I entitled this part of the series Jesus Homunculous because I thought the image was really appropriate. The homunculous is an old term, you can see a representations of one of the homunculi in my blog. It was an old term steeped in superstition and fantasy around the 1500s, but it was later used by various scientific disciplines as a visual representation. In psychology it was used to demonstrate parts of the brain and how they reflected control over parts of the body.
In neuroscience, the term “representation” is often used. So the brain is often said to contain representations of the body. Another metaphor is the idea of a map. In other words, there are neural connections within our brain that mirror our body. Not in the sense of the Homunculous where the networks actually look like a foot, but there are a cluster of networks that are involved in feeling and moving the foot. To go further, our memories and experiences create representations of other people and types of relationships in our brain. Your sense of father or mother has a neural representation in your brain that gets activated without your conscious awareness and communicates in various ways, including in your body as your gut feelings or felt sense of an individual. When people talk about “chemistry” in romantic relationships, this is exactly what they are talking about. They are waiting for their body to provide them with emotional information.
When we talk about being connected or safe with someone, we are talking about a feeling both emotional and physical. When I say that I feel close to someone, it’s not an intellectual assessment based upon data that I’ve weighed (though that may be how I decide whether to trust someone), it’s a feeling in my body.
Every relationship we have has a “representation” within our brain. When we talk about Christ “in us” this can take on very interesting neurological implications as well. That may not simply be a metaphor or something wholly magical. I want to talk more about God dwelling within us in a later entry, I believe it to be much more than I’m referring to here and it’s the essence of our relationship with Him. But I think it’s interesting that in psychological language we could say that there is a Jesus Homunculous in our brain. There is a complex representation of God in our brains and impacts how we experience him. This felt map gets activated before we are even aware that we are thinking about Him, it impacts our emotions and bodily sensations without our conscious consent and affects the quality of our relationship independently from our conscious beliefs and desires.
These are networks in the brain that are literally shaped by our experiences. How we connect with others, what we understand and learn as safe or dangerous are all encoded within this system. The right hemisphere of our brain, the area primarily responsible for processing emotions, responds faster than our conscious awareness to negative emotional stimuli. The classic example is how we jump in startled fear while hiking only to discover it was a stick rather than a snake. Before our conscious evaluative processes can kick in, our body is moving and our fight or flight system is activated. Again, this area of the brain gets wired and shaped by our past experiences, meaning that our “moment to moment thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” are influenced unconsciously by past experiences that have formed maps or circuitry in our right brain hemisphere.
Terms like projection and transference that have fallen out of vogue in the Cognitive therapy world but are now finding a resurgence and validation in neuroscience. Our early childhood experiences creat pathways in the brain that prompt us to react to individuals in certain ways before our conscious minds can even catch up. This means that we become afraid before we are aware. If the circuitry doesn’t change, our immediate reaction will always be fear. That is why you may find yourself responding in anger when challenged or in fear when you need to set a boundary even though you know what is right and have spent some time trying to remind yourself of the truth. This is why simple cognitive attempts at change, like memorizing a scripture verse will often fail to change us. “…if both the frontal cortex and the emotional centers of the brain remain inactive when a person contemplates God, God will hold little meaning or value” (Anderson&Newberg, 2009). Using the parable of the Sower, the verse is the seed, but the neural network is the soil and it is the soil that needs to be tilled, irrigated, and fertilized.
So much of who we are gets shaped by our early interactions with caregivers. David Seamands argues that parents were intended to be our first experience of a “felt sense” of God and grace. Ideally, we experience unconditional love, sacrificial love, and grace from our primary caregivers, but the reality is that we live in a fallen world and those early experiences often set us up for difficulty when it comes ot knowing and encountering God.
Those early experiences of attunement like eye contact, and facial expressions are actually right brain to right brain communications that shape the infant. Sustained safe eye contact actually prompts the production of oxytocin which gives us a sense of connection, attachment and safety. The attunement of a parent triggers activity in the child’s brain that help shape and develop it. All of those important aspects of life like emotional regulation and social relationships are experience-dependent, meaning that they develop in the brain only through experiences with another important figure in your life.
Interestingly, it is the right hemisphere that forms first, the rest of our brain develops over the next few years of life. So this experience-dependent, often unconscious part of our brain is actually the core of who we are, the seed of who we will become. This is extraordinarily important as we understand how we grow and connect with God.
If your God Homunculous evokes guilt and anxiety because it was influenced and formed through the lens of negative parenting, you will have negative relational experiences with God no matter how much theology tells you that He is loving. The “soil” must be changed.
These parts of the brain are experience-dependent, so it is by experience that we grow and change. Two blogs ago I gave you an exercise to try that is experienced based and is designed to begin to till the “soil” of your heart, mind, body and soul. The goal of sanctification in some ways is to have Jesus more FULLY formed in our brains and minds. Our representation of Jesus must grow to be more accurate and alive within us, again this is not an intellectual modification but a whole body rewiring that occurs as we have healthy and true encounters with ourselves, others and God.
Cozzolino, L. (2006). The neuroscience of human relationships. New York, NY: WW.
Newberg, A., & Waldman, M. R. (2009). How God changes your brain. New York: Ballantine.