Van Huyssteen, J. Wentzel and Erik P. Wiebe. In Search of Self: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Personhood. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2011.

The following two paragraphs provide a good flavor for this collection of essays that explore the human self in an interdisciplinary conversation.

“While neuroscientists like Daniel Siegel, Louis Cozolino, and John Cacioppo have argued for a deep neurological basis for interpersonal attachment, neuroscientist and anthropologist Terrence Deacon has take a different direction in developing theories about the emergent self and the symbolic human mind by focusing on the remarkable co-evolution of the brain and language. Andrew Newberg and Eugene d’Aquili and archeologist David Lewis-Wiliams each in there own way developed different conceptual frameworks for these neurological processes and their connection to the complex spectrum of human consciousness, embodied emotions, and the unmistakable fact that all humans are significantly ‘wired,’ not only for attachment, but for alternate states of consciousness. In addition, cognitive scientist like Harvey Whitehouse and Justin Barrett focus on the evolution of the human brain’s natural disposition for metaphysical and religious questions, and primatologists like Frans de Waal are specifically looking at emotionally empathetic experiences in primates, linking the emergence of the self directly to the evolution of moral imagination. And as we saw earlier, this conversation gains new depth through the work of constructive psychologists/theologians Pamela Cooper-White and Leon Turner, who want to move away from monolithic notions of selfhood to the malleability of psychological processes that give reality to nonpathological notions of multiple selves. Neuroscientific ideas of spectra of consciousness, combined with the ideas of constructive, multiple selves, indeed pose a very serious but ultimately exciting challenge to Christian-theological notions of person and the imago Dei. This challenge is deepened by evolutionary epistemologists like Franz Wuketits, and archeologists and paleontologists like Steven Mithen, Ian Tattersal, and Richard Potts, who all argue that hominid and human brains, and therefore human selves, have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to make physical, emotional, and spiritual sense of their environment. Scholars like Maxine Sheets-Johnstone have pushed even deeper into the roots of these questions by embedding notions of self, self-identity, and intersubjective communication, in the embodied prehistoric evolution of human sexuality, communication, and morality.

“The interesting question for us, as interdisciplinary theologians, is whether these multiple disciplinary perspectives might afford some degree of convergence on the intriguing, multilayered question of what it means to be human, and what the implications of this for theological anthropology might be. Human nature and the idea of self have, of course, always been at the heart of theological reflection, but these interdisciplinary themes have not yet been dealt with adequately. It is precisely because the horizon of interdisciplinary possibility contains such opportunities for collaborative understanding that we take up their approach in their volume.” (17-18)

I found one article particularly interesting as it related to my research.

Neuroscience and Spirituality” by Eric Bergemann, Daniel J. Siegel, Deanie Eichenstein, and Ellen Streit.

This article proposes that the human brain flows in two directions. The bottom-up flow brings experiential knowledge of the body-in-its environment “up” into the consciousness. The top-down flow brings socially constructed and learned meaning-making symbols “down” to make sense out of the bodily experiences. This convergence of flow is also similar to and connected with the left-brain/right-brian dichotomy in which the left brain sorts through the ephemeral data of the right brain with symbols and narrative connectivity.

The human brain, the authors also propose, has a natural propensity to construct a sense of the individual self that is cut off from other selves and objects in the world. This individualizing propensity is intensified in the Modern Western Culture which has provided multiple symbols, narratives, and cultural reinforcements that the radical, individual self is the primary reality that must be fostered, and protected at all costs. Spirituality, they propose, is a universally recognizable human phenomenon in which mental disciplines allow the top-down flow to be tempered and brought into balance with the bottom-up flow. This balance helps the individual self recognize that it is actually interconnected to all things in the universe. This spiral discipline of attunement can bring physical resonance between the body and the environment and promote peace.

Select Quotes

“As it turns out, this self-centered view is not solely a product of societal norms, but in fact has a neurological basis behind it. The human neocortex constructs its own vision of reality. And one of those realities is the illusion of a continuers and a separate self. Rather than seeing the interconnected role we play in a larger while—as one specialized cell in a complex living organism where each organ system depends on the others for their survival as a whole—we instead have neural patterns that create a sense of our isolation, independence, andd, ultimately, one-of-a-kind notion of a ‘me.’” (89-90)

“One view of the way the six layers function within the cortex is that incoming data streams ‘bottom-up’ to enable us to have sensations of our outside or inner world. At the same time, memory processes trigger a ‘top-down’ flow in which prior learning influences the flow of data from layer 1 to 2 to 3. As top-down at layer 3 meets bottom-up at layer 4, the two streams collide and the outcome of this mingling directly influences our experience of awareness in that moment in time. How we shape the balance of op-down and bottom-up determines our experience of consciousness. In this way, experiences in our families and our larger cultural milieu will influence how top-down perception shapes and filters our ongoing couscous experience of the world and of the self. As there is no ‘immaculate perception,’ our sense of an ‘I’ will be sculpted by the neural top-down views we’ve learned earlier in our lives.”  (92)

“Spirituality [is] ‘the state of experience in which we are aware of a larger interconnectedness of all things.’ Achieving a degree of spirituality that creates a sense that we are part of a greater whole is directly linked to neural circuits involved with attunement and resonance. When we allow the mind, or the process that regulated the flow of energy and information that occurs within the body and our relationships with one another, to embrace the reality that this flow interconnects us all, we expand our constrained sense of a separate self to an awakened sense of an interdependent whole self.” (94)

“Spiritual practices have the power to reimmerse us in bottom-up processing so that we can become freed from the top-down optical delusion of our separateness. They expose us once again to the bottom-up experiences and feelings of resonance we relied on as children so that we can see the true nature of reality. This is spirituality writ large.” (94)

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