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Considering Neuroscience in Biblical Counseling

Truth in Love 336

How do we, as biblical counselors, read the research of neuroscience with a helpful eye that doesn't dismiss it out of hand but maintains a discerning heart?

Nov 8, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today, once again, I’m delighted to have with us Dr. Jenn Chen. Jenn has her Doctorate Degree in Clinical Psychology. She also has a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy as well. She practiced, actually, in the inner city of LA for 17 years and also has an MABC from the Master’s University and now teaches there as an adjunct professor in their online program. She counsels at her church, Lighthouse Church, and she’s an ACBC certified member. I’ve really enjoyed the short time that I’ve gotten to know Jenn Chen over the last several years, and just the kindness and grace and humility that she brings to the table, particularly in thinking about these difficult subjects as it relates to psychology and the practice of different psychotherapies and psychologies that I think are just really, really helpful and full of grace, but also wise according to Scripture. Just to hear her heart and love for the things of God and the Scriptures has been just a true blessing to me. I can’t wait to introduce you to her and thinking in this topic on neuroscience.

Honestly, this is a confusing difficult topic for so many people and it is quite all the rage and in much of science. Most psychotherapies, if they could have the backing or the blessing of neuroscience, then it comes across certainly as much more valid in the minds and hearts of people. So, this is a subject that we in biblical counseling are going to encounter in a lot of different ways. We certainly don’t ever want to dismiss that which is seen as legitimate, good, healthy science, but we also want to be wise and cautious as to those things which are not and shouldn’t be categorized as such.

Jenn has been really helpful. I tell you, we’ve recently been together, a group of leaders in the biblical counseling movement, at our ACBC Colloquium, and she presented a paper on neuroscience research and the noetic effects of the fall that we see in some of the research that happens. So we’re going to talk through some of that today. So the first thing I want to do that I think will be helpful, Jenn, is just revisit some of those ideas of the noetic effects of the fall. We talked about it in a previous podcast as it relates to psychology a little bit more broadly, but then let’s talk about those effects as we see maybe particularly in some of the neuroscience research. 

Jenn Chen: The thing about neuroscience is it’s in such an infancy stage and it is exciting. Science has created these machines that can show our blood flow, that can show structure, and it’s pretty amazing that they could do something like that. And yet, at the same time, it is in its infancy and research is young. And yet, at the same time, because it is so exciting, research can get hyped up. As I talked about last time, science takes time. It takes also acknowledging difficulties or failures to prove a hypothesis. So that type of work is very slow, especially when we consider how many variables might go into something. I was actually shocked, as I researched for this paper, that these statistic numbers were actually lower for neuroscience than they were for psychology, which aren’t great in themselves. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that is interesting. For many of us, this will be an introduction as we think about neuroscience. I don’t know about anybody else—this is an area I wish I knew more about and that I am super intrigued by. I enjoy reading, you know, about some of the findings of neuroscience and the way that they’re pursuing discovery of aspects of the brain and the functions of it and so on, and it is super intriguing and it’s an area that I really enjoy reading in and paying attention to, although still consider myself quite a novice in that area. It’s important for us to understand that when we talk about neuroscience and what’s happening there, one of the dangers, I think, that we have to be cautious of is its explanatory ability. Sometimes, we have to be cautious about its interpretation of certain things.

But before we get into some of the critiques of neuroscience, what are some of those positives? What are some of the things that we see that—yes, it’s a young science—but some of the things that we see that could be helpful in pursuing maybe this avenue of understanding this fascinating and amazing aspect of our body that God has created us with that we call the brain? 

Jenn Chen: Well, some of the current applications are that it can do pre-surgical planning for neurosurgeons so that they don’t damage, or they can minimally damage other areas so that when they’re removing a tumor, blood clot, epileptic tissue, that they don’t damage other areas of the brain. They’re also able to ascertain stroke damage. They can follow the course of Alzheimer’s and epilepsy. They can determine brain maturity. And they’re actually hoping that it will help them improve treatment of comatose individuals by allowing the physicians to measure levels of consciousness. Also, I wouldn’t totally be against somebody having neuropsych testing and what I would use it for is to understand someone’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Sorry, on a layman’s terms—what are their strengths? Is it more auditory memory versus visual memory? How much are they able to pay attention, something that we call executive functioning? And again, knowing that that could vary in a person day-to-day–things like anxiety, education level—these are all things. But if I know someone’s strengths and weaknesses then that might determine how I give them homework, how I speak to them while I’m in the session. 

Dale Johnson: Wow, those sound like some amazing discoveries and I think we should all be anxiously pulling for this as a legitimate biological science that’s trying to understand a little bit more about who we are and some of the detriments that we have as human beings in the cursed world. You know, we pray that neuroscience can, at some point, be very helpful to us as human beings. That really becomes a shadow of sustaining life, right? Because ultimately that science or no other science is going to give us life forever. That only is found in Christ. So, we have to hold these truths, these discoveries, certainly in those open hands, but with excitement. I think those things are exciting for us to consider.

Now, I do think, especially as it’s a young science—and some of the broad applications that we see—sometimes people conflate the findings of neuroscience and they want to use it in such a way to validate their own ideas. What are some of the cautions? and you gave a lot of these in the paper, which we’re going to release in publication people can read—but you gave a lot of these cautions in your paper about the field of neuroscience. Help us understand some of those. 

