In All Its Inexhaustible Richness: Neuroscience and the Heart

The Author

Cradle Catholic in a family of 6. Austin native. UT Alumna. Bachelor's in Psychology and Spanish. Bi-lingual. Currently living out the vocation to be an every day saint by working on my Master's in Counseling at St Mary's University - to become a therapist, God willing. Trying anew each day to be faithful to that Eternal Love that is the Reason for everything.

Heart in hand

A good friend of mine tagged me this week in an article on Facebook, about epigenetics and the 9 components of mental health, by Dr. Gregory Popcak. Dr. Popcak does a fantastic job of showing the organic relationship between neuroscience and the heart, our brain and theology, between spiritual knowledge of man’s heart and scientific knowledge of man’s brain.

For example, Dr. Popcak writes:

“Both psychology and Catholic theology (especially the Theology of the Body) assert that the person is essentially and inherently a social/relational being.  As Genesis 2:18 says, “it is not good that man should be alone.” We just never appreciated how deeply true this assertion was.  Two decades of brain research show us that, in fact, it is our relationships that provide the soil in which our brains grow.  Brain science now teaches that healthy, attached, parent-child relationships yield the healthiest, best integrated brain function and mental health outcomes.  The very parenting practices that lead to healthy attachment have been shown–by studies that are completely independent of one another–to be the parenting practices that brain researchers have identified as leading to the greatest degree healthy brain development.”

As a psychologist and a Catholic, Dr. Popcak artfully demonstrates the relational nature between science and spirituality as two different ways of “knowing,” how nature reveals grace and how grace uplifts nature. This isn’t even really the central message of Dr. Popcak’s article, but it was a message that meant something to me. I wish more of the world of psychology and counseling were open to even looking at this relationship, open to considering the possibility of the richness that such an understanding brings to our field.  In the field of counseling, spirituality, religion, or concepts such as faith and grace are often at best referred to as a separate, boxed-off domain that has cultural value, or at worst as merely a bias, a limitation, or even a prejudice.

Dr. Popcak doesn’t see it that way:

“The techniques a therapist uses in counseling–including the therapeutic relationship itself–have been shown by neuroimaging studies to actually heal physical damage to the social brain and promote healthy brain functioning.   For instance, cognitive-behavioral techniques help the brain develop healthy top-down/left-right integration so that I can both understand and control my emotions more effectively.  Mindfulness-based approaches to therapy–which promote a person’s ability to observe themselves from a healthy, third person perspective–have been shown to enhance insight, emotional regulation, and whole-brain functioning.  Relationship-based therapies and spiritually-based therapies have been shown to promote empathy, moral functioning, and attuned communication especially.   The therapeutic relationship itself–rooted as it is in radical acceptance, affirmation and gentle correction–is a milieu that promotes healing of wounded attachment bonds.”

How profoundly amazing is that!  Relationships and spirituality actually healing the brain. Heart, brain, spirit, body – all interacting and relating as one organic whole, all caught up both in nature and grace. Dr. Popcak concludes, saying: “”The good news is that with new information and new developments in psychotherapy practice, you can learn the skills you need to cooperate with God’s grace to become the best version of yourself and live a more abundant psychological, emotional, and relational life.”

Given evidence such as this, of the efficacy of spiritually-based therapies to heal the human person, it is frustrating when people speak about religion and psychology antithetically. Faith, as Pope Francis says, is a clear, veracious lens through which to understand science, social sciences, psychology, and human nature. In Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis writes:

 The gaze of science thus benefits from faith: faith encourages the scientist to remain constantly open to reality in all its inexhaustible richness. Faith awakens the critical sense by preventing research from being satisfied with its own formulae and helps it to realize that nature is always greater. By stimulating wonder before the profound mystery of creation, faith broadens the horizons of reason to shed greater light on the world which discloses itself to scientific investigation.” Lumen Fidei, p 44-45

This  “wonder before the profound mystery of creation” is what gives me hope when I am struggling with discouragement or disillusionment when people in the field of psychology talk about religion so disparagingly. The way I see it, through scientific investigation, we’re eventually getting back to the soul, whether it is our intention or not. Those “breadcrumbs” God left us to discover in the natural world are eventually leading us to the supernatural world, because there is nowhere else for them to lead. “All creation [leads] heavenwards, for nature is a bridge and pointer to God.” Or, as I said in my very first ACNM post, the truth of Love and God is written on our hearts.  Or in this case, our brains! The more we research and study the heart and mind of mankind, through psychological, scientific, physical and spiritual means, the more we shall know the God in whose image we were created.



