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The Blessed Brain


The Blessed Brain

Daniel Lee

by Daniel Lee

In his book Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut declared himself a Christ-worshipping agnostic. “I’m enchanted by the Sermon on the Mount,” the Hoosier-born writer wrote. “Being merciful, it seems to me, is the only good idea we have received so far.” Those words were part of a sermon he delivered on Palm Sunday 1980 about concern for the poor and how Christians have too often misinterpreted Christ’s statement that the poor would always be among us as justification to ignore those in need.

In the same book he wrote:

“What is so comical about religious people in modern times? They believe so many things which science has proved to be unknowable or absolutely wrong.”

“How on earth can religious people believe in so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash? For one thing, I guess, the balderdash is usually beautiful – and therefore echoes excitingly in the more primitive lobes of our brains, where knowledge counts for nothing.”

Vonnegut’s words hurt (especially since I’m a Vonnegut fan) but also give me cause to ponder. We live in an increasingly secular age where religion is politicized or often portrayed as obsolete. There’s more talk of spirituality but less of faith. There are many reasons for this. Some people have been wounded by past religious experiences or interactions. Yet many retain a deep reverence to teachings, tenderness, and sacrificial love of Jesus Christ even when religion doesn’t seem to make sense. Doubts push. Faith pulls. We are in the middle.

Vonnegut speaks of religious ideas echoing in more primitive lobes of our brains. But is that really true? Are matters of faith and human experience (and of the human brain) really like two bumping fists? To the contrary, I believe they are instead more like interlocked hands.

If we are open to receiving it, we find a cosmic spiritual force tugging us toward the divine. Noted Quaker Rufus Jones wrote of “the Double Search” – God longing for communion with people, and people longing for communion with God. In his still timely 1931 book “Pathways to the Reality of God,” Jones saw faith as an observable experience: “We see stars billions of miles away, only because something from the star is actually operating on the retina and in the visual center of the brain; and so, too, we find God, only because Something that is God – God as Spirit – is actually in contact with the spiritual center within us that is kindred to Him.”

Several years ago I began a two-pronged layperson study (I am no scientist!) that convinced me that Rufus Jones is correct. On one hand, I studied the history, faith, and practice of Quakers. On the other hand, I examined the science on what brings humans lasting happiness, contentment, and fulfillment. Throughout this two-pronged study, I saw overlaps between the findings of science on human compassion and happiness and the practice and testimonies of Quakers (as well as other Christian and faith traditions dating back long before Friends).

My favorite writer in this emerging field of study on the science of happiness and fulfillment is Dr. Emma Seppälä. Among other roles, she is science director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.

Dr. Seppälä’s specialty is researching what makes humans truly happy. She talks of two types of human happiness – hedonic happiness… This is the happiness of our pleasure centers – she calls this the sex, drugs and rock n roll types of happiness. For example, you get a short-term boost of happiness from buying something new or eating a big hunk or dark chocolate.

The second type of happiness is her primary focus – this is called eudemonic happiness. This is what gives people a sense of meaning and purpose in life and a connection to others. In a religious context, I would equate eudemonic happiness with the word “joy.”

Dr. Seppälä takes a secular scientific approach but she readily recognizes the importance of spiritual and religious practices leading to a host of benefits, including making people more resilient in stressful times, more faithful in their relationships, and more satisfied with family life.

To be clear, I am not implying Dr. Seppälä endorses any particular religious faith. In fact, in one post she raises the possibility of spirituality’s “placebo effect.” I am interested in is her conclusions as a scientist. On the “Spirit Matters” podcast, Dr. Seppälä was asked to define spirituality and this is what she said:

“What the science is showing is that altruism, compassion, and service, these are all things that have been relegated to perhaps a more spiritual or ethical realm of study. But now we’re finding that these are all incredibly powerful predictors of health, happiness, and well being.”

“Veterans who go off to war and have the same traumatic experiences as someone else are less likely to suffer post traumatic stress disorder if they have a strong religious connection. If religion is very important to them, for example, it has a protective effect as well.”