Jenn Chen: I think one of the important things to understand is that they’re just like the psychologies. There is no overarching theory. There are so many different ways to study it, and there are arguments about how to study it and even what questions they should be asking. Another issue is the idea of neuroimaging and what that can actually do. Before doing this paper, I didn’t understand how it actually worked and learned that FMRIs, which are most frequently used these days, that it doesn’t even see brain activity directly. There is a change in blood flow, but that doesn’t occur simultaneously with the brain activity because what the imaging is doing is actually measuring brain flow versus some sort of magic picture of, this is, you know, what’s going on in your brain.

Thirdly, it actually produces fuzzy pictures of the brain and what the researchers have to do is do what’s called signal processing and make choices about data points. Because of that, there is a lot of bias in the research which ends up making it more unreliable. Another issue is just the sheer expense. From what I understand, it can be over a thousand dollars to do each neuroimaging, and in science, the greater the sample number, the more robust your results are. So the numbers are very small sometimes in these studies because of the cost of it.

Another issue I was looking at is that they tend to use a lot of animal research. In an article I just read the other day, it was talking about—and then they use male animals with this assumption that, because of females, there are more hormones and so that would make more variability. And just back to, even with psychology there’s so much variability between each individual person. Other issues include the actual technology. They actually found that because of the statistics they were using, that up to 10% of studies have been compromised. And then, finally, I was also looking at another study that, you can have a person do the same thing a week later, a month later, and the brain scans will not be consistent. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, those are interesting. And here’s the thing, I want to make sure that people understand this, when we critique or caution this field of neuroscience, it’s not to dismiss it out of hand. As you mentioned earlier, it’s a young science and we can still be ambitious and excited about what that progress may hold in helping us to understand things that we’ve never understood before. But I think we do have to assess it in the place that it is right now and that’s exactly what you’re trying to do to say, you know, there are ways that we’re learning to use the machine or machines that can accomplish studying things in a more clear way.

One of the points that I think is really important to make is, when I think about neuroscience, sometimes we have to be cautious. It can give us a snapshot. But that’s a chicken or the egg question, right? It’s, is the biology of the brain creating this emotion or this behavioral response. It’s certainly contributing but is it creating that? Or is it my inner man, the way that I interpret things, that seems to be indicated by what the Scripture says, that from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, that’s the typical flow of things and it raises the question.

So, when you think about neuroscience, when they’re looking at snapshots, there’s a lot of interpretation that’s going on when they’re looking at an FMRI, as you mentioned—some of the activity in different places and the flow of the blood and the way that they rate the oxygen levels and the activities and parts of the brain and that sort of thing. Talk just a little bit about the way that neuroscience interprets what they’re seeing on the images from the research. 

Jenn Chen: Well, let me go ahead and read the quote, “FMRI requires a lot of signal processing which means that researchers must make choices about which data points are important and which are noise. Such decisions inherently introduce bias into the research. The researcher’s processing smudges the images, making interpretation considerably more difficult and unreliable.” So when we see these little colors on these brain scans, first of all, they’ve decided this is what’s important and then they’ve added this color and decided what color and why this should be bright and why this should be not. So those are all interpretations. That’s not an actual picture of the brain, that is a picture of the brain with them adding the colors and what they deemed as important versus what they deemed as noise and unimportant. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think that’s insightful and very, very helpful. The last thing I want to do is to squelch our ambition here. So Jenn, what I’d love for you to do is—there are many cautions and I don’t think we should close our eyes to those things, but how should we think just broadly about neuroscience? When we see things that have this label or this tag, help us as biblical counselors to—how do we approach reading that type of research with a helpful eye that doesn’t just dismiss it out of hand, but has a discerning heart when we approach it? 

Jenn Chen: One of the first things I’m going to think about is, this was one study and so if I see something splashed in the news, my first thought is, okay that was one study. I wonder who did it. I wonder how many samples. So in the essay, I provided three different resources to help you assess research. I’m definitely not saying don’t look at research, just ignore what you see. If you are going to look at some of these, really consider how to actually assess them. In my paper, I listed three sources and one of them is from a book called Science Fictions by Stuart Ritchie. In his appendix, he does a wonderful job of, he calls it, top 10 list of questions to assess research. There’s another article that you can just Google called, Why Most Published Research Findings are False and in it, John Ioannidis gives some corollaries that can help you assess. And if you want to just jump on the internet, there’s an article by Marc Zimmer and he calls it, Six Tips to Help You Detect Fake Science News. 

Dale Johnson: Jenn, that’s really helpful. I always love doing this podcast because I get to talk to people who are way smarter than I am and I love hearing input from just so many different areas. What an intriguing thing that we’re learning about even today on the podcast and we hear about this amazing thing of neuroscience, but to be wise and cautious about it. Now, Jenn did mention several resources and so I want to make sure that we put those in the show notes so that you can check those out. They are, I think very helpful ideas and some questions that give you a lens from which to see some of the research. So I want to recommend those things to you. Jenn, thank you so much for taking the time to give us some insight—really a scratch of the surface of an introduction to neuroscience, but it’s an important topic and it’s invading lots of different spaces that we encounter in biblical counseling. So thank you for your time.

Helpful Resources

Critical Psychology Bibliography