Science of the Spirit


The 'crazy-making' aspects of fundamentalist Christianity

Pat Robertson
© Jeff Wells
Pat Robertson
I am thirty years old and I am struggling to find sanity. Between the Christian schools, homeschooling, the Christian group home (indoctrinating work camp), and different churches in different cities, I am a psychological, emotional, and spiritual mess.
- A former evangelical Christian

If a former believer says that Christianity made him depressed, obsessive, or post-traumatic, he is likely to be dismissed as an exaggerator. He might describe panic attacks about the rapture, moods that swing from ecstasy about God's overwhelming love to suicidal self-loathing about repeated sins, or an obsession with sexual purity. A symptom like one of these clearly has a religious component, yet many people instinctively blame the victim. They will say that the wounded former believer was prone to anxiety or depression or obsession in the first place - that his Christianity somehow got corrupted by his predisposition to psychological problems. Or they will say that he wasn't a real Christian. If only he had prayed in faith or loved God with all his heart, soul and mind, if only he had really been saved - then he would have experi­enced the peace that passes all understanding.

Comment: Previous research has shown that religious faith has been shown to actually shrink the brain.
Protestants who did not identify themselves as born-again were found to have less atrophy in the hippocampus region than did born-again Protestants, Catholics or those with no religious affiliation. Frequency of worship was not found to have a bearing on results, while participants who said they had undergone a religious experience were found to have more atrophy than those who did not.

Although the brain tends to shrink with age, atrophy in the hippocampus has been linked with depression and Alzheimer's disease.


Book review: The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and treatment

© Jossey-Bass Publishing
If you are confused about your own people pleasing tendencies, need for external approval, and even your own feelings, I suggest you read The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman.

In their work as therapists, the authors discovered an unusual trend - patients with traits similar to adult children of alcoholics, but no evidence that their parents were substance abusers. Moreover, many of the patients did not recall any overt abuse as children. So why then were these patients exhibiting the dysfunctional psychological, interpersonal, and work traits of abuse survivors?

The answer was a different type of dysfunctional family. Coined by the authors as the narcissistic family, what these patients all had in common was that as children, the needs of their parents took precedence over their needs. This is in contrast to healthy families, who put the needs of their children first. Without further explanation, this discovery might not seem wholly worthy of the label 'dysfunction'.

So to explain, a basic goal for most families is to raise healthy children who will one day become independent adults. In a healthy family, parents work to accomplish this task by assuming responsibility for their children's emotional and physical needs. Over time, parents gradually teach their children to be independent by allowing them to assume responsibility for meeting their own needs in a developmentally appropriate manner. Thus, the primary work of children is to learn to become independent adults. Along the way, they learn to identify and act on their feelings, wants and needs. Parents take care of their own needs or seek help from adults. As a bonus, the children have also learned how to be good parents through the process of observational learning.

In narcissistic families, this basic goal becomes skewed and the meeting of parental needs becomes of primary importance for the family. This twist generally takes place some time after infancy, as the authors point out that most children of narcissistic families were well cared for as babies. In fact, it is mostly likely to occur some time after the child begins to differentiate him or her self from the parents and begins to assert their own needs. This normal developmental process is difficult for parents who are most concerned with fulfilling their own needs as a result of job stress, physical or mental disability, or lack of parenting skills, to name a few reasons. To compensate, the parents fight back, ignoring the child's needs and at the same time forcing the child to respond to their own by withholding attention and affection until they do so. In this way, the children's emotional needs go unattended and they are deprived of the opportunity to experience gradual independence and learn about themselves. Instead, they learn to wait to see what their parents expect and then react, negatively or positively, to those expectations.

Comment: When pleasing others is done out of fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of punishment or other negative feelings it usually arises from people who have/had overly critical parents. Typically, a need to please and care for others is a healthy trait to have. In the narcissistic family dynamic, it is twisted and distorted to serve the needs of the parents. In that environment, a child must conform to the wants and needs of the parent and does not develop their own individuality or learn to express their OWN emotions or needs.

These dynamics are perfectly mirrored by people in society who look to assuage their fear in the wrong places, motivated by them, seeking some sense of security.
Human relationships are plagued by fear. This cycle all too often begins in our first relationship with our parents. Too self-absorbed to recognize what their child truly requires of them, many parents betray their own child's weakness and dependency on his caregivers - his emotional need for comfort, security, trust, and the loving acceptance of those closest to him. Having missed out on these important periods of growth, this boy, now a parent himself, may come to feel threatened by the emotional needs of his own child, becoming dependent on his own children and spouse to provide what he never had. The vicious cycle spirals on, and in turn, his own children learn to stifle their needs, deny their own feelings, and live as hollow reflections of the needs of their father. When a child must meet the emotional needs of a parent, and not the other way around, the parent-child relationship is inverted. Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert Pressman call this the 'narcissistic family dynamic', and the problems it causes are directly relevant to the vast geopolitical problems the world currently faces.

