Sunday 14 February 2016

Brain Science

I have been watching David Eagleton's series on The Brain on the BBC iPlayer with great interest. I was particularly struck by the plasticity of the brain: how we actually shape and develop our brain by the way in which we use it.

The study of brains of professed religious, who had often lived long and disciplined lives, revealed that many of their brains showed that they had developed Alzheimer's Disease: yet in life they had shown none of the symptoms of Alzheimer's.  

The effect of learning any particular discipline, whether music, free climbing or cup-stacking was extraordinary, in terms of how the brain develops as a result of repeated training, in order for the learned activity to be entirely natural, and to some extent effortless.

That underpins the classical conceptions of the virtues, of course: the habit of behaving in a particular way, which is developed by repeated as-if behaviour. That is, if I wish to develop the virtue of charity, I should repeatedly think and behave as a charitable person would do; as-if I were a charitable person. If I do that in a sustained and systematic way, I develop my brain so that such behaviour is natural to it.

That is not to down-play the role of grace, of course. It is only by being receptive to grace that I will be able to think and behave as if I were charitable in a sustained and systematic way. But it does underline the importance of a spiritual discipline if we are to grow holy brains. St Benedict knew a thing or two...

It also sheds some light on the whole debate about gender identity and sexual preferences. Whilst there may well be both genetic and environmental factors that incline an individual one way or another, there is no doubt that consistently thinking and behaving in whatever way one does is the way in which one constructs such an identity. And as with the other examples, that will then feel entirely natural.

Which is why I believe, if one accepts the evidence that aberrant sexual identities lead to poor outcomes in terms of health and happiness (and the evidence is certainly there to support that), it is not wise for society to pretend that all gender identities and expressions are equally good; for it may lead more young people than would otherwise do so to adopt, and to make real for themselves, such identities. 

Whereas a strong heteronormative education, and a strong education for chastity, are likely to help more young people to develop a healthy self-understanding and a healthy identity, leading to better outcomes for them and society. The challenge is to do that in a way that does not lead to unjust discrimination against the very small minority for whom the genetic and environmental factors are so strong that they develop aberrant identities despite this support.


Mark said...

Reminds me of what I read in the free e-books at CovenantEyes:

or perhaps it was this one:

Sig Sønnesyn said...

This is interesting in a very general sense, both as an argument for the importance of liturgy and for virtue ethics. It would be immensely helpful for my current study of monastic epistemology in the middle ages to have access to some of the research underpinning the series, as medieval thinkers seem to have intuited what can now be demonstrated through brain science. Did you happen to catch names of scientist publishing on this? I'm not within the iPlayer zone for some time now...

Ben Trovato said...

Mark, thanks, I'll have a look.

Sig, I'll see what I can find out.

Sig Sønnesyn said...

Thanks very much, Ben – but only if you have the time!