Are We Just the Sum of Our Neurons? (RJS)

We’ve been working through Joel B. Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life: The Nature of Humanity in the Bible. This book makes the connection between the embodied nature of human existence as revealed by modern neuroscience and the nature of humanity as revealed in the Bible. Today I will take a step back from the book and point to a few videos that deal with aspects of neuroscience and Christian faith.

The web site Test of FAITH contains excerpts from interviews with Christians active in the sciences. One series is particularly relevant to some of the aspects of our discussion of Dr. Green’s book. Professor Bill Newsome is a neurobiologist at Stanford University School of Medicine.  His group website describes his research and methods. The goal of his research program is to understand the neuronal processes that mediate visual perception and visually guided behavior. To study this process his research group conducts parallel behavioral and physiological experiments in animals that are trained to perform selected perceptual or eye movement tasks (paraphrased from his website). Dr. Bill Newsome is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and, according to the Test of Faith site, is the faculty sponsor of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship graduate student group at Stanford.

There are a number of short videos featuring excerpts of interviews with Dr. Newsome on the Test of Faith site – and the topics complement the discussion of neuroscience in Dr. Green’s book. In the video below Dr. Newsome discusses the title question of this post, Are we just the sum of our neurons?

YouTube Preview Image

In the video Dr. Newsome emphasizes the different levels of understanding, including the social levels and the neural level. There is more than one level of reality to our being.  The point about the social level is interesting – and relates to the emphasis that Dr. Green places on community as a forming and transforming influence in the conversion of persons. The transformation of persons occurs through the power of God but in the context of his people, his church.

Are we more than the sum of our neurons?

If so what does this mean for us as humans and as Christians?

In this second video Dr. John Polkinghorne and Dr. Bill Newsome discuss the possibility of real choice in the light of neuroscience .

YouTube Preview Image

Finally, in this video Dr. Newsome addresses the question “Does my brain shape me, or do I shape my brain?

YouTube Preview Image

His answer is both. Our brains shape us but we also can shape out brains by the choices we make, relationships we form and people we interact with.

Neuroscience and church. We are not just the sum of our neurons, and we shape and are shaped by the choices we make and the things we do. This leads me back to the points that Dr. Green made about conversion and human nature. Community is an essential part of human formation – when we say that there is no salvation without the church it is not because the church is an authoritative gate keeper, but because the formation and transformation of human persons occurs by the power of God, through his Spirit, using the nature of the way that he has made us – his natural processes.

God himself interacts with us personally and this shapes and forms our nature and being. He also acts through his people and this interaction with fellow Christians in the context of community shapes and forms us. I will come back to this point again, but I would like to stop here today and ask a simple question.

How is what we do in church as a people of God designed to shape and form us as Christians?

What role does the Sunday morning service play in this process? What role should it play?

I’ll be provocative here – I think it means we should shorten the sermon, introduce multiple participatory activities within the church service in an embodied worship of our God and Savior. Passive entertaining services dominated by charismatic speakers form passive Christians.

But more than this it means that we should demand more from ourselves; more commitment, more involvement and more mission.  And we should (re)introduce real teaching outside of the worship service. What do you think?

There are a number of other excellent clips from Dr. Newsome on the Test of Faith site – I encourage you to check them out.

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Carol Noren Johnson

    I appreciate these links and the questions. “How does what we do in church as a people of God form us as Christians?” I was reading this morning in my devotions from Romans 1:12, NLT: “When we get together, I want to encourage you in your faith, but I also want to be encouaged by yours.” Later in Romans 12:2 we read “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” Hymns, sermons and conversations help us grow in our faith and renew our spirits.

    Some people with dementia can’s help the way they think and act and must rely on habits from the past. (I think God understands.) My husband has mixed dementia and I have been studying the brain. He is losing short term memory and there are other signs such as anger. I wrote a seminary paper on the anger of Alzheimer’s patients and essentially concluded that because neurons are missing, the caregivers need to handle that anger because the patient can’t.

    The church will need to get up to speed on Alzheimer’s (the most common form of dementia) because this disease is increasing. My church is very supportive and people chat with my husband and are supportive of me as a caregiver.

  • rjs


    Thanks. I changed my questions a little – but this comment still relates well to the last questions in the post.

  • Rick

    “What role does the Sunday morning service play in this process?”

    I think it plays a key role, but if we are impacted by such interaction (with other Christians, Scripture, sacraments, etc…), then Sunday cannot be the only time of the week this takes place.

    Carol #1 has some good thoughts, and her emphasis on encouragement is important.

    In light of this overall post, I am also wondering about the reverse of your questions. How does the “world”, being apart from the church, impact us in unhealthy ways? Without becoming isolationists, fundamentalists, and anti-missional, how do we maintain a healthy balance of interaction? How do we discern that line?

  • rjs


    You are right about the last as well. But I don’t think we can start with “the world is a negative influence and must change” or with an attitude of isolation and withdrawal. I think we should (must) start with the positive – what can we do to form positive and God honoring influences to provide that healthy balance.

  • Carol Noren Johnson

    RJS wrote “Passive entertaining services dominated by charismatic speakers form passive Christians.” This may indeed be valid. Do we go to church for entertainment, or do we worship corporately?

    I looked up my old church on line and did not find a website, but found “The Presence of the Lord Is Here” on uTube:

    It didn’t seem like worship! I have moved to another area and on the basis of this video I am glad I don’t worship there anymore although I do miss the people and they are in my prayers. It seems the world and worldly forms of entertainment have invaded my old church. In their defense, I think this was an amateur photographer in the audience and doesn’t represent the official statement of that church.