Such children, like their parents, seek some source of comfort, some sense of security, but not knowing where to look and what to look out for, they often find it in all the wrong places: their own children, their lovers, their work, some religious or political cause. As much as they may deny it, they are motivated by the very fears they experienced as children - afraid of being alone, not belonging, uncertain, unloved, confused, abandoned. They find shelter from the pain in some literal or symbolic arms of embrace, yet it is incomplete in some way, like the 'security' of a sinking ship or of a castle built on foundations of sand. Not wanting to let go, and face that pain again, they shore up their defenses - a rallying of troops to give 'the people', their own fragmented personalities, a sense of security. But such a cover-up is built upon and dependent on lies, things half-seen through the lens of denied and distorted emotion. We may be denying that we are in a relationship with a psychopath, someone who, despite the abuse and mental torture they subject us to, offers us some sense of comfort and stability in life. Or we may deny our own betrayal of our loved ones' emotional needs: the child we criticize and deform according to our own twisted ideals or the lover we demand to be someone they are not.

I find it fascinating how these dynamics of a single human soul mirror so well the delusions of the many. Just as we rally our mental forces to hold onto that equilibrium we desperately fear losing, we rally our military forces to protect us from enemies that do not exist, covering up problems at home that dwarf those projected 'out there'. How does this come to be? So far in this series, I've described psychopaths - individuals devoid of conscience, incapable of remorse, and hungry for power - and their infiltration of corporations and politics - two seats of power in the modern era.

Manipulating mass emotion, particularly fear, is their modus operandi. It's commonly said that politicians exploit fear, but what is missing from this truism is an understanding of exactly what motivates them to do so, why they're so good at it, and the extent to which they go about doing so. Psychopaths understand human behavior, often better than we understand ourselves. In the last article I quoted a diagnosed psychopath, Sam Vaknin, describing how he used emotional abuse and insults to break down his victims. It was just one example of the special psychological knowledge possessed by psychopaths, refined after a lifetime of observing and interacting with 'others' whose foreign emotional reactions strike them as so comical and ridiculous. When this special knowledge is translated onto the global stage, you get geopolitics and all the propaganda and lies that accompany it.

Ponerology 101: The Truth Behind the War on Terror
Additional narcissism resources


How to react when your child says his first swear word

child cursing
© Ellie Skrzat/peredniankina/Thinkstock
I vaguely remember my son's first crawl, his first steps, and the first time he said "mama." But I really remember the first time he swore.

It was shortly after he had turned 3. He was playing with his toys in the other room, and I'm guessing he was getting frustrated because, for the zillionth time, his zoo animals weren't fitting in his zoo truck. Suddenly I heard: "Fuck it chuck it!"

I froze.

SOTT EXCLUSIVE: Do humans really have 'free will'? Only if you work on your machine

There was recently a short article in the Guardian by Oliver Burkeman where he pondered the question of free will in the context of some studies done in the recent years. There is clear evidence that our choices are not so free as our conscious experience would tell us. Our bodily states -- like being hungry, tired or wanting sex -- can affect our fundamental beliefs and decision-making processes, therefore making us more prone to biased thinking, especially when these conditions are off balance.
Food Addiction
© Poznyakov/Shutterstock
Addictive foods like gluten limit our choices and free will by neurochemical effects that makes us favour certain kinds of behavior
Here Burkeman says:
It's probably the weirdest puzzle in philosophy: do humans really have free will? (Spoiler alert: I won't be resolving the matter here.) It certainly feels as if we do: at the supermarket, as I reach for some cheddar, it's surely up to me to suddenly change plans and go for wensleydale instead. Yet this seems to violate the laws of science: everything that happens, including in our brains, is caused by earlier events, which are caused by earlier ones, and so on, all the way back to the start of time. There's no room for spontaneous choice, cheese-related or otherwise. The problem has big implications: if we don't have free will, for example, does that mean we shouldn't punish murderers? So it was unnerving to learn about a study suggesting people's beliefs on the subject change when they're tired, sexually aroused or need to urinate. All three conditions, the psychologists Roy Baumeister and Michael Ent concluded, make us less likely to believe free will's real.
It's good to keep in mind that there are big holes in hard determinism and the materialistic worldview. It flies in the face of common sense, as philosopher Thomas Nagel has stated in his book Mind and Cosmos. Still it seems that our free will is somehow limited. Recent cognitive science studies have shed light on this topic and improved the understanding of how our mind works.

Emotional health in childhood "is the key to future happiness"

© Linda Nylind/Observer
Lord Richard Layard, who is emeritus professor of economics at the LSE.
Mick Jagger famously couldn't get it, but now economists think they know what's required to get some satisfaction.

After investigating the factors in a person's life that can best predict whether they will lead satisfied lives, a team headed by one of the UK's foremost "happiness" experts, Professor Richard Layard, has come up with an answer that may prove controversial.

