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.
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 spiritualityactually 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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