Online Conversation | Neurobiology and the Soul: an Online Conversation with Curt Thompson and Jeffrey Dudiak
What is the connection between our mind and our soul? New discoveries in neuroscience reveal that love can literally change our minds — that our relationships and interactions with others help shape our brains – which in turn, shape our relationships and behaviors. The link between our habits and spiritual practices and the renewing of our mind may be far more direct than once supposed.
On Friday, June 24th at 1:30pm ET we hosted an Online Conversation with psychiatrist Curt Thompson and The King’s University philosophy professor Jeffrey Dudiak to discuss the convergence of what brain research and spiritual practices reveal about the formation and development of our mind, heart, and soul.
This Conversation is part of our Discovery and Doxology series in partnership with BioLogos and Church of the Advent bringing together leading scientists, theologians, and scholars to discuss the relationship between science and faith.
Online Conversation | Thompson + Dudiak | June 24, 2022
Deb Haarsma: Welcome, everyone, to today’s Online Conversation. My name is Deb Haarsma, and I’m an astronomer and I’m president of BioLogos. BioLogos is delighted to be partnering with the Trinity Forum and Church of the Advent for today’s event, “Neurobiology and the Soul.” This will be a conversation with psychiatrist Curt Thompson and philosopher Jeff Dudiak.
So at BioLogos we love working with the Trinity Forum. Today’s fractured culture is filled with these angry soundbites, but at the Trinity Forum you get these thoughtful, faithful conversations that help you go deeper. And this event is part of a series where we’ve gone deeper into science, and not just deeper into the findings, but wider as we consider the rich ways faith and science work hand in hand. When Cherie Harder and I first envisioned this series, we named it Discovery and Doxology. The discoveries of science filled us with wonder and doxology. I was just reading that astronomers have now cataloged 1 billion stars. That’s amazing. So before telescopes, people could see a few thousand stars at night, and now we know a billion. And yet the human brain, not a few thousand, not a billion, but 86 billion neurons just inside our skulls. And we’re just beginning to learn all the cool ways those neurons work together. Discoveries like those lift us out of the mundane issues of our lives to see a world of intricate wonder, and they move us to worship.
Now, sadly, in our culture, science is often presented as if faith isn’t even in the picture. Sometimes neuroscience sounds like the brain is nothing but those 86 billion neurons. Maybe once we figure out how the neurons work, we won’t need God anymore. But that’s not true. We may have a catalog of a billion stars, but those stars are all still declaring the glory of God. And as Christians, we get this wonderful work of tracing out those connections between the findings of science and the world of faith, wrestling with the tension points, and forming this larger, richer picture than science ever could do alone.
If you love this kind of conversation, I encourage you to check out BioLogos.org where we’re doing this sort of work on many different topics, bringing together rigorous science and Christian faith in a spirit of gracious dialogue. And now I will turn it over to our moderator for today, my friend and president of the Trinity Forum, Cherie Harder.
Cherie Harder: Thanks so much, Deb, for that really kind introduction. It’s always a pleasure to get to work with you. And welcome to all of you joining us for today’s Online Conversation with Curt Thompson and Jeffrey Dudiak on “Neurobiology and the Soul.” I’d like to thank our program sponsors, the Telemachus Network, Edge Mentoring, and the Praxis Guild of Indianapolis, as well as special thanks to the Templeton Religion Trust, whose support has helped make this entire series possible.
As Deb was telling you a little bit about, today’s conversation is actually part of a series on Discovery and Doxology, which features scientists in conversation with philosophers and theologians on the relationship between scientific discovery and theological wisdom. It’s been a real pleasure to be able to work not only with the Templeton Religion Trust, but also BioLogos, led by Deb Haarsma, and Church of the Advent led by Dr. Tommy Henson.
We’re so excited that so many of you are joining us today. When I last checked, we had nearly 2,200 people registered and just really appreciate the honor of your time and attention. And I’d like to send a special welcome out to our nearly 351 first-time guests, as well as our nearly 200 international guests from at least 29 countries that we know of. So thank you for joining us from across the miles and across the time zones. And if you haven’t done so already, send us a note in the chat box. It’s always fun for us to know where you all are tuning in from. And if you are one of those new guests or are otherwise new to the work of the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so and to come to better know the Author of the answers. We hope the hour ahead will be a small taste of that for you today.
As Deb was talking about, part of our hope in hosting this series on science and faith was to reexamine some of the common assumptions about that relationship. There’s a widespread sense that science and faith are necessarily in conflict or perhaps may belong to entirely different spheres, each with worthwhile things to say, but virtually nothing to say to each other. But as we’ll discuss today, in matters of the mind and soul, the line between the physical and the metaphysical may be fuzzier and more porous than previously believed. New discoveries in neurobiology reveal that it’s largely our relationships and interactions with others that shape our brains, even in a material sense, which in turn shapes our relationships and behaviors. Growing evidence suggests that spiritual disciplines that orient our attention, such as prayer, may quite literally change your mind, that love can rewire the neurons, and that being known is foundational to mental health. And the biblical promise of renewing your mind may be a biological as well as a spiritual reality.
