous with body/soul language. While the modern, secular study of psychology is largely unconcerned with the spiritual, the foundational stage of the field emphasised the existence of the soul. William James for instance who was one of the founders of Psychology believed in the existence of the soul and advocated the view that one needs to take into account the spiritual aspect inherent in man. Indeed the word 'Psychology' is derived from 'Psyche' (Greek meaning 'spirit' / 'soul' / 'mind'. Psychology was born in 1530 by none other than a biblical scholar Phillip Melanchthon in a commentary on Aristotle’s ‘Peri Psyches’ (Rollins, 2007). Freud and Jung later expanded the term to include the study of the unconscious. As in philosophy, there was a general consensus that the study of the soul is illusive; Jung describes it the difficulty as “quite impossible to define the extension and the ultimate character of psychic existence” (in Rollins, 2007 p.29).
With the pressure to establish the field of psychology as a scientific area, and thus seemingly a more credible and worthwhile field of study, began a push towards a less spiritual approach in favour of an empirical focus. The empirical orientation sought to shift the focus of psychology from realities that defy precise scientific measurement. Thomas Hobbs in the 1600s put forth a preference of conceptualising psychological phenomena as mere derivatives of the nervous system, including the brain, along with a call to eliminate references to the soul. This reductionist view translated ‘soul’ language to ‘mental apparatus’ associated with somatic and physical factors. Out of this trend, came an extreme form of naturalism advocating the ‘we’re just a pack of neurons’ idea. So, to naturalists, a human being is a physical organism whose mental and spiritual life will eventually be explained by science.
Along this line of thought, traditional neuropsychology in particular poses that our functioning is a product of the random firing of neurons in the brain. Here the role of our genetic makeup is emphasised, along with biological predispositions for behaviour patterns, personality traits and psychological problems. One does not need to be a scientist to see the connection between the physical and the spiritual, it’s a well known fact that physical factors such as sleep, adequate sunlight and diet affect our psychological state. Did not Elijah receive sleep and nourishment as first treatments for his desperate state of depression?
But do these well established facts necessarily mean that biology determines soul state? In a recent conference of the Australian ‘Christianity and Psychology’ Interest group, Dr Robi Sonderegger, a Christian psychologist, presented on ‘The best of science and scripture informing therapeutic application’ – in his keynote address he reflected on challenges posed by recent findings in neuropsychology to the traditional reductionist view defined above. Recent findings in neuropsychology reveal that brain functioning is not as straight forward as first thought, indeed that brain structures change in response to our conscious thought modification ( akin to the biblical concept of ‘renewing of the mind’), and in response to our experiences and behaviour. This dynamic relationship between brain structure and experience suggest that the brain is not all there is to the mind. Moreover that the gene is not the end of the story; while one’s genetic makeup predisposes one to certain psychological illnesses, the mind has the capacity to influence the outcome of whether the illness will manifest or not – this, take notice evolutionary psychologists, Dr Sonderegger suggests is more like ‘evolution in reverse’ than 'evolution' – mind affecting brain.
Studies in neuropsychology show that the biochemistry of the brain changes in response to cognitive therapy and behaviour modification. This has been observed with addictions, depression, and anxiety among other psychological disorders. One example of this is demonstrated in the study by the Neuroscientist and Psychiatrist, Professor Jeffrey Schwartz. While brain scans actually show that something is physiologically different in the brain of someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), this study demonstrated that the relationship between brain physiology and the mind/behaviour is not a one way relationship. Dr Schwartz taught a sample of OCD sufferers to consciously recognise obsessive thoughts as a symptom of faulty brain wiring, then to wilfully refocus on more positive thought patterns and in turn not obey the obsessions with behavioural compulsions (Schwartz, 2002). Done frequently enough over a period of months, the OCD patients were able to actually physically dampen down their overly active brain structures as measured by brain scans. This effect created a new default in the OCD brain by a new frequent following of a healthier thought and behaviour.
A comeback to 'soul' language in psychology is noted. With the rise of postmodernism, there has been a steady resurgence of ‘soul’ language during the eighties and nineties.
Amongst psychologists with a Biblical world view, spirituality and psychology are not competing but rather complementary, moreover, the biblical text is held as illuminating the study of psychology and guiding its therapeutic goals.
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*(Strong’s Hebrew concordance)
Schwartz J.M., M.D., & Begley, S. (2002). The Mind and The Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Reymond, Robert L. A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, Tenn: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998)
Rollins W. G. (2007). Soul and Psyche: The Bible in Psychological Perspective. In Psychological Insight into the Bible: Texts and Readings. Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans.
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