Interview with Dr. Curt Thompson, M.D.

How do we implement the study of the mind as believers in Christ? Curt Thompson, author of Anatomy of the Soul, joins us to talk about the ways in which we can integrate these beliefs without compromising our sense of self.

About Curt

Curt Thompson, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in Falls Church, Virginia and founder of Being Known, which develops teaching programs, seminars and resource materials to help people explore the connection between interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spirituality which lead to genuine change and transformation. 

Dr. Thompson is the author of Anatomy of the Soul (Tyndale, June 2010) which demonstrates how insights from interpersonal neurobiology resonate with biblical truths about God and creation—validating the deep human need for meaningful relationships as a key to a life of hope and fulfillment. He has also produced a video series entitled Knowing and Being Known: The Transforming Power of Relationships which provides a detailed journey through Dr. Thompson’s discoveries on these themes.

Click to read Transcript

Introduction: The transformation of our mind is not just about thinking differently as we in twenty first century western culture might assume that to mean. It is about our entire selves that God is in the business of transforming. This is not just about my own personal fulfillment; this is about God’s Kingdom coming, regenerating me as a part of the community that He is regenerating.

EASLEY: When Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs, in Chapter 15, vs.22, we read: Without consultation, plans are frustrated, but with many counselors they succeed. As a pastor, on many occasions I’m asked about counseling, and psychology, and psychiatrists, and it’s any one of these issues that has a thousand opinions on how you approach the spiritual life as we are sanctified as believers in Christ dependent upon God’s Word, God’s Spirit, and God’s people, yet is there value in the field of psychology, psychiatry, counseling? Obviously, there are obsesses and abuses along all these spectrums.

Curt Thompson has become a close friend over the years and he’s the author of Anatomy of the Soul and also a fourth book that we’ll hear about during our interview time. Curt has been able to help me in the integration of theology and psychology.

Curt, thanks for giving us some time today.

THOMPSON: Michael, thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

E: First of all, let’s talk about Med school and psychiatry. How in the world did Curt Thompson end up going to medical school and choosing psychiatry as the area of practice?

T: Well, one of the reasons why I love that question is because as I tell people, I don’t really believe that I found psychiatry, but rather the other way around. I think that psychiatry found me. I think that it’s just one more way in which Jesus has been finding me from the time I was born.

When I was in Medical school I hadn’t given a single thought to psychiatry and only knew it rather vaguely to be one of those required parts of my medical education that I would have to course through. But upon my first week even, and with my first encounter with patients who were in psychiatric inpatient unit in the hospital where I was working, I found that God was already meeting me in this place where my deep curiosity, and I might even say passion, for better understanding how people operate; why do we do what we do. It’s probably likely because I was asking that question of myself. Why do I do what I do? I was trying to find answers and that converged with my general interest in the way the brain works; we operate from a neuroscience standpoint and so that conversion of science and human behavior really captured my attention, and captured my heart as well.

Additionally, though as a follower of Jesus at the time, and this is back in the mid 1980’s, it was not clear to me how 1) if you were interested in psychiatry and you were a believer, how could I   actually implement this? How was I going to make this something I could do in real time and space? It was a chance encounter that I had with a woman, who at the time was the Director of Medical Education at Emory University. She was speaking at the conference that I was attending and I raised this issue with her that I was interested in psychiatry. I’m actually quite passionate about it, but it didn’t seem clear to me how I could go about doing this, and also help that be integrated with what it means to follow Jesus. She was trained as a pediatrician and said, “Well, you know if I hadn’t been a pediatrician, I think I probably would have been a psychiatrist. Part of the reason we don’t have easy clear models for what it means for people to be in psychiatry and be believers, is that we haven’t had a lot of people who are doing that. I think that it maybe possible that this is what God might be calling you to do this. We need more people like you who are interested in this, who are willing to think through this in terms of what it means to follow Jesus. In that conversation, I felt like I got a very clear invitation from God to wade out into these waters and I feel like He has been finding me ever since then in various ways, not the least of which being this recent endeavor into the world of interpersonal neurobiology that found me about ten years ago.

