Saturday, April 18, 2009

Reflections on Brain Hemispheres and the Shema

The following is a semi-edited version of the devotional I presented to the OCC Faculty/Staff Luncheon on April 17:

Shema yisra'el adonay eloheynu adonay ehad.

I'll finish in English:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:4-5, verse 4 in Hebrew, verse 5 in ESV).

I've often been thankful for the fact that Jesus added something that was not specifically mentioned in the Hebrew text. The Hebrew text lists heart, soul, might (or strength)—as Jesus quotes this text (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27, he adds "and with your mind."

I have frequently joked that I was a forceps baby, and that the right side of my brain was damaged at birth. On the creativity scale from 1-10, I would give myself about a minus 3! I have been amazed at the creativity of my son, Greg. Anything I ever did musically came with incredible effort, by following the notes written on a page. If the notes are not written—anything can happen. Greg may not be able to read music, but he certainly does hear it. What about graphic arts? In a face-to-face competition in Bible Lands Map Drawing, I think I can beat Randy Gariss—barely! But I think all of you could "clean my clock!"

Yes, I have been happy that Jesus added the word "mind" to the Shema. I appreciated John Stott's 1973 book, Your Mind Matters (IVP Press). In it, he quotes a Canadian commentator who said, "What scares me about this generation is the extent to which ignorance is their armour. If know-nothingness goes on much longer, somebody will yet emerge from a commune having discovered the wheel." That great line was written in 1970, when I was still in high school. Methinks that in the intervening years, cognitive excellence has suffered even more. Oddly enough, technological advances have contributed to the "dumbing down of our society." Last year Mark Bauerlein published a cultural critique titled The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30). Let's see, my generation must be the most misanthropic generation in the history of the world. When I was younger, we didn't trust anyone over 30, and now, we don't trust anyone under 30. What's wrong with us?

Also, last summer, Nicholas Carr wrote an article for The Atlantic magazine. The title of his article asked the question, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Basically, Carr, while embracing and using technology, admits that it is making us stupid. I resonate with what he says:

I think I know what's going on. For more than a decade now, I've been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I've got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I'm not working, I'm as likely as not to be foraging in the Web's info-thickets'reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they're sometimes likened, hyperlinks don't merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

In recent months, I have done a lot of thinking about things that matter. I have immensely enjoyed teaching Anthropology again (the last time I taught it, there was a guy named Proctor in the class—he has risen quite high in the institution, while I—well I enjoy saying that I am on a need to know basis, and obviously I do not need to know!".)

But in teaching Anthropology, I have been amazed all over again by the incredible cultural diversity in our shrinking, flattened (to use Thomas Friedman's term) world. Our western culture (historically, anyway) is much more individualistic than other cultures around the world. Our western culture is certainly more literate than some cultures that are either oral or aural. But let's consider the individual or group orientation: early this semester, I asked my Life Group about what they preferred individually: 1) to be alone; or 2) to be in a group. I enjoy hanging out with people and I am somewhere close to balanced on the I/E Myers Briggs test. I don't have any problem with alone time, however. My wife, however, is wired much differently than I. She loves to be with people. The isolation of chemotherapy was a huge problem for her. But in my Life Group, I was the only person who preferred to be alone! Maybe I am pathologically anti-social.

It must be a left-brained thing. I also like technology. Well, duh! I am the pusher of Bible software. Remember back in the day, when we had pay phones in the dorms? It was a big deal when we put phones in the dorm rooms. Phones in the dorm rooms today are almost irrelevant. Better not take out the Ethernet or Wi-Fi, though. I used to say that technology is neutral, and sometimes even complained that it is not right for the Devil to use all the good stuff for his purposes. Technology, however, is not neutral. Its use does change us, or to use Carr's thought, "it propels us", perhaps to places we really did not intend to go.