It’s a fascinating topic, and it’s hard to imagine two scholars who can spread more light, warmth, and wisdom on the topic than our guests today, Dr. Curt Thompson and Dr. Jeffrey Dudiak. Curt is a psychiatrist in private practice and the host of the Be Known podcast, which explores the connection between interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation. He’s a sought-after speaker and consultant, as well as the author of the excellent books Anatomy of the Soul, The Soul of Shame, and his most recent work, The Soul of Desire: Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community. He is also, I’m very proud to say, a senior fellow of the Trinity Forum.
Joining him will be Dr. Jeffrey Dudiak. Jeff is a professor of philosophy at the King’s University in Edmonton, Canada, where he has taught for nearly a quarter century. His scholarship is focused primarily on the areas of continental philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and Quaker religious thought. He’s the author of several books, including The Intrigue of Ethics, Religion with an Unpure Heart, and his latest publication released earlier this year, Post-Truth: Facts and Faithfulness.
Curt and Jeffrey, welcome.
Curt Thompson: Thanks, Cherie. It’s great to be back.
Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you both here. So as we start off, I anticipate that we’ll be talking today quite a bit about both the neurobiological and spiritual importance of connection and of being known. And so it seems rather significant, as well as fun, to acknowledge that the two of you have been friends for several decades, and I understand, just as of recently, the best men in each other’s weddings. So as we start out, would be curious about essentially how you became friends, but also how your friendship and being known by the other has affected your approach to your work across the fields of psychiatry and philosophy. And, Jeff, maybe we can start with you.
Jeff Dudiak: Well, I don’t know how much to say about this. Curt and I have been friends since probably early teenage years, maybe just pre-teen years, where we met at church camps and retreats and so forth. And I immediately connected with Curt, even though we didn’t know each other well. And then when we overlapped for three years at Malone College, now Malone University, for much of that time, Curt’s room was right across the hall from my room. So every time I opened the door in the morning, I heard him, or at least his door was there. And we’ve remained friends down over the years. And one little incident I’ll talk about—we maybe can say more about this later—I remember visiting Curt’s mother at their home. And at a certain point during this visit, Curt’s mother was giving me heck for things that Curt had done and as if I were responsible for Curt’s behavior. And at the time, I found it sort of amusing. But as I thought about it down through the years, I think that Curt’s mom had it right, because as Curt’s friend, I’m not only responsible to Curt, I’m responsible for Curt. And that means that when he is struggling and when he is hurting, I’m responsible to be there for him. And it means that when he is succeeding, as he so often does, it is my great privilege to be really, really proud of him.
So we have had a connection. It’s been a distant connection for the most part. After we left college, Curt went to medical school and I went to grad school. And there have always been hundreds, if not thousands, of miles between us. We haven’t always, in the busyness of life, not always kept up with each other quite the way that we should. And so there have been times, I think, that have been difficult when I’ve needed Curt and he hasn’t been there. And there have been times that, at the same time, Curt’s always been there. And this is, I guess, the corny part. But Curt’s presence to me is not just his physical presence. He’s not just out there. He’s part of me. And so he’s always been there, even when he hasn’t been there.
Cherie Harder: Curt, would you like anything to add?
Curt Thompson: Well, I don’t know if there’s much to add. I would say that one of the things that strikes me is that I’ve often said to my wife, Phyllis, “I’m going to have to die before Jeff does because I can’t afford to be in the world with him not being alive.” And I think that is a testimony to not only, you know, some nostalgic idea of what we would call friendship, but I think it’s a testimony to the way we have shaped each other’s lives, to the way we have, by God’s grace, helped to create comfort and confidence for each other in the world. I love the way he describes it, which would be true for me, this sense that I don’t—very few days go by where I’m not wondering to myself, “What would Jeff be thinking about this? How is he?” And imagining Jeff being in the room with me in those kinds of ways. And I think in some respects kind of gets right at and gets right after what we’re trying to talk about today.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. That’s great. Well, just jumping in, one of the statements that you made in your book, Anatomy of the Soul, Curt, goes right to the heart of what we’re talking about in terms of neurobiology of the soul. And I wanted to ask you about it. And you said, “I believe we cannot separate what we do with our brains and our relationship with what we do with God.” I’d love for you to expand on this and what you mean by that, particularly from a neurobiological point of view.
Curt Thompson: Well, I think before—as a run up to reflecting on that—I think the first thing—and again, all these questions, I’ll be eager to hear Jeff’s response to this—one of the first things that we talk about when people come to see us in the office is this question of “in what story do you believe you’re living?” And so I would start— Then I reference the kind of phrase of Michael Polanyi that’s often quoted when he said, “There’s no such thing as science. There are only scientists.” This sense that science is a body of work, but it doesn’t speak for itself. Human beings have to speak for it. And in that sense, we tell stories about what we encounter, about first we sense—we say this about the brain—first we sense and then we are making sense of what we sense. And in that regard, the story that I have made sense of, the story in which I sit, the one which I believe that we’re living, is a story in which we are created beings. We don’t sit here alone.
And so, therefore, anything that I talk about regarding the brain, especially with the data that we have on the research in attachment and the development of and pruning and neuroplasticity and all the things that we talk about with this—and trauma recovery and so forth, addiction recovery—this notion that we don’t just simply, our brains don’t just simply develop on their own. They develop in a context of relational interaction. And it is those relational interactions that goes no small distance in shaping, calling forth and shaping, the nature of how the brain forms. And we would imagine then that the brain that I have that is part of the mind, not the essence of the mind, but part of the mind, is the same brain that my wife has to deal with, that Jeff has to deal with, is the same brain that God has to deal with. And when I talk about God, I’m using my brain. I can’t separate these things. Not that my brain is God or vice versa, but that this sense that I don’t separate; in terms of even of the neurobiology as we understand it, there is no clear dividing line between the relationship that I have with Jeff, for instance, and what’s happening in my brain at the same time. There’s no sense in which there is a relational compartment over here and there’s a brain compartment over here.