  • Rick

    The staged entertainment issue does bring to mind the funny, yet true, video Northpoint’s media group put together:

    What does that type approach do to our neurons? If we see that week after week, in church after church, what does that do to our “transforming” minds? The hope is that people will go deeper into the church (ex. small groups, service, etc…). But does that happen if the main thing being communicated is the standard Sunday morning routine?

  • Amos Paul

    While I COMPLETELY agree with the theological conclusions derived herein from this science, I also exhort care in being over committed to pure materialism so that one’s view becomes reductivist.

    I take it that was the intent of the title, are we literally defined by our neurons at a most basic level? It seems that the answer is also that while they define us, we conversely define them with environmental shaping, etc.

    However, the philosophical problem is that if our thinking is defined by our neurons to begin with then we haven’t the freedom of thought to pursue this transformation via environment unless we happened to be determined to do so by our neurons.

    Therefore, I would shy away from saying that we can reduce human identity and thinking to merely biochemical definitions (or, ‘the neural level’). This isn’t a strange view. There are even pure materialists out there who reject reductivism, calling themselves non-reductivist since the things that define human thought seem to be bigger than biochemical definitions to them. I agree, and propose that the nature of our thought while *highly guided* by these biochemical things goes still yet deeper.

  • rjs


    I’ve posted a number of times on the over reduction. I agree that we need to avoid this – and I think it makes a great point of connection to talk about faith type matters.

    There are a couple of other video excerpts featuring Dr. Newsome where he discusses just the sorts of points you are bringing up.

  • Amos Paul


    You’ll have to forgive my ignorance to your previous posting. I’m only a recent browser of the Jesus Creed Blog, but thanks for pointing that out :).

  • Carol Noren Johnson

    Rick #6
    That Sunday Morning uTube is both funny and sad. Again, entertainment doesn’t inform my worship or my church choice.

  • John W Frye

    Once again you’ve introduced me to another fascinating aspect of the world of science. These video clips stimulate a lot of thought. While I feel the threat of reductionism in science…’I am just the sum of my neuronal activities’…reductionism is the church is just as appalling. It’s as if most Christians do not want to think or engage the very things that are shaping their lives. “Just tell us what to believe and what to do, pastor.”

  • pds

    Rick #6,

    Do you know where I can download “The Song that Everyone Knows”? I like it.

  • Rick


    You would need to ask Northpoint :^)

  • Andy W.

    This stuff is a mind bender for me…no pun intended. My In-laws had 3 of there own children and then when their kids where out of the house they adopted 3 children. All 3 were adopted at infancy. Talk about a case study in nurture vs nature. The difference between the 3 maternal children and the 3 adopted is remarkable, especially in their spiritual development. Now there is a lot that goes int this, so I certainly don’t make broad assumptions, but it’s something I have noticed. Here’s a fascinating article in the latest Atlantic Monthly that I found interesting and theologically problematic:

    RJS, I do think you are right on with your provocative solution here when in comes to church. I just don’t see many folks willing to join in. Most, at least from my observation, aren’t looking for that type of commitment when it comes to church…they want to show and go, with only 10% desiring a more involved and engaged community.

  • Rick

    Andy W.-

    “Most, at least from my observation, aren’t looking for that type of commitment when it comes to church…they want to show and go, with only 10% desiring a more involved and engaged community.”

    You bring up an interesting question and problem. Why do 90% feel that way, and how do we incorporate them into a healthier environment for growth? The mindset is being shaped by the culture, which may be drawing them even further from a healthy model. So how does a church reverse that trend?

  • rjs

    Rick and Andy W.,

    I am not convinced that the 90/10 split is accurate – I think it may be closer to 75/25 or perhaps even approaching 50/50 at times. But I have no hard data for that.

    However, I am frustrated at times because it seems as though we program to “reach” or accommodate the 90%(or 75% or 50%) but not to disciple those who desire or can be encouraged to be more committed. This isn’t actually true for children and youth, but seems to be for adults, even young adults.

  • James Y. Kim

    Quote: I’ll be provocative here – I think it means we should shorten the sermon, introduce multiple participatory activities within the church service in an embodied worship of our God and Savior. Passive entertaining services dominated by charismatic speakers form passive Christians.

    What worries me isn’t the length of the sermon per say, but the content of the sermon. What is appropriate for the Sunday worship service? What should be left for a weekday bible study class?

    What is active participation? What is embodied worship? I actually think some of what passes for worship in some churches borders on idolatry. Just the other Sunday, this gentleman sitting next to me expressed verbally his disgust at the woman who insists on singing solos for offering time. Frankly, she’s not a good singer.

  • rjs

    Or a Sunday bible study class.

    Who’s in error … the person who insists on singing or the person who complained? I can imagine cases where either could be coming with a poor attitude. We are a family and we worship God together, or so it should be.

  • rjs

    My main point here is that we are shaped by what we do and what we think – there is a feedback loop here.

    There should be a conscious decision, following study of scripture and the leading of the Spirit, to structure what we do as a church to shape us as Christians.

  • DRT

    Well, Mom is a clone and there is quite a bit of difference between her and her clone sister. Sure they look quite a bit alike, but as they get older even that is starting to fad.

  • Brian Considine

    “What do you think?”

    I think you’re headed in the right direction, RJS :)


  • Andy W.

    rjs #16,

    I hope you’re right about that, but here in New England (Boston Area) church is very low on the priority list, even for most who regularly attend. I’ve noticed that the more conservative the church, the more involvement there seems to be, but I’m not in that camp. Have others noticed this as well? There does not seem to be a place for folks that are to liberal for those more conservative, but to conservatives for those more liberal.