Last month, John Dyer, the web specialist at Dallas Seminary, gave a workshop at the Logos Bible Software-sponsored Bibletech 2009 titled "Technology is not neutral". Because of him, I wasted an hour and a half last night watching a classic film from 20 years ago, that somehow I had missed, "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." Waste of time. The only redeeming value was that the 7 day rental only cost me 99 cents.

Dyer's presentation had an image from the movie of a Greek philosopher we know as Socrates, except that these brilliant kids called him So-crates! I thought about maybe using a clip from the movie in this devotional. I was incapable of finding a redeeming clip. Instead, I went to the Loeb Classical Library, to read some Plato, specifically Phaedrus, where Socrates tells a story about the Egyptian god named Theuth, who invented letters (that is, writing). The Egyptian king, Thamus, was not impressed. Thamus said that writing, rather than making us wise, would make us "worse for the wear". In the words of Thamus, given to us by Plato, and to Plato allegedly by Socrates, he says:

This invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of the own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

I cannot discount the power of the written word—after all, God gave us His word, in written form. I'm committed to the study and propagation of that Word. That's why I'm at Ozark. I've always liked the title to Francis Schaeffer's abridged work to The God Who is There. It is titled, He is There, and He is Not Silent. Yes, God communicates with us through the technology of His written word. But I am beginning to understand that the technology of written texts, and that many technologies we enjoy using also carry the power to effect a change in us, in ways that might not be beneficial.

Yes, to get back to the Shema, I'm glad that Jesus added the word mind. But if I love God, only with my mind, I may be guilty of "neglecting the weightier matters of the Shema". The older I get, the more I realize how important the other side (the right-brained stuff) is.

Dyer's workshop at Bibletech 2009 also pointed me to another resource: Shane Hipps' Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes our Faith, published earlier this year by Zondervan. I recommend the book. I started with the dichotomy between left and right brainedness. Hipps calls the right brain (especially those of us who are left-brained propagaters of the propositional truth of Scripture), the Prodigal Brain.

I would like to read you a portion on Brain Balance (pp. 147-148):

One morning in December of 1996, a blood vessel burst in Jill Bolte Taylor's brain. She was a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who had spent her career mapping the micro circuitry of the brain in people with mental illness. That morning, over the course of four hours, she lost her ability to walk, talk, read, write, or recall any of her life.

The stroke happened in the left hemisphere of her brain, which is responsible for all the functions she lost. With her left-brain muted, over the next few hours she began to experience life through her right-brain only. She describes it as a vastly expanded state of consciousness; she was fully immersed in the present moment. There was no past or future, only the now. She lost her ability to perceive the boundaries of her body and became aware of her total oneness with the energy of the entire universe. Molecules of her body mingled with the molecules of the air and objects around her. Her subjective experience was one of extraordinary peace and euphoric bliss. Not a religious person, she called that place "nirvana" or, more affectionately "La La Land."

It took a major surgery to save her life and two weeks to regain some measure of left-brain functioning. It took a full eight years to recover completely. But when she awoke, this left-brain scientist realized the incalculable value of the right hemisphere of the brain. Once her left-brain functioning returned, she learned how to establish a remarkable ecology or equilibrium between the hemispheres of her brain, which unleashed a torrent or creative and spiritual energy that had been dormant under the blanket of left-brain thinking alone. This changed her life completely. She later observed that this experience taught her more about the brain and human potential that all of her years of research.

Shema yisra'el adonay eloheynu adonay ehad.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:4-5, verse 4 in Hebrew, verse 5 in ESV).


Gregory Fish said...

I was going to call you about this, but I can't remember your number. Ah, that darn technology! No just kidding. But, hey, I AM able to read music, I just choose not to.

On a serious note, I met Shane Hipps a few years ago and read his "Hidden Power of Electronic Culture" which I recommend. I have yet to read his new release.

David G. Fish said...

Much of the material in Hipps' "Hidden Power . . ." is in "Flickering Pixels . . .". The newer book was written for the general public, whereas "Hidden Power" was written for Christian leaders.

Kim said...

Good thing you have a daughter who sometimes uses the other hemisphere a bit to remind you of the importance!