Advances in neurobiology may be on the verge of explaining what St. Paul knew by inspiration – the interaction of the mind and the flesh. (Rom.7: 23-25).
While we may think of the flesh of the part of us below the neck, the brain is flesh. Our experiences — positive and negative, traumas and joys, repeated behaviors and reactions to stress — set up neural pathways and shape the architecture of the brain. These are like tracks on which our conscious thoughts ride.
Our brains do not come pre-programmed, rather the person comes into the world with senses open to experience and looking for particular kinds of experiences, the first being the light in the mother’s eyes. If the mother, father and others around the baby respond to the baby appropriately, the baby’s brain makes connections which create a secure attachment — first to the mother and then to the father. Through interaction with the mother, the baby learns love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, faith, teachability and temperance (Gal. 5: 22-23). These products of secure attachment are developed through a pattern of attunement with the mother called “affect regulation.” The baby experiences love from the mother and learns how to love. The researchers in this field have pinpointed the age at which the baby begins to experience joy. The mother reflects that joy back in shared exchanges.
But, life is not just love and joy. Learning how to endure unpleasant experiences is essential to healthy development. When there is pain, the securely attached child receives comfort. When the securely attached baby’s actions displease the mother, she responds with a shame face, but then smiles signaling reconciliation. The baby learns, “I can be wrong, but I can be forgiven.” This is the foundation for an inner peace. A baby’s needs cannot always be immediately satisfied. A mother teaches the baby patience by letting him wait before meeting needs, but meeting the needs before the baby becomes hysterical or hopeless. If a baby is treated with gentleness, he learns to be gentle.
Faith in the supernatural begins with faith in one’s parents. The securely attached child trusts that his parents have his best interests at heart; from this he learns he can trust in God. The mother teaches the child how to do things and the child learns that he can gain knowledge from others; he becomes teachable. The ability to regulate one’s affect – the total reaction to feelings – allows a person to temper their reactions and their desires. He isn’t governed by feelings.
If, for whatever reason, this affect regulation is not provided at the proper time, the baby will not securely attach, but develops an insecure attachment. There are various forms of insecure attachment; the main three being avoidant, resistance, and disorganized. The insecurely attached baby must cope with stress on his own. To do so he develops various coping mechanisms. While these provide a form of comfort, there is a high probability that these behaviors will become dysfunctional patterns of thinking which carry over into childhood, adolescence, and can become the seed of psychological disorders.
St. Paul tells us that the “works of the flesh” are “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings and such.” (Gal. 5: 19-21) These are patterns of thinking which cause us to be led by our feelings. It is against these that we struggle.
“They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts.” (Gal. 5: 2)
How do we do this? We have to focus our mind on those “works of the flesh” we want to change and recognize when we are getting on a track that will lead in the wrong direction and make a conscious decision not to go that way. We crucify the “flesh” – that is, we willingly endure the pain of not choosing the path our brain tells us will provide quick relief. In most cases our brain is misguided – the track we are tempted to follow may provide a temporary relief or pleasure, but down the line there will be suffering.
There is nothing new here. Spiritual directors have for centuries guided souls using the wisdom of scripture. Wise therapists have also been able to help clients change their minds and thereby change their brains. What is new is that science is now able to show us this process in action. We can see the effect on the brain of secure and insecure attachment, see how the connections in the brain are formed, and identify the various chemical reactions.
This can be very helpful to the person trying to crucify the flesh. If given a brain scan at the moment when one felt a strong temptation, the person could see the temptation as a bright spot in the brain and realize he has the power to change the brain by changing his mind.
How does this relate to the question of Same-Sex Attraction?
If, as a number of therapists and researchers have suggested, those who fail to develop a healthy appreciation for their sexual identity (the condition labeled as Gender Identity Disorder, GID) may be suffering from a particular form of insecure attachment and such a disordered sexual identity is probably the most common path to SSA, then it is reasonable to conclude that, in many cases, SSA is an attachment disorder.
There is overwhelming evidence that SSA is not genetically or hormonally predetermined, however, because an attachment disorder affects the development of the right side of the brain, it is imbedded in the neural architecture. It feels “natural.” Because the problem begins in early childhood, the person is convinced that he always “felt different.”
If SSA originates as an attachment disorder, then it is not a normal and healthy variant of human sexual attraction; it is intrinsically disordered. There is ample evidence that SSA rarely occurs alone. Persons with SSA are far more likely than those without SSA to suffer from a number of other psychological disorders. It may be that these problems originated separately from insecure attachment, or they may be effects of SSA.