And I think most of the time when we want to categorize things, when I’d like to separate God from your relationships, from the brain, and so forth, it is a way for me to be better able to manage my distress about the fact that I can’t make sense of all this stuff, that I can’t control all this stuff, that I can’t regulate my emotional states as easily as I could if I can just categorize these things, and then I can exhale because then I can be in charge of this. As opposed to, what we would like to say, that where I most effectively regulate my affect is in the context of a human relationship that is with me and present with me even in the middle of my distress. And so I’ll pause with that. That’s kind of what I’m trying to get at.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Well, let me pick up on one of the things you mentioned about story and the importance of story. And I would love to ask you both about this, in that another argument you make in your book that people largely change through telling their story to an empathetic listener who understands, where they feel understood, and actually both the teller and the listener actually undergo a change in brain chemistry. And I think about the fact that Jesus taught so often in stories. His way of imparting wisdom as well as knowledge was through story. What is it about story that changes the brain? And then, Jeff, I’d like to ask you, I know you have written a lot about how we as a society have moved essentially from wisdom to knowledge to information. And would love to hear from you about the role of story and wisdom. But, Curt, maybe we can start first with you.
Curt Thompson: Well, I think, briefly, I would say that unless you’re in a C.S. Lewis novel, most animals other than humans don’t tell stories. And we’ve said this before—and of course, maybe they do, and we humans are broken enough that we just really aren’t paying attention. And I’m not really even being facetious there. But it is this thing that does tend to set us apart, that we are people who tell stories in ways that no other creature appears to do. Not that others aren’t trying to do that, right? The heavens, right, they praise the creation. But I would say, and I’ll use Jeff and me as an example in this regard about why it’s so important—so there would be times in our relationship over the course of the years in which I would, you know, Jeff would be thinking about things philosophically and pushing the boundaries on things that I would find to be uncomfortable, in kind of where I was, because I was just trailing behind. I’m like this younger brother that’s always toddling behind his older brother, trying to—you just want to kind of be in his wake about so many different things. And there would be things that he would start to think and it would make me nervous: about faith, about the world, and so forth and so on.
And, you know, at first glance, one might think that my nervousness is about, “Oh, I’m worried that I’m going to be wrong, that Jeff might be right about something that I’m incorrect about.” But the bigger worry actually was that I could be wrong, I could be different than, I might think differently than Jeff, and then Jeff would think I was stupid. Jeff wouldn’t want to have anything to do with me. Now, of course, this gets into issues about shame and so forth and so on that’s not the topic of our conversation today. But the story that I was telling in my head, not even one that I was necessarily aware of that I was telling, was that if Jeff finds me to think differently, Jeff’s not going to want to have anything to do with me. And that was way too much. And so there would be long periods of time where I couldn’t tell him things that I was thinking mostly as a way to avoid the worry that he was going to go.
And so this is the other thing that I would say, is that we tell stories not just to be understood, not just to make sense of what I sense, but I tell that story in order to be connected to you in the process of doing. And it is where our wounds and our trauma and shame tend to have infiltrated our histories, that gets tangled up in the story that we tell. That means I don’t tell you everything because I’m afraid that once I do, you’re going to see parts of me that I hate the most. And then you’re going to go.
Cherie Harder: So, Jeff, you come to this conversation as a philosopher and you have written and thought quite a bit about essentially the way that we have moved from a society, a people, that most values wisdom to knowledge to information. And I want to just kind of tease that out a little bit, the role of story in all of that, in that it seems like in many ways wisdom consists of story, whereas information is just a few of the bits of raw material for one, and would be interested in your thoughts on what has happened in terms of the disintegration of story on a societal level.
Jeff Dudiak: Yeah, there’s a lot here. And you know, anytime I talk with Curt, it sets off 75 bells in my head. And I’ll try to answer your question a little bit and then tie that back into story. My sense is historically—and of course, these are generalizations—but historically we went from a wisdom storytelling culture to one in which modern science became extremely successful. And we began to substitute knowledge for wisdom, and wisdom became less important. Wisdom began to be understood as great amounts of knowledge rather than as something else. And I think that what has happened more recently is that we have now moved from a knowledge-based culture to an information-based culture. And I know it’s difficult now to teach university students, because why would they learn anything when they can look it up in 10 seconds? And so my sense is that knowledge is finding out how to integrate and critically analyze information. And knowledge is our capacity to step back from the different ways in which we know and make self-critical and humble judgments about those ways of knowing and the ways in which they need to relate to each other. Because there are several ways of knowing things. You know, when we talk about Adam “knowing” Eve in the Scriptures and they conceived a child, they were not exchanging information. They were doing something. So knowledge is not just what we do when we’re doing science.
