Anatomy of the Soul (RJS)

Anatomy of the Soul (RJS) April 17, 2012

I was given a book recently,  Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson, that connects with ideas we have discussed in a number of different posts – from those on Joel Green’s book Body, Soul, and Human Life to  a series on Science and Sin. The topic also connects with posts on Science and Christian Virtue exploring ideas developed by NT Wright in his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. If interested you can find these posts in the Science and Faith under Pages on the sidebar – scroll down to the topic heading Science, Faith, and Being Human.

Anatomy of the Soul explores the relationship between brain and mind and looks at the impact a better understanding of this relationship might have on both spiritual practices and relationships. Neuroscience is a booming field of study today, attracting large numbers of undergraduate majors and active graduate level research programs. Experimental techniques like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET)  have been used to explore the relationship between brain activity and a variety of different kinds of stimuli. The subject is fascinating and our understanding of brain function is growing quickly. The image above comes from the NIMH site – where much more information is available.

Dr. Thompson is a psychiatrist in private practice, and this book comes from his study and experience in this context. At first glance this seems to be the kind of  popular self-help book I pass over at the book store The publisher’s blurb is no help:

Do you want to improve your relationships and experience lasting personal change? Join Curt Thompson, M.D., on an amazing journey to discover the surprising pathways for transformation hidden inside your own mind. Integrating new findings in neuroscience and attachment with Christian spirituality, Dr. Thompson reveals how it is possible to rewire your mind, altering your brain patterns and literally making you more like the person God intended you to be.

There are places in the book (and I have not finished the book yet) where there does seem to be an over emphasis of self-help and an under emphasis on the power of God to transform. There are also some statements about God that leave me scratching my head …  But the book also introduces some interesting ideas worth some discussion.

To what extent is transformation something we leave to God through the Holy Spirit?

To what extent is transformation a process we participate in and actively pursue?

What we do, who we associate with, and how we choose to relate to people changes our brain. In turn these changes in the brain influence what we do, who we choose to associate with, and how we are able to relate with people. To a certain extent the brain, like a muscle but in even more profound ways, can be modified and trained through the practice of either vice or virtue.

In chapter three of Anatomy of the Soul Dr. Thompson outlines various aspects of the brain -looking at both left brain and right brain ideas as well as a top-down model of the brain. In the context of this background he describes how the brain changes through various stages of human development, from early infancy through adolescence.

Thompson also discusses briefly the neuroplasticity of the brain. While the accepted paradigm some twenty years ago was that the brain stopped changing and growing once an individual reached adulthood – this idea has been modified if not overturned by more recent research. The brain can continue to develop and change as new neural connections are formed and old ones are bypassed throughout are lifespan. The process is faster and easier in youth, but it does not vanish with age.

Dr Thompson suggests three activities that enhance this growth (p. 47):

Aerobic exercise at least 45 minutes a day, five days a week. This is good for the heart and good for the brain.

Focused attention exercises – here he gives prayer as an example, something he will return to in a later chapter.

Novel learning experiences – the brain needs constant and creative exercise. Learn a language, learn to play an instrument, learn to build furniture, learn to repair a car …

At the end of this chapter Dr. Thompson brings up a big topic for us in the church.

Have you ever wondered if, when people begin to follow Jesus, they really experience the change he promised? And if so how does it happen and what role, if any, does the individual play? Does this sound like a distant rumbling of what you have heard echoed before, that God is a God who changes us?

Of course we have stock theological answers like “It’s through the power of the Holy Spirit.” Or, “He does it by grace, and that’s a mystery.” Great.

While there certainly is truth in those statements, giving a theological answer to someone’s agony over his or her failed attempt to overcome a pornography addiction or to forgive an abusive parent usually produces only guilt. …

But what happens when we begin to consider that we can change the way our brains are wired? Perhaps it can point us to what God is up to when he invites us to love him and give us hope that the tools he’s built within each one of us can help us move toward lasting change. (p. 47-48)

Here we hit a real road block for many – to what extent does our theology allow us to participate in our transformation and sanctification? Perhaps this is just another form of what Tim Keller calls “religion” (see Ch. 11 of The Reason for God). Religion leads to a belief in salvation through moral effort while the gospel is salvation through the grace of God. The idea of transformation or sanctification through the effort of shaping one’s own brain treads dangerously close to self-help in place of reliance on God and his mercy and power.

To what extent are we in control of our transformation?

To what extent can we participate in transformation?

Is training for moral behavior and godliness similar to training for a marathon or is it something to leave in the hands of God?

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  • mike h

    Actually, this stuff is interesting. Having caught bits and pieces of the Vineyard folks, (I’ve not really pursued this in depth, yet), and their responses, it looks a lot like what you quoted, “Perhaps it can point us to what God is up to when he invites us to love him and give us hope that the tools he’s built within each one of us can help us move toward lasting change.” Call it that God-shaped space that, when filled, produces transformation at the most basic level of one’s being. On the other hand, it may give some folks the idea that we can finally figure out how God works in our lives.