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  • Shawn Chapman

    Way good!

    • Rachel Gardner

      Thanks Shawn! <3

      • Al

        I was just browsing and discovered your wonderful insights and comments. Check out “How God Changes Your Brain.” If God created our brains then (in my opinion) that is where his “image” is. The neural networks we fire and develop are the essence of who we are. Since we are relational by nature, God gave us the brain structures to stimulate that can either be more like him or less like him (free will). Consciousness, as it develops from our experiences and decisions can be more or less like the ( The Great Consciousness, a Loving God), Jesus words were always about taking care of each other as his “Heavenly Father” would. “Taking care of each other” is our connection to the Divine and our behavior with each other. There is such synergy in healthy relationships and the “Golden Rule”.
        In my training as a counselor, the philosophy, psychology, techniques etc. kept continually pointing to the Bible and Jesus’ teaching. Now as neuroscience continues to develop, you can see Christ’s teaching there too, (prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate, etc.)
        Knowing facts and answers is knowledge. Asking the good questions is wisdom. Thanks for sharing your path with m

        • Rachel Gardner

          Hi Al! Glad you found the blog, and thanks for joining the discussion! Is that a book you mentioned? Who’s the author?

          • Al

            Mark Waldman and Andrew Newberg MD

          • Rachel Gardner

            Thanks Al! I saw that they are the ones who also published Why God Won’t Go Away – I haven’t read it myself, but I’ve heard really good things about it. I appreciate you sharing that, I’m going to look into these two psychologists and their work! For our readers, here’s a blurb about their work:

  • Whistler

    “Or, as I said in my very first ACNM post, the truth of Love and God is written on our hearts. Or in this case, our brains! The more we research and study the heart and mind of mankind, through psychological, scientific, physical and spiritual means, the more we shall know the God in whose image we were created.”

    I was delighted to learn that in Chinese medicine, the mind/brain/memory is treated through the neural meridian for the heart. Essentially they could be considered, as I like to write, “heart+mind”, or just “heartmind”.

    • Rachel Gardner

      Thanks for the comment Whistler! I think Western medicine and Theology can learn a lot from the East, especially with the mind/body/heart connection. Thanks again!

  • Ken

    This blog mystifies me a little. In my experience as a counselor for over forty years, the dialogue between faith, psychology and medicine is as alive and rich now as it has ever been.
    I am in the Houston area and there are regular workshops and meetings on this very topic. The Medical Center there has opened up a center primarily for this purpose. It is always full when we have meetings and workshops. The board is comprised of psychologists, members of the clergy and medical doctors and caregivers at hospitals. Rice University has several faculty members who specialize in this field.
    And in San Antonio, I have attended several workshops as well. I know that not everyone is open to this, but my experience is that people who are wounded by religion (and that happens way too much) or don’t identify as being spiritual will not see any relation. But that is not new at all. But I don’t see it trending in that direction nowadays. In fact, just the opposite.
    In Houston, we regularly get more negative feedback by religious people about our trying to do this dialogue than the other way around. The feedback is that it is not orthodox enough or that we include people of all denominations and one or another denomination still seems to find that not acceptable,
    As an example, if you google Dr. Greg Popcak you will find a very scathing article on his work written by….a Catholic. This is not a criticism of him, because what he is writing about that you quote in your blog is roundly accepted in the field of pastoral psychology. It is not new at all. I am just stating that attacks comes from both sides, often from its own traditions.
    I hope that you find good avenues of support in your vocation. I feel for you and the underlying sadness and frustration that I sense from your blog. Take care, fellow traveler. You have kindred souls out there in numbers.

    • Rachel Gardner

      Thanks so much for your comment, Ken! Sorry about the delay in response, I only just now saw the comments. Thank you for sharing your experience – it is heartening and I appreciate the kindness in your words. And you’re right- there are disconnects and disagreements in many places, within groups and between groups. I’m glad to hear that the dialogue is alive and rich from where you stand! My current corner of the field and experience thus far just seems to fall on the less open side of the dialogue. I look forward to finding more fellow travelers, and kindred souls! Thanks again Ken!

