Every moment of your lived life, whether you’re awake or asleep, your brain is going to light up – not literally in the way brain imaging would have us believe, but internally, brimming with interpretation of our ever-changing environment. How do our competing cognitive systems – one fast and one slow, as described by Daniel Kahneman – frame our experience of God? And how do different dispositions toward the world affect our spiritual life?Read transcript
We’re starting this morning a series of messages, that we hope will be fun but also informative, called “The Spiritual Brain.”
We’re going to look at information that’s come to us from the general domain of brain science, probably really over the past half century or so, that we think, again, is interesting, that really does help us know ourselves better, and try to integrate that with a life of faith, OK.
The goals are pretty simple, twofold: one is just to show that these domains of exploration of what it means to be human can exist halfway together, right. That’s certainly not always the case or the perception out there in the big wide world; it seems oftentimes that understanding of human identity, human brain, human mind, through science seems to be at odds with a life of faith, with a belief in a present God, alive in the world, with whom we try to interact.
So a part of what we’re after is just to say, well actually, we think these can help each other, right. And that really is the second goal. It really is the case, I think, that a lot of how we’ve come to understand ourselves through brain science, broadly defined, produces information that can be helpful to you and me as people of a religious bent, as people who think that connecting with God is a helpful thing, that understanding brain science, how your mind and mine work, how they’re wired, can help us do better in a life of faith, can help us do better in the endeavor of connecting with God, and bringing the good things that He’s put in us, through an experience of faith, out into the wide world, OK.
So that’s what we’re after, and we’re going to start this morning with an arena of thought that’s captured in – at least, that’s come to me – through a book called “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” It’s by an author named Daniel Kahneman. This is a book that came out in 2011. He won the Nobel Prize for Economics. I’m not exactly sure what he did in the realm of economics, he’s mostly known for capturing a domain of thought centered around this idea of two types of thinking, two types or systems of mind or brain activity.
Now, if you’re hoping, in this series of messages, for images of the brain that glow brightly, or talk about neurotransmitters and synaptic plasticity, that’s not so much what we’re going to lean into. I think that stuff is super interesting, and as a psychiatrist who’s worked in brain research for a long time, I think it contributes a lot to our understanding of ourselves, but the other thing that I’m really interested in for this series of messages that we want you to come away with is stuff that’s practically helpful in daily lived life.
So for the most part, with like functional brain imaging, where you put someone in a scanner and give them a task and their brain lights up, again, it provides helpful information in understanding how certain thought processes work, but there’s also a sense in which at every moment of your lived life, whether you’re awake or asleep, whether you’re engaged or not engaged, paying attention or spacing out, your brain is active and so it’s going to light up, right. The only time your brain doesn’t light up anymore is when you’re not alive anymore. And brain plasticity too, things like neurotransmitters and synapses forming, remodelling that is a part of the fabric of the thinking being. It is going on all the time.
I remember being – when I was getting ready to go to medical school, I took a class and this would have been 25 years ago or so, when all this stuff was in its infancy. “The brain and behavior” and the instructor happened to be interested in religion. And so she was showing a study of people who were engaged in some sort of spiritual activity, it might have been praying, put in a brain scanner, and a part of their brain lit up.
And the question back then, and the question that continues today, is “what does that mean? Is there some part of our brain – did we discover the God part of our brain? Right, that part of our mind that’s activated by God or awareness of God?”
And I think what we’ve come to understand since then, is, well no, your brain is just active. When you pray, when you think, when you meditate, when you contemplate, a part of your brain is going to be active. It doesn’t mean that there’s a specific part devoted to God.
That said, I have found that a lot of how we work, a lot of understanding about how we think, feel and behave on a daily basis, we can gain a lot of understanding through that and about that through this realm of endeavor called cognitive science, cognitive neuroscience. Folks who study, who look for patterns in how we think, feel, and behave of which we are typically unaware, and that by bringing those patterns into the light, we can discover surprising things about ourselves. And hopefully this morning, I think we can see how those map pretty well on to understanding of the human being, that comes to us through Jesus, through the Bible, through stuff that God has been trying to communicate to us across the centuries, OK.
