With All Your Mind
By: Curt Thompson, M.D.|Published: November 22, 2010 8:50 AM
“Love the Lord your God with all your . . . mind.” Among other parts of ourselves with which we are admonished by Jesus to love God, this one in particular stands out. Loving God with our minds (at least in the English translation) was not part of the original command given by Moses in the Pentateuch. But Jesus seems to think it important enough to add it to the list.
But what exactly is my mind, and furthermore, what does it mean to love God with all of it?
The mind has been described and defined over the centuries in different ways. The Hebrews spoke of it as the soul. The Greeks spoke of the psyche. Many today think about the mind in terms of consciousness (our ability to be aware that we are aware of things) or spirit (a deeper, more subjective force that is more than simply what or how we think).
But for the most part, we moderns tend to compartmentalize the mind, isolating it to the function of the brain. We frequently go further, tacitly understanding it to refer to our cognition, or rational, thinking selves. For instance, when someone asks us, “What’s on your mind?” we usually respond with what we are thinking about. We don’t usually consider all the other elements of the mind: emotions, awareness, memory, etc.
The last fifty years has produced an explosion of studies from a range of fields of inquiry that have attempted to better define what exactly the mind is, yet there is no comprehensive formulation that has achieved universal agreement. This is not surprising, given that we are largely referring to something that is relatively abstract and represents the most intimate, vulnerable, and perhaps most mysterious part of our beings. Trying to put a fixed “definition” on that may well be an unattainable goal.
Still we try. And we Christians do so not to rigidly control our understanding of the theory of mind, but rather, to better comprehend it in order to do the very thing Jesus has told us to do, namely, love God with it.
The scientific field of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) has emerged as a firmly established endeavor to explore the connections between mind, brain, and relationships. We who study within the realm of IPNB believe—at least at this time—the following is a helpful way of conceptualizing the mind: The mind is an embodied and relational process that emerges within and between brains, whose task is to regulate the flow of energy and information. A quick tour of that concept may be helpful.
First, the mind is embodied. Of course it includes your brain, but it is so much more. Our perceptions, sensations, and reflections all depend on information that both originates in and is regulated by the body as a whole. We feel our anxiety in our chests and abdomens. Tears are as much a part of sadness as the feeling itself that we perceive in our “head.” Tiredness is sensed in our entire physical being—and affects how and what we think in our brains.
Furthermore it is estimated that 60 to 90 percent of all human communication is nonverbal—facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and the like. Think of all that the mind could not “say” if it were not extended to include the entire body! The Hebrews believed that the soul was essentially housed in the abdominal region of the body. Though we tend to now focus on the brain, recent study of that very organ suggests that the Hebrews were not far off the mark, given the role that our intestinal tract plays in regulating our emotions.
Next, the mind is relational. It has been said that in nature, there is no such thing as a truly individual human brain. By this we mean that in order for our brains and their extensions to mature, they require interactions with other brains. Recent research suggests that relational interactions highly influence the very firing patterns that develop between those 100 billion neurons, or brain cells. Our brains need other brains in order to become what we long for them to become.
I also mentioned that the mind is a process. It is not static, but rather dynamic, constantly on the move, even when we are asleep (consider your dream states). In this sense, it is not to be pinned down, painted into a corner. It is flexible and open to change. The degree of flexibility and openness of course depends on a range of features, but suffice it to say, it is not hardened concrete. Our thoughts, feelings, sensations are ever shifting and moving about, at times more and at times less than we would like, but move they do.
This process emerges within and between brains. The mind’s dynamic nature prepares it for emergence and for growth: connecting the neurons within each brain and between minds across the room or across the ocean. My mind is never simply “mine” in the sense that we Westerners like to think of things belonging exclusively to us as individuals. Rather, our minds are made for connection, just as we see in Genesis 2:18 where God declared that “It is not good for man to be alone” and in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul writes of the body of Jesus being inextricably connected.
And what is the purpose of the mind? To regulate the flow of energy and information. In this case “energy” refers literally to the electrochemical energy produced by neurons—this is always flowing; and “information” represents the entirety of those experiences that correlate with those neuron firing patterns—namely, all of our experiences, whether we are conscious of them or not.
This task of regulating the flow of energy and information is what the mind is doing all the time. And this information represents many domains of function. Awareness. Attention. Memory. Emotion. Body regulation. Holistic and linear mental processing. These are a mere fraction of the functions that emerge as reflections of this flow.
But what does it mean to love God with this understanding of my mind?
One way to begin to consider the answer to this question is to consider one of the features of the brain that neuroscientists call neuroplasticity. This refers to the capacity for the brain to do three things: (1) produce new neurons; (2) increase the speed and efficiency of neurons by increasing their length and diameter; and (3) increase or decrease the level of connections between neurons, depending on how often they are used. Those neuron patterns that are fired more frequently make greater attachments, and those that are used less frequently are pruned away.
Generally, increased neuroplasticity is a good thing. When it increases we can more easily alter how our neurons are firing. This is relevant for the following reason: We who are followers of Jesus long for our lives to reflect the breath of his Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We believe that these expressions are evidence that our minds are being renewed and our hearts enlarged to love our God. If we increase neuroplasticity, we place ourselves in the position for the Spirit of God to do just that.
Current neuroscience supports the idea that spiritual disciplines line us up to allow God to change us in ways for which we hunger and thirst. As we meditate, pray (especially contemplatively), fast, seek proper solitude, confess, submit, study, and engage in other such disciplines, we create space for change. In this sense, when Paul writes in Romans 12:2 that we are to no longer “be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect,” he’s not kidding. This transformation of which he speaks is not metaphor.
Although Paul was no neuroscientist, he wrote that which neuroscience would now confirm: that the transformation that God began with the resurrection of Jesus is now being extended and grounded in our very brains. This is where hope resides. This transformation of our minds is no mere abstract concept conjured up by a first century apostle. No, it is God physically at work through His Spirit, doing the very thing Jesus claimed he would do. Real change. Real hope—for our relationships with our friends (and enemies), our spouses, children, neighbors, and the creation. God’s Kingdom come on earth (or, as it were, in our brains) as it is in heaven.
Changing my mind is not simply about changing my thinking. It is about changing all of my mind. It is about changing how I pay attention to what I am paying attention to. It is about being aware of my different forms of memory and emotion. It is about how the narrative that I tell about my life and the others with whom I have intimate contact is often one that I have not been telling very consciously or intentionally, but, rather, quite automatically and unintentionally, permitting those parts of my mind that function more automatically, impulsively, and unconsciously to run my life without my even being aware of it.
How can I love God with all my mind if I’m only in touch with a fraction of it?
That’s what I explore in Anatomy of the Soul, along with other important questions. I so want believers to see that with the resurrection, God has initiated the new heaven and earth plan, and an important part of that renewal that is pointing to what is eventually coming is the renewal of our minds.
It’s good to know that He loves us enough that He’s renewing our brains along the way.Curt Thompson, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of Anatomy of the Soul. Read an excerpt from his book here.
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