The Field of Social Neuroscience
You’ve heard the old saw before: Science is one thing, religion another—that on one hand, science deals with hard facts, while religion deals with unverifiable beliefs and inflexible dogmas. In fact, these days we are hearing an awful lot from fanatical atheists like Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, who say that Christianity is actually a threat to science: that religion and science are fundamentally at odds.
So I always find it amusing when areas of scientific inquiry confirm fundamental truths, so basic to the Christian faith. And that’s exactly what we see in the emerging scientific field of inquiry called social neuroscience. This is the study of the brain in the interpersonal world. In a new book called Social Intelligence, author Daniel Goleman explores the fascinating “neural ballet” that connects humans brain-to-brain. And guess what? Goleman concludes that we are hard-wired to connect. According to the author, “Neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person.”
What’s more, the impulse to imitate is undeniably imprinted in our biology. As Goleman explains, “A different variety of brain cells, mirror neurons, sense both the move another person is about to make and their feelings, and instantaneously prepare us to imitate that movement and feel with them.”
It is easiest to notice this mimetic impulse with babies, but it applies well into our adulthood. For example, social neuroscientists have discovered that when we see others scratch an itch, our brains are actually firing in a similar neural pathway to theirs. Goleman also says that in one sense, we can catch another person’s emotions much like we catch a cold: “neural Wi-Fi,” if you will.
So what does this have to do with a biblical worldview? A lot. Scriptures tell us that the Godhead is essentially interpersonal: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—three in one, the Trinity. While each maintains essence, each is intimately intertwined with the other—just the way the brain is wired. Likewise, when God made Adam, He said that it was not good for man to be alone. At the end of each day of creation, God said, “It is good,” but when God created man, He in effect paused, saying something’s missing. What was missing was relationship. So God created Eve. Made in the image of an interpersonal God, humans are inherently sociable creatures, craving relationships, both with God and with one another.
And these mirror neurons I talked about earlier point to another fundamental aspect of creation. All humans are created in the imago Dei, the image of God. But theologians have also long talked about the imatatio Dei or imatatio Cristi. We are made to imitate God, to imitate Christ. In fact, Scriptures teach us that we achieve our most fundamental purpose—holiness—when we become more like Christ. We are designed to imitate or be little mimics of Christ throughout the earth. This is God’s plan. Ephesians 5:1 tells us, “Be imitators of Christ, therefore, as dearly loved children.”
Neuroscience is revealing not only are we made, like God, to be relational, we are also made to be creatures who imitate: the very thing God has commanded us to do. So what do we learn from science? It teaches us that we are biologically wired for the very thing God created us for—no coincidence.
BreakPoint’s “Suggested Reading List on Science and Faith” includes titles of books on science, faith, naturalism, design, etc., to help readers make the connection between belief and rationalism. Call 1-877-322-5527 to request a copy or view it online.
|For Further Reading and Information
Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (Bantam, 2006).
Sandra Blakeslee, “Cells That Read Minds,” New York Times, 10 January 2006.
Beth Azar, “At the Frontier of Science,” Monitor on Psychology, vol. 33, 1 January 2002.
George Johnson, “God Is in the Dendrites,” Slate, 26 April 2007.
Catherine Claire, “Identity—Critiquing Modern and Postmodern Notions,” The Point, 27 September 2006. Also see “More Thoughts on Identity—Critiquing Modern and Postmodern Notions” and “More Thoughts on Identity—That Thudding Image.”
Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities, report from the Commission on Children at Risk.
Regis Nicoll, “Science and Religion: Adversaries or Allies?” BreakPoint Online, 13 April 2007.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 061024, “Opening the Door for God: Something beyond Nature.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 031204, “We’ve Been Lied To: Christianity and the Rise of Science.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 031219, “Lost and Found: Modern Science and Ancient Faith.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 031222, “A New Ending to An Old Story: Following the ‘Plot Twists’.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 020830, “Wagging the Dog: The Invented War between Science and Christianity.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 021028, “Of Science and Religion: What Really Got Galileo into Trouble.”
BreakPoint Commentary No. 990816, “Are You ‘Anti-Science’?: The Christian Origins of Science.”