I did not really know what to expect when I opened Curt Thompson’s book, Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising connections between neuroscience and spiritual practices that can transform your life and relationships. I had never seen those categories paired with each other before, but I had recently attended a lecture given by Dr. Thompson, and he had greatly broadened my perspective on the importance of deep person-to-person connection.
The book begins with a story of Curt seeing his aged mother in a hospital room, weak and listless. For those of us who have lost a parent, that roil of complicated emotions is easy to remember. But Curt had an unexpected, deep and profound encounter with his mother that started the course of this book. He felt seen and known, and realized in those moments how strengthening and encouraging that was, even in the face of approaching grief.
I rarely read introductions, but this one was gripping, and at its end come questions we all have asked ourselves at some point in life.
Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul, xviii
- In a world that is more connected than ever before, why do I so often feel so alone?
- Why do I find it so hard to change?
- Why can’t I get past my past?
- Since my emotions often seem to get me in trouble, do they have any value?
- Why can’t I just go it alone?
- Why do I so often “lose it” with other people?
- How does Jesus make a way for me to be freed from the grip of sin here and now―not just in the new heaven and earth?
- What does it really look like when we live in community as the body of Christ?
By God’s Deliberate Design
Each chapter brings in a part of the answer, beginning with the way our human brains are constructed, the chemical pathways and electrical synapses that define our emotions and thoughts.
As I read through the neuroscience of the mind, I had a sudden jolt of realization: the Bible was not simply theologizing when God said it was not good for the human to be alone. It turns out no human brain can develop properly without the help of another human brain. This is by God’s deliberate design. In order for each one of us to learn and grow in a healthy way, we must be raised up by others whose minds are attuned with ours. It is not only a matter of theology or social theory, it is a matter of biology, of neuroscience.
It is a physical fact of life.
By God’s design, even in paradise, even in perfect relationship with God and earth, even in a state of spiritual wholeness and blessing, no human being can remain indefinitely alone.
We need each other.
Dr. Thompson gives nine aspects of an emotionally healthy person who is able to
- regulate responses to emotional triggers.
- connect with another’s mind with interest and without judgment.
- perceive and experience a vibrant and dynamic emotional life, running the spectrum of emotions, without being overwhelmed.
- demonstrate restraint, allowing time to consider both consequences and alternatives, before choosing a course of action.
- feel another’s feelings with them, without being consumed by those feelings. This ability includes sensitivity of and awareness to not only the other’s nonverbal cues, but also sensitivity to one’s own inner response to that person.
- contextualize and integrate memories with current circumstances, and connect these insights to potential future situations. This is what is often termed “making sense” of one’s story.
- calm one’s fears, preventing fear from controlling actions and thoughts.
- intuitively understand people and situations from a holistic analysis of all available data.
- consider and act upon the welfare of others as well as oneself.
All of these are learned as our minds develop with the help of another mind. If we miss out on this development growing up, we still have opportunities as an adult with others who are attuned to us by seeing us, knowing us, accepting us, and loving us.
Coming to understand attunement made me think me of John’s Gospel, describing Jesus’s unwillingness to entrust Himself to anyone because He knew people’s hearts. (John 2:24)
Jesus showed His attunement in His individual approach to people, rather than using a generic formula of healing and teaching, or of guiding someone to a “Sinner’s Prayer.” Each conversation and interaction was both tailored to the occasion and to the person. Examples include Jesus’s miracle of wine at a wedding (John 2), talking theology with Nicodemus (John 3), asking for water of the woman at the well (John 4), and referencing Abraham with the teachers and scribes (John 8).
However, Jesus’s reluctance to entrust Himself, to receive others into His own inner world, was proven justified by the rejection of those who should have been in the best position to be attuned with Him:
- The religious leaders and teachers. (“You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” John 8:19, NRSV)
- Jesus’s own followers. (“Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe…many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” John 6:64, 66)
- Jesus’ own disciples. (“Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?’” John 14:9, NRSV)
Being a man, a human being, Jesus needed to receive attunement from at least a few selected people, and the Gospels do describe those relationships, many of them women—Jesus’s mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, Martha and Mary from Bethany and their brother Lazarus, His disciples James, John, and Peter, and a few others.
That is part of Jesus’s example of living fully in shalom, in all health and goodness.
Rupture and Repair
With impeccable timing, this book moves from theory to story, and from technical truths to profound spiritual truths. In Thompson’s chapters on the rupture of sin and the repair of the resurrection, he talks about sin in one of the more approachable ways I have ever seen. The Serpent playing on the woman’s fears, gaslighting her by questioning her memory, so that her emotional distress began to reshape her experience of her own memory and of her relationship with God.
This subtle emotional manipulation is certainly evil at work, insinuating itself into our thinking, into our feelings, shaming us, stripping us of our dignity. Through the ploys of deception and condescension, the crafty Serpent played upon the woman’s fears, then gave her a false rationale for all the feelings he had stirred up in her—
“That feeling you’re feeling? That sense of being unimportant, dismissed, disregarded, inadequate, inferior? I’ll tell you what that’s about, Eve. That’s God revealing his true regard for you. He’s dismissing you.”Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul, 211
How often have we attached rationales to our feelings that are completely untrue, but they feel true in the moment? And then we just adopt them as true, without looking back.
In Chapter 12, “The Repair of the Resurrection,” Thompson begins with God’s “relentless, dangerous, and immeasurably joyful love,” and moves from there to what Jesus has done and is still doing for us. He describes the power of confession with someone who is attuned to us, the startling process of being seen, known, loved, forgiven, and yes, cleansed, our minds literally healed from the trauma of sin, is breathtaking.
The Brain on Love, Mercy, and Justice
Thompson concludes his book with a discussion on the mind and community, what it means for us to live in community in attunement with other minds who are committed to living in the epic narrative described in the Bible, in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 13’s kind of love.
I suggest that the path to developing such love includes
Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul, 249
- the process of being known;
- the experience of felling felt;
- the encounter of being validated but never coddled;
- being cared for but not overwhelmed or patronized;
- being fully understood while called into proper risk-taking adventure;
- being healed and awakened to growth, compassion, and responsibility.
 Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul, 161-162, as taken from The Mindful Brain, by Dan Siegel, MD. I later also found these aspects in another of Dr. Siegel’s books, published the same year as Dr. Thompson’s book: Daniel J. Siegel MD, Mindsight, (New York: Bantam Books Trade Paperbacks, 2010). 27-30. All nine prefontal functions are Body Regulation, Attuned Communication, Emotional Balance, Response Flexibility, Fear Modulation, Empathy, Insight, Moral Awareness, and Intuition.