E: Let’s unpack this for Michael Easley, the twelfth grade educated brain. Talk first of all about the way you put these together because there’s a lot of popular stuff from TED talks to all kinds of things on neuroscience these days. You and I exchanged some of these e-mails about what pop culture is writing today.You’ve defined this a little more precisely when you speak of interpersonal neurobiology.

T: Well, my friend and colleague, Daniel Siegel, wrote an important book back in the late 1990’s called The Developing Mind. Dan was the first to really begin, I think, to give a voice to this emerging framework of how to think about the mind that we now call interpersonal neurobiology. Dan’s idea was and is that there are many different ways, many different fields of study that explore the nature of the mind, be those bench science explorations of the way neurons in a rat’s brain work all the way to Child Developmental Psychology to psychoanalysis to family therapy work and so forth. There are just literally dozens of different clinical fields that look at this in addition to other fields of philosophy and even physics that try to understand the nature of how the mind works. But one of the things that Dan, and we also who are in the clinical world, notice that these different fields didn’t really have a common language; they didn’t have a clearing house as it were. They didn’t have a place where they could all come together and ask the question, “What do we all have in common?” So with Dan’s work, The Developing Mind, I think the stage was set for a way to begin to think about the mind using the data from various  different unrelated fields of study, but that could contribute things to each other that they may have in common.

Dan’s metaphor for this is the proverbial scene of a number of blind men having their hands on a part of an elephant and trying to describe what the whole of that elephant really is about. So with the emergence of this, it’s given us some fresh insight into how we think about the mind, what the mind is, how it works. All of that has been very, very, I think, revelational and liberating for a lot of us who do work in the field of mental health.

One of the other things I think that really caught my attention was that all of these things that we’re talking about, all these different fields of study that contribute to interpersonal neurobiology are really research into the creation. They are really how we as humans explore the world that we believe God has made and pursuant to that, we would say that like Paul has written in his letter to the Romans, in essence, those things in the creation that we witness bear testimony to God’s power and His nature and if we pay attention to those created things they will point us to the life that God has waiting for us and the life that He has created in Jesus. Now that presumes that we actually first of all believe in a God, and that that God has relevance in our lives and in fact has shown up in real time and space, in real history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

One of the things we have to be careful about, I think, is that neuroscience in its associated disciplines are all very interesting, very helpful ways of assisting us into having better relationships, but it too can become something that we choose to use toward our own ends and it will be easy for us to leave God out of that equation simply thinking that neuroscience gives us one more way in which I can now become master of the universe.

E: One of Larry Crabb’s profound observation was the notion of worshipping insight, that whether it’s a modality, or a treatment,or an approach; all of a sudden now this is unlocking more about me. That’s what you’re saying now the danger becomes sort of self fulfilling?

T: Correct.

E: Let’s go to Romans 12 for just a second. You and I have talked about this before and I’d like you to expound on it a little bit. I love the simplicity of how Paul describes sanctification there and I love your lens on it from a neuroscience perspective. Do not become conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good, acceptable and perfect. Three times he talks about thinking differently. We’re not  just back to behavior modification or gestalt, or thinking correctly, is therefore going to change my behavior, are we?

T: No. Far from it. I think that what’s really striking to me about this and I’ve been helped by our daughter who’s now completing her third year of training at Duke Divinity School, but who has developed a passionate love for the Greek Text, of the Old and New Testament alike. She and I talked about this passage and Paul’s somewhat mixture of pronouns, but also the very first verse of Chapter 12, where he asks brothers and sisters to present their bodies. I think this is striking because first of all it helps remind us that the transformation of our mind is not just about thinking differently, as we in the twenty first century Western culture might assume that to mean. It is about our entire selves, that God is in the business of transforming, even as we age and die, and that that transformation process, that includes our paying attention to not just what I think, but what I feel, what I sense and so forth. But, that I don’t do that by myself, I am doing that in community with others and we who follow Jesus would suggest that that community, and that being with others, and being known by others, is directly mediated by the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is not something that we as human beings do all by ourselves. Again, I don’t do this by myself; it’s not just about my own personal fulfillment. This is about God’s Kingdom coming,  regenerating me as a part of the community that He is regenerating, as a part of the world that He is regenerating, and it is in that paying attention to, that renewal of the mind, that I’m doing in community with others. This, of course is going to require me to be vulnerable with others, as I tell them my story, as I confess my sin, as I confess other things about myself, as I hear them revealing in their confession as well, as we pray together, as we live life together. All of that then becomes a testimony that bears witness to the world that Jesus is in fact not just some historical figure, but is active, living, moving, changing and renewing, and transforming the world that we live in right here and now.

