Friday, July 14, 2006

The Life of the Mind--Fragile but Fertile

The life of the mind is fragile. I have been constantly reminded of this from my time in academia. I have seen one academic after another fall prey to chronic fatique, and I learned only the other day from a brain expert that for academics, one can spend up to 75% of ones latent energy in brain work. This is why a person can completely tire out after only sitting in a chair and reading and thinking most of the day. Another aspect of this is that the mind is subject to the affective side of our lives, such that if there is a lot of emotional turmoil it become difficult not only to concentrate or focus but even just to think coherently. We are psychosomatic wholes, and we think too little about the effect of the mind on the body and vice versa. There is something to the saying 'as a person thinks, so they are' though this has degenerated into nonsense about thinking one's health issues away or 'the power of positive thinking' as if it were a panacea that culd cure all ills. It is the height of irony that Mary Baker Eddy who was one of the most unwell religious figures I know of of, touted the nonsense of mind over matter, or even illness is a mental illusion that we hear in American culture from time to time.

But there is another side to this-- namely that God has put eternity in our minds, so we will not be content with the temporal. Several small things seem to point to this. Have you noticed how when you havent seen a person for a long time and then see them again you are surprised to find them different or aged or both? Your mental image of them has not changed, even though you know rationally they have aged. Why? Or again the siren song of the brain tells us we can do things that we actually could only do when much younger. I call this the mind writing checks the body can no longer cash. It happens to me when I try to play sports, say basketball for instance. Afterwards, when I am sore and tired my body reminds my brain that I was way over optimistic about what I could manage.

The mind is something far greater than just the brain hardware, and it is truly amazing to study how the mind can rewire itself and restribute the work load when some of it has been damaged by stroke or disease. There is a sort of mental compensation faculty built in. And it is clear from Alzheimer studies that memory and remembering is a key to being a normal function person, or even to have a personality.

The ancient Egyptians were smart about many things, but not about the mind. They thought the grey matter of the brain was detritus and could be sucked out of the skull and thrown away while the internal organs were a key to the afterlife and needed to be mummified and preserved in canopic jars. The Hebrews thought that mind and the heart were intertwined. Sometimes they spoke of the thoughts of the heart, sometimes the thoughts of the mind, but the heart was seen as the control center of the personality, whereas we now know the mind is. Yet there is wisdom in what Carson McCullers used to say that the heart has 'reasons that reason knows not of'.

And finally what exactly did Paul have in mind when he exhorted us to have the mind of Christ? Its worth pondering.


jean said...

When you are worn out from sitting reading and thinking and writing all day, then you will be refreshed and reenergized by some gentle physical activity. Not sports. Work.

Dan McGowan said...

Yeah, that "mind of Christ" thing can be a baffler... I wrote about this in a more general sense about 6 months ago over on my blog... my basic question back then was, "CAN WE actually BE LIKE Jesus?" In other words, is that REALLY even possible? And, if so - why AREN'T we? (ha!) and, if not, then why do we keep preaching that we SHOULD be?

Sometimes I'd rather just fiddle with a Rubic's Cube...

knsheppard said...

Isn't that quote about the heart and reason originally from Pascal's Pensees?

David Herwaldt said...

Carson McCullers may well have said that "the heart has 'reasons that reason knows not of'." If so, she likely was quoting Pascal from the "Pensees": "The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of."

Thanks, Mr Witherington, for a fascinating blog--which I have often recommended to friends. I'm not trying to score points by making the above correction, but merely drawing attention to the writer who more than any (save the writers of Scripture) has shaped my faith and who remains, despite a kind of fame, under-known.

Off this topic and on to another: I was interested to see your commentary on the useful and mostly fair New York Times article on Rob Bell. I wish, however, that the Times had more accurately characterized Calvary Church and its (recently retired) pastor, Ed Dobson (who is a friend). Both church and pastor may be said to be conservative theologically. But it is misleading to describe them as conservative politically given what that much abused term means now. Dobson did come to Calvary from his assistantship for Jerry Falwell, but he also wrote "Blinded By Might"--which severely tasked the religious right for cozying up to the Republicans and putting the clear statement of our faith at risk.

