Spirituality, Neuroplasticity, and Personal Growth - Curt Thompson (Full Interview)
Curt Thompson (M.D.) explores the connection between spirituality, neuroplasticity, and personal growth.
I think anything that we do, in which we can incorporate things that make logical sense to us, can be used to their advantage to help transform our life. For example, if I injure my shoulder and my physical therapist, after I see them, they say, “Take this exercise home and do it three times a day.” I’m not very likely to do that, unless they tell me, “And when you do this, this is what’s going to happen “to the tendons in your shoulder.”
We are much more likely to embody behavioral change when what we are doing with our bodies, whether that means, by my body, whether that means what I’m saying, what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, what I’m acting, if those things make sense to me, and if they make sense, in terms of how I can literally apply them, in the real world.
And so, for example, if someone says to me, “The more you pay attention to certain things, “the more you establish that those things will become “more permanent, not just in your thinking, “but literally in your brain.” And then I’m invited to pay attention to other things that can change the nature of how my brain is wired, I’m much more likely to do that, especially if you give me concrete practices, such as meditation practices, for example, that can change the way my brain is wired. Those, and many other elements of neuroscience, I think, become grist for the mill, whereby which I can begin to make sense out of why I do what I do.
The reason we even talk about wanting transformation is because at some point in our life, we can look around and say, “My life is doing things that I wish it weren’t doing, “and I want that to be different, “in very concrete, practical ways. “How can I make that happen?” We hear preached, we hear taught all the time, things like, “Be renewed, be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” I have no idea what that means in real life, but with what we’re discovering about the way neuroscience works, it gives us tools whereby which we can help people make sense of what that might actually mean in real time and space.
Anytime we think about changing the course of our mind, we’re talking about neuroplasticity. We’re talking about changing the way my neurons are actually firing. One of the most important elements of helping neuroplasticity to flourish is activating it through the use of attention. I like to describe attention as being the engine that pulls the rest of the train of the mind. There’s nothing that we do throughout the day that does not, in some way, shape or form, involve a shift in attention from one thing to another to another.
That attentional change is crucial because most of what causes trouble for us, whether I’m depressed or anxious, is deeply related to the fact that I am paying attention to the same things over and over again that are creating those troubles for me. And so, naturally, if my life is going to be different, I’m going to have to change the focus of my attention and in so doing, activate neuroplasticity. If I want my brain to change, I need to change the focus of my attention. Now there are a couple of concrete things that we can do.
One of the most simple things that we talk about is a thing I call the sixth breath-permitted exercise. That’s simply breathing in and out every 10 seconds. Human respiratory rate usually runs at about 12 to 15 breaths per minute. If we intentionally decide that we’re going to lower that rate, it’s going to require for us to breathe more slowly and more deeply, so that we don’t pass out, but we can’t just simply do that indefinitely, unless we are focusing our attention on that activity. So for example, we can’t breathe six times a minute and read a book, or watch TV, because sooner or later, my attention will be drawn to the TV and I will go right back to my baseline of 12 to 15 breaths per minute.
So the element that we’re actually harnessing here, is not just my breathing, which naturally will reduce my anxiety, lower my blood pressure, lower my heart rate, it will also force me to keep the focus of my attention on the present moment. Now this is important, in terms of overall reduction of anxiety because, as we like to say, anxiety is all about future states of mind. To the degree that I’m anxious, is the degree to which I’m thinking about things in the future, whether it’s five minutes or five years into the future.
To be paying attention to my breathing rate, for 15 minutes means that for that 15 minutes, I’m working very hard to keep the focus of my attention immediately before me. Now, that’s not easy work to do because I don’t have some thing I can focus on that is other than my breathing and the rate at which I’m inhaling and exhaling.
One of the things that that does, is that it allows me to strengthen my attentional muscle, as it were, so that I find that over time, if I were to do this practice say, 15 minutes, twice a day, 10 minutes, twice a day, for six weeks, I not only strengthen my capacity to be more focused, attentive, and less anxious during that time that I’m practicing it, it also becomes a tool to which I can turn very quickly, throughout the course of my day.
