Most formal religions that I am familiar with offer followers a set of Wisdom Teachings. I thought it would be fun to use my knowledge of the brain as a lens to take a look at the Christian Ten Commandments. They were the first Wisdom Teachings I was exposed to as a child.
1. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me.
It’s difficult to study the design and complexity of the living brain and body and not feel a sense of divinity in both its workings and its evolution. The more I learn about things like microtubules and mitochondria, and how glial cells and connective tissue very likely operate as crystalline semiconductors processing untold amounts of energy and information all through my brain and body, the more awed and overwhelmed I feel about this very life. The simple fact that my brain can think up these words and then move my fingers to type them onto something called a personal computer feels deeply and divinely miraculous. It also underscores for me just how much I really don’t know. There is a Primary Divinity underlying much of existence that clearly comes first.
2. Do not make an image or any likeness of what is in the heavens above.
Part of the challenge for me on a daily basis is encountering the world outside my body with absolutely nothing added. There are so many filters, memories, distractions, distorted motivations, Stoogecraft operations, cognitive biases, embodied reasoning – the list is lengthy – that continually end up with me ascribing to divinity things which do not possess it. At best such assignments are little more than magical thinking – it is God’s Will that I served up a meatball and the opposing hitter knocked it out of the park and we lost the baseball game. Too many personal failings or triumphs ascribed to God’s Will short circuit the effort required to actually grow the connections in body and brain to achieve a life of excellence. I suspect God helps those of us who put our brains and hearts to the best use we can. Especially those of us who do our utmost to skillfully address the suffering in our own lives and the lives of others. In other words, we personally practice facing what’s hard to face.
3. Do not swear falsely by the name of the Lord.
Swearing any which way is an interesting experience to examine closely. As a retired construction worker, swearing is mostly a byproduct of the occupation. When I hit my thumb with a waffle-faced rigging axe, I actually sometimes manage not to curse up a blue streak. But when I hit the same ripped and bleeding thumb two minutes later, all I can do is curse up a red, white and blue torrent. And sometimes the Lord’s name finds its way into the outflow. Fortunately, my Lord is a forgiving one who understands the need for venting discharge. To hold that pain inside is good for neither body nor brain.
4. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
Many of the Commandments are oriented towards keeping eustress (good stress) from going bad, from turning into allostatic load, which is the term stress researchers use for “fried,” as in fried neural circuits. Taking a break every seven days in order to restore neurophysiological balance, is definitely a sweet way to treat our body and brain.
5. Honor your father and mother.
Much of our early brain development – good or bad – is associated with our parents. At some point however, our neural network connections become sufficiently well-connected such that our parents one day unexpectedly morph into … real people. They are just like us – on a journey of growth, learning and development – with all their strengths and their unrealized potentials.
6. Do not commit murder.
We know from numerous anecdotal accounts that the brain pays focused attention to everything in the environment that shows up, especially life-threatening things. It’s impossible to harm another person without the brain bearing witness to the act and storing it away in our memory banks. Unlike murders that are committed on television and in the movies, harming or killing another living being is a capital sin in the sense that it profoundly affects our neurophysiology, almost always adversely. We don’t need Santa Claus or a Heavenly Father to know if we’ve been bad or good, our neurophysiology takes on that job for us. Most of us though, fail to connect the dots between our poor physical and mental health and our trespasses against others. But psychoneuroimmunologists can easily trace those connections.
According to child psychiatrist, Bruce Perry, “Threat activates the brain’s stress-response neurobiology. This activation, in turn, can affect the brain by altering neurogenesis, cell migration, synaptogenesis, and neurochemical differentiation.” It doesn’t matter to the brain if we’re the threat or someone else is. The brain simply goes to work and floods the system with hormones that, when repeatedly activated, adversely affect human health and well-being.
7. Do not commit adultery.
I’m guessing that the originator of this Commandment knew firsthand the pitfalls for the brain (and heart) that this action would have. As Bruce Perry just pointed out above, chronic stress raises hormone levels that compromises new growth and new connections in the brain. It literally makes us dumb. And takes years off the back end of our lives. And there’s probably little as stressful as the adulterous lifestyle. All a person has to do is pay close attention beyond the first thrills.
8. Do not steal.
Again, it comes down to: your own brain is watching everything you do. And making assessments about your actions that influence your experience and perceptions of the world. We don’t see the world as it is; our brain insures that we see the world as we are, but doesn’t use a megaphone to broadcast that fact. If we engage in theft, then the world we live in is obviously filled with thieves. And we need to protect ourselves from them in any number of ways. “But there ARE real crooks in the real world!” – I can hear the protest already. Unless of course, there aren’t, as this story and many other zen and Sufi tales so powerfully demonstrate.
9. Do not bear false witness against your neighbor.
Lying, cheating, stealing. Simply saying the words evokes unpleasant somatic sensations in my body. The acts themselves multiply that sensation many times. And you don’t need to take my word for it – simply pay closer attention to your own body if and when you find yourself doing such things.
10. Do not covet your neighbor’s wife.
Many of the Commandments seem to have to do with trespasses against others. Social neuroscience recognizes the damage those trespasses do to our own neurophysiology. Stealing, coveting and adulterousness are bad for the brain and for the body. Period. They do not lead to happy lives. Fortunately, the reverse is often true. Abstinence is a balm for the brain. And very likely, the soul for those who have access to one.
Be good to yourself. Wisdom teachings are wise for many reasons.