So back to Kahneman, back to the arrows, back to this hidden brain and then brain system in our awareness. What Kahneman and a whole host of others did, they became really interested in this phenomenon. All the mental activity that goes on outside of our awareness, and what happens when we try to bring it into our awareness. What does it mean, what does the structure of it look like?
So they performed a whole variety of studies that are super interesting, and I’ll describe a couple in just a minute, but they came out with a theory that can be summarized like this. What Kahneman and these others realized is that you can actually split your mind, or conceive of your mind, as two separate entities, and they’re so distinct that he described them as System 1 and System 2. You can describe them as type 1 thinking, type 2 thinking, almost two different personalities.
And he described them this way. The main function of System 1 is to maintain and update a model of your personal world. A base set of assumptions and rules is continually modified by family or cultural input and regular and/or intense occurrences. The model from System 1 serves as the scaffolding on which System 2 interprets the present, anticipates the future, and performs more complicated functions.
So, just to split these out a little bit – you can look at the next slide –some basic assumptions about System 1, the System 1 way of thinking: from the model, System 1 generates anticipations and reactions. It’s in System 1 that beliefs lie. System 1 is a pretty high-capacity approach to thinking. It can process a lot of information, do many things on an ongoing basis. It hides itself from your awareness. It generally keeps itself behind the curtain. And it’s also self-validating. System 1 has this funny way of interacting with System 2. System 1 is continually saying “everything is under control, I’m good. What I’m telling you is actually the case.” And it continuously brings information – it pushes aside information that would discredit that and highlights information that supports its presentation of reality to System 2.
System 2 is where you and I engage in deliberative thinking and choosing. It is that part of our awareness through which we pay attention, focus attention. It’s wherein exists discipline and self control. And the thing is, because of these things, because this is what you and I are mostly aware of, right, we’re aware of deliberations, we’re aware when we go to a restaurant and pull out the menu, all of a sudden we have to make a choice – “am I going to get a salad or am I going to get what I really want?” Right, that’s a System 2 activity. If System 1 were in control, you would just get the salad every time.
Discipline and self control, paying attention, these are activities of which we are aware. It is thus the case that your System 2 mind considers itself yourself. This is who I am, this is how I would describe myself to another person, based on my System 2 mental activities.
The thing about System 2 is that it’s kind of low capacity. Like, it doesn’t like to work hard. You and I we get – and this is demonstrable – we only like to make a certain number of choices a day, right, if you have to actually choose a thing, whatever, what clothes you’re going to wear in the morning, what craft beer you are going to get. (This is mine, right – like, “holy cow they all look so good, I have to choose one. Ugggh. can I taste these three and…?” I’m just tired by the end).
The thing is, in spite of its high sense of itself, it a completely arises from and is generally unaware of System 1, right, so almost all the information, the scaffolding of System 2 decision making, is based on the System 1 reality. So there is a simple presentation that Kahneman makes that gets right at this. If I showed you a picture of an angry face, System 1 is right there. System 1 knows what’s going on, can interpret immediately, and effortlessly, and unavoidably, the emotion on that face – like if you see an angry face, you cannot not interpret that face. And you also immediately have an anticipation of what’s coming next – angry gesticulations or a loud voice. System 1.
If, however, I show you a multiplication problem of a two digit number by a two digit number, all of a sudden the System 2 is activated, right. Because it’s a little bit harder than 2×2, 2×2, that’s a System 1 activity, it’s right there, it’s automatic, you don’t have to think.
Even just going to two-digit multiplication – first of all, you feel a little bit resentful, right. That’s the first thing that comes, because you know if I want to solve this one I have to work. And then you have to push everything else to the side, OK, everything else in your awareness. 20×17, OK, 20×10, that’s 200, I have to keep that in memory and then… like you’re doing a lot of effort you might not even get there in there in the end, right.
