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What can neuroscience and theology teach us about human nature?

What can neuroscience and theology teach us about human nature?

Guest writer Jack Fuller explores the connections between different perspectives on human nature. 06/11/2020

How we imagine other people shapes how we relate to them. How millions of people imagine millions of other people shapes the dynamics of society. So, building a better society starts with thinking about how we imagine ‘humans’ – all that we share underneath the surface.

All the major currents of thought in society have a view about human nature, whether it’s explicit or implicit. For example, the ‘Chicago School’ of economics, which dominated free–market societies in the 1980s and 90s, developed the neoliberal view of humans: that we are rational and self–interested.[1] Another stream of thought, perhaps the main one in self–help, sees humans in terms of willpower: that the will can conquer all. Legalism during the Qin Dynasty in China saw humans as unchangeably selfish and covetous.[2] 

In my studies, I’ve pursued neuroscience (as an atheist), theology (which definitely expanded my horizons), and I am now training to be a psychotherapist. I’ve noticed some interesting connections between these perspectives on human nature. Below I’ll explore five areas. These are not intended as a complete or final list, just areas to consider, to enrich how we think about human nature. Stepping back from the current tumult of the world and politics, these could be starting points for hopeful discussion, for our own lives, and for shaping our thinking about how we can build more humane and wise societies.

1. Consciousness is just a part of who we are

Consciousness is the state in which we spend most of our time, and it is what seems like ‘us’, in the sense of our identity. If someone asked ‘What is it like to be you?’ we wouldn’t start with showing them our feet; we’d try to give them a sense of what it is like to live in our consciousness. It’s easy to forget though, we don’t know what consciousness is. So this is perhaps the first thing we should remember when imagining humans: our most extraordinary feature is still pretty much a mystery.

Other than its mystery, one thing we can say about consciousness is that it is only one part of who we are. Because consciousness seems like the beginning and end of who we are—it is what we actively experience, after all—we have a mistaken tendency to think that it is all we are. In terms of neuroscience, though, consciousness is one sub—process of the brain. It occurs across different areas of our brain, involving ‘long range cortical connections’ and populations of neurons which fall into patterns of interaction, known as ‘reentrant signalling’, in which they shape each other’s activity.[3] Yet there is a lot going on in our brain other than this. Consciousness is a changing pattern shimmering across different neuronal populations. Everything else is non–conscious. We are made of vast complexes of memory, emotion, and habit, which are out of the ‘light’, perhaps drawn momentarily into consciousness before dissipating, as when we recall a memory, or a habitual feeling comes to the fore.

St. Augustine was aware of the tendency to over–rate consciousness, especially the conscious will. He described the hinterlands of unconscious material in our minds: “In the hidden recesses of the mind there is a certain knowledge of certain things, and… when we think of them, they then proceed, as it were, to the centre and are placed, so to speak, more clearly in the sight of the mind”.[4] In Augustine’s day, British–born theologian Pelagius argued for the power of the conscious will, a bit like a modern self–help guru. Augustine argued back that human nature is tangled and largely unconscious; that the ‘I’ is just a limited part. In the Confessions Augustine wrote to God that he wanted “to worship You and enjoy You”, but that he was held back by everything else within him. “It was not now really ‘I’ that was involved, because here I was, more an unwilling sufferer than a willing actor”.[5]

All this has some key implications for how we imagine humans. Whenever we think of people—a politician on TV, or the millions of people we share a country with—we should remember that no one understands much about themselves, or others. Consciousness is only a little light. This can be a useful prompt to humility, and perhaps forgiveness, for ourselves and others.

2. Habits matter

Another point about humans where there is an interesting intersection of ancient and modern ‘anthropologies’ is that what we do, or encounter regularly, shapes who we are. What we do again and again sinks into us; not so much one–off things, such as reading a book once.

This insight is central in psychotherapy. I’ve experienced it personally in the therapy I’ve done. While studying in Oxford I went to therapy for five days a week for about three years. Overall it was the experience in my life which, I think, has changed me the most. It worked because of ‘drip, drip’ influence that comes from regular contact with another mind (in this case, the wiser and more thoughtful one of my therapist). Over time her ways of thinking and seeing seeped into mine. The insights were not complicated—things like, ‘You don’t have to be quite as anxious about X’—but some words, read once or twice, could never have had the same influence over the tangle in my own brain.

