God and the Brain and the Adopted Child (and all the rest of us too)

presented by j:

we’ve been reading a lot. a lot lot. i’m not typically a huge non-fiction reader, but that’s what i have found in my hands lately, mostly as a result of our adoption class we just finished called Empowered to Connect. we went to one of their conferences last year and decided to take a class they were offering for other pre-placement families like us.

before this class, i never really realized before how big a difference it can make to really understand how the brain works. two of the books i’ve been reading about this subject are called Anatomy of the Soul, and the Whole-Brain Child.

i think too often believers think that it’s not really important to understand the brain because (a) you can’t see it (but you can’t live without it, of course), (b) it sounds too complicated (so is a lot of theology), and (c) what difference does it really make, anyway?

a painful result of the science vs. faith mentality is that it has put our culture into a place where we refuse to acknowledge that science can inform us about some of the “invisible qualities” in us. science and faith are both gifts of God and are meant to complement one another, but as people of faith, sometimes i think we’re so scared of science, we don’t want to pay attention to what it can teach us about our faith, specifically, about our relationship with our Creator.

the thesis of Anatomy of the Soul, written by Dr. Curt Thompson, M.D., a believer, can be summed up in something like this: “God designed the brain. and since He designed it, it helps us to understand how it works so that we can have a better relationship with Him and with others.”

now, i’m no expert, but here are some basics i’ve learned that have been really helpful thus far:

-the brain’s cells are called “neurons,” and they are always “firing,” meaning they are always sending signals to each other and building new connections between each other. this is how you learn – it’s also how you imagine and dream.

-the brain can be split up into a right half (emotions, feelings, “gut” responses, intuition), and left half (logic, linear reasoning, order). SPOILER ALERT…you need both halves…one is not better than the other.

-the brain can also be looked at from bottom to top in three sections: reptilian brain (brain stem, fight, flight, freeze reactions, survival skills, basic body functions like breathing, heart pumping, etc.), mammalian brain (ability to feel emotions, ability to learn, motor skill coordination), and the cortex (advanced reasoning, fine motor skills that enable us to do things like paint, dance, high-five each other, language abilities, writing, etc.). a little guy called the “amygdala” sits between the cortex and mammalian sections to help regulate emotion. i’ll bring this back up later, though.

-“neurons that fire together, wire together.” in other words, this is why i always want nachos with sour cream when i see an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. growing up, we always watched that show while eating nachos, and back then, i only liked to dip my nachos in sour cream, nothing else. so those neurons – memory neurons for watching the show – and taste neurons for nachos with sour cream – got wired together. psychologists would call this the “Pavlovian effect” – you know, that guy who always got his dogs to drool when they heard a bell.

so…what does all of this mean for the adopted child? (and all the rest of us too) – especially in the context of our spiritual lives?

it means that even in the womb, an adopted child’s brain is forming differently than a wanted, nurtured child. if the birth mother is stressed, that stress she feels affects how the baby’s neurons are firing. if the birth mother is impoverished and unable to eat healthy, not only does it affect the baby’s bodily health, but also the brain’s health. the brain is a part of the body too, after all. but because the brain houses the mind, the mind forming will be affected too.

so an unwanted child is already, neurologically-speaking, starting off at a different developmental stage than a wanted newborn. they may look the same on the outside and may cry the same and poop the same and eat the same, but inside their brains, there are already distinct differences. there’s no such thing as a “clean slate” when it comes to the newborn brain, whether the newborn is wanted or not. in fact, “implicit memory” starts forming during the third trimester of pregnancy.

Scripture is clear when it tells us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” (Luke 10:27) the mind is not just some ethereal thing…it is formed by your brain. as the brilliant theologian A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” so the adopted child with an underdeveloped brain at birth is already starting behind the curve when it comes to having a relationship with God – and other humans for that matter.

so a child whose first weeks, months, years, whether pre-natal or not, are filled with neglect, abuse, malnourishment, lack of adult attachment, lack of affection, or any other type of loss and trauma will damage the brain and affect the overall well-being of the child.

this is why adopted kids and foster kids will display so many behavioral problems. the trauma has taken affect on their brains, and therefore, their minds. their amygdala was never given the proper chance to help them regulate their emotions, so when asked why they struck another child and they answer, “I don’t know,” they might actually be telling the truth – they really don’t know. it was an impulse.

this is why God has such a heart for the fatherless. as the designer of their brains, He knows better than the rest of us how damaged they are and how that damage wreaks havoc on their souls, their ability to know Him as “father to the fatherless” (Psalm 68:5). and i think that’s part of why the Virgin birth is so necessary to the Gospel – it guaranteed that God incarnate would have to have at least one adopted parent so that He himself could fully empathize.

but there’s more. the brain can actually re-wire itself (how cool is that?). this is why when you were young, maybe you were unafraid of roller coasters, but now that you’re older – or after a bad experience – you have developed a fear for them. experience re-wired your brain to be afraid of something that once brought you joy.

and the hope lies in the fact that the brain can re-wire the other way too.

a child’s brain, when given proper nutrition, affection, and care, can be re-wired from a brain that fears caretakers to one that trusts caretakers. that doesn’t mean it doesn’t come without difficulties, and it doesn’t mean that all problems magically dissolve, but it does mean that healing can take place. until recently, science used to preach that brain damage was permanent, but now science is learning what the community of faith has always known: that God can heal us – and He has designed our brains to be an important factor in the healing of the soul that only He can bring about.

we know that the way we raise our child will look different – and will get us some strange looks from friends and strangers alike. that’s okay. our child’s brain will be different – marked by loss and trauma, and will require re-wiring. some of the re-wiring may take place very quickly in the bonding process. and some of it may take years as he/she learns about his/her past and re-experiences loss. we don’t know.

but what we do know is that our child is already known by the Creator, who designed all of our being to worship Him. and we will do whatever it takes as parents to help re-wire the brain into one that is not simply able to behave well, for that would be a shallow goal, but into one that is able to understand that he/she is loved by a Savior who can heal the very soul.

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