The Power of Ideas

ThinkerThe nature of human beings, what it means to be human, extends beyond mere material physicality. There are two profound ways in which this is true. (1) We develop as individuals, but we do so in communities. We are human corporately, not simply as individuals. A bottom up approach just doesn’t work. Humans are social creatures and the field of social neuroscience is a fast growing field. The human brain is shaped by genetics, powered by physics and chemistry, but structured by experience and interactions. (2) We create ideas, we test ideas, and we respond to ideas. Ideas have physical consequences in the material structure and response of our brains. Ideas can change and shape our very being in the structure of the brain.

But ideas are neither matter nor energy. This seems to me a rather significant concept. As a chemist and physicist I am (somewhat) used to the idea that there are fundamental forces in nature and that these are mediated through particles. We have the strong force, weak force, electromagnetic force and gravitational force. We have Newtonian physics, quantum physics, general relativity and the standard model. There is a mathematics that can describe all of these interactions. A rather beautiful mathematics. Yet in neuroscience we find that the information content transmitted between individuals shapes material response. We are not “machines” that respond to ideas, we are changed by those ideas. Abstract ideas shape matter.

Two examples may illustrate the point.

The influence of ideas on preconscious response. Malcolm Jeeves in Minds, Brains, Souls and Gods: A Conversation on Faith, Psychology and Neuroscience gives an interesting example of the way ideas shape human responses. In the last post in this series I asked the question How Free Am I? and looked at a number of experiments that tried to test human freedom in determining spontaneous action. There was an interesting experiment in the mix reported by a group of European scientists (Rigoni et al. Psych. Science 22, 613–618 (2011)) that I skipped in the last post. According to Jeeves:

They asked the question, What would happen if people started to disbelieve in free will? They noted that undermining free-will beliefs has already been shown to influence social behavior. … one of two groups in their experiment, called the “no-free-will” group, read a passage on consciousness from a famous book claiming that scientists now recognize that free will is an illusion. The other group, the control group, read a passage on consciousness from the same book that did not mention free will. In order to ensure that the participants read the material carefully, they were tole that a comprehension test would be given at the end of the experiment. What they found was that the readiness potential that they measured was reduced in those individuals who were induced to disbelieve in free will. … the manipulation influences intentional actions at preconscious stages. (p. 59)

In fact, Rigoni et al. conclude that “abstract belief systems might have a much more fundamental effect than most people would expect.” That the introduction of an abstract idea (the absence of free will) changed the thoughtful conscious reaction of people would not be a huge surprise. That the introduction of an abstract idea changed the preconscious response is more surprising.

The plasticity of the human brain. The second example emerges from the study of human development. The human brain is a complex system characterized by an extensive range of nonlinear interactions. Millions of neurons with millions of interconnections. Incredibly complex – and perhaps organized not into compartments but through connections and nodes, neural networks. We also now know that the brain is a plastic organ – in a material sense and in a functional sense. From Neuroscience, Psychology, and Religion: Illusions, Delusions, and Realities about Human Nature by Malcolm Jeeves and Warren Brown:

During the first two to three years of human life, there is a proliferation of nerve branching (dendrites) and connections (synapses), followed by a period of pruning of branches and connections. It is generally believed that the branches and connections that remain are the ones that get incorporated into networks created by the child’s experiences and learning. As the structures are physically maturing, they are being functionally formed by experiences in the world.

A noteworthy difference between human and chimpanzee infants and children is the very slow maturation of the human cerebral cortex. Thus, the young human brain is distinct for having a long period in which its final neural organization can be influenced by cognitive, social, and cultural experiences.

Change does not end with childhood and adolescence, however. Even after the cerebral cortex has reached adult levels of complexity, the functional network of the cortex remain plastic. They can be modified by new experiences and by learning. … Thus, the cerebral cortex continues the process of organization and reorganization of functional networks through experiences, learning, imagination, and thought. (p. 49)

Immaterial ideas and social interactions shape the brain, they modify the physical material structures of the brain, profoundly in childhood, but continuing throughout the entire lifespan. Whether we believe it or not people really do listen, respond, change and grow in response to external messages. It is possible to teach an old dog, as well as a young dog, new tricks.

You are what you think. Ideas matter and human relationships matter. Many fear that the metaphysical message that humans are nothing but evolutionarily shaped chemical responses poses a challenge for Christian faith. In contrast, the insights of social neuroscience should pose both a challenge and an opportunity. These insights lend increased importance to the way we gather together and interact as the body of Christ in worship, discipleship, mission and fellowship. What we do and how we do it matters as the material and corporate people of God. The implicit and explicit messages shape and form the people.

There is a well known phrase “You are what you eat.” The phrase originated, as far as I can find, from Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who, in 1826, said “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” The idea, simply put, is that the quality and type of food one eats influence both health and mind. Modern neuroscience tells us that on an even more fundamental level we are what we think and who we associate with. We are shaped and formed by our experiences.

Do you find these insights from neuroscience provocative?

How does the form of Christian community shape the people of God?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

If you would like to comment please see The Power of Ideas at Jesus Creed.

This entry was posted in Humanness, Neuroscience and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.