It may be that persons who later develop SSA were as babies more sensitive to the mother feelings (maternal affect). A child with GID is more likely to experience rejection from peers. A child with an attachment disorder is more likely to be targeted by pedophiles and traumatized by sexual abuse. A dysfunctional family is almost by definition less able to provide for the psychological and emotional needs of the children, and living in a dysfunctional family can be a wounding experience even to those who are securely attached. One only has to look at the list of other “works of the flesh” to see how many of them are more common among persons with SSA.
In addition, persons with SSA are more likely to be addicted to sexual fantasy, pornography, masturbation, paraphilias, and other sexual aberrations. Sexual addiction causes chemical changes in the brain. These set up neural pathways. Changing such pathways is difficult but not impossible. It can happen miraculously through grace, but for most it requires substantial effort. Even when other ways of reacting have been developed, the path may remain intact, liable to be activated during periods of stress.
Just as persons in recovery from other addictions are told to avoid becoming hungry, angry, lonely or tired, persons with SSA must learn to avoid situations that will make them vulnerable. In Romans 1, St. Paul specifically addresses sexual activity between persons of the same sex. He speaks of how men became “vain in their imaginations.” The Greek word for “imaginations” “dialogismois” (dialogismois) is sometimes translated as reasoning, but a more modern translation might be “rationalizations.” Most people who follow the tracks set up by insecure attachment will when challenged provide elaborate rationalization for their behavior. Later in the chapterSt. Paulspeaks of persons with SSA as “without natural affection.” The Greek word used is “astorgous” (astorgous), which refers to the lack of the natural affection between parents and children. Insecure attachment is a failure to establish the natural bond between parent and child. This can lead to deep feelings of alienation. The child doesn’t trust the parents and the parent may view the child as difficult.
Because attachment disorders affect early brain development, change is not easy, but understanding the cause increases the probability that effective prevention and treatment can be developed.
In the second chapter of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul warns against judgment of those who have fallen into sin. Who among us has not given into bad habits because we weren’t willing to endure the pain of “crucifying the flesh.” In Galatians St.Paul calls to reach out to those who are wounded:
“Brothers if a man be overtaken in a fault you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of meekness, considering that you could also be tempted. Bear one another burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ (Gal 6: 1-2).”
These men and women are burdened – insecure attachment is a terrible burden — but how do we help them bear it? First, with love and prayer, then with research into the prevention and treatment of these problems. We must be like the father of the prodigal son; we have to stand at the gate and watch for any hint of return, always ready to welcome them back. We must defend the family and marriage – not because all families are perfect, but because children have the best chance when raised by their married biological parents. The more we understand the importance of attachment and affect regulation, the more we see the importance of the father/mother/child triad.
Those who want to increase their understanding of attachment will find John Bowlby’s A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development an excellent place to begin. Those who want to understand the advances in the science of brain development can consult the works of Allan Schore. Susan Bradley’s book Affect Regulation and the Development of Psychopathology provides a summary of the material. Bradley views GID as an anxiety disorder which can be traced back to a failure in attachment:
In the area of gender identity disorder (GID), with which I am very familiar, the same basic formulation applies. I have argued elsewhere (Zucker and Bradley, 1995) that what makes GID different from anxiety disorders is that there are factors in the family making gender more salient. Specifically, boys with GID appear to believe that they will be more valued by their families or that they will get in less trouble as girls than as boys. These beliefs are related to parents’ experiences within their families of origin, especially tendencies on the part of mothers to be frightened by male aggression or to be in need of nurturing, which they perceive as a female characteristic. Girls with GID have a perception of themselves as “protectors,” specifically of their mothers but also of other women. They appear to be identifying with the aggressors (often their father, but sometimes with other aggressive males). Beyond these specific dynamics, both boys and girls with GID display the temperament and attachment difficulties I have described above. Their interactions with parents are conflicted, and these children become highly distressed and anxious, with perceptions of themselves as bad and their parents as angry. I conceptualize the symptoms of GID as a child’s solution to intolerable affects. This is confirmed by the fact that GID typically has its onset at a time in the child’s life when the family has been particularly stressed and the parents are either more angry or less available or both. The GID symptoms, particularly the assumption of the role and behaviors of the opposite sex, act to quench the child’s anxiety and to make him or her feel more valued, stronger, or safer. (p. 202)
Jeffrey Schwartz in The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force explains with many examples how we have the power to change our brains. Joseph Nicolosi of NARTH has incorporated these insights into therapy. His article on the subject “The Primacy of Affect” can be found at www.narth.com/docs/affect.html .
By bringing together the new insights into how the brain works with theories of psychopathology and the spiritual insight of St. Paul concerning the works of the flesh, we can provide those who are suffering with real support. If we are able to reject rationalizations and the pride which says that our sinful desires are the “real me” and therefore take precedence over God’s law, we can, by changing our minds, change our brains and thereby cease to be captives of our past. The following words of St. Paul can be our guide:
“Casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (II Cor. 10: 5).