Which means that it’s more likely, when my teenage son leads me to want to lose my temper, I’m much more likely to, as my wife says, “When you want to step forward, step back.” It’s easier for me to step back if I have a tool that I can turn to immediately, allow myself to focus my attention, lower my breathing rate, which lowers my blood pressure, which lowers my muscle tension, which makes it more easy for me to be thoughtful and reflective, so that my response to my son is more likely to meet him where he is, as opposed to responding in a way that is coming from my lower brain, my more reptilian brain, my more protective brain, my more angry brain, and then lead to things that are not the kinds of outcomes that I want.
The brain tends to develop from bottom to top, and right to left. Now I say tends, because this is no hard and fast rule, but what we are referring to is that, as a developing fetus grows, especially its neurological system, first comes what we call the neural tube, which becomes later our spinal cord, and at the top of the spinal cord, we see emerging what eventually becomes the brainstem.
The brainstem is the part of the brain that is responsible for most of our very basic life functions. So breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, appetite regulation, those kinds of things that we need for basic survival. We have this in common with reptiles. In addition, the brainstem also houses what we call our fight-or-flight procedures.
So those things that become imminently dangerous to us activate networks in the brainstem that then lead to us behaving quite automatically, without having any thought whatsoever. So if I’m walking across the street, and a car blows on the horn because I’m not watching, I don’t think about whether or not to get out of the way, I simply do. From the brainstem, then heading north, again, bottom to top, we think about what we call the limbic circuitry, or circuitry out of which much of what we feel, emotionally, emerges.
We also like to say that emotion is important because as the word implies, e-motion, that which proceeds movement, that if we were to take emotion out of the human being, human beings would stop moving. We wouldn’t do anything. Emotion then becomes, as we say, the energy around which the brain organizes itself.
It then tends to energize other things that are taking place in the cortex, which is then the top part of the brain. So we’ve moved from the brainstem, to the limbic circuitry, to the cortex, bottom to top. The cortex is what most people might think of or recognize when they thing about a model of brain, of an anatomical model that they’ve seen, and the cortex, among other things, is eventually the place out of which emerges our critical thinking, our reflective thinking, our logical and linear thinking, but before it ever gets there, it also is the place out of which emerges things like our creative self. My sense of space and mobility, my sense of what I like artistically, if I walk into a room and just see that it feels good or that it feels cluttered, my right hemisphere is gonna have a lot to do with that.
And so we see now that even though we are moving from bottom to top, we are also moving from right to left. By that we mean that the right hemisphere tends to develop, in developing fetuses and even in children, up to the age of five to six years, the right hemisphere tends to mature more quickly than the left does.
And so the things that the right hemisphere is responsible for in most people, things like creativity, visual-spatial orientation, non-verbal cues, 60 to 90% of all human communication is non-verbal in nature. So most of that communication is taking place in the right hemisphere that has already begun to develop very, very quickly before the baby’s even born. It’s only later, around 18 to 24 months of age, that my left hemisphere, now starts to mature. So my logical thinking, my linear thinking that one thing follows another, my mathematical thinking, my need for things to be in order, all of that begins to develop later in time.
So when anyone then, is beginning to pay attention more to their mind, it’s helpful for them to pay attention to, what we call, both the mind’s structures, where things happen, and functions, those things that correlate with those different things. Examples of this would be something like a memory that I have of my experience with my own daughter when she was about 16 years of age, and we’re standing in our kitchen and I asked her, this was on a Friday evening, and it’s important because several days before this, I had, knowing that she’s a teenager, I had warned her that we, as a family, were gonna have a work detail with our church that we were going to have to be at, at eight o’clock on Saturday morning.
This is not good news for a 16 year old girl to hear, so I figured I would start this process early in the week. I introduced the subject to her on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, I figure I’m doing my job as a parent. Friday night, I ask the simple question, “What time would you like for me “to get you up in the morning?”
