Can Neuropsychology Find a Meaningful Place in Christian Psychology?
By Jason Kanz
As a practicing clinical neuropsychologist and the editor of the newsletter for the Society for Christian Psychology, Soul & Spirit, I am uniquely interested in the question “can neuropsychology find a meaningful place in Christian psychology?” Before identifying where neuropsychologists might fit in Christian psychology proper, it is appropriate to suggest possible barriers.
The first potential barrier is that the field of neuropsychology as it is routinely practiced in the United States where I work, is often much more akin to medicine than to what is traditionally thought of with regard to psychology. Clinical neuropsychologists evaluate the brain functions of patients so that they may comment upon impaired versus preserved skills. This information may provide diagnostic clarification for referring providers and also give patients a sense of strengths and weaknesses, which can guide rehabilitative or compensatory efforts. Research neuropsychologists also evaluate brain function or brain disorders so as to better understand the link between brain functioning and brain disorders. For many neuropsychologists then, the need to reference or draw upon their faith in their work is often seemingly superfluous. I suspect this is also why, in my observation, Christians who are neuropsychologists often find themselves in the levels-of explanation camp.
The second barrier is that perhaps more than in other areas of psychology, there is a drive to provide a materialist explanation for all human behavior. Neuropsychologists’ primary role is to identify links between how the brain is functioning and how a person behaves. Taken to the end point, the assertion could be made that all human behavior is predictable and biological. Certainly, vocal atheistic neuroscientists such as Sam Harris posit that all behavior is determined and that free will is a delusion.
This medicalization and deterministic view that characterizes most neuropsychologists today has had certain effects. I think it has been possible for clinical neuropsychologists to proceed without much thought to their Christian faith. If the ultimate goal is to characterize cognitive strengths and weaknesses or to identify brain-behavior relationships, it perhaps may be done without reference to faith. The lack of an ongoing therapeutic relationship for many neuropsychologists also seemingly minimizes the need to delve into spiritual matters. Therefore, it seems possible, I think, to be an intellectually fulfilled neuropsychologist without much reference to Christian psychology.
Even though neuropsychologists who are Christians can proceed through their day to day work without much reference to their faith, the question above remains—can neuropsychology find a meaningful place in Christian psychology? I believe the answer to that question is, yes. Not only can Christian neuropsychologists operate from a Christian psychology framework, I think they should consider doing so. The person who works from an overly medicalized perspective of human behavior is truncated in their understanding of human flourishing and dysfunction. Let me briefly suggest several areas where I can envision an overlap between Christian psychology and neuropsychology.
First, neuropsychologists may be uniquely qualified to offer some insight into the area of mind/brain distinctions. Neuroscientists typically maintain a physicalist perspective such that what we think of as the mind is merely the outworking of cerebral processes, whether those processes can be broken down to basic physical properties (reductive physicalism) or not reducible (nonreductive physicalism). This may also be associated with property dualism, such that the mind is a property of the brain. Philosophers, and particularly Christian philosophers, may be more likely to hold to substance dualism where the brain and mind are separate “substances”. One of the benefits that the Christian psychology paradigm offers here is that it draws not only from recent advances in neuroscience, but from philosophy as well. Moving beyond the limitations imposed by drawing only from the relatively young world of neuropsychology, the Christian psychologist in neuropsychology may have a richer history from which to explore questions of the relationship between the brain and the mind.
A second, though related, question has to do with the notion of free will. Again, it is widely held in neuroscience that free will does not exist. Though people may believe they possess free will, in truth, all behavior is reducible to basic physical properties and is, therefore, predictable. Yet the notion of completely determined behavior runs counter to human experience. In this regard, Christian neuropsychologists can draw from our growing understanding of how brain functioning contributes to the predictability of behavior, yet are not limited by neuroscience. Importantly, much important work regarding free will has already been done and continues to be done that can inform our understanding of free will. The theologically rich ongoing conversations between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, for example, may shed light on our understanding of human free will and God’s sovereignty. Certainly, Martin Luther’s work, “On the Bondage of the Will” and Jonathan Edwards’s writing, “Freedom of the Will” would be beneficial reading for neuropsychologists working in this area—Christian or not.
Third, given their unique skill set, Christian neuropsychologists can offer insight into the complex interplay between biology, environment, sin, will, human responsibility, and God’s sovereignty, to name a few concepts that can affect behavior or contribute to specific disorders. Works by Matthew Stanford (e.g., “The Biology of Sin”), and Ed Welch (e.g., “Blame it on the Brain”), for example, have already made some headway into understanding the complex interplay of these things to specific disorders. Christian neuropsychologists add richness to explaining cognitive and behavioral functioning because of their wider framework of understanding.
Fourth, bioethical challenges will continue. Even a casual awareness of world news over the past several years will remind us of the many unique ethical and moral decisions facing individuals, families, health care providers, and courts. For example, questions of sanctity of life across the age spectrum (i.e., abortion, brain death, euthanasia) will not disappear from the public view anytime soon. Those who not only understand the biological issues involved, but who are able to compassionately and wisely think through the moral and theological implications will be of benefit to all involved. This again seems to be a place where the Christian neuropsychologist may play a unique role.
Finally, my hope would be that as Christian neuropsychologists, the ability to help patients and their families might be enriched. Every day, God grants neuropsychologists the privilege of working with those whose brains are not optimally functioning. One of the roles of a Christian neuropsychologist is to explain in plain language what is functioning well and what is not. They are expected to inform patients and doctors about why patients think and behave the way they do. A large part of that has to do with the integrity, or alternatively disintegration, of their brains. Yet they cannot stop there. They must also offer responses that draw upon an understanding of who their patients are relationally, spiritually, and psychologically in their current circumstances.
One of my areas of specialization is dementia. Many dementias, such as Alzheimer’s disease, are incurable at this time. Drawing from the above, I see my role as a provider who not only assists in the diagnosis of the disease and who characterizes strengths and weaknesses, but I need to help patients and their families understand what has happened to the parent they once knew. I have to help them make decisions about advanced planning and caregiving. I also have to help them understand how to die well. Modern medicine, in my opinion, has lost this final skill. We seek to alleviate suffering. Yet sometimes, the most helpful thing we can do is help make sense of the suffering.
So, in conclusion, let me say again that I think that neuropsychology has a unique place in Christian psychology. As neuroscientists move ahead in the understanding of how the brain influences behavior, perhaps the best things they can do is to stop and look back at where they have come from and to look around at what others have to say. When they do that–when they look not only to neuroscience, but also to philosophy, theology, and other fields of inquiry–their work will no doubt be richer and more closely aligned with the human experience.
Edwards, J. (1754). Freedom of the Will. Available from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/will.html
Luther, M. (1525). De Servo Abitrio/On the Bondage of the Will. Available from: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/luther/bondage
Stanford, M.S. (2010). The Biology of Sin: Grace, hope, and healing for those who feel trapped. Colorado Springs, CO: Biblica Publishing.
Welch. E.T. (1998). Blame it on the Brain? Distinguishing chemical imbalances, brain disorders, and disobedience. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed.
*This article was previously published in The EMCAPP Journal, Christian Psychology Around the World, 4, 175-176.