Joshua Brainard said...

Dr. Ben

You said "The mind is something far greater than just the brain hardware." Francis Crick's "Astonishing Hypothesis" is that the mind is just the production of chemical reactions in the brain. And when you point out physical problems with the brain having an impact on personality and behavior, doesn't that scare the pants off you sometimes? It does me. Do you buy into a kind of dual causation or something?

A second question. I noticed in your "NT Story" that you don't think Peter wrote 2 Peter. Do you still think it is inspired, or just pseudonymous?

seth richardson said...

good word. we are definately more holistic creatures than our western influences cause us to think we are.
along these lines, do you think that some of this dualism causes us (as christians) to have an unnecessary seperation of the physical and the spiritual as well?

i think i'll go think about it for a while (but i'll try not to think too hard of course, lest i fall victim to the very caution of the blog in which i am responding)
much love and thanks,

Tanktimus said...

When I was in my undergraduate studies, I made the comment that Karl Marx, who belived he knew all about the exploited working class, never worked a day in his life (intending, of course, that this be an ironic statement). My professor retorted that Marx spent his days in a library, reading very difficult philosophy tomes and writing his thoughts on them. At the time, I was incredulous. Now, after spending several years in graduate studies, I have come to realize that, while Marx may not have been a laborer in the classical sense, he probably did leave the library every day exhausted. (I still think its ironic that he thought he knew eveyrthing about the working classes, however.)

Eric Sensei said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Eric Sensei said...

In Japanese the word heart (shinzo) is solely used in the blood-pumping literal sense. Their word for 'mind', kokoro, includes the meaning 'spirit', and is used by them often in the same way we use the word heart. It sounds strange when they use the word 'mind' in a context that we would normally say 'heart'; for example, "It moved me in my mind". Also, the command in Deuteronomy to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind", is written in Japanese as: "Exhaust your mind, exhaust your thoughts, exhaust your intellect and love the Lord your God."


Ben Witherington said...

Those of you who referred to Pascal's Pensees are quite right, however it is Carson McCullers who elaborates helpfully on this theme in her classic book The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

Crick and Watson are reductionists of course, and frankly they will never be able to reduce the brain to merely chemical processes. If they were honest they would just say we can only investigate the empirical and material side of these things. See the collection of essays edited by Joel Green and Chuck Gutenson from our conference at Asbury on Mind,Brain and Soul.

And yes, I do think 2 Peter is inspired and includes a Petrine testimony about the Transfiguration, so it is not pseudonymous.

Bill Barnwell said...

I have the "In Search of the Soul" book that Green helped edit. A good read on some various views though I felt none of the contributers engaged the Biblical text enough and relied more on a strictly philosophical approach.

Ben, would you be classified as a monist, dualist or trichotomist?

Ben Witherington said...

I think the NT suggests a limited dichotomous view, which is resolved into a holistic state at the resurrection. Certainly trichotomy is a misreading of 1 Thess. 5 which speaks of body, the life breath that animates it and spirit, the non material part of the person. To be absent from the body, and present with the Lord indicates that a monistic view does not work. Note the cranky saints under the altar complaining. Nor does anihiliationism make sense of the lost in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

Scott said...

The whole idea of brain chemistry certainly seems an underexplored topic in its implications for the spiritual formation of academics/pastors and other thinking types.

I heard (from Rob Bell incidently) recently that when an adrenaline rush surges through the brain (e.g., the shock of almost being a car accident), the body takes 6 hours to come back to neutral chemically.

I think the biggest implication is that Sabbath means something more than we usually think.

Nathan Brasfield said...

Hey Dr. Witherington,

I am a biblical studies major and after having your New Testament History as text for my Bible history class this semester, I've become an avid reader of yours I think. I knew your books were interesting, but now I know your blogs are too. This one is deep.

Thanks! I'll be reading.