St. Thomas Aquinas made habits a focus of his understanding of humans. As he wrote “habit implies a disposition in relation to a thing’s nature”, and for people, “habits are necessary that the powers be determined to good”.[6] And disposition shaping comes through regularity. As Aquinas put, citing Aristotle’s Ethics:

The Philosopher (Ethics, I, 7): “As neither does one swallow nor one day make spring: so neither does one day nor a short time make a man blessed and happy”. But “happiness is an operation in respect of a habit of perfect virtue” (Ethics, I, 7, 10, 13). Therefore, a habit of virtue, and for the same reason, other habits, is not caused by one act… but only by many.[7]

This has implications for how we imagine others, in particular: that everyone is shaped by the practices they regularly participate in. Writer Alain de Botton argued in his book The News that media occupies the same central role in modern societies that religion did in ancient ones.[8] The norms that dominate in news and social media shape us, in the way that regular religious ritual shaped our habits of body and mind. When habits are front and centre in how we imagine others, it is clear that improving the practices that shape us is a crucial political task.

3. We grow within relationships

Cognitive science shows humans are a naturally tribal species: the brain may have expanded so much over evolution, particularly the frontal lobe, to manage complex social relationships.[9]

The centrality of relationships is also a major finding across schools of practice in therapy— more so than the content communicated, it is the relationship that has the potential to heal. As one review summarized: “Decades of research indicate that the provision of therapy is an interpersonal process in which a main curative component is the nature of the therapeutic relationship”.[10] We also probably know this from our own lives, and deep relationships with teachers, mentors, and partners. We grow within relationships.

In Christian theology the word ‘love’ can be considered shorthand for a good relationship. God revealed what the highest, most loving kind of relationship is. Representing the many aspects of relationships, there are many words in the Old and New Testaments translated as ‘love’. Among others, there is אַהַב (ahab), an intense emotional or existential bond, as in “Isaac loved his son Esau” (Gen. 25:28), and “love thy neighbour as thyself” (Lev. 19:18). There is ἀγάπη (agapé), which is a charity maintained unconditionally, used in “he that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love” (1 John 4:7,8), and “he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8). And there is φιλέω (phileó) meaning friendship and delight in the other, used in “All that are with me salute thee. Greet them that love us in the faith.” (Titus 3:15).

The Bible uses these words to describe bad relationships as well, as in “Beware of the scribes, who desire to walk in long robes, and love (philountōn) greetings in the marketplaces” (Luke 20:46). But this emphasizes the point that relationships are central to who we are and how we grow. And they should be central to how we imagine others, in that we should always wonder what someone loves, behind the front they might be presenting. Intense relationships are not always or straightforwardly good: love can create insiders and out–groups. But working to support the best kinds of relationships, that look beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’ to the good in everyone and beyond everyone, is central to building a good society.

4. Our bodies matter

It sounds obvious to say that we are embodied. But we do tend to imagine people not in embodied terms. People, particularly those far from us or in other groups, tend to become identified with the words in a tweet, a belief system, or mere statistics. An antidote to this is to remember the obvious but forgettable point that we are flesh and blood creatures, who like cosy places to sleep, need food, need hugs, and who will eventually get sick and die in our forlorn battle with thermodynamics.

Cognitive science, in the last couple of decades, has come to focus more on ‘embodied cognition’ and ‘situated cognition’.[11] The chemicals that course throughout our bodies and the complex systems of sensation and response don’t stop at our brain; our identity is just as much about all the unknown molecules coursing through us, as it is about our self–conception and ideas.

Christianity has also placed emphasis on respect for embodiment, with its central idea that God was incarnated in the flesh. Augustine radically changed his imagination around this. In his early years, he joined the Manichees, who believed the world was divided between dark and light (who also rejected the Old Testament, though took selective inspiration from the New, and who accused Catholic Christians of being impure because they tried to muddle along with both).[12] Manicheans wanted to repress the body, seen as bad, to free the spirit. In the 380s AD, in his 30s, Augustine left Manicheism and opposed this way of imagining humans. He argued for the idea that the soul is entwined with the body—that even in resurrection, body and soul will remain together. Augustine also lived out delight in embodiment in his own life: he loved dinner parties with wine (though he had a rule that if anyone gossiped maliciously, their wine would be taken away).[13] And in The City of God he reflects on the beauty of the light and dark of the world: “the extraordinary brilliance and surface effects of the light itself, in sun and moon and stars, in the dark shades of a glade, in the colours and the scents of flowers…”[14]

Remembering that every person is an embodied creature helps ground our imaginations of others, and gives us empathy. We are animals that need to each lunch and get grumpy when we don’t, so perhaps, the person tweeting at you might just not have eaten lunch yet. On a wider scale, when we imagine humans, we can remember our needs for material comforts and health. Park benches, comfy homes, and access to healthcare and beautiful places, are just as much a part of a good society as education and free speech. 

5. Desire shapes our lives

One final point to consider is one that has been central to how Christianity traditionally views humans: the guiding role of desire in our lives.