That system 2 activity, it requires keeping a lot of things in mind, paying attention, keeping track of stuff. (someone in the audience shouts “340!” and Dr. Wassink replies, “oh, thanks so much, showoff.”)
So, it’s got – you can show the next picture. The tip of the iceberg, or the iceberg, is a perfect illustration of the System 1/System 2 reality. What’s exposed to the world and to you and me, is the tip of the iceberg, the part that’s out there, the part that’s on display. The bigger part of the reality of how our minds work is this whole aspect that’s hidden from our awareness, and that we don’t really want to become aware of, because that means going someplace cold, dark and wet, right, going under the surface. It really is hard work to get to know your System 1 reality. And you can – the reason that this conception is helpful to me it, it kind of maps on to other things that you might know of – unconscious versus conscious, unawareness versus awareness – but it provides a useful way of getting a handle on some of the stuff that’s in the real world for you and me.
I think, for example, about, so as a psychiatrist, I think, for example, about things related to mental health and mental illness. So trauma, I mentioned one of the things that influences the System 1 model that you come up with – people who are affected by trauma, in a sense, one big influential event takes over System 1 and influences the whole structure, warps, twists, modifies, controls the whole structure of System 1 that produces our reactions to the world.
If you think about – I’ve worked with individuals with autism. For somebody without autism, so as you and I go through the world, a huge portion of social interaction is automatic, unconscious, out of our awareness. You and I reading facial gestures and cues, social gestures and cues, vocal intonation, it’s something you do without thinking, without effort. For someone with an autism spectrum disorder, that part of social engagement, for whatever reason, is not functioning in System 1 in the way it does for the rest of us. And so a person with an autism spectrum disorder has to take a System 2 approach to social interaction. I have to learn cognitively and bring into my awareness interpretation of facial gestures, social gestures, vocal intonation. And so it’s really fascinating, it’s a lot harder, it’s super effortful, but it’s really interesting, what we learn from people with autism spectrum disorders about social interaction in that way.
I also think that for some of us, depression and anxiety are when System 1 just breaks down, System one tells us for as long as it possibly can “everything’s fine, everything’s fine, everything’s fine, what I’m telling you is actually the case, it’s correct, it makes sense, it will help you navigate the world,” until it doesn’t, right. It just doesn’t work anymore. And System 2 says “no, something’s wrong, I need to take a closer look at what has come to be my System 1 identity.”
So we’ll turn to Jesus in a minute, there’s just a couple of really interesting experiments too that these folks did, because a part of what can happen – System 1 is always going to be based on incomplete information, and it’s always going to be based, in part, on your dysfunctional family and mine, on your dysfunctional culture and mine. And so it’s going to produce these things called biases and typically implicit biases, the biases of which we’re unaware. And so college students always end up being the subject of study in cognitive science, right, because they kind of have to.
So most of what we know about biases really is just “biases and college students,” that maybe applies to the rest of us, I don’t know.
But they’ll do experiments, like they’ll have college students sitting at a desk reading something that they think that they’re going to be tested on later. Someone walks into the room and spills some pencils. For those college students who are reading about money, they are less likely to pick up the pencils in assistance than college students not reading about money, with the notion that reading about money triggers our self centeredness, our awareness of limited resources. And so we’re less likely to help.
There’s another one – this is my favorite. People in a room are given random words and have to make up a sentence based on that. Once they’ve done that, they walk down the hall to the next room to do a task, you know, some other task. What’s really going on is for some of them, the words contain reference to being old, OK, so, “bald, gray, Florida”…
But some of the people don’t have the words in their collection of words for making sentences. The people who have the words associated with being old walk more slowly down the hallway to the next room. And they’re completely unaware of it.
So we have these systems in ourselves that for the most part work fine, but that also produce in us reactions, biases, proclivities that we might not want to be the case, where it might be beneficial for them to come into our awareness.
So Jesus has something interesting to say about this – we are in church after all. This is a passage, this is a series of statements that he makes. And what is – what we have called his Manifesto on the Mount, his launching, kind of inaugural address where he lays the foundation for how he is going to do his faith movement. And in it he communicates some of his thoughts about human nature and how human society functions.