  • DRT

    I will have to split up what I have to say, but without numbers to reference which comment makes this seem moot.

    Reminds me of my favorite joke – in short form – a man hears a flood is coming and says god will keep him from harm – the flood waters come to his door and emergency people tell him to get out, he says god will save him – the waters flood his first floor, he goes on the second and workers come by with a boat to evacuate him, he says god will save him – finally he is forced to the roof, a helicopter comes by and he says god will save him – when he meets god in heaven he complains that god did not save him, but god says he sent workers, a boat, a helicopter, what else could he want.

    Jesus is the exogenous gift of god (I will ignore the holy spirit for now), and his message. If we take him into our lives and contemplate him, study him, model ourselves after him, then is it Jesus or us that is changing us? It is us in cooperation with the knowledge of Jesus.

    To sit back and say that god will change us when he has already given us the change agent (Jesus and the Holy Spirit) is lazy in my view. We need to work out our salvation, our participation in the kingdom to be changed. Jesus actively works in our life through understanding him, not magic.

  • DRT

    I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Thompson’s three activities for brain health. I have touted a similar approach around here before and feel it really works. We have the opportunity to actively mold ourselves to the image of Jesus, or at least a bit closer.

    There is a letting go part of the whole encounter with Jesus. We need to let go of ourselves and allow, or invite, or conform to what the vision of Jesus is like.

    There is great danger in this!

    What if our image of god that we are emulating and conforming our mind to was a god who punished people, who excluded people, who exemplified characteristics that are not very Jesus like? Scot’s post today about whether we develop an image of god through Jesus or test Jesus based on our image of god is quite relevant to this discussion.

    This is why it is important to have the proper image of god, it is Jesus, not some wrathful judgmental god who murders his son and condemns billions to an eternal hell without every even having had the chance to follow him.

  • DRT

    Lastly, I believe that this type of approach makes sense of many of the references and sayings. Seek and you will find is all about this type of approach. Losing ourselves to find ourselves too. Knocking and the door will be opened. Growing in the kingdom is an important part of becoming a Christian. We can be transformed, but we must be transformed by Jesus image and not some projection of ourselves.

  • Slightly aside from the prompts (which I’ll address momentarily) I really like Anatomy of the Soul and I used it for a sermon series at my church–which was very well received and helpful for people.

    What Thompson conveys is the neuroscience underpinning classical spiritual disciplines. The argument between ‘Grace / justification sola Fide’ and ‘Spiritual Disciplines/ Sanctification’ is an old one. I agree with Richard Foster (I hope I”m quoting him–maybe Dallas Willard) that spiritual disciplines are “Disciplines of Grace” by which we grow deeper into God by the means that God has graciously provided. For extrapolation on this, I’ve devoted a chapter titled “Green Martyrs: Spiritual Fitness” in my book Water from an Ancient Well.

  • Some have said the “grace transforms you…by hearing the gospel more and getting more into the gospel” is a form of neuro linguistic programming.


  • Kim

    I don’t believe I am in control of my transformation, but see myself as an active participant and partner with the Holy Spirit in the process. Romans 12:2 exhorts us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” which I see as my part of the bargain.
    As stated above, “What we do, who we associate with, and how we choose to relate to people changes our brain. In turn these changes in the brain influence what we do, who we choose to associate with, and how we are able to relate with people.” This is my role – what am I thinking about/reading/watching, who am I hanging with, how healthy are my relationships and my thought life, etc. These are my choices and where I can take a role in the renewal of my mind. Also in Eph 4:22-24 Paul writes that we are to put off the old self, “be made new in the attitude of your minds” and put on the new self.
    But where the desire originates to engage in the process is more of a mystery. I lean toward the Holy Spirit’s convicting me of my sin and teaching me all things is what starts the ball rolling so I want to make the changes and engage in the hard work to change. Either way, it’s a partnership. I can’t bail and pass the job entirely to God, nor can I pull myself up by my bootstraps and transform myself.

  • I think Philippians 2:12-13 is worth referencing here (keeping in mind the 2nd personal plural): we work because God works. Not mere human moral effort and reform, but grace-induced action that participates in the transforming work of the Spirit.

  • Scot, Somehow I missed this post. You are so prolific it’s hard to read everything. As a psychologist, I’m encouraged by Thompson’s work (along w/ the work of the Siegel’s, among others in the neuroscience world). I do think neuroscience is explaining how we change. It does give us some vision for ‘participation’ in a process of growth and change, that God works in and through our intentional commitment to change. Finally, if you believe what neuroscientists are finding, you’ll also believe we’re so beautifully and wonderfully complex so as to lead us to throw up our hands and say, “I couldn’t possibly fix myself!” It counters the Christian cognitive-behavioral approaches, even within the “repent and believe the Gospel” camp – which so often proclaim the grace of the Gospel but leave people more frustrated, in my experience. (i.e. I’m repenting, and I’m even repenting of not repenting well enough, and I’m trying to believe the Gospel but my I’m repenting of my disbelief!)

    Much more can be said…maybe that’s a discussion starter…