E: When you refer to verse 1, Romans 12, where he talks about presenting your bodies then he continues that thought. I love your observation, Do not be conformed by the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. So one: We’re giving our bodies: Are a living and a holy, and active thing. We might say that the theologian talks about the duality of man; the pastor talks about the body, soul, and Spirit differentiations, however you want to parse that, but it’s all of us. But then the transformation occurs mentally in the nuos, the mind, and you have a great phrase you almost said it, but “pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.” And I love that. Everytime you say that, I say “Wow.” I remember that often in situations; I need to think: What am I paying attention to here, fear, or anxiety, or control, or whatever. My emotion, might be at that time the need to do something or say something is my problem I am working through.

So help us out a little bit, Curt. Put the cookies on the low shelf for us. Let’s just use anxiety as an example. It creeps up all the time; it’s always there. How does paying attention to what I’m paying attention to; how does understanding this transformation work of neurobiology; how does that start helping me?

T: An example I can give happened probably about ten years ago now. I’m standing in my kitchen on a Friday evening and my daughter who is fourteen at the time was sitting on the kitchen counter. It was about ten o’clock at night and we were wrapping things up for the evening. I had spent the previous several days thinking I was being a good parent, preparing my kid for the fact that at eight o’clock the next morning on a Saturday, we as a family were going to join other church members in a work detail. Of course, eight o’clock Saturday morning, as a fourteen year old all you want to be is in bed.

E: (Laughter). Bad combination.

T: Yes, and so I figured I would be a wise parent and alert them to this many days before this. So early in the week I had let them know we were going to do this and they were really quite aware of it and were ready and willing to go. So it’s ten o’clock Friday night and I asked the simple question of my daughter who’s sitting on the counter, “What time would you like me to get you up in the morning?” And it was as if I had just sucker punched her in the nose. The next thing I knew we had all kinds of fourteen year old stuff coming at me about us having to go do this work the next morning. Eventually, what happened was this all lead to a twenty five minute conversation with her that was not really about going to a work detail the following morning, but was how awful the last two days had been for her. It was one of those moments where you recognize, gosh, in much of my life, my moment to moment moving, I’m not paying attention to what my body is saying to me. I’m not paying attention to what I’m thinking, or feeling, or sensing that gets activated through a phenomenon that we call “implicit memory.” I’m not paying attention to those things. With a lot of things, I’m simply reacting to something my wife says, or that my boss says, or that the elders say, or that the pastors says from the pulpit, or something of this nature, without being reflective enough to pause and consider, to pay attention to what I’m paying attention to. In order to shift the direction of my attention, we need to ask the question, “What is really going on here with me?” How in this moment is God inviting me to change and be transformed so that I can also be an agent of transformation in the lives of those with whom I’m interacting?

E: When you look at your client base, and men and women, teenagers, adolescence, family systems that come to you, do you see some trends Curt? Do you see that these are the top four or five things that you’re seeing again and again with folks?

T: I would say that’s a good question; in referring to my practice, I don’t know that my practice would be represented of cultural as a whole, but I can say that, and these are not necessarily in order of one, number two and so forth. But some important trends I think are technololgy. I would start with that, but not because I am anti technology, but because the particular kind of technology that we are now seeing advancing means that we are at a pace that we’ve never been at before. We are increasing the pace with which we shift our attention from one thing to another, to another, another. So everything from smart phone technology, to what we can do with our laptops and e-mails and so forth, and I’m not a technology expert nor do I spend a lot with it, but one thing that I know is true that technology is a representation in and of itself is not just a problem; it is a representation of a larger issue of what I would consider to be a problem with pace, in that everything is moving quickly and increasingly so. The reality is that the human brain cannot pay attention to important things at the speed with which our lifestyle wants it to be able to do so.

E: Say that one more time.

T: Our brain is not able to pay attention to things at the speed with which our lifestyle wants it to be able to do so.

E: I don’t like to use the word addiction, but then why is technology so overused? It pulls people in.