With respect to story, I think story is very important and it ties in, I think, to the wisdom traditions, which is one of the reasons why I think that in our age in particular, learning how to recover the wisdom of ancient texts is really, really important for us, that we rejoin ourselves to those traditions as well. But one of the things that I did in my youth, rather than wasting my youth in a pool hall, which in retrospect I should have done, because I’d be a better pool player, I wasted my time collecting master’s degrees, and one of them was a master’s degree in psychology from Duquesne University. And at Duquesne one of the ways that they taught us to do therapy—and Curt may have a critical view of this—was to try to encourage people to tell their stories, because the premise was that if you are coming into therapy, chances are that your story is stuck. You cannot figure out how to get from the way you have been telling your story to yourself in the past, to a way of telling your story to yourself that allows you to have a promising and healthy future. And so what the therapist does in a certain sense is to engage people in their stories and help them to restore, re-story, their lives and tell the story differently so that they can then find a way to move forward.
And I think that a lot of this—and we’re going to talk, I think, a fair bit about integration—but I think that it’s not a question of us having minds and having brains and having souls. But these are different ways, different ways of articulating the same thing, which is just our lives. And so I think that when we talk about anthropology and this capacity of human beings, which is an amazing capacity for human beings to distance ourselves from our instincts. Most animals—and my friend and former colleague John Wood would tell me this line is not as as clear as I would like it to be maybe, theoretically—but animals, the other animals follow their instincts. They do what they are instinctually programmed to do. When it’s mating season, they will follow their instincts and mate in the way that they’re instinctually designed to do. Human beings are capable of deciding to be celibate for religious reasons, for ethical reasons. When animals are hungry, they eat. Human beings are capable of deciding that for health reasons or religious reasons, that we’re going to fast. And so we have this capacity to take distance from ourselves.
And I think that we’re saying the same thing in a different way when we talk about neuroscience and we’re talking about neuroplasticity. This is this ability that we have to reform things, to re-story things. And I think that this is the same thing that we’re talking about theologically when we talk about grace. Grace is a break with the past. And so these are three modes, three different ways of naming the same phenomenon, which is our lived experience that tomorrow does not have to be like yesterday, that things can be different, despite what the writer of Ecclesiastes says, which I respect as well, and take seriously as well.
Cherie Harder: Let’s talk about integration and disintegration. Curt, one of the things I—one of the many things—I thought was quite fascinating in your book Anatomy of the Soul is that you mentioned that the mind, left to its own devices, actually tends towards disconnection or disintegration over time. And you also said that one way to comprehend the dynamic of sin itself is to see it as a matter of choosing to be mindless rather than mindful, which is part of what leads to our minds becoming disintegrated. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit more about what’s going on there from a neurobiological perspective, as well as a spiritual one. Why do you see part of the dynamic of sin as disintegration?
Curt Thompson: Well, I think, you know, if we don’t even talk about the Bible, we can look at attachment studies, attachment research, that looks at the reality of how when a newborn comes into the world, anywhere from about 15 to 20 percent of the neurons that the baby comes into the world with are capable of doing the job that they need to be able to do in that state of mind that they’re in. And that the rest of those neurons, in order for them to come to a place where they can flourish and function as they were intended, we would suppose—to have those children, those newborns and infants and toddlers, grow into healthy humans—they require the interaction with other human beings in order for those neural networks to begin to form in ways that allow the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the rest of the mind, in order for us to do the things that Jeff was talking about, in order for us to, through the mechanics of neuroplasticity, change the course of things rather than just letting them go on their own.
And so one of the things that happens, for instance, with human beings is that when we are in distress, when we are by ourselves, when left to ourselves, when we are in distress, we will typically do whatever it is that we need to do to reduce that distress as expeditiously as possible, no matter what that distress is. And so, for example, if I’m in distress because I have a test tomorrow that I haven’t studied for, I might just easily go play video games and it reduces my distress quite quickly, but it doesn’t really help me tomorrow morning. But if I have a friend who calls and says, “Hey, like I’m having trouble with this, could we study together?” It’s going to take more effort in the immediacy, but I’m going to actually have a better payoff tomorrow morning because someone has joined me in this. But if you leave me to my own, I will tend to want to do whatever it is that I can do unless I have some sense or awareness of the other, some sense of awareness that my behavior is going to have an impact on someone else. And my only awareness that that’s going to happen is if somewhere along the way someone has really instituted the presence of another that enables me to have that experience.
Our sense of what wounding does, what our ruptures do—we talk about ruptures that take place relationally, that then are expressed to neurobiologically. Those ruptures, when toxic enough, when these are traumatic ruptures, when they are ruptures that are not repaired, we then tend to move toward a more reductionistic—more “I’ll just solve this; I’m alone in the in the universe and I’m going to resolve this problem as quickly as I can.” What that tends to do, though, is it has fewer parts of my brain connected to other parts of my brain because I’m actually less connected to other human beings as part of this, because I’m not co-regulating my distress, which may take longer and may take more work in the short run, but over the long run, over the long haul of the next few minutes, hours, days, weeks, years in my life, leads to a life of flourishing.
And so then when we look at the biblical narrative and we say, you know, there was this crafty animal in the garden whose job it was to fool humans, whose job it was to move them away from God and actually move them away from themselves. And, you know, I invite people to consider that evil uses trauma and shame as a way to literally disintegrate, to disconnect neural networks from one another within a person’s mind, while simultaneously disconnecting them from one another, disconnecting us from God, leaving us in this place where God says it’s not good for the man to be, not good for us to be alone. When I find myself to be alone, I’m going to do those things that only tend to reinforce that isolation. And until or unless someone else comes to find me, it will not be easy for me to—I can’t repair these things on my own.