  • Mark

    Okay, I have prayed about this for a couple of days, but I do feel led to respond to this. With all respect, I want to voice something about this post. I know Rachel does not intend this, but I am concerned that this is painting an exaggerated and possibly inaccurate view of current thinking in the field of psychology and counseling. It is not without some truth, mind you. But in my experience, the dialogue between faith, psychology and medicine is so much more visible now than when I was a young pastor in 1991 or so. Not everywhere, mind you, but in a lot of places I never thought it would be.
    What I don’t want to see happen is to convey a message to people of faith that the field of psychology is by and large hostile to religion or faith. While the are those who are (just like there are Baptists who are hostile to Catholics or Christians who are hostile to say, Muslims), it is my overwhelming experience that it is not. At least after graduate school…:).
    As a pastoral therapist, I regularly get referrals from other therapists who know of my training in theology and admit they are out of their element because their training is different. But they are not hostile at all, I feel a great mutual respect. There are always exceptions, but to be honest, the most I got was in academia…after that, it sort of went away. Thank God for that.
    What Dr. Popcak is speaking of is to pastoral counselors the core and basic tenet of their approach to the therapeutic relationship. Everything, as Rachel says, “organically flows from that”. Very true. And as Frank commented, nothing new in the field. But very profound.
    There are many psychologists and pastors who are very strong proponents of the organic nature of faith, science and the mind. From a Catholic standpoint, Fr. Richard Rohr comes to mind, but there are so many others. While Fr. Thomas Merton probably would not have fancied himself as a formal psychologist, his work is deeply psychological. But that is the whole point, right? As is Pope Francis, as Rachel mentioned.He is amazing in his acuity in the area. The list goes on… And of course, a core tenet of the theology of the body, that we are born and created to be in relationship.
    Among Protestants, Dr. Gerald May, Rev. Pittman McGehee and many others work and write in the field of pastoral psychology. Dr. May’s book “Addiction and Grace” was a profound addition to the field of addictions all kinds and its spiritual roots. Henri Nouwen spoke of it often in his reflections. This is the tip of a very deep iceberg.
    The field of psychology is very welcome and open to issues of faith because it is so vast and rich. C. G Jung and William James are two examples of the earliest pioneers in this field. I hear Dr. Jung recited often in both Catholic and Protestant churches. Richard Rohr is often cited in Protestant circles much to my ecumenical delight!
    Rachel, you are going to be an amazing therapist. Hang in there. It only gets better, And to my Catholic brothers and sisters, if a therapist is not willing to talk about faith issues, go find another one. And find one that will met you where you are in your life journey. Don’t settle for anyone shortchanging you on that. There are a lot of them out there, both in Austin and elsewhere.
    The dialogue between faith and science is growing stronger everyday. I am heartened to learn that the C.G Jung Center in Houston, Texas regularly has Doctors and Researchers from the medical center and Clergy men and women come and speak of this organic relationship from all sides. It is beautiful and touch to see people working together and talking so openly. I tear up to hear a doctor talk of how healing “isn’t just about medicine” Amen!
    As Rachel said so well, everything, everything, in God’s creation all point to a central truth- the truth of God’s eternal and undying love. When I am able to see that, I can focus on what I am called to do and let anyone who want to disparage that just be who they are and not let them get to me. A challenge, but with community and support, one that can be met.
    God bless you, Rachel.

    • Rachel Gardner

      Thanks for the comments, Mark. I appreciate you sharing your experience and insight, and affirmations. Amen to the truth of God’s eternal and undying love! God bless you!

  • Ken

    By the way, the name of the center I was speaking of is The Institute for Spirituality and Health at the Texas Medical Center. They have a wonderful website. Godspeed.

    • Mark

      Thanks, Ken, for mentioning that. I forgot to in my comment but that is an incredible place. I see such a hunger for this. Since moving back to Austin full time I have seen my practice explode. This post has really led me to realize that I also need to be a stronger voice in the Austin community about this obviously too well kept secret. Providence in action! Thanks, Rachel for being a part of that..Godspeed to you as well, Ken.

    • Rachel Gardner

      Thanks, Ken! That place looks amazing!!!! Thank you for posting it! Many blessings to you!

  • Mark

    I just looked at their website. Wow, it’s almost like it is God speaking directly to Rachel’s concerns! 58 years! I am humbled right now…

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