I’ve got a brain, revisited.

Nearly three weeks ago, I published a post on critical thinking in the church. I briefly discussed what critical thinking was, and I posed a number of possible reasons why we didn’t see more critical thinking in the church.

Having thought some more about the issue of critical thinking in the church over the last three weeks, I wanted to devote one more blog post to it – to add some more to the discussion, and round it out a little.

But first, I want to offer an apology to the church. In the last three weeks, I’ve come across research where experts have looked at the issue of critical thinking across our society, and their conclusion is that critical thinking is hard, and is poorly done across the board. The church, therefore, isn’t necessarily worse than the rest of the community at large, so I may have been a little harsh on account of some unrealistic expectations.

Still, I would suggest that if the Christian church is to be salt and light, we shouldn’t rest on our laurels and think it’s ok to be as undiscerning as everyone else. Instead, we should be looking to lead our community, in our love for God, our love for people, and our love of the truth.

In the essay, “Teaching Critical Thinking: Lessons from Cognitive Science” [1], Tim van Gelder outlines a number of lessons from cognitive neuroscience on the nature of critical thinking, how we learn, and why we don’t learn critical thinking. These have important implications for critical thinking in the church.

  1. Critical thinking doesn’t come naturally to us

    “Humans are not naturally critical thinkers; indeed, like ballet, it is a highly contrived activity. Running is natural; nightclub ‘dancing’ is natural enough; but ballet is something people can only do well with many years of painful, expensive, dedicated training. Evolution didn’t intend us to walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle (“Man is a rational animal”) might have said, we weren’t designed to be all that critical either. Evolution doesn’t waste effort making things better than they need to be, and homo sapiens evolved to be just logical enough to survive while competitors such as Neanderthals and mastodons died out.”

    Instead of thinking critically, humans tend to be “pattern-seeking, story telling”. Problems occur because we naturally tend to accept the first account that “seems right” and don’t challenge whether that account is actually true. The test of truth for most humans is not intellectual but intuitive.

  2. Practice makes perfect.
    Critical thinking is a higher order cognitive skill. If you don’t practice the skills, you won’t become good at them or eventually master them. So learning the theory of critical thinking won’t make someone better at critical thinking any more than watching a sport on TV will make you better at it. Though if you want to become really good at something, one needs to engage in deliberate practice of the skills of critical thinking on a regular basis, as well as broadly practicing critical thinking.
  3. Transfer.
    Transfer refers to the difficulty in transferring skills applied in one area and applying them broadly. This is an issue across all learning, not just critical thinking. The mind is a cluster of specialised independent capacities, and a skill learnt in one capacity isn’t easily transferred to the rest.
    Of course, if it were impossible to transfer skills across to our broader knowledge, there would be no point in teaching anything.   So it’s not impossible to broaden critical thinking skills, but this skill must also be learned. It’s unlikely to happen on its own.
  4. Practical theory.
    Australian is a nation of coffee drinkers. Even though we consume a lot of God’s wake-up juice, most coffee drinkers don’t know much about the coffee they consume. They have practical coffee knowledge (what they like), but little theoretical knowledge (why they like it). Improving in critical thinking mastery, just like increasing the depth of coffee enjoyment, involves learning a little more theory. Better theoretical knowledge improves your perception of what’s going on, which then improves insight enabling better self-monitoring and correction, as well as enabling better improvement from external coaching. Better understanding of critical thinking comes from better understanding some of the theory of critical thinking.
  5. Belief Preservation
    Sir Francis Bacon said,

    “The mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence; nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture, if it be not delivered and reduced.”

    Or in other words, the human mind is prone to illusion, distortion and error, both because of innate hardwiring, and social learning. These cognitive beliefs and blind spots are many, and sometimes subtle. In this discussion, belief preservation is important. It is the tendency “to use evidence to preserve our opinions”. Humans seek out evidence which supports what we believe and avoid or ignore evidence which goes against it. We also rate evidence as good or bad depending on whether it supports or conflicts with our beliefs, and we tend to stick with our beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence against them, so long as there is a sliver of evidence in support.
    Critical thinking requires us to work against this bias, and doing so feels very unnatural, so while it might be challenging, it’s nevertheless, very important.

  6. Map it out
    The core of critical thinking is argument (the connected series of statements intended to establish a definite proposition, not an angry dispute).  We tend to handle arguments by expressing them in either writing or speaking. But there concept of an argument map in which the statements that make up the premises and the conclusion of the argument are drawn diagrammatically. Critical thinking skills improve faster when taught with argument mapping.

