Integrating Scripture truths and scientific proofs in Christian counselling (part 3)

Source: SAAP Notes no 30, published Nov 2015

Dr Hanlie Meyer (Counselling Psychologist in private practice) presented at the SAAP Open Day Seminar of 5 June 2015 on this topic.

Before we integrate the information we have gathered we need to take one last look at the neurobiology. There seems to be a mirror neuron “system” in our brains. These neurons appear to allow us to determine other peoples’ intentions as well as their actions. Different areas in this system shows greater activation when the same action (e.g. picking up a stick) is performed by someone else but for different reasons – to throw to the dog or to put it on a campfire. It also enables us to receive and interpret facial expressions. Our own and others’ facial expressions use the same regions of the brain. This indicates that the mirror neuron system plays a key role in our ability to empathize and socialize – as we communicate our emotions primarily through facial expressions.

This seems to indicate that infants do more than just watch their caregivers and imitate them. It seems that the infant is also trying to interpret the intentions of an action. In the previous article we learnt about the role of the hippocampus as a temporary storage system of information from various parts of the brain. We learnt that this is the area where context would be added to content – including emotional content received by the warning system – the amygdala.

We learnt that if the emotional intensity of a stimulus is overwhelming circuits to the hippocampus are deactivated and a purely emotional response ensues. What also needs to be considered is that the hippocampus is not mature before the age of five. In contrast to this the amygdala is mature eight months after conception. There might thus be a strong interaction between the amygdala and the mirror neuron system. The question is: who does the infant brain mirror? What intentions does the infant brain “read” from the more mature brain: rejection, love, overindulgence, danger, anxiety, anger, fear, violence, self-regulation?

“Cemented” memories

What messages will be “cemented” into memory circuits depend on repetition, intensity and importance of the situation, the incident and the “mirror” (the person who is observed and/or who takes care of the infant). These memory circuits get activated every time new stimuli are received by the amygdala and the hippocampus. Feedback from different parts of the brain thus plays a very important role in choosing responses to stimuli: if a memory of a certain person acting in a certain way is formed and it is positive, the feedback from the different brain areas including the prefrontal cortex – the seat of judgement – to the hippocampus and amygdala will be positive and a positive response can be elicited.

However, when an extremely negative connotation has been formed regarding the person and his/her action a danger signal will be fed back to the amygdala, the thalamus and other emotional centres. In the case of an extremely negative feedback the hippocampus will be deactivated. An emotional fight/flight response will ensue and the person might act without realising what he does or why. Explicit memory will not be formed as the hippocampus is deactivated. Only emotional or implicit memory will be formed. This type of memory cannot be accessed by conscious thinking as it has not been stored in the autobiographical memory system. It can only be triggered by incidents that resemble the original scary/bad incident.

If this process continues over a prolonged period of time the individual will become chronically fearful and anxious. New people and new situations will become “unsafe” in the mind of the “victim”. The victim’s brain will scan the environment for cues that resemble the stored information and the individual will respond in the old ways.

God created the human brain so He knows the intricacies and complexity thereof. In my journey to healing there were two pieces of Scripture that changed my life.

Be transformed

“…but be transformed by the entire renewal of your mind [by its new ideals and its new attitude]” (Romans 12:2-4, Amplified).

For years I could not understand why this command made so much sense in my mind but could not change it. Fear and anxiety seemed to take control despite my best efforts and fervent prayers for Holy Spirit to take control. When I came to understand the formation of relational templates it was the first clue to healing: the inferiority and threat to my safety that felt so true was not an objective truth but a learned template caused by interaction with broken caregivers.

Being only a template and not the “gospel truth” about me I had the option to recognise it for the lie it was and let go of it or to hang on to it – and continue suffering. I was trapped by years of reinforcement of the negative responses and application of the old template to new situations. God had to get me to a point where I was willing and ready to choose to believe God above all.

This is one of the greatest challenges: the relational template is not only applied to broken people around us but also to God as a Protector, Caregiver, Provider and Father! Knowledge of the fact that warning signals from the amygdala overrides the contextualizing function of the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex made it easier to understand and “buy in” on the fact that what felt true about God was also a lie – and even worse: rebellion against God and judgment of God. It became a conviction that God is actually also not trustworthy, loving, protecting and providing – after all if He were a loving God why did He allow or not prevent this or that bad incident(s), trauma or loss! Because it feels so true we actually become God’s judges. It was a humbling revelation – I had to acknowledge that I ascribed intentions to God as a result of the mirroring taking place in the interaction with the broken people around me!

An unveiled face

This is where the second piece of Scripture became a revelation to me:

“16But whenever a person turns [in repentance] to the Lord, the veil is stripped off and taken away. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (emancipation from bondage, freedom). 18And all of us, as with unveiled face,[because we] continued to behold [in the Word of God] as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are constantly being transfigured into His very own image in ever increasing splendour and from degree of glory to another;[for this comes] from the Lord [Who is] the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:16-18, Amplified)

Steps to growth

From these two pieces of Scripture I got a few “steps” to healing (which incidentally sounds a lot like the steps the prodigal son had to take!):

  • Become aware of my brokenness stemming from the relational templates and accept that it is my responsibility. Stop blaming yiurself, others and God and make a conscious decision to grow
  • Ask God to reveal the roots of the emotional memories
  • Confess the hurt and the depth thereof
  • Confess to God the Father that I projected the relational template on Him as well and sat in judgement on Him as a Father – with all that the Name of God entails
  • Ask God to break the trauma bonds
  • Confess that I forgive those whom I mirrored and whose brokenness led to the forming of the relational templates and the forming of the emotional memories
  • Ask God to remove the effects of these and to lead me into the truth and reveal the truth about Himself to my heart
  • Ask God to fill me with His Holy Spirit and guide me
  • Accept and choose who I am and the life He has given me – not the abuse or neglect, but rather the LIFE!
  • Make myself available to grow and to resist the old thinking patterns and responses
  • Start the process of the renewal of my entire mind – including the amygdalin memories under the constant guidance of the Holy Spirit.

This means that those memories have to be brought to conscious awareness and the hippocampus has to be employed to add context to the emotional content so that the emotions can lose the hold they have. In the prefrontal cortex it can be stored as explicit memories that cannot trigger the old responses.

But how will the newly gained information make a difference? How will it enable me to change my mind about God and accept Him as a Father instead of the warped image I believed my whole life?

John 3:1–11 now gained new meaning and importance: unless the knowledge about God that I have cognitively does not become Spirit-revealed and experiential it will remain just that: cognitive information. This means that a new life of constant commitment has to be embarked on to mirror the image of the Father as revealed in the historical Jesus – prescribed in 2 Cor. 3:17 – instead of falling back on old mirror images and deductions from warped relational templates.

Does this solve all my problems? No. But it changed my life and gave me new tools to handle situations where I get triggered without there being a reason for my heightened emotional response!

Most importantly: it put me on a journey of entering into an intimate relationship with Father God – who is the Ultimate Reality! This enables me to face new challenges and take risks that I could never take before. For the first time ever, I experience what it feels like to not feel guilty