T: Well, you know it does use an access some natural proclivities that we have. For instance, most humans, when offered the opportunity for novelty will tend to track with that. If something comes into your field of vision for instance, if you’re driving a car, you’re looking at a television program, you’re reading a book, our brain naturally tends to gravitate towards that and notices that.

E: Squirrel. (Laughter).

T: That’s just the way our brain tends to work and from a perspective of maintaining safety and seeing where things are coming from; all that is very primal in our brain’s activity. In other words, I don’t have to be thinking about that to be drawn to those things prenaturally.

E: All the distractions on a website are just going to naturally distract us and pull us away.

T: Exactly! But more importantly I would say that those distractions on a website are intentionally created to be distracting.

E: Without a doubt. Without a doubt.

T: And as such, this means that we begin to practice immersing our minds in a world in which we become primed and we expect to be distracted, which means I spend less and less time being able to stay with and be with a single continuous interface of something, whether that’s reading a page on a computer, or reading a book, or having a conversation with others face to face. This is why we see an increased difficulty for people who have face to face conversations, because they literally are not developing the skill set required to actually take in all the nonverbal data that’s coming at you from facial expressions, and tone of voice, and so forth and so on. You just eliminate that by sending somebody a text.

E: We have kids the ages of twenty five, twenty, and nineteen, and there’s the differentiation between not only technology, and what it was like in those age groups of our kids, but their personalities are different. It’s striking as a parent because you’re trying to provide that home environment as you illustrated with your daughter, to love them, to encourage them, to equip them, to teach them of Jesus and the communications skill sets are completely different. I don’t know a parent that doesn’t feel handicapped, incapacitated, unable to connect with their child. They won’t call on the phone, but they’ll text and the truncation of communication, the perceived emotion, all the things that we’re aware of in the interpersonal environment are gone.

T: We speak of the fruit of the Spirit: Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control, all of those things and the reality is, Michael, that those are things that are not just the footers that won pourers on which to build a house. They are chemical makeup that’s in the concrete with which the footers are poured. What I mean by that is, to develop that fruit requires the same kind of care, tenderness, thoughtful concern that one has to use to develop a great vineyard that gets done over years, and that requires a pace and time that our world certainly does not encourage on many fronts, whether intentional or not, it is actively discouraged from taking place. That’s one trend that I would say that is an overarching one that then makes lots of other things more easy to emerge. So for instance, substance abuse is just far more easy to partake of if I have not developed a skill of what it means for me to learn how to regulate my distress, which of course takes time and relationships. If I haven’t learned how to regulate my distress, it’s just a lot easier for me to smoke or to drink than it is for me to have to do the hard work of regulating my emotion with time and relationships, which would make it less likely for me to become a substance abuser. It might feel like we’re really jumping the page here, but there’s lots of conversation now about sexual assaults on college campuses, but rarely as I’ve looked at the headlines, whether it’s the New York Times, the Washington Post, or recent communication from the president of our son’s university, very little is mentioned about the use of alcohol and its associated prevalence when any of these sexual assaults taking place. This is not to minize the issue of sexaul assault; it is to say that there are certain things that we as a culture are willing to address, but there are even more fundamental issues that we are not willing to address because we may not have the time or the skill sets to do so. So in the end people end up sexually abused, depressed, and anxious and in my office.

E: Well, we haven’t even started and our time is up. We’ve been talking to Dr. Curt Thompson, author of the Anatomy of the Soul. Curt, do you have a new book coming out soon?

T: In late July, early August, University Press will be releasing The Soul of Shame:Retelling the Story That We Believe About Ourselves.

E: For people who go to counseling it’s a long view, isn’t it?

T: It is a long view and I would say it is a view that is not just long, but it’s also broad in the sense that this new book will be addressing not just issues about questions that pertain to psychotherapy and counseling work, but that cut across every vocational domain that we have because shame is ubiquitous and affects everything from what we’re doing in the consultation room, psychotherapeutically, all the way to how we’re making decisions about legal issues, education issues and the like.

E: Curt, thanks for your work. You can find out more about Curt on the site. We’ll link you to his website as well as information about his upcoming book.

Dr. Thompson, thanks so much for your friendship and for your time.

T: Michael, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much.

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