Cherie Harder: But why do we do that? When we most need connection, why do we seek isolation?
Curt Thompson: Well, I mean, you know, the ultimate why—thanks be to God we have a philosopher on this call. And I think that that’s going to be his question to answer that ultimate why. I mean, to me, it’s more a matter of, you know, why do I do anything quickly to reduce my pain when I’m in pain? This disconnection, I’m going to do whatever I can do quickly to reduce it. And the work of my brain stem, my fight-or-flight system, works much, much more quickly than the work of my prefrontal cortex having to calm my brain stem. The number of times that I would have wanted to have yelled at my children but chose not to—. You know, it takes time, effort, and energy to take a breath and allow your prefrontal cortex to go calm your [brain stem] so that you don’t commit a felony in your kitchen. You don’t want to be doing this.
But I will say, the capacity for me to do that is deeply connected to the fact that I’m married to someone who also is with me in this process, or that I have other friends like Jeff, who enables me not to lose my mind when I’m having my own internal struggles. But it is the coming together with him on countless number of occasions wherein which not just that he gives me information, but that he gives me his presence. That presence that I told you about earlier that I was so afraid would leave once he discovered how uninformed or stupid I was in the way that I was telling this story. And in this way he actually, this friendship has changed my story, while I would say also changing the nature of how my neural networks are being formed.
Cherie Harder: That’s fascinating. Jeff, was there anything you wanted to add?
Jeff Dudiak: Yeah. First of all, I can’t answer the why question. There may be biblical scholars who can answer, who can read this better than I do, but my understanding is that the appearance of the serpent is absurd. There is no explanation for it. It just—it’s without why. And so it becomes, I mean, I’m pretty convinced that in terms of theodicies, it’s not possible to give an explanation for evil, because it shouldn’t be there. It doesn’t make any sense. And to give a reason for it mistakenly gives it a place, gives it a reason. But that may be another argument.
I think that with respect to relationship, I’m very keen on reading the creation story in terms of this rhythm of “Let there be… And there was.” And so everything that is created, everything that exists, including me, is a response to a call. I need to fulfill my vocation because I am called into being. And so at my most fundamental level, I am response, which means I’m responsibility. And who I am is necessarily connected to my being responsible. And it’s being responsible to God, yes, but also being responsible to those to whom God has called me to be responsible. And so I cannot be myself in isolation. I can only be who I am insofar as I take up my responsibilities to those who are my neighbors in the deep, rich, biblical sense of that term.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. I see a bunch of questions piling up, but before we turn to audience questions, I feel like we can’t talk about disintegration without talking about reintegration. And, Curt, you’ve talked about reintegration essentially being a necessary part of redemption, even. And, of course, our faith gives us a rich vocabulary for talking about this. But would love to ask you both, essentially, what does it mean both, Curt, from a neurobiological standpoint, but, Jeff, also from a philosophical one, to essentially reintegrate as a person but also as a people? Curt, maybe we can start with you.
Curt Thompson: Well, I, in the most recent book, I talk about this notion that we—it appears—that we are people of great longing, of great desire, and we can’t really get away from that. We don’t escape that. And my sense is that, being made in God’s image, we are made as desiring people because that reflects a desiring God. We are made to desire each other. We are made to desire the one who desires us. And in so many different ways. And that desire for beauty and goodness and to live truly is always kind of with us. And at the same time, trauma and its accompanying features tends to really—it bruises that, it wounds that. And one of the beautiful things that we see is that no matter how traumatized people are, they, for the most part, even in our worst traumas, we tend to continue to long for and want that beauty and goodness. I want to be healed. I want to at least not be anxious. I want to at least not be depressed. I long to come to a place where I’m not in the middle of all of this pain. There is a sense in which, even though we might only just say, “I want the pain to go away,” what I’m really longing for is something more than that. I’m looking for this reintegration. I’m looking for something that my trauma makes it difficult for me to imagine, because of the nature of how trauma works.
We often talk about how trauma itself and the shame that is insidiously part of it tends to not just shatter my life, it also tends to shatter my capacity for interpreting what has actually happened to my life. And so imagining a future of reintegration is very difficult for me to do because of the power of memory of trauma, which is why I so desperately need someone else to be in the room to imagine things. As we like to say, our work is to imagine things for people waiting for their imaginations to catch up, which is what parents do with children all the time. This is what we’re doing. Moreover, though, that when we have had traumatic events that have happened between us in relationship, when we’ve had ruptures and we are willing to do the work of naming that “I want this relationship not just to get back to baseline, but I want us to once again have even more than what we had before,” we know that even from a neural network standpoint, that those networks that were cut, if you cut a neuron and it heals over a long period of time, the place of connection where that neuron is healed has a greater tensile strength, has a greater electronic connection to itself.
Now, it’s not proper for me to somehow extend that into meaning and purpose with human beings. But we do see frequently that where ruptures are repaired in relationships, where reintegration takes place, those relationships often are described as being far more resilient with each other than they were before the rupture even occurred. Now, this is not to suggest that the ruptures are a good thing in and of themselves, but I think that this does echo what we read about in Paul’s writings when he talks about not only do we hope in the glory of God, but we glory even in our suffering, because suffering is going to lead to something beyond this that is glory even that much more magnified. And so I see, even from the neural integration standpoint and also the relational functional standpoint of flourishing, when ruptures are repaired, that reintegration is not just a necessary but it’s a beautiful part of what it means for us to be human as followers of Jesus.