The outcome of this conversation was just withering fire from her about why it just didn’t make any sense that we were doing this tomorrow morning, and so forth and so on, and I, of course, was confused because I thought I’d done my homework and had behaved right as a parent. What I wasn’t counting on was that as she started to talk, my becoming aware that I was becoming as rigid as a board standing in my kitchen, and as I started to pay attention, literally, to my back and my stomach and my jaw, I became aware that something was, I mean it was clear that something was not okay in the conversation, but it was the first time that I felt like I had a way to diffuse the conversation, not so much by paying attention to what she was actually saying to me, but by paying attention actually to what my body was doing.
And so, I said to her, “You know, I think I’m not doing very well “in this conversation.” This would be one of those rare moments when I actually parented in a way that would be reasonable. “I would like to go over and sit down, “and have a conversation about this.” Now, mind you, it’s 10 o’clock at night, I’m headed to bed. I’m not thinking about having 20 minute conversation with my daughter to answer the question, “What time will I get you up in the morning?” However, when we sat down, it was clear that everything about our body postures changed, and the very act of changing our body posture, because it was one of those rare occasions where I was paying attention to my own, I noticed that I felt less relaxed.
We stopped the conversation that we had, we took a break, we 15 seconds walked over, sat down in more comfortable chairs, and that gave me enough breathing space to back up and begin to ask her different questions about why she was upset. It’s a practical kind of thing to do that begins with the question of, “What am I paying attention to?”
Most of us, and I would admit my self included, often simply react in those conversations, without being mindful enough of what other parts of our body are trying to tell us, such that if we did pay attention to them, it can lead to making different choices that lead to long term, better outcomes in relationships.
We like to remind parents that every infant comes into the world looking for someone looking for her, and it never stops. What this means, practically speaking, is that a baby is born with a particular temperament, and parents then encounter that baby with that temperament, and the parents will react to that baby in a particular way, and that infant will then attach to them in response to their reaction.
Now, if I’m a parent who has the capacity to think about, and be reflective of my developing infant’s mind, and by mind here, we don’t just mean their brain, we also mean their brain and their body movement and their sense of distress and their sense of being content and so therefore I’m not going to bother them at the moment, my capacity to be aware of their developing mind, is deeply related to whether or not I have made sense of my own developmental story.
And so one of the things that we tell parents is that, there are many, many variables that shape a child’s capacity to attach in a secure way, but the data pretty clearly shows that there is one single variable that stands head and shoulders above every other variable. Interestingly enough, it’s not how many parenting classes I go to, it’s not how many times I watch certain parenting videos, it’s not about that.
The single most important variable is whether or not I have made complete sense of my own life. The degree to which I make sense of my own life, meaning, how able am I to incorporate my own emotional states, my own memory, my own traumas, how able am I to experience healing of those? To the degree that I am able to do that, it enhances my capacity, then, to, in a health way, sense the states of mind that my infant is experiencing. Consequently, when my infant is upset, that may evoke in me feelings of being upset.
If those feelings are things that I am able to step back from and say, “I’m upset because my infant is upset, “but I’m not gonna act on those things.” That is to my baby’s advantage, because I can then pause, reflect, and then act more intentionally, rather than acting more impulsively. This leads to a baby having the experience of, as we say, the experience of feeling felt. The baby has the experience of their mind being sensed and understood by their parent.
One of the challenging things of course, as parents, is that some of our children can develop in such a way that their first words come out by the time they’re less than 12 months of age, and they’re speaking in full sentences by the time they’re 15 months of age, three word sentences, and of course this fools us into believing that they know exactly what we’re telling them when we say,
“No, don’t eat the begonia leaves, you may not do that.” We expect them to understand, conceptually, the word “No.” When most of the time, a 15 month old, an 18 month old is only going to comprehend the emotional tenor with which we say that word. Most parents don’t say, “No honey.” We say, “No!” And we typically say it because we want to keep our kids out of danger, because we want them to be safe, so forth, but most of the time, they’re not comprehending that in logical, linear ways, which means of course, that when they don’t do what we ask them to do, we assume that they’re simply being willfully unwilling to do what we ask them to do.
As opposed to us comprehending this in different terms, really recognizing that what we are trying to do with our children, for the most part, for the first, probably two to three years of their life, is that we’re trying to help them regulate their emotional states, and the single most helpful way we can do that, is by being aware of our own emotional states and how we are responding to them.
