What About The Brain Of The Born-Again?


While taking my psychiatric training at the University of Kansas, Wichita – the so-called “Buckle of the Bible Belt,” I often saw patients who told me freely they did not think I could help them because I was of Jewish origin.

Most could deduce because of my name, and most were not shy about asking point-blank.  I had nothing to hide and was not ashamed. 

They would quiz me about my belief in Christ, and despite my protestations that a prescription pad looked pretty much non-sectarian to me, some would request/demand to see someone who was at least marginally a Christian.

My training didn’t suffer — there were plenty enough patients at the University for everybody. 

Next a word about the hippocampus.  It is the Latin word for seahorse, an animal which I dearly love.  I love it not only for sheer cuteness, but because the male takes care of pregnancy.  Perhaps even I might have considered motherhood under such circumstances. The curl of the tail bears a suspicious resemblance to that temporal, bilaterally symmetrical part of the brain known as the hippocampus.  It is oxygen-sensitive and tends to be smaller in those humans who have had a difficult time making it into this world, and gotten not quite as much oxygen in the womb.  This may include people who turn up later with some obsessive-compulsive disorders, at least the ones I have followed most closely.

Hmm.  This study says this part of the brain seems to be smaller in — born again Christians. I don’t want to say that “Some of my best friends are born again Christians!” But some of my current and a few former close acquaintances are, so I know a little bit about what they say, do and believe.

But as for the more aggressive ones – well, when I tell them categorically that their attempts at proselytism are lost on me as I am still waiting for the Messiah and I don’t really accept theirs, thank you —  they usually disappear pretty quickly. Back in the days when I was a pure academic, I had a born-again Christian resident (psychiatrist in training) whom I was supposed to supervise.  He was religion-centered, and I tried to tell him to accept people’s belief systems without trying to change them.  I hope to God I convinced him. The Christian Medical Society in that state was not very fond of me, but they couldn’t do anything to me, either. My Christian resident seemed to have settled for learning the nuts and bolts of psychiatry from me, without the religion.  At least until that one day, when he bought me a sloppy research study, which I promptly did the best I could to block out of my mind.  This, however, is what he told me to take home and grade. It was a relatively simple study of a depression treatment.  He showed me with pride that ALL — I mean like 100% — of the born-again Christians in the study were placebo responders. He thought this was wonderful.  He wanted to respond to placebo.  He wanted life to be good and happy whether or not the treatment was responsible.  Let being born again do all the work. I remember only I did not teach him much that day.  I said only (as most researchers would have) that it could have had something to do with patient selection or a lot of other factors that had not been part of the study. He did not care.  For him religion reigned.  I wondered then (I don’t want to know now) if he would forget the little I had managed to teach him and become one of those psychiatrists who spent his time on his knees with his patient for most of the session.  Yes, there are many of those in the Bible Belt, and they have a REAL medical degree – believe it or not. I tried not to dwell on the fact that it could work as well or better than the other things we did. The hippocampus is related to recent memory, learning to things.  I remember the famous neurosurgeon from McGill University (a very respectable research institution in Montreal, Quebec, Canada – and YES, they speak English primarily) who found a man who soon became equally famous because of a bilateral absence of hippocampi — a pleasant fellow,  but not able to remember from one line of a conversation to the next.  You’ve probably seen such behavior in various popular movies where somebody has no short-term memory – Memento or 50 First Dates springs to mind.

These things happen in real life – obviously.

Sometimes because of birth defects – sometimes because of trauma.

Maybe you do not have to remember a lot to be born again.  Just to exult and rejoice and give all your troubles to God. I don’t know much about mainstream Protestants, except the chaplains at a hospital in Fargo, North Dakota, quite knowledgeable in both theology and history and wanting to discuss them with me. Jews aren’t mentioned in the study, but I did my share of learning Hebrew and sacred texts.  Nope –more than my share, as I spent a good hunk of life seeking out tests which it was believed at the time women probably ought not to be reading anyway. And balancing that with learning a lot of stuff about how to be the kind of doctor I felt I should be. I probably have an overweight hippocampus, for many reasons.

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