So how do we apply these lessons to critical thinking and the church?

  1. Critical thinking is hard but not impossible.

Critical thinking doesn’t come naturally to most people. Hence, why I apologised earlier in this essay – I was wrong to expect that critical thinking should come naturally to everyone.

But that doesn’t mean that the church should shy away from it either. At the very least, all Christians should be aware of the most fundamental basics of critical thinking – that we naturally tend to believe what’s intuitive, not necessarily what’s right. And, it’s ok to ask questions. No topic should be taboo.

  1. Those who can, should.

We’re all members of Christ’s body (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Some are more gifted in hospitality or leadership – the hands and feet. Some people are intercessors – the heart. So it’s not really a stretch to think that there are some members of the church whose gifts lie in the academic or the intellectual – the “brain”.

So those who want to think about God and their faith on a much deeper level should be encouraged to do so. If there aren’t any already, courses could be developed to teach the interested Christian how interpret Biblical Hebrew and Greek to increase the understanding of scripture. Courses in critical thinking can be added to every Bible college and seminary, and courses in critical thinking can be encouraged or taught by churches, along side courses in ministry and the supernatural.

At the end of my last post, I said that I would do an idiots guide to critical thinking so that we could all have the skills if we wanted them. Actually I don’t need to, since there are very good courses in critical thinking online already: http://philosophy.hku.hk/think/

  1. Be aware of our limitations

Lastly, pastors and leaders should be aware of their own limitations and their potential for cognitive biases.  Our pastors work hard, and do a very good job on the whole.  But they’re not all like Solomon.  Just because something seems right to them, doesn’t mean that it is. Sometimes there will be people who will legitimately question what they say, or a ministry or minister that they’ve endorsed.

Rather than taking this as an affront to their authority, they need to consider that the alternative view might be right. If they’re not in a position to weigh up the evidence for themselves, there’s no reason why they can’t ask for assistance from trusted elders who do have the knowledge.  If Moses can delegate, then so can they.

The same goes for Christian leaders all the way to the highest levels of church leadership. Our church leadership can’t plead ignorance when significant issues are raised. Burying your head in the sand just makes your arse a target.

Critical thinking is an important yet unrecognised major issue for the Christian church. If I have missed anything, or if you would like to further the conversation, I welcome your comments.

Happy thinking everyone.

References

[1]        van Gelder T. Teaching Critical Thinking: Lessons from Cognitive Science. College Teaching 2005;53(1):41-46.

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Dr Caroline Leaf – Serious questions, few answers (Part 3) – “Flirting with heresy”

Following on from the last 2 posts discussing the various teaching points of Dr Caroline Leaf at Kings Christian Church, here is my final post on the points that she raised.  Tonight, I conclude by proposing that in equating ‘toxic’ thoughts with sin, she seriously weakens her own argument, or she flirts with heresy.

TOXIC THOUGHTS ARE SIN

Probably the most disturbing of all she discussed was her point blank statement that, “Toxic thoughts are sin.”

This is an astounding claim, and it was said in such an off-handed manner. It was like she threw a grenade and calmly moved on. Her claim not only has psychological ramifications, but deep theological connotations.

Her statement has the effect of ADDING to the stress response of her audience. Indeed, it sets up a feedback loop of self-perpetualising existential distress – the spiritual struggle switch. Crum et al (2013) showed that negatively framing the concept of stress leads to an increase in the subjects stress response. What could be more stressing that telling a christian that they have sinned every time that have had a persistent stress?  More stress is then equated with more ‘sin’ which then gives rise to even more stress. And so the cycle continues.

She then attempted to redeem her statement by declaring that we can transcend the guilt from the sin of stress, because her 21-day brain detox program would fix it. But on the surface, it seems an arbitrary premise. Inducing guilt to then offer to fix it is like a supermarket marking up a price so they can claim to offer a discount when they reduce it again.

More importantly though, in making the link between stress and sin, she brings herself undone. She either unravels her entire argument, or she flirts with heresy. Because if a thought process which results in prolonged or severe fear/stress is a sin, then Jesus himself sinned.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, the gospels record that Jesus, the spotless lamb of God, about to be crucified for the sins of all mankind, was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mark 14:34, Matthew 26:38), and became so distressed by the ordeal he was about to endure that he literally sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44).

