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.


opinionated 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...

Kenneth Sheppard said...

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

Eric said...
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Eric 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.

mmm 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.