(Neuroscience of Sanctification Series)
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;” (Prov 3:5)
So let’s dive a bit deeper into the heart! The heart is used throughout the bible, exhorting us to have a “heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Col 3:12), warnings against closing our hearts to the needs of our brother (1 John 3:17), telling us to write kindness and loyalty upon our hearts (Prov. 3:3), that obedience comes from the heart (Rom 6:17), reminding us that our trust rests in our heart not our understanding (Prov. 3:5), and a word of caution to guard our hearts because from it “flow the springs of life.” (Prov.4:23).
Ephesians 3:16-17 states that Christ dwells in our hearts! Ironically, church culture seems much more interested in guarding our brains than our hearts. We spend an enormous amount of time focusing on our thoughts, but not much time on our hearts. “Centuries before the arrival of the psychological schools, the great spiritual guides saw the heart as the centre of both consciousness and the unconscious…It is from these depths, from the “spark of the soul” that the Holy Spirit comes to us.” (Kuchan) I think that the abandonment of the heart is in part because of an American culture that has long ago adopted an ancient Greek Gnostic approach that gives a pre-eminence to thought life, but I also think it is a complete lack of understanding regarding emotions and emotional life.
In Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, “love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Mark 12:30) is understood as a call to engage our hearts with enthusiasm, fervor, and passion.
But what are we talking about when we refer to the heart from a neurobiological perspective? It may be that what the early writers of the bible were recognizing were physical sensations, connected to emotions that were felt in our chest. This is likely due to what has now been labeled as the Vagus system. It starts in the brainstem and connects to organs throughout the body independently of the spinal cord. It is a “complex bidirectional neural feedback system” that also extends into the heart- an area like the “gut” that has a vast array of neural networks. Unlike the “gut” this area of the heart cannot act independently of the brain, but because it is not connected to the spinal cord it has very unique ways of interacting with our brains. The “vagal system allows us to translate what we learn from experience into moment to moment bodily experiences.” In fact, our emotions can be understood as the “conscious experience and interpretation of our bodily states.” (Cozzilino)
In other words, we have physical sensations that are part of nonconscious experiential learning that get interpreted and experienced as emotions. Our “hearts” learn things and store information that is later interpreted and experienced by other parts of our brain. So in addition to emotions, when we talk about the heart, we are talking about physical sensations, memories and experiences governed by the Vagus system around that area of the chest.
To recap what the bible teaches about our hearts:
- Much of the fruit of relationship with God comes from the heart- (Col 3:12)
- Our hearts are the key to love, kindness and good relationships (1 John 3:17) (Prov. 3:3)
- The key to obedience is the heart (Rom 6:17)
- Our hearts, not our understanding, are the keys to faith (Prov. 3:5)
- The springs of life flow from our hearts (Prov.4:23).
In the course of this series we will talk about what it means to engage in and recognize emotions, instincts, and physical sensations in the sanctification process- how do we write upon and trust with our hearts?
Gill, J. (1982). Exposition of the entire bible. Book of Mark 2, 14.
Kuchan, K. L. (2011). Prayer as therapeutic process toward transforming destructiveness within a spiritual direction relationship. Journal of religion and health, 50(1), 120-131.
Seamands, D. A. (1999). Healing grace: Finding freedom from the performance trap. Light and Life Communications.
Cozolino, L. (2014). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain (Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.