Cherie Harder: Jeff?
Jeff Dudiak: Well, I’m a little speechless after that, which I think is beautiful. I think one of the things I would want to say is that I think disintegration is always brokenness. We are created to to be integrated and be integrated [in] the parts of ourselves if we want to talk about them as parts—maybe they are aspects, maybe they’re modalities, maybe they’re moments rather than thinking of them as separate things. And we’re meant to be with each other. We are communal. And so I think that what Curt is talking about at a neurophysiological level are many of the same things we speak about theologically in terms of redemption, in terms of—. And part of the theological argument that we don’t need to get into about election and all those sorts of things, [inaudible] is trying to name, trying to understand, this reality that we can’t do that on our own. That this has to be something that God comes in and does for us, with us, however it is we want to articulate that. And I think that that’s just generally true of healing, is that we don’t do it alone, particularly the kind of healing that Curt’s talking about.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. Well, we have a bunch of questions from our viewers, and we’re going to dive into those in this last part of our program. And so the first question comes from Victoria Martineau. And, Curt, I’ll toss this one to you. Victoria asks, “Why do you believe that we do what we do not want to do and we do not do what we want to do? What’s the role in neurobiology in trying to surpass or suppress our animal instincts?”
Curt Thompson: You know, I could make a boatload of money if I knew the answer to that question. And I’m not above wanting to make a boatload of money because speaking of, like, wanting to give in to my animal instincts. Well, I think, you know, getting this also echoes the question of “why” that we ask earlier. And whenever that question is put to me about “why” I’m always wanting to return the favor by asking how would knowing the answer to this question be helpful? I don’t— I mean, I think it’s, again, we can describe the mechanics of what happens. We can say that when we are in distress, we will move as quickly as we can to reduce that distress. If I have not had much practice co-regulating my distress with another person, I’m going to want to do that. I will practice regulating it on my own. And so therefore I will become really good at reducing it. My animal instincts will become more dominant for me then becoming fully, living fully into the image of Jesus, which is, I would say, if I were mixing my language here, a more Trinitarian in nature. How can I be Trinitarian in my world with other people wherein which when I’m in distress, I’m going to call Jeff instead of just acting out whatever it is that my distress wants me to act out or whoever it is that it’s going to be.
And I think that we have all kinds of things in the world that help me practice isolation, help me practice disintegration. I have everything that’s coming at me that says I can do things on my own. I should be able to do things on my own. I shouldn’t have to suffer in the process. And I should be able to acquire all these things very, very quickly, all of which is a counter to what we know about the necessary requirements for growth of any kind. If I’m going to be a concert pianist, if I’m going to be a good student, or if I’m going to be a good athlete—all the things that they have to do require the presence of other people enabling them to do these kinds of things. If I want to become a professional human being, I’m going to have to recognize that my temptation to my animal instincts will be with me until I’m dead. And I’m going to need the presence of other people to whom I can regularly say, “Yeah, my animal instinct is up again. It’s up to bat again. Like, I don’t know why I can’t get it out of the lineup. It just keeps coming around over and over again.”
Jeff Dudiak: And I might [add that] actually our animal instincts are good things. They help us know when we’re supposed to eat. So they provide us with nourishment. They provide us with protection. They provide us with continuing the species. So animal instincts on their own are good things. We just need to make sure that if we want to live human lives, we don’t live them isolated from the other ways in which we are responsible to each other.
Curt Thompson: Right. And just to follow up on that, too. That’s absolutely true. And I think the other thing, too, that our questions often presume is that I am going to somehow have to— like it’s presuming that I, Curt, can figure this out on my own, and I, by myself, will be able to do this. And this again, gets to the heart of why people are often in my office, not just because they have depression, but because so much of the story that they tell themselves is that I’m living in a world in which I am by myself trying to figure everything out.
Cherie Harder: You know, actually, our next question, which comes from Jasmine Ganter, is right along those lines. Jasmine asks, “How has writing and telling your story changed you specifically?” Curt, maybe I can toss that one to you.
Curt Thompson: Well, I mean, I think my wife, who is a child development specialist, likes to say that one of the jobs of parents is to interpret the world for their children. Because children are not going be able to interpret the world on their own in ways that are consistent with the way the world actually is. And I think that our brokenness, when I experience brokenness—as Jeff rightly said, that we’re all broken—my brokenness, more than anything else, messes with the way that I tell my story. It messes with my interpretation of how I’m making sense of myself and of the world and so forth and so on. And I necessarily need someone else to help me tell that story. So when Jeff and I eventually have the conversation in which I say to him, not only “Here’s what I think,” but I also say to him, “I’m afraid that when I tell you what I think, you’re going to think I’m stupid,” and his response is exact opposite, there is a moment where literally my brain, my soul, my mind, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t know what to do with that. Because it has been telling a very different story for a long time. And I have to catch my breath and breathe in his kindness and then his exasperation for me, at me, for thinking this in the first place. But that moment, in the felt presence and sense of this I feel in my chest, necessarily is a shift in the way I’m telling my story in the world because my story includes what I think Jeff’s story is about me. And the fact that this is now different changes the nature of what my story actually is. And I would say that this is what we, in these confessional community groups that we run in our practice, this is what people are fundamentally having to learn to do over and over and over and over again, telling our stories differently. And I think that fundamentally, this is what Jesus does with the gospel. The gospel invites us to tell our stories differently than we typically do. And that’s what our friendship has helped me do over more than 50 years.