In Christian theology, desire is a form of love (it is love when it is searching; joy is love when the object is found; sadness is love when the object is not found). Jesus is described as the fulfilment of the Hebrew Bible prophesy that “the desire of all nations shall come” (Haggai, 2:6,7), in the sense that all our love should point towards God, including God incarnated in Jesus, other people, and the material world. Desire in one form or another guides everything we do, from our careers, to our lovers, to forming everyday habits. In some ways it is the lever, which, if you pull it, can change an entire human life. Plato and Augustine knew this, which is why they made the forming of desire central, in the Symposium and the Confessions. Both were seeking to describe how we could come to desire the Good, or God, through educating and deepening our desires, so we come to focus them on what will bring us the most fulfilment, and indeed, the greatest security and pleasure.

In contrast to religion, which is about what one should seek and how one should live, much of neuroscience studies more passive parts of the brain. When I was studying it as an undergraduate in Melbourne in 2004, we looked at memory, attention, and perception. In retrospect, I can’t help wondering if these priorities come from what academics are interested in, as a sub–culture: sitting and thinking.

Yet neuroscience also shows us that desire shapes our lives. The most famous reward–associated neurochemical, dopamine, creates motivation. Without it, mammals literally do nothing.[15] Desire and action also shapes our perception. We know now that when our brain conceives an action, it sends out copies of anticipated motor commands to the sensory cortices—meaning, the end we intend, or desire, primes the way we see the world.[16]

One dominant way of imagining mass human desire is as ‘preferences’. This tends to be too static, as desires change. Once we make the change and education of desire central to our imagination of humans, the forces that shape desire become crucial to consider. The two biggest are perhaps advertising, and what parents raise children to long for. Thinking about how to do both of these things wisely, from this perspective, is central to building a society oriented around life–giving things.[17]

**

Intertwined in all our collective challenges is the question of how people imagine other people. Thinking about this, and how to enrich imaginations, is a key starting point for building better ways of living with each other. It’s not so much about creating a coherent theory or school that everyone can (or should) buy into; it’s about spreading more wise and diverse perspectives on human nature, in ways that can become part of habitual thinking, in our relationships with those near to us, and just as importantly, people we only imagine, and never meet.


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[1] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Chicago-school-of-economics

[2] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/chinese-legalism/#HumNat

[3] Understanding Neural Oscillations in the Human Brain: From movement to consciousness and vice & versa

AM Cebolla, G Cheron – Frontiers in psychology, 2019, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01930/full

[4] Augustine, On the Trinity, trans. S. McKenna, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 146.

[5] Augustine, Confessions, trans. H. Chadwick, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 136

[6] Summa Theologica, I–II, q. 49, a. 4; https://www.newadvent.org/summa/2049.htm

[7] Summa Theologica, I–II, q. 51, a. 3; https://www.newadvent.org/summa/2051.htm

[8] Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual, 2014

[9] Dunbar, Robin & Shultz, Susanne. (2007). Evolution in the Social Brain. Science (New York, N.Y.). 317. 1344–7. 10.1126/science.1145463.

[10] Michael, Lambert & Barley, Dean. (2001). Research Summary of the Therapeutic Relationship and Psychotherapy Outcome. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. 38. 357–361. 10.1037/0033–3204.38.4.357.

[11] Freeman, Walter. (2003). Neurodynamic Models of Brain in Psychiatry. Neuropsychopharmacology. 28 Suppl 1. S54–63. 10.1038/sj.npp.1300147; https://www.nature.com/articles/1300147

[12] Life of Augustine, Augnet, http://www.augnet.org/en/life-of-augustine/growing-up/1031-the-manichee/

[13] Quoted in P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, London, Faber and Faber, 1969, p. 409.

[14] Quoted in P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, London, Faber and Faber, 1969, p. 329.

[15] The Psychology of Desire, Wilhelm Hofmann and Loran F. Nordgren (eds.), 2015 

[16] Freeman, Walter. (2003). Neurodynamic Models of Brain in Psychiatry. Neuropsychopharmacology. 28 Suppl 1. S54–63. 10.1038/sj.npp.1300147; https://www.nature.com/articles/1300147

[17] Fuller, Jack, Desire and the Ethics of Advertising, D.Phil. Thesis, The University of Oxford, 2016

Image: Mopic/shutterstock.com

 
Dr. Jack Fuller

Dr. Jack Fuller

Jack Fuller is a project manager at Boston Consulting Group in New York. He has an undergraduate degree in Neuroscience from The University of Melbourne and a D.Phil. and M.Phil. in Theology (Ethics) from The University of Oxford, where he studied on a Rhodes Scholarship. He has recently co–authored a book, The Imagination Machine: How to Spark New Ideas and Create Your Company’s Future (Harvard Business Press, 2021).


 

Posted 6 November 2020

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