So the passage we’re looking at is from the account of the life of Jesus from Luke starting in verse 37. It goes like this:
“Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and it will be given to you. A good measure pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be poured into your lap, for with the measure you use will be measured to you.”
Now the first thing that I will say, that might be controversial, is I don’t think that has anything whatsoever to do with God. I don’t think Jesus was here talking about theology. I don’t think Jesus was saying “if you’re kind to others, God will be kind to you, but if you judge others, God will judge you,” right. I think, rather, Jesus was just talking about a fundamental aspect of human society.
And he’s describing, to me, a System 1 approach to interacting with other people, that you and I for the most part engage in, that gets us into trouble, that enters us into a way of human relating. So you and ,I as we go through life, we’re always, automatically, unbeknownst to ourselves, assessing, evaluating, right, making evaluations of other people, of their actions, and coming to conclusions about who they are, what they’re like, based on what we see. Sometimes these form critiques, judgments, criticism, condemnation.
I think all that Jesus is saying is when you do that, if you let your System 1 brain run the show, you enter into a way of human relating that’s characterized by retribution, that’s characterized by reactivity, by responding in kind.
And I think all Jesus is saying is, if you understand that that’s how human beings work, you can actually make your life go better. You can use that knowledge to your advantage. You can stay out of that way of human interaction. You can stay out of the retribution cycle, the vengeance, you can also live life in such a way – now I don’t think he’s talking magic here, it’s not like this works every, you know, each and every time – but I think he’s saying as an approach to human life, you can also use this to your advantage. .
I think of one of my favorite people in the world, my son Joe. Joe was homeschooled up until his early teenage years, and then he entered into the public school system. And Joe, just as a person, is kind. Like he just is unflinchingly kind. He’s nice, he cares. In this passage he would do the forgiving and giving. He just gives. He’s generous. He cares for people. Now for a while this made life in the public school system complicated, because it’s not how things generally work there, right. But he just stayed true to that. It was hard. he had to choose it consciously.
By the end of his – by the end of his time there, he was one of the most well Iiked, respected people, friends everywhere, and he was voted, with full sincerity, the nicest person of his senior class. Like, I didn’t even know that was sort of an award that existed. I kind of imagined they just made it up for him because he was so nice, and he was he was just beloved, and in the way you would want somebody to be beloved, right. His System 2-ness was aware of how things work. He refrained from judging and condemning and just gave in generous, and it came back to him in this wonderful way.
So Jesus goes on, says he also told them this parable, “can a blind man lead a blind man, will they not both fall into a pit?
“A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your friend’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye. How can you say to your friend, ‘friend, let me take the speck out of your eye’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye.You hypocrite! first take the plank out of your own eye and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from a friend’s eye.”
So this to me too seems like Jesus’s version of choosing to pay attention to our System 1 blindness before we run around trying to fix the world, right. It’s like a double blindness. We’re not aware of our own internal makeup, and then we cannot see accurately, because of that, what the world is like, but because of the way we function as human beings, our attention is just all out there. We’re running around trying to fix things that are not broken because of a reactivity within ourselves that we are not ourselves aware of, right, because we don’t want to be.
I remember, for me, a moment where this became highlighted. As a part of the transition that our church made over the past few years into welcomingness and inclusion of LGBTQ individuals, I was walking with my wife down Newport Road, which is a country road, tranquil rolling hills, but the source of a lot of discussions on the part of my wife and I. You know, it’s just like the perfect grand wood hills, with sheep and cows, and they’d watch us, I’m sure just sort of thinking “what is the matter, here they come again.”
And my wife was saying – so we come from a more religiously conservative background. And my wife was saying to me, you know, “I’m increasingly aware that people are asking questions about those scriptures.” And by “those scriptures” she meant there are four or six places in the Bible where it could be interpreted that the writer and God, through the writer, is saying no to homosexuality as an acceptable way to live life.