Cherie Harder: That’s wonderful.
Jeff Dudiak: If I could butt in briefly and just say, I think one of the powers of writing is that it slows us down as we think things through. And if, you know, if it is true, as Curt has taught me, that neurons that fire together wire together, we have networks in our brains, in our thoughts, that lead us in particular ways. And when we don’t think about what we’re thinking, we go down the same pathways over and over and over again. And one of the things I think that writing does and one of the reasons why I don’t write on a computer, I write with a pen, is that I want to think slowly. And one of the things that is a very strong part of a number of traditions, but of the Quaker tradition that that Curt and I both were raised in, is that Quakers wrote a lot of journals. And I think one of the strengths of journaling is that you slow down and think through what it is the meaning of your life is and give yourself the opportunity to do that. And, of course, writing seems like it’s solitary, but I don’t know that it is. I think that writing is also—writing has an audience.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So our next question comes from Jonathan Raines. And Jonathan asks, “Can you discuss how abstract art works at this level of biology and how it interacts with narrative story?” Curt, maybe you can go first and then, Jeff, if you have anything to add that’d be great.
Curt Thompson: Well, you know, I don’t know if Jonathan has read the most recent work of mine, but I have a lot of appeal to the work of Mako Fujimura in that regard. And I was first introduced to the world of abstract painting in that regard by my friend Marti. And she, you know, as she introduced me, at first I was just confused by the whole thing and I think later I kind of I came to understand, “Oh!” Because there is a part of me that is always seeking to just make sense of things, and if something doesn’t make sense immediately and quickly in a logical, linear fashion, then I don’t know what to do with it. And so therefore I don’t do anything with it. I think I became introduced to this work and I think what it does is if you’re willing to sit with it, you find yourself confronting the reality that you’re—especially if you’ve never had any exposure to it— I’ll speak for myself. I’m initially confronted with a reality that I’m uncomfortable with not knowing what to do with this, which I think pulls the curtain back on the part of me that is urgently trying to get through the day, urgently trying to know that I know that I know. Which is what I’m doing with my story, which I think in some respects speaks to what Jeff was just talking about. One of the things that journaling does is it slows the process.
For me, engaging with works of art that are more abstract slows the process because I cannot quickly just assume that I know what I know that it means. And so it starts to evoke things in me that, “Oh—”. And I think I can’t make sense of this painting. But what that actually does is opens the door to me being curious about what are the other parts about me that I can’t make sense of because I’m spending a lot of energy every day trying to make sense of things, packaging it, wrapping it, so that it doesn’t bother me—until I’m confronted with something that I can’t make sense of. And then I start to feel things that are actually echoes, not just of the thing that I’m viewing, but are echoes of parts of my own story that I’ve worked really hard to keep at bay.
Cherie Harder: Yeah, that’s great. Jeff, anything you wanted to add?
Jeff Dudiak: No, I think we’ll go to the next question.
Cherie Harder: Great. So we have a question from an anonymous viewer. And I’d be interested in what you both have to say about this. And, Jeff, maybe we can start with you. They ask, “How can we be better about sharing our stories with others in order to establish deeper bonds with one another and increasing the integration between individuals?”
Jeff Dudiak: Yeah. I think that’s just really, really hard because it means being vulnerable. And we have the illusion that we can make ourselves less vulnerable. And there’s a paradoxical way in which those attempts, I think, actually make us more vulnerable. I know that in my life, I try to be relatively healthy, but I also know that I take distance from certain of my emotions because I don’t really want to deal with them in the moment. And then when something actually punctures the shell, I find myself immediately and surprisingly overwhelmed. And so, I don’t know practically—maybe this is more of a question for the psychiatrist in the room—I don’t know practically how one gets to that point, but I do think that sharing your story with someone who’s sharing your life with someone—. And I mean, Curt’s, if I may put it this way, Curt’s ridiculous idea that I might not think he is intelligent enough is sort of an indication of the fear of being vulnerable. And I have my own ways that I’m hiding things, that I’m not sure that Curt would accept me if I was fully open with Curt either. And so I think even among friends who have been friends for decades and deep friends, there are still things that I think are touchy, things I think Curt knows about me that we haven’t really talked about because it’s difficult. And so just maybe to start by realizing how hard that is, that it’s going to take a deliberate and careful intention to get to that point. And yeah, I’ll see if Curt has a more practical way of proposing that.
Cherie Harder: Curt?
Curt Thompson: Yeah, I think what Jeff has said is spot on. That’s our experience. I think that, you know, we’ve discovered in in developing these confessional communities at our practice and through the Center for Being Known that this notion—I love, Jeff, what you said about being intentional—there is a sense in which these kinds of storytelling ventures, if you will, are not going to happen kind of accidentally. They’re not going to happen because people just kind of casually—I mean, sometimes they can. They can casually show up and end up telling their stories to people. But eventually you get to places where, “Oh, my goodness, if I’m actually going to tell you the things that are really vulnerable for me, I’m going to have to do it on purpose. And I’m going to have to do it with the awareness that is this could cost. Like, I’m aware that you’re going to leave once I share this thing, that you’re not going to want anything more to do with me.”
