The Neuroscience of Teaching Christian Formation

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“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2 NIV)

Do you know what makes a great teacher in faith and science? I suppose, pretty much what makes a great teacher in any subject: Engagement with the students, mastery of the field, knowing how to pace a presentation (heavy content interspersed with lighter fare like jokes or quotations). At least that’s what I’m seeing in play Wednesday nights at Bidwell Presbyterian Church with psychologist Leonard Matheson. We’re co-teaching a course, “Neuroscience and Christian Formation.”

But maybe there’s more, and so I thought I’d find out. I decided to have lunch with Len and ask him about teaching. We ate at Tres Hombres, a Mexican restaurant right across from Bidwell Pres. Sitting next to huge windows on Broadway Street in downtown Chico, we watched a brewing winter storm while cars and pedestrians passed by. Reggae and Caribbean-infused music played in the background. We sat in low leather chairs, and as we nibbled on chips and salsa, I was struck by Len’s brilliant mind, which is combined with thoughtfulness and kindness.

Neuroscience and Teaching

I wanted to know what he’s learned about how to teach science generally and how his teaching has been informed by neuroscience specifically. Not only was I learning about neuroscience, I was also learning about teaching.

I asked him, “What have you learned about teaching science in general?”

“Two things,” he replied, “Applicability and efficacy. The first one implies these questions: How does this apply and what can you do with it? How is this going to affect the way you treat others? Second, efficacy: How will this help you sleep better? How will this content help you have a better relationship with your spouse?”

Our human brains are made to grab onto knowledge that we can both apply in our lives and that is also efficacious—it makes a difference. It strikes me that too often when I’ve mentioned science and faith, people tell me, “That’s too heady for me,” which can mean that it seems abstract and academic, not related to the lives we actually live 24-7. Applicability and efficacy seemed like antidotes. (That’s why Science for the Church brings in a variety of scientific insights, particularly in psychology and other human science generally—because they can directly be applied.)

  • Here’s Len’s excellent and imminently accessible book, Your Faithful Brain.
  • Much of his work connects with, and draws on, positive psychology.
  • Another Christian leader to check out in the field of neuroscience is William Newsome.
  • Finally, one more leading voice in neuroscience, who makes more direct connections with the church, is Carmelo Santos.
  • Christianity Today asked the provocative question (behind a paywall), “Can Neuroscience Help Us Disciple Anyone?” (I’d like to answer, Yes to that question.)
  • Here’s a podcast from BioLogos about “Neuroscience, Mental Health and the Church.”

Neuroscience-informed teaching

I asked Len my second question, “What do you bring from your studies in neuroscience to your teaching? I noticed, for example, that you have a creative pacing in the class.” Len told me that we can’t maintain a stream of thought for very long. Our train of thought might be just one minute or a minute and a half. That means sometimes we should look at the audience and see if we’ve lost them. “Look out in the audience,” he told me, and sometimes you’ll think, ‘Hey, I’m going down the wrong the path, and I need to adjust in real time.’”

It seems to me that this takes us back to the first part—to use Emory University Professor Robert McCauley’s term, what is “cognitively natural”? For most of us—who haven’t been schooled for multiple years in post-graduate education—it’s not natural to listen to long abstract discourses. Len creatively changed pace from the heavy content to a joke, or an illustration, or even a longer narrative of his experience as a practicing psychologist. Narrative is “natural” for us cognitively, which is also why this approach makes sense.

“What about the specific resource of Scripture and neuroscience?” I asked. “So much of the Bible,” Len told me, “can be more deeply informed by neuroscience” so that we could even say (which he did in class) that Paul is the “first neuroscientist.” “If you look at Paul’s letters, you’ll see so much that’s consistent with modern psychology.” For example, on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), Len sees that Paul lost his ego in the sense that he became self-aware and thus empathic, which is the key to psychologically healthy (and neuroscience-informed) relationships.

We started our first class on neuroscience and Christian formation with Romans 12:2, which exhorts us to participate with God’s work in our lives. We meditated on scripture and on the good that God is doing, or “neuroconsolidation,” that is bringing together our brain activity. Len described it this way in class: Because our brains continue to grow and change, we can talk of neuroplasticity. “Values-based neuroplasticity drives consolidation of dominant neural networks. For example, generosity taught early in life will lead to greater generosity later.”

To have our minds “consolidated,” to be integrated, is certainly one important way that we are “transformed by the renewing of the mind.” It’s something we can all aspire to as we integrate faith and science and seek to nurture our faithful brains.

A black and white headshot of Greg's face with the words Greg Cootsona, Contributing Editor

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