By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
I recently finished a fascinating book by Norman Doidge on neuroplasticity, “The Brain that Changes Itself.” It’s a very readable book about how science is overturning the “mechanistic” view of the human being, which, Doidge argues, has dominated culture at least since the philosopher-scientist René Descartes (1596-1600). Under this view, our bodies are just material machines, and whatever immaterial life we think we enjoy (like our very power to think) is either totally detached from the body (like a detached pilot driving an airplane), or just a fictional projection onto what alone is really real — soulless matter in motion.
In some sense, I suspect sound philosophers always knew this mechanistic view was bogus. After all, the pilot-in-an-airplane model contradicts the basic unity of our existence (when my body is touched, I am touched), and every caveman with a club knew how important the human head is for our higher-level functions. And if our immaterial or spiritual existence were no more than a projection, we would be left with the quite reasonable question about whose projection we would be. We are unified, even when projecting, in a way irreducible to mechanics; we are more than a sum of parts. Blessed with great teachers and books of history, philosophy and theology, I am not bothered (as I once was as a teenager) by the ridiculous thought that perhaps I don’t exist, and that all my “free” decisions and “rational” thoughts were no more real and unified than pixels on a screen — that is, not real or unified at all, save in the perception of someone else. Anyway, I must say I thoroughly enjoyed Doidge’s book, because it is refreshing to see that the emerging consensus of neuroscientists seems to be providing a powerful evangelical tool that, I think, will do wonders for our society.
The basic thesis of neuroplasticity, as far as I understand it, is that our brains are not fixed tyrants of our entire existence; they themselves are conditioned and malleable (“plastic”), and they change greatly in response to our environment, experiences and, yes, even to our decisions. There is more evidence in the book then I can present here, of course. But such phenomena as the placebo effect and phantom limb pain, as well as clinical success in stroke recovery and psychotherapy, or the growing analysis of learning disabilities and their therapies, habit formation, sexual attraction and the effects of digital media and culture on our brains — all this and more is demonstrating that our brain health, and even its very anatomy, is subject to change. As Doidge says, “Neuroplastic research has shown us that every sustained activity ever mapped — including physical activities, sensory activities, learning, thinking, and imagining – changes the brain as well as the mind…. So a neuroplastically informed view of culture and the brain implies a two-way street: the brain and genetics produce culture, but culture also shapes the brain. Sometimes these changes can be dramatic.” (288).
In other words, our brains are only one more organ and not the one, determinative principle of our existence; they are our brains, and we are more than them. Our lives are not the ineluctable result of associating neurons, for our neurons are in fact associating the way they are associating in large part as a result of our lives as free and intelligent persons.
There is something both exciting and frightening about all this: for it means we are to some extent free, and therefore responsible, for ourselves. Our choices play a determinative role in our brain health, intelligence and happiness.
We are not machines. Our freedom is real – that is exciting! At the same time, the reality of our freedom could seem frightening. Some might find it consoling, at least superficially, to think that our fate is totally determined and inevitable. The thought that sin and suffering are contingent – that they didn’t have to be – can make us cry out all the more because they are. We could think we would rather not be responsible for our lives, for then we could never be tormented by asking ourselves “what if” we had chosen differently.
Ultimately, neuroplasticity is just another item in an unending list of contingencies shaping our lives, and we shouldn’t fear it, no more than our genes, or things like the weather, or whatever flu we happen to catch. Freedom can be paralyzing, but not if we see ourselves in faith. Let us give ourselves, including our innumerable contingencies, to God, and ask him to turn “all things for the good of those who love him.” (Rm 8:28). This trust will allow us to bear our sufferings peacefully, and with excitement for what else may come.
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.