When Neurochemistry Meets Religion

Many people are hesitant about trying to combine science with religion. These are two areas that have long been defined with strict boundaries and very little overlap. However, as scientific discoveries and advances continue to expand the boundaries of knowledge, Christians must adapt to understand and interact with their findings.

Often, the fear of science is really a fear that someone is trying to change our ideas about God. But redefining the world around us does not mean erasing old beliefs; instead we can look at this as an opportunity to broaden the boundaries of how we understand God. After all, God doesn’t need us to defend Him, He only asks that we represent His love in the world. In order to do that we must be willing to take down the boundaries, such as those between science and religion. Instead of letting questions divide us, we can find common ground and actually let science help us improve our lives of faith.

Someone recently sent me an article from the Harvard Business Review titled “The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations.” Although the article focused on applying neurochemistry to managerial communication and business environments, there is still a beneficial message for Christians.

The following chart, which was included with the article, reminded me why this is applicable to Christians.

This chart gives us a hint about how the  neurochemistry associated with positive and negative behaviors is useful knowledge for Christians
This chart gives us a hint about how the neurochemistry associated with positive and negative behaviors is useful knowledge for Christians.
Notice the common behaviors of managers they include: they are similar to the behaviors of Christians trying to talk about religion or engaging with other people. How many times have you heard someone say they can’t converse with a Christian because the person is focused on convincing others, not understanding the other point of view, and they are always suspect of a non-Christian’s intentions? Those are the same negative behaviors that caused problems for managers in the workplace.


On the other hand, the positive behaviors are strikingly similar to the ideal, loving interactions Christians should be having as followers of Jesus. It isn’t out of line to say that Jesus showed concern for others, was truthful about what was on his mind, stimulated discussion or curiosity, painted a picture of mutual success, and was open to difficult conversations.


So what can we learn from this? The article’s emphasis are the effects of those negative and positive behaviors. Neurochemistry has shown that negative interactions produce high levels of cortisol in the brain; positive interactions produce the feel-good hormone of oxytocin.


As Christians, we can benefit from understanding this neurochemistry as we attempt to spread God’s love to other people. Many Christians don’t realize how powerful the effect of their negative behaviors can be on others.


The article details this problem:
“When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists.”


This sounds like the case of most non-Christians today. They have been criticized and rejected in such a way that their brains push them into sensitivity, defensiveness, and aversion to further interaction. This is true not only of their interactions with Christian followers, but with God.


In the book The God-Shaped Brain (InterVarsity Press), Dr. Timothy R. Jennings explains how the way you think about God actually changes your brain. If you only think of God as judgmental and angry, it will influence your brain to constantly associate threats or fear with negative emotions. But, when you understand God as loving and good (which He is) your brain becomes programmed to think in more positive ways.


As Christians, if we want to share the love of a truly good God, we need to remember that everyone we interact with is wired to be neurochemically influenced by how positive or negative the interaction is. If we focus on making our conversations about faith, God, or life in general more positive then we are forging a pattern of openness that can improve the way people think about and relate to Christianity.


Dr. Judith E. Glaser summarizes the lesson here perfectly at the end of the article:
“Be mindful of the behaviors that open us up, and those that close us down, in our relationships. Harness the chemistry of conversations.”

How does this change the way you think about your behaviors?


Do you think Christians can benefit from scientific knowledge like this?

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