Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Neuroscience and Christian Idea of Friendship

     The idea of friendship is universal. All cultures, even the most primitive ones, have the concept of a bond-like relationship between individuals. We understand that there could be many reasons why such a bond is established between individuals in our culture.We also recognize, as a sign of maturity, the ability to establish these bonds with different people depending on situation and circumstance.   It is wise not to treat all of our relationships in the same way
   Back in the 4th century, St. John Cassian tells the story of "Blessed Joseph", a revered abbot who, answering a question by his novices, gives this explanation of the potential friendship bonds which could be created in common human relations:

 "There are many kinds of friendship and companionship which unite men in very different ways in the bonds of love. For some, a previous recommendation makes to enter upon an intercourse first of acquaintance and afterwards even of friendship. In the case of others, some bargain or an agreement to give and take something has joined them in the bonds of love. Others, a similarity and union of business or science or art or study has united in the chain of friendship, by which even fierce souls become kindly disposed to each other, so that those, who in forests and mountains delight in robbery and revel in human bloodshed, embrace and cherish the partners of their crimes. But there is another kind of love, where the union is from the instincts of nature and the laws of consanguinity, whereby those of the same tribe, wives and parents, and brothers and children are naturally preferred to others, a thing which we find is the case not only with mankind but with all birds and beasts."

 For Abbot Joseph the bond of friendship can be entered in many ways. Even members of the same family can experience this bond. However, because these relationships are based more on circumstances than in the quality of the individual, these bond could be easily broken.

But we see that all these kinds of love of which we have spoken, as they are common both to the good and bad, and to beasts and serpents, certainly cannot last for ever. For often, separation of place interrupts and breaks them off, as well as forgetfulness from lapse of time, and the transaction of affairs and business and words. For as they are generally due to different kinds of connections either of gain, or desire, or kinship, or business, so when any occasion for separation intervenes they are broken off.

    But not all friendships are of these nature. There are friendships that go deeper than what just the convenience of a business partner or the blood bond. Of these Abbot Joseph says:

Among all these then there is one kind of love which is indissoluble, where the union is owing not to the favour of a recommendation, or some great kindness or gifts, or the reason of some bargain, or the necessities of nature, but simply to similarity of virtue. This, I say, is what is broken by no chances, what no interval of time or space can sever or destroy, and what even death itself cannot part. This is true and unbroken love which grows by means of the double perfection and goodness of friends, and which, when once its bonds have been entered, no difference of liking and no disturbing opposition of wishes can sever.

   Christianity has many examples of such bonds of friendship: Francis and Clare, Benedict and Scholastica, Ciryl and Methodius. These are relationships we should hold as the highest ideal for Cristian Friendship. These holy people held bonds of friendship which transcended themselves. Their closeness was such that it was as if they each lived and existed within the other. For those who have never experienced this sort of spiritual union, it is very difficult to understand. Even the Bible uses such  language to describe the relationship between Jonathan and David:

1 Samuel 18:1 -  When he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.

   The Catechism of The Catholic Church speaks of such relationships in the sections entitled "The integrality of the gift of self."

2347 The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality. (374)
Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.

    The teaching of the Church is clear: the bond of friendship, regardless of how or under what circumstances it is established, when tempered by the virtue of chastity, by the control of our human passions and appetites through the exercise of our reason, has the potential to unite in deep spiritual communion. This statement also implies that any two people united by a bond of friendship will develop different levels of spiritual communion depending on the level in which they choose to control their human desires. Chastity, in friendship, has the potencial of "knitting" souls like Jonathan's and David.

   The skeptic would argue that such "spiritual unions" belong more to the realm of "superstition" than to what hard sciences like psychology and neurology can prove. But in this case, skeptics would be wrong.

   Consider the work of Doctor James Coan, a psychology professor in University of Virginia's College of Arts & Sciences. Dr Coan recorded MRI brain scans of subject which were threatened with receiving an electric shock. He also scanned the brains of the same subjects while threatening to give electric shocks to complete strangers and to friends.  As expected, the regions of the brain responsible for threat response became active under threat of shock to the self;  when researchers threatened to shock a stranger, those same brain regions showed virtually no activity. But when they threatened to shock a friend, the brain regions showed activity nearly identical to that displayed when the participant was threatened.

   What does this mean? I'll let Dr Coan explain in his own words:

"The correlation between self and friend was remarkably similar. The finding shows the brain’s remarkable capacity to model self to others; that people close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat. But not so when a stranger is under threat."

   I don't find these results surprising in light of the Church's teaching about friendship and about what it means to enter in spiritual communion with others. What I find surprising is how Dr. Coan explains the meaning of his research and its similarity to the ancient teaching of the Church. I guess it is true, there is nothing new under the sun after all.

   Here is the article explaining Dr Coan's research.

   And here is a copy of the original paper published by Oxford Journal's Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal.

"Viva Cristo Rey!!"

* All quotes from St. John Cassian. Are taken from:. "The Conferences of John Cassian". In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), E. C. S. Gibson (Trans.), "A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series: Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lérins, John Cassian (Vol. 11, pp. 450–451)". New York: Christian Literature Company.