10. Are we more than our brains?

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well (Psalm 139:14).

An expert in the law, tested [Jesus] with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:35-39).

The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7).

Therefore, we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16).

~~~

Dementia is an umbrella term for over 100 different kinds of diseases affecting the brain. The most common kinds of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease, Vascular dementia, Lewy Bodies dementia, and Frontal-lobe dementia. Put simply, dementia is a form of brain damage. But what is the brain, and how does it work?

I am privileged to have started the Bachelor of Dementia Care through the University of Tasmania. One of the two units I have been studying this semester is called “Neurospeak: Understanding the Nervous System”. This includes the brain and the spinal cord.

One of the Introductory videos used in the unit is called “How the Brain Works”. I don’t expect you to necessarily understand it, but it’s a great place to start:

The video presents a succinct explanation of the brain, some of its structures, and how neurons communicate with one another. It is deliberately scientific (or medical).

However, it makes some statements that are worth thinking about. It begins with the statement that the brain is “the seat of who we are and what we are; in short, we are our brains”. When talking about the frontal lobe, that part of the brain which processes the higher functions like thinking and decision-making, it states that the frontal lobe defines “us for who we are – to be who we are”. It ends with the bold claim that “we really are our brain”.

I would respectfully argue that we are much more than our brains! Eileen Shamy’s ground-breaking book about dementia published in the 1990s is aptly subtitled “More than body, brain and breath”.

Blog 10 - Shamy cover

We are much, much more than a bio-medical entity! The Judeo-Christian faith asserts that we have been “wonderfully made” by God (Psalm 139:14) who breathes into us His breath and gives us life (Genesis 2:7). God gives each of us a unique spirit, and it is our spirit, not just our brain or body, which defines who we are.

We see this in one of the Two Great Commandments which Jesus quotes from the Old Testament. The first Commandment is to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). I believe we can equate “heart” with “body”, “mind” with “brain”, and “soul” with “spirit”. So, we are body (heart) and brain (mind) and spirit (soul)! We are all three. This is God-given.

Why does this any of this matter? Because it fundamentally changes how we view people living with dementia! The video concludes with the statement that “we really are our brain”. If that is true for someone living with dementia, then who they are – their very identity – is being damaged and destroyed by dementia. Dementia gradually strips away their personhood, until there is no person left. We could then use with absolute confidence that dreadful expression: “the light’s on but no-one’s at home”.

I refuse to accept that. Firstly, my experience tells me otherwise. Even those with advanced dementia have personhood or identity. They can still feel. They can still teach me: to slow down, to live for the moment, to care. They can still speak to me, as my previous blogs “spirit talks to spirit” and “It is amazing” clearly demonstrate.

Secondly, scripture tells me otherwise. St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day”. Put another way, while our bodies and brains may be perishing, our spirits – the inward ‘man’ – are being renewed. Our spirits are being transformed even while we are physically failing. While it is true that our bodies and brains suffer from ageing and disease, I am convinced that our spirits do not suffer from ageing or dementia. Our spirits remain whole, and well, and strong. Tom Kitwood defines that as “rementia” (re-mentia) – a topic for another blog!

So, by all means learn from the brain video. Marvel at what God has created. But please, don’t ever accept that “we really are our brain. We are far more than body, brain and breath. We are embodied spirits.

With blessings,

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Author: dementiadiscussed

Author of Dementia Discussed.

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