Where do you think Jesus was on the stress spectrum according to those accounts? I’d wager that it wasn’t “healthy stress”.Rev Bob Deffinbaugh wrote that,

“Jesus spent what appears to be at least three agonizing hours in prayer.” He also noted that, “Never before have we seen Jesus so emotionally distraught. He has faced a raging storm on the Sea of Galilee, totally composed and unruffled. He has faced demonic opposition, satanic temptation, and the grilling of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, with total composure. But here in the Garden, the disciples must have been greatly distressed by what (little) they saw. Here, Jesus cast Himself to the ground, agonizing in prayer.” (https://bible.org/seriespage/garden-gethsemane-luke-2239-46)

There is no other way to explain it – Jesus suffered severe and prolonged mental anguish to the point that it had physical effects. By Dr Leaf’s definition (Leaf 2009, p19), Jesus had “toxic” thoughts. So the crux is: either toxic thoughts and emotions are sinful, in which case Jesus was a sinner and our salvation is invalid, or toxic thoughts and emotions are not sinful, which directly contradicts her teaching.

There is at least one further example from the life of Jesus that significantly weakens Dr Leafs definition of ‘toxic’ thoughts. In her book, Dr Leaf states, “hostility and rage are at the top of the list of toxic emotions”, and that “Stress is the direct result of toxic thinking.” (Leaf 2009, p29-30)

In John 2:13-17, it says, “When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

So Jesus saw the sellers and the money exchangers, then in a pre-meditated way, took small cords and fashioned a whip out of them, then proceeded to use that whip to violently and aggressively overturn the tables of the merchants and spill the money of the money changers. John adds a post-script – “Zeal for your house will consume me.”  So Jesus wasn’t mincing words. He drove them out of the temple in a rage.

Again, was Jesus acting in sin?  Of course not.  Instead, perhaps God has designed normal human beings to experience rage, anger and stress – emotions that are not curses passed down in genetic material and are not learned behaviours as a result of our sin nature.

Further, God himself displayed anger.  God also made us in his image, and in his likeness. Dr Leaf stated that we were designed to function in optimism and love, and again, negative emotions like anger and fear are learnt from living in sin. Yet it is interesting that God the Father regularly kindled his wrath, and smote Israelites or their enemies (Numbers 11:33, Deuteronomy 11:16-17, and in 2 Kings 23:25-27, “Notwithstanding the Lord turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal.”)

If God regularly displayed anger throughout the Old Testament, and Jesus displayed it in the New Testament, then anger and rage can not be the perversion of God’s ultimate design as Dr Leaf proposes.

Therefore, ‘toxic’ thought is NOT sin, because Jesus suffered prolonged mental stress and anguish and he did not sin.  Emotions that are deemed to be toxic by Dr Leaf and her definition are not toxic, since both God and Jesus displayed them and they did not and do not sin. Such a suggestion is incongruent with the Christian faith.

We were made in the image of God, so therefore we mirror all the emotions of God, which includes anger.  This shows that Dr Leaf’s proposals and the assumptions on which they are based, are incongruent with a logical interpretation of scripture.

In conclusion, Dr Leaf has been gathering quite a following.  From the pulpit at least, her claims of evidence of studies from peer-reviewed sources have been lacking. From what I saw on Sunday last, her reputation is excessive, her arguments unsupported and her theology is questionable at best, dangerous at worst.

Personally, I would welcome Dr Leaf’s response to these posts.  I have written these posts over a few days from her teaching at one church, so perhaps I have misunderstood her.  I have not been able to go through all of her books in such a short time, so she may have references to her teaching.  But she needs to clarify each question that I’ve raised and respond with current peer-reviewed science and sound theological resources.

References

Crum, A. J., P. Salovey and S. Achor (2013). “Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response.” J Pers Soc Psychol 104(4): 716-733.

Karatsoreos, I. N. and B. S. McEwen (2011). “Psychobiological allostasis: resistance, resilience and vulnerability.” Trends Cogn Sci 15(12): 576-584.

Leaf, C. (2009). Who Switched Off My Brain? Controlling toxic thoughts and emotions. Southlake, TX, USA, Inprov, Ltd.

Fear: Friend or Foe?

Fear.  Should we run, fight, or think?

I was lazily wasting time at Zarraffas this afternoon, and while I was savouring the richness and depth of my triple masai mocha, I was filling the time by flicking through Facebook.

