You’re at a church social gathering, eating at a table with three of your friends. You mention how your legs move around at night, bothering your spouse, and you say that you think you might have restless leg syndrome.
- “Restless legs? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the restless leg demon out of you?”
- “Restless leg syndrome is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing your legs to move around, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop your legs from moving around like that?”
- “It’s irrational for your brain to cause your legs to move like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that there’s no point in doing that.”
The next week, you invite your friend Mike to church and, afterward, are again talking to your three friends. Mike, who visibly shakes, explains that he has Parkinson’s disease.
- “Can’t stop shaking? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the shaking demon out of you?”
- “Parkinson’s disease is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing yourself to shake, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop yourself from shaking around like that?”
- “It’s irrational for your brain to cause your body to shake like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that there’s no point in doing that.”
A few weeks later, you bring your cousin Deborah to church and, after the service, are again talking to your three friends. A while into the conversation, Deborah explains how she’s been grappling with depression.
- “Feeling a persistent sense of despair? It’s probably a demon,” proposes Steve. “Have you considered asking Christ to pray the demon of despair out of you?”
- “Depression is a myth,” claims Buck. “You’re the one causing yourself to be sad all the time, of your own free will. Why don’t you take some responsibility and stop yourself from being so depressed?”
- “It’s irrational for you to despair like that,” says Sophia, “so why not try reasoning with yourself? Just convince yourself that you are valuable and the future is not bleak.”
It’s vitally important, especially as Christians, to remember to ground ourselves on what is observable and understood (or, becoming more understood), even though we have a convicted faith in what isn’t very observable or understood.
We are understanding more and more than emotions aren’t magical. They are our experiences of physiological activity in our bodies, of which our brains are a part.
We are also understanding more and more the absolutely pivotal role played by the neurotransmitter “dopamine.” Dopamine stimulation is like pattern recognition nitro — it’s all about hopeful expectations and deciphering patterns in service thereof.
Take a look at this 3 minute clip from neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky:
Dopamine underpins almost everything we consider entertaining and/or psychologically addictive: rhyming, jokes, gambling, hoarding, story twists, conspiracy theories both true and false, wonder/awe, mysteries, chord progressions (I-V-vi-IV is perhaps the most resonant progression ever for Western listeners because of its cyclical and dramatic rising and falling), video games, watching sports, turning pages, etc.
When something is wrong with your dopamine transmission, it can cause life-altering problems. Parkinson’s disease is the most well-known, where the cells that generate dopamine die. The shaking typical of Parkinson’s, restless leg syndrome, and shaking when afraid are all related to dopamine deficiency or over-stimulation.
Chronic depression is a neurotransmitter problem, often related to dopamine (among other neurotransmitters, e.g., serotonin) issues. When the ability to create hopeful expectations is hobbled or killed, then everything turns hopeless. Our conscious brains respond to this crippling problem by dwelling on the unclaimable, like the nostalgic past, and concluding nonsensical or irrational conclusions, like that a future full of potential is actually bleak.
This isn’t something that you can, generally, “think your way out of.” You can “think your way through and during,” as people with Parkinson’s do every day, but your thoughts alone don’t typically cause alleviation. Reliable alleviation comes through physiological treatment (like medicine that stimulates neurotransmitters), or through natural remedial brain activity (which makes depression merely temporary for some people). But this truth is complicated by the fact that some depression is the result of hopeless thoughts (usually a sudden or intense new realization of the limitations of, or recent reductions in, one’s prospects), like during existential crises or cataclysmic life events, and can be remedied in various ways (the most popular being anchor-setting and/or distractions).
Concluding Ought Thoughts
In any case, chronic depression is a chemical issue, as “non-magical” as Parkinson’s and RLS, but it has the sinister symptom of convincing us that it IS something in our “magical minds.”
- We ought to avoid jumping to supernatural conclusions recklessly, like “Superstitious” Steve.
- We ought to avoid treating all brain activity as a libertarian product of conscious will, like “Buck-Stops-Here” Buck.
- We ought to avoid pretending like the brain is magical and can reason itself out of various thoughts and behaviors, like “Dualistic Philosophy” Sophia.
Evangelical Pastor Tom Nelson of Denton Bible Church, on his experiences with physiological depression and anxiety (especially 24:55+).
Robert Sapolsky’s Standford lecture on depression in the U.S.