And my wife was saying to me, “you know, people are asking questions about those scriptures, whether they say what we think they say, whether they meant back then what we’ve come to understand them to mean now, how much are they bound and affected by the culture of their day.”
And I remember my first reaction to it was “well!”
And this is kind of my System 2 talking. “well people are just going to make them say what they want them to say. People are just going to fix them in the way they want them to be fixed.”
But I know what was really going on for me was my System 2 resistance to real engagement. Because I was aware she was saying it, you know, she’s right. It means I am going to have to engage my intellect, I am have to going to have to engage my emotions in a way that’s going to require energy and effort, thought and time, and my System 2 laziness, my System 2 resistance to expending that kind of energy, was pushing against it.
And I just think that’s at the root of so much bias on our part, that we have these systems, these structures of thought, built up in ourselves that are telling us “I’ve got the right answer, I’ve got it right, it’s all covered, you don’t worry about it, no don’t look.” Right, it’s the wizard behind the curtain, “pay no attention to what’s behind the curtain.”
And the answer is to pay attention. Fortunately, nonetheless, my wife persisted. And I stayed engaged. And that was a part of us making a turn. And I just think that that’s the case for all of us.That you and I have these structures built within ourselves, these models.
I’ll present to you from the Psalmist David, in closing, an uplifting notion of how to engage with this aspect of our being. So Katie Imborek, as a part of our series of messages, gave a message a couple of weeks ago, our series of of Lenten messages on social justice. She gave a message where she read from Psalm 139, which is David’s kind of ode to own awesomeness. But it’s an awareness of his awesomeness this that comes through interaction with God, So David begins by saying “God, you have searched me, and you know me”, right.
And he goes on from there to describe this experience of coming to know himself through the help of God that has been nothing but awesome, right. We’ve talked about how System 1 keeps itself out of awareness, tries to keep itself hidden, doesn’t want us to know what’s going on there, and how it’s a difficult endeavor. It requires energy.
But David says, “Well here is God, He knows me, He knows me from before the beginning of time. He knows everything about me. I can’t hide from his awareness of me, and surprisingly, as I engage in this process of knowing myself with the help of God, it is nothing but great. It is fantastic. Rather than it being this experience that I don’t like, that I’m resentful of, that I’m terrified of, where God just says to me all the things that are horrible about me, when I come into knowing myself through the assistance of God, it’s fantastic. He shows me my amazingness. He cares for me, he’s kind to me, he loves me.”
And so David has this transcendent experience of self-awareness coming with the assistance of God, and then as he’s coming to a close, there’s this moment where somehow a fly drops into the ointment. Something is disturbed. And all of a sudden David out of nowhere finds itself going over “oh, now wait a minute, there are some people I’m really mad at. Uggh, there are some people I just hate so much.” And he’s telling this to God like he’s proud of it. He says to God, “I hate them with a perfect hatred.” Who knows, maybe the people demonstrating on the lawn against his administration or the person who burnt the toast, I don’t know.
But David is so “I just hate them so much” and then it’s as if he catches his breath, he goes, “holy cow, where did that come from that was really weird because I was just feeling so good.”
And he turns back to God, right he’s just had this awesome experience of coming to know himself with God, and then it’s David himself who has this disturbing murderous rage.
And he turns back to God, and he says starting from the – “oh God, search me, help me know myself, show me my anxious thoughts, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Right, so I think that almost everything we do here, so many of the practices that have become that have become a part of the fabric of how we do the life of faith, meditation, contemplation, maybe seeing a spiritual director, those of us who seek counsellors, we put in a lot of effort to what David is describing, coming to know our System 1 selves, for the sake of understanding why we react the way we do. Right, this awesome self that God has put together that nonetheless probably has some stuff in there that produces a dysfunction that we would like to move away from, biases that we’d like to move away from, prejudices that we’d like to move away from, fearful and anxious thoughts that produce the kind of reactivity that we’d like to be free from. That’s what God invites us into. That’s what He offers to you and to me.