I came upon a blog post by one of the best thinkers and writers I’m personally acquainted with, one Ruth Limkin, who shared the story of how she was given an opportunity to snorkel in a pristine area of ocean in the South Pacific that is limited to only a handful of people, such is the fragile beauty of the ecosystem there.  As she started swimming into the warm, calm, azure waters, she felt this sudden dread.

Five years ago in a similar situation, she misjudged the current, was swept into some coral, and sustained a laceration to her knee.  This left a lot of blood in the water which, quite reasonably, made her think that she had suddenly become shark bait.  She made it back to shore otherwise unscathed. But it left her with the implicit memory of that event.

This year, despite the obviously calm surroundings, she recalled that fear. Her brain told her to get out of there.  She did manage to overcome her fear though, and enjoyed the snorkelling!

Her lesson was that the pain of yesterday can become todays fear, which robs tomorrow of its promise.

I don’t disagree with Ruth.  I’m not intelligent enough to do that.  But I guess I come from a more medical and analytical perspective of this phenomenon, and I wanted to flesh out her point a bit further.

We all feel it at sometime or another – your heart pounds faster and heavier in your chest. Your breathing gets faster. Your muscles tighten. And your brain either says, “Run” or “Fight”, or sometimes it says nothing at all and we simply freeze up.

The human fear response is both rational and irrational.  We usually don’t understand why we are faced with conflicting realities of internal anxiety and external tranquility, feeling scared while looking at calm clear waters.  Sometimes when we take a step back, we can gain some understanding of why we have reacted the way we did, and cognitively overcome our fear.

B-grade pop-psychologists make us believe that courage is the absence of fear, and that the way to move forward is to eliminate or repress your fears.  But that approach is wrong for a couple of reasons.

There is a good reason why we have fear conditioning.  There is a part of the brain called the limbic system, which is integral to emotional processing.  Central to this is the amygdala, which is responsible for adding emotions to our experiences, especially fear and anger.  When something happens that has real or perceived negative consequences (we experience pain, or we think that there is a high chance that we will experience pain) the amygdala pairs that aversive sensation with the memory of the total experience.  This helps us learn from our mistakes [1].

For example, if a pre-historic man was walking through a forest and came across a sabre-toothed tiger, the fight-or-flight response would help him escape.  But the amygdala would attach the memory of the emotion to the memory of the event itself.  Next time the man walked through a similar forest, or even recalled that event in his mind, the emotion of the memory would also be recalled.  This is why Ruth felt uneasy despite the lack of danger.  Her surroundings triggered the emotional memory of the previous snorkelling experience.

But while unpleasant, fear does confer a survival advantage.  Without the same emotion being recalled, we wouldn’t remember what situations were dangerous and which were safe.  Recalling the emotion and realising there may be sabre-toothed tigers around, or strong currents and sharks, means that there is a much smaller chance of us becoming lunch.

There are two pathways in the brain that are involved in the fear response.  The direct pathway goes from the senses to the amygdala, bypassing the thinking parts of our brain entirely.  Again, this confers a survival advantage as the quicker you can prepare yourself for danger, the more likely you are to survive it.  The signal is not properly analysed, but it doesn’t need to be.  It is better to be wrong and live than to be right and eaten by something.

The second pathway from the senses to the cerebral cortex then back to the amygdala is more precise, but it is slower than the direct path.  It can downgrade the fear response if it is not appropriate.  Well, it can in most people.  Anxiety and panic disorders arise when the balance between the direct and indirect pathways is skewed in the direction of the amygdala.

If you think you may have an anxiety disorder or panic disorder, you should see a good GP.  There are specific forms of psychological therapy that you may need to engage with.  Some people also need medications to assist with the process.

For most people though, we can simply allow the recalled feeling of fear stop us from engaging in life.  When we sense fear, the natural reaction is to run or fight.  That is the direct pathway talking in our brain. The lesson from our neurobiology is that we have another choice.  We can let our cerebral cortex do its job, we can think about the situation, and allow our higher functions to downgrade our primitive reactions.

We also need to understand that fear is ok.  It is necessary, in fact.  Without it, we wouldn’t adapt to our surroundings or learn from our mistakes.  We should not avoid fear.  We should not fight fear.  But we should not let fear control us.

Nelson Mandela, a man who experienced great fear but greater hope, sums it up beautifully, and so gets the final word, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.”

References
[1] Dalgleish, T., The emotional brain. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2004. 5(7): p. 583-9.