Layard and his colleagues at the Wellbeing research programme at the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance conclude that a child's emotional health is far more important to their satisfaction levels as an adult than other factors, such as if they achieve academic success when young, or wealth when older. The authors explain that evaluating the quality of a child's emotional health is based on analysing a range of internal factors in a person's early life, including whether they endured unhappiness, sleeplessness, eating disorders, bedwetting, fearfulness or tiredness.

Comment: More on what it takes to raise a healthy child:
Early Childhood Diet May Influence Future Health
The secret to a happy life?: Close relationships with family and friends when you are a child, say researchers
That's why childhood psychological abuse should be as taboo as sexual or physical abuse: Large new study reveals how harmful psychological abuse in childhood can be


Magic shoes: How to hear yourself instantly happy

© Andrew Lyons
Perception-skewing shoes can make you feel slimmer, happier and full of energy by retuning your body's soundtrack
As a rule, I don't remove my shoes in public. But today I'm making an exception. Surrounded by engineers and psychologists, I pull off my Converse and step into a pair of rather ordinary-looking brown leather sandals.

I begin to walk slowly around the room, and that's when I experience the most peculiar sensations. The sound of my footsteps changes, and suddenly my lower legs feel lighter and longer. My knees feel looser, and I begin to raise them higher and higher as I walk. My walking speed increases until it's all I can do not to break into a trot. I feel slimmer, stronger, and full of energy. These are unlike any shoes I have ever worn.

Such footwear sounds fantastical, but these shoes are just one of a number of new experiments revealing how the noises we make have an immediate and profound effect on the way we experience our bodies, on our emotions and our behavior. The trick here is not in the shoes themselves, but in the way they change the sound of my footsteps.

Meditation sparks 'positive changes' in the brain

I recently reported how 8 weeks of meditation can promote brain growth by fueling grey-matter in the hippocampus - boosting memory, sense of self, empathy, and reducing stress. But did you know that this practice can also positively affect 'white matter' in the brain? Research has now shown that meditators have better communication in their 'white matter' than those who do not meditate at all.

You've likely heard of 'grey matter' in the brain, but what about 'white matter'? This is an important component of the central nervous system, brain, and spinal nerves that encompass numerous glial cells that help to transmit electrical signals from one part of the cerebrum to another as well as through other brain centers. You might say the 'white matter' is the brain's super highway.

Comment: Meditation is good for the mind, body and spirit in every possible regard: Interested in learning more about the numerous benefits of breathing exercises and meditation? Try the easy to use Éiriú Eolas Stress Control, Healing and Rejuvenation Program here.


Kindness holds the power to heal

We've all heard the old adage that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but what about a smile?

An extensive scientific literature review sponsored by Dignity Health and conducted by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University reveals a growing body of scientific evidence that indicates kindness holds the power to heal. We now know that this often overlooked, virtually cost-free remedy has a statistically significant impact on our physical health. For example, the positive effect of kindness is even greater than that of taking aspirin to reduce the risk of a heart attack or the influence of smoking on male mortality. And it doesn't even require a trip to the pharmacy.

Comment: Also read about the importance of kindness when dealing with addiction issues: Killing addiction with kindness


Trouble with your boss? Own it

© G.L. Kohuth
Brent Scott, associate professor of management in Michigan State University's Broad College of Business.
Don't get along with your boss? Your job performance may actually improve if the two of you can come to grips with the poor relationship.

A new study led by Michigan State University business scholars finds that workers are more motivated if they and their supervisors see eye-to-eye about a bad relationship than if they have different views about their relationship. The findings are published in the Academy of Management Journal.

"Seeing eye-to-eye about the employee-supervisor relationship is equally, if not more important than the actual quality of the relationship," said Fadel Matta, lead investigator on the study and a management researcher in MSU's Broad College of Business.

Past research suggests workers and their bosses often have differing views about the quality of their relationship. Matta and his fellow researchers set out to examine whether that affects actual work engagement, or motivation.

Is it possible to rewire your brain to change bad habits, thoughts & feelings?

tree of psychotherapay
Advances in psychology offer hope.

Nearly 90 years since F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his classic The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrman's film version gave renewed currency to the novel's famous final line:
"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
What's afforded this passage such staying power is not only its haunting poetry, but the worldview it expresses - however hard we may try to reinvent ourselves, we're doomed to remain captives of our pasts. Another celebrated author, William Faulkner, put it this way:
"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
Eugene O'Neill penned these words:
"There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now."
Throughout its history, many in the field of psychotherapy have been similarly pessimistic about people's ability to liberate themselves from the past. It can even be argued that most modern cognitive-behavioral approaches are based on the assumption that, at best, therapists can only incrementally create new emotional and behavioral habits that work around - but don't actually transform - the deep-seated emotional programming that causes clients' most visceral distress. This way of thinking, however, doesn't reflect our current understanding of how memory functions, nor do the therapeutic approaches that aim simply to manage or circumvent entrenched emotions, beliefs, and behaviors rooted in painful past experiences.