Talk Explores Links of the Brain to Spirituality

In its Public Lecture on March 24, 2018 the Institute of Spirituality in Asia (ISA) hosted a talk entitled "Neuroscience and Spirituality" by Dr.   Tan Cho-Chiong,

A psychiatrist-neurologist, Dr. Tan is a graduate and professor of the Far Eastern University, Manila, and practices at the Metropolitan Medical Center, Manila.   

To start his talk at ISA Dr. Tan paraphrased Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), the founder of Humanistic Psychology, who has said: Every person is basically good, and it is good to expand that goodness in the service of humanity by promoting the concept of self-actualization."   

Dr. Tan discussed self-actualization and four other needs of people stated in Maslow's five-tiered "Pyramid of Motivational Needs" and added one more need  - spiritual.

In his paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" (1943), Maslow argued that the primary goal of people is self-actualization, the fifth and last among the needs he had cited and which involves morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice and acceptance of facts.

The others are physiological or survival needs; safety; love/belonging; and esteem (where people feel comfortable with what they have accomplished).  

Dr. Tan also discussed what he called an elaboration of Maslow's theory: Eric Erickson's theory on a person's eight stages of psychosocial development --- basic trust (infant), autonomy (toddler), initiative (post-toddler), industry (school-ager), identity (adolescent),  intimacy (young adult), generativity (middle age) and ego integrity (older adult).  

According to Dr. Tan, Erickson had said that a person develops outstanding traits after each stage. For example, after (or with) integrity, wisdom enables a person to look back on life with a sense of closure and completeness, and to accept death without fear.

However, failure to complete a stage of development  will reduce the completeness of the next stage.  This statement drew questions from the participants of the public lecture. For one, Fr. Rico Ponce, ISA executive director, asked about unresolved sexual identity, and Dr. Marissa Alcantara, ISA assistant academic dean, asked about today's millenials.

Dr. Tan replied, "As a foundational level adolescents themselves must start dealing with their sexuality and be accepted by their parents and society. And transgenders, may need psychological counseling before surgery for changing their genitals."

As for millenials, Dr. Tan has noted their attachment to mediated reality via the Internet, their low tolerance for frustration and high stress level, and their frequent suicide attempts ("endemic epidemic").  

He said, "I have been seeing many of them at my clinic. Here is what physical health and well-being as well as spiritual integration come in but we should really start with them as children. Motivation and love of God should go hand in hand, as do character building and loving them."

Backtracking to his topic of neuroscience and spirituality, Dr. Tan discussed the development, structure, function, chemistry, pharmacology and pathology of the nervous system and the brain).

He showed slides of the various parts of the brain - the various lobes, the neurotransmitters and synapses, the injuries they suffer as well as the way the brain protects itself and the way it governs moods. For example, a high level of dopamine can make one feel happy.

"God gave us dopamine," Dr. Tan said as he lectured on two unusual but related topics - one, the correlation between spirituality and brain structure and two, the neurobiology of love, kindness and compassion.

He cited how meditation may work on the cortex to help clear one's mind of baggage; how ultra-sensitive and high-tech cameras light up in blue the side of the cortex which is critical to meditation; how Buddhist monks slow down their breathing as they meditate; and how peak performance starts with normal sleep which becomes relaxed, calm, deep and relaxed and which eventually generates verbal imaging.

The literature also says that by practicing meditation or by praying, a hospital patient slows down his or her heart rate, respiration and brain waves; relaxes muscles and diminishes the side effects of epinephrine and other stress-related hormones.

What about faith healing, a participant asked, and Dr. Tan replied, "It depends on your faith. I have read a book entitled Breast Cancer and Faith in God Above but we should not also forget our needs."

And so, how do we have happy and healthy brain?  

Dr. Tan mentioned hypnosis, yoga and meditation which can prevent depression and in some way alter illness but also had gave practical tips.

"Stop drinking alcohol, smoking, and abusing drugs," he said to the uncomfortable laughter of some of the lecture participants.

"Have regular check-ups and blood examinations," he added. "Also, get enough sleep and eat nutritious food such as fish with Omega 3. Avoid junk food, sweets, and spicy food, greasy and fatty food.  And do physical exercises to reduce stress."

And how do we continue to be happy, asked another participant.

He readily said, "Think good thoughts; do good things; and share what you can.” 

                                                                   - Pinky Choudhury ; 17 April 2018