This leads to all kinds of work, as parents, that I really, frankly, would rather not do. I’d rather not have to go over and pick them up, I’d rather just say, “Please come here.” And they do that, and when they don’t, I know that, “Gosh, their brain really wants “just to go to explore things.”
And I’m going to have to somehow physically do the work, to be present for them, to help move them away from the dangerous thing, while communicating to them that I’m loving them while I’m doing it. The good news is that we are never too old to make changes. Perhaps this was why Moses was 80 when he got the call.
Perhaps this is why Abraham was 75 when the whole process started. Perhaps this is why God’s not worried about any of us, in terms of when we begin to make changes. A story that’s related to this begins with a young man in his mid 30s who was the oldest of five children and had a nine month old that was rather precocious in giving him some difficulties.
And so he called his mother for some advice, and she, wise person that she was, decided she wanted to refer her son to his father, who was about 63 at the time. Her son was not very happy about this because his father had never been anybody who’d really talked to him throughout his entire life about anything except whether or not he was getting to church on time, and whether or not he had his homework done and so forth, but emotional things within the family, were never things that’s they discussed, and he wasn’t very pleased with his mother because he wasn’t getting from her, the advice that he wanted, directly. Upon contacting his father, his father had a story to tell him.
A story that he’d never told him before. His father mentioned to him that this 35 year old son of his had never known his grandfather, his father’s father who had been an alcoholic and had died before the 35 year old was born, and Ed, the 63 year old dad in this story told his son, “What you didn’t know about him, was that he would “get very, very aggressive in his states of drunkenness, “and would throw people around the room in the kitchen.” And he told his son, “I swore that when I had kids, I would never, ever “do to them what my father did to me.”
And so whenever it came to emotional things that would get dicey in the house, he would simply withdraw and allow his wife to take over. Consequently, he never really had much of an emotional connection with his kids, not because he didn’t want to, but because he was afraid of what might happen.
Well this wasn’t something that his 35 year old son was really ever aware of, but Ed told his son that when his nine month old was born, things started to happen because Ed was now in a position where he didn’t really have to be responsible for parenting, he wasn’t responsible for a lot of things for the development of his grandson, his problem was, he didn’t know how to connect with him, and it was creating all kinds of problems in his own relationship with his wife because he was worried about why he couldn’t do better with his new grandson. And his wife said, “I think you should go talk to this guy.”
And so into my office walks 63 year old Ed, who never really had told anyone about the details and certainly had not ever shared the emotional content of the trauma of what it was like to grow up in a house where everybody was being brutalized in the wake of his father’s alcoholism. Now what’s significant about all this, is that as Ed did work with me, he began to notice changes within himself.
He was paying attention to emotional states he never had before, paying attention to memory, having that revitalized and changed, such that he was now beginning to talk with his wife. At one point, his wife called me and said, “What have you done with my husband?” This didn’t solve the problem immediately however, of how Ed was going to relate to his grandson. Until that fateful day when Calvin, his 35 year old son, called his mother.
As Ed began to tell Calvin his story, Calvin, of course, was stunned by things about his father’s story that he didn’t know, and Calvin heard his father feeling things, and describing things and even asking for forgiveness, something he’d never really been very well-practiced at doing, in the course of their life together. Here’s the strange and beautiful part, as Ed began to make sense of his life, he created space for Calvin to begin to make sense of his life, because Calvin had, for all of his life, never really thought or felt his father loved him.
He felt his father tolerated him, there was no sense of his being aware that his father really deeply loved him, he was just handicapped by his own fear. This then, began to activate some things in Calvin that, interestingly enough, meant that over time, Calvin started to figure some things out, which enabled him to be less anxious, which interestingly enough, meant that his parenting of his own son began to change.