And so, you know, I think a significant part of the work of this last book of mine is it is an attempt to name not only the “what,” that this vulnerability is something that— we are vulnerable as human beings. We can’t get away from that. And that vulnerability is actually the very thing that God is intending to use to create beauty and goodness in the world. It’s not seen as a deficit. It’s not seen as a liability. It is seen as the very thing that God uses that God has built into our status as humans in order for us to be his agents in the world, certainly beginning with our physicality and our sexuality and creating new humans in that regard, but also this notion that in order for me to develop a deep and lasting friendship with Jeff, naming the thing about me that I’m worried the most about is the thing that is most likely to strengthen our relationship. We create greater bonds of connection and strength as we’re able to do that. And so I think that there are ways that one can begin to do this. Like I mentioned, these confessional communities that we’re forming. There are ways in which people can come together and even have a particular liturgy and way of telling stories and how those stories then can continue to flourish over a course of a period of time for the very purpose of doing this work of allowing our vulnerability to create the space for beauty and goodness to emerge in ways that otherwise it wouldn’t in the world.
Cherie Harder: That’s great.
Curt Thompson: And the last thing I will say too, to name it over and over and over and over again, that this is really hard to do. I would say that I do believe in a world in which evil wants to devour the whole project and will do everything it possibly can to make this as difficult as it can. And so we share in our vulnerability. And then we think, “I’ve done that. I feel really good about this. I’m really confident about this.” And then you think, like, “Oh, this will never be hard again,” until the next round comes. And you’re like, “What the heck? I thought I learned how to be vulnerable and everything would be fine.” It is, I believe, the work of the Holy Spirit putting more weight on the bar, forming us into even more resilient people of God.
Jeff Dudiak: And I think in terms of relationship and integration, it’s also making ourselves part of a story that is larger than we are.
Curt Thompson: Right on.
Jeff Dudiak: Joining ourselves to the gospel story so that it’s not just my story. It’s now our story.
Cherie Harder: Curt and Jeff, thanks so much. In just a minute, I want to ask you both for a last word. Before we do that, just a few things to share with you. Immediately after we wrap up here, you’ll have an opportunity to fill out a survey form. We’d really welcome and appreciate your comments. We read every one of these. We try to integrate your ideas and your thoughts to make these programs ever more valuable. And as a benefit of filling out that very brief survey that you’ll be receiving, we will send you a code for a free Trinity Forum Reading download of your choice. There’s a number that we would recommend that are aligned with, allow one to go deeper into, some of the themes that we’ve discussed today, including “A Spiritual Pilgrimage” by Malcolm Muggeridge, Augustine’s “Confessions,” “Bulletins from Immortality” by Emily Dickinson, and “Bright Evening Star” by Madeleine L’Engle. So we hope you’ll avail yourself of those opportunities.
For those of you who signed up to participate in one of our breakout discussion sessions, just exit this Online Conversation as you normally would. You should have received a link to enter the the discussion questions that will start immediately afterwards. And we look forward to seeing you there. Several of you have already asked, I saw in the chat in the Q&A box, about whether there will be a video. Yes, there will for everyone who registered. We will be sending you an email tomorrow, which includes not only additional readings and resources to go deeper into some of the topics and themes, but also a video of today’s Online Conversation. And we would love for you to share that with others and start follow-up conversations.
Cherie Harder: In addition, we’d love to invite each of you to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people aligned around the mission of the Trinity Forum to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought and provide spaces for thoughtful people to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith. We’d love for you to join this community. In addition to the missional alignment, there’s many benefits of being a member of the Trinity Forum Society as well, including our daily “What We’re Reading” list of reading recommendations, our quarterly Trinity Forum Readings that we send out, and as a special gift, if you join the Trinity Forum Society or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of Curt Thomson’s amazing book, Anatomy of the Soul. So we hope that you will avail yourself of that opportunity. There should be a link to sign up in the chat feature as well as in the concluding screen.
There’ll be new events coming up very rapidly. On July 19th we will be hosting, along with our partners BioLogos and Church of the Advent, Francis Collins live in D.C. If you are in the area, we’d love for you to join us. And we are also in the midst of releasing a podcast series around our Discovery and Doxology series. We release the first one this week and every coming week there will be a new podcast out. In addition, please stay tuned. We will have a number of Online Conversations going on in July and August, and we’ll be advertising or publicizing those shortly.
Finally, as indicated and as promised, I want to conclude with the last word with Jeff and Curt. Jeff?
Jeff Dudiak: Well, I’m going to just share a quotation from the German poet, playwright, [and] literary critic, Goethe. And you’ll forgive me if I read this. I don’t have it memorized. “The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers, and cities. But to know someone who thinks and feels with us and who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, that makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.”
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Curt.
Curt Thompson: This is not as eloquent as Goethe. I think my word would be that, as I’ve said to others, I don’t deserve my life. And, Jeff, you are at the top of the list of why that’s true. And my longing for our listeners is for them to be willing to take the risk, to begin to tell their stories to someone because that someone could turn out to be the Jeff Dudiak in their life that not only changes their neurobiology, but transforms and integrates them along the way. And for that, I’m forever grateful.
Cherie Harder: Curt, Jeff, we are grateful. Thanks so much for joining us and thank you to all of you joining us for this Online Conversation. Have a great weekend.