“What we’re seeing is that a lot of the ethics, a lot of the principles that have been touted for millennia by religious traditions are now being shown to be extremely helpful and extremely powerful in terms of their impact on our happiness.”

Could it be that science is in some ways catching up to the lessons of faith?

In my opinion, the early Quakers were ahead of their time when it came to brain science. Consider the Quaker rejection of war and violence as we learn about the deep emotional trauma of violence. Think also of Quaker testimony of simplicity as we’re learning about all of the stress and anxiety produced by our modern consumer-driven multitasking, multi-device-filled lives.

I want to look more deeply at two fundamental Quaker values – silent worship and our testimony of community.

First, silence.

Quaker William Penn famously said: “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

The heart of Quaker worship is this idea of direct communion with God; that God can speak within any person. Silence allows us to “center down” from outside distractions and listen for the still small voice of God. Many people coming to a Quaker meeting at first find the silence awkward or difficult but later come to realize that it is the silence that gives the spoken ministry its beauty and power.

Now, let’s look at what the science says. In her book The Happiness Track, Dr. Seppälä wrote:

“Research on silence provides insight into what makes silence so powerful… In 2006, Luciana Bernardi was studying the impact of music on physiology. To his surprise, he found that not only did the music affect participants’ physiology (slower music reduced heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing), but so did the moments of silence – which he had only included as a comparison measure.

“In fact, Bernardi found that periods of silence inserted between tracks of music were much more relaxing than the soundtracks designed to induce relaxation… Physiologically, taking a ‘silence break’ had the most profound relaxing and calming effect. Other studies have found that silence – despite being devoid of content – can help develop new brain cells,” Seppälä wrote.

So, it seems there is good reason to use silence as a pathway to seeking the Divine.

What about community? When I think of the Quaker testimony of community, I turn to one of my favorite passages in the Bible, John 15:12-17. This passage is why we call ourselves Friends:

Jesus said, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”

At its best, a faith community sustains us. We celebrate and mourn together. We make decisions together in monthly meeting (which makes schisms even more heart breaking). We pray for one another and visit one another when we’re in need. We share pitch-in meals. As it turns out, science is confirming that this exact sort of compassionate community also is vital for our emotional and physical wellbeing.

One last time, I want to quote Stanford scientist Dr. Emma Seppälä: “We all think we know how to take good care of ourselves: eat your veggies, work out and try to get enough sleep. But how many of us know that social connection is just as critical?”

“One landmark study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure…. People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. In other words, social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.”

A recent article published by the Boston Globe went viral across the Internet. Its headline read: “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” The reporter who wrote the article, Billy Baker, even wrote a follow up article about the flood of messages he’s received from men – and women – across the world telling him they too feel lonely.

To look at this in the context of faith, Christ commanded us to “love one another” as friends. Not just friendship… but intimate, sacrificial friendship with a shared greater purpose. Living in community is not just a recommendation. It’s a commandment!

Faith is internal, but not individualistic. We find meaning by turning inward to experience what we call the ‘indwelling Light of Christ.’ But we thrive as part of a wider, caring community where we see that of God in others.

Quakers maintain that this direct experience of God is freely available to all people everywhere.  Ultimately, then, all of humanity is our community. William Penn wrote, “The humble, meek, just, pious, and devout souls, are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.”

In the end, it seems the things that help us feel close to God – love, silence, community, and compassion among them – are the same things science is finding that light up our brain for lasting happiness. Could this be reason for embracing faith, and its message of compassion, as authentic?

Quaker theologian Dr. D. Elton Trueblood stated this as his premise for his lecture “The Trustworthiness of Religious Experience”: “Millions of men and women, throughout several thousand years, representing various races and nations, and including all levels of education or cultural opportunity, have reported an experience of God as the spiritual companion of their souls.”

Perhaps that spiritual companionship also includes even the most primitive regions of our brains.