Now what’s interesting about all this, it was changing long before Calvin’s 9 month old son had language. This was not a matter of Calvin explaining things differently to this young boy. This was a matter of the trickle down effect of what happens when an older person begins to work on changes in his mind, that evoke changes in his 35 year old son, that move all the way to the brain of a 9 month old. Now here’s the really good news, we can see that whether you’re 9 months of age, 9 years of age, or 90 years of age, the potential for regeneration, for renewal, for changing your mind, for repairing ruptures, is never, ever exhausted, and this is really good news.
The term neuroplasticity really refers to the capacity of neurons to flexibly change. By that, we mean the following, 25 to 30 years ago, which is not really that long, it was believed that, for the most part, if there was any damage to the brain, number one, the brain would have a great deal of difficulty recovering from that damage.
The second thing was, that it was generally considered that once a person reaches the age, somewhere between about 12 and 16, that the brain was, for the most part, done forming and there really wasn’t any more space for growth or change whatsoever, but advancements in some of our technology gives us the capacity for now measuring what those neurons are able to do, and as it turns out, neurons are far more flexible than we ever thought they were, and by flexibility, by neuroplasticity or the neuron’s capacity to be flexible, plastic, or malleable, we mean the following.
First of all, that neurons are able of regeneration. So the brain has the capacity for, one, growing new neurons. The second part of neuroplasticity is that the brain has the capacity for neurons to grow in size and length, in diameter and in length. And the third thing, is that neurons are able to increase their degree of connectivity with other neurons.
All three of these things, regeneration, growth in length and diameter, and growth in density of connection, means that our mind has the capacity for doing things, even after damage, that we didn’t think it could do before. What does that have to do with spiritual transformation? We like to say that, in the brain, nothing changes without neurons changing.
If I learn a new thing, if I put a new practice into a disciplined place, all of those things require the redirection of neurons to do things that they weren’t doing before. Neuroplasticity is something that we want to enhance in order to make that flexibility more accessible. Things like spiritual disciplines, fasting, confession, prayer, solitude, and so forth, do a couple of things. One, they open our awareness to things that our mind is sensing, feeling, evoking, that we typically are not paying attention to.
If I am now paying attention to these new things, I’m asking my brain’s neurons to do things they weren’t doing before, and as such, I open up windows into connecting functions of my mind, experiences of my mind that were not being connected before.
And so, the flexibility of neuroplasticity is, in some respects, almost interchangeable with spiritual formation. You can’t really talk about spiritual formation without invoking the activity of neuroplasticity. There are, perhaps many reasons whereby which we have come to where we are in history.
One thing seems to be rather evident, and that is that we love knowing things. We almost have an insatiable thirst for knowing things. It also appears that most of our interest in knowing things is in order to control and reduce our distress and anxiety, that largely comes, not because we don’t know things, but because we are not known. It’s interesting that we live in a world that, for the last perhaps 300 years, has largely been shaped by an ethos that encourages and invites independence, invites people to make their own choices, without necessarily needing to be connected to other people.
That tends to be a very different plausibility structure than a biblical one, which from the get-go, addresses the world and says, “Let us make mankind in our image, “let them then rule and have dominion over the earth, “let them live like us.” Essentially.
And that’s a pretty crucial statement because we hear in that, that the intention for women and men, by God’s design, was for us to not simply live together, but that we would be increasingly more deeply known by one another. It’s interesting that one of the ways in which the Hebrew texts understand what God meant by bringing to Adam a helper, was one who mirrors Adam to himself, that I’m not just helping him with the laundry, I’m not just helping him with dinner, I’m helping him to see himself. Interpersonal neurobiology, interesting enough, is tending to give us different information than what our typical scientific direction tends to go. It tends to say, “We don’t really know ourselves, “until we see ourselves in somebody else’s eyes.” This is replete throughout the biblical narrative.
Even though it’s being newly discovered by neuroscientists in the 21st century, this is information that is, to the writers of the Ecclesiastes would say, is not really new under the sun, we’re just simply putting a different spin on it.
So to the degree that we aren’t just simply striving to know information, but to the degree that we are willing to be known by others in all of our dreadfulness, in all of our darkness and strangeness, is the degree to which I then become known to myself, and I can’t really do that, nor will I experience that, I think, with God, until, and/or unless I’m doing that with other people that are just sitting three feet away from me.