About Dr. Curt Thompson
Curt Thompson, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in Falls Church, Virginia, and the founder of Being Known. It develops teaching programs, seminars, and resource materials to help people explore the connection between interpersonal neurobiology and Christian spirituality. This leads to genuine change and transformation.
Dr. Curt Thompson is the author of Anatomy of the Soul. His book demonstrates how insights from interpersonal neurobiology resonate with biblical truths about God and creation. This validates the deep human need for meaningful relationships as a key to a life of hope and fulfillment. He also produced a video series called Knowing and Being Known: The Transforming Power of Relationships. It provides a detailed journey through Dr. Thompson’s discoveries on these themes.
Why Did Dr. Curt Thompson Choose to Study Psychiatry?
“I don’t believe I found psychiatry, but that psychiatry found me. It’s just one more way in which Jesus has been finding me since I was born.
When I was in Medical school I hadn’t given a single thought to psychiatry. I only knew it to be a required part of my medical education that I would have to go through. However, upon my first encounter with patients in the psychiatric inpatient unit, God was already meeting me in this place. My deep curiosity and passion for a better understanding of how people operate; why we do what we do grew.
It’s likely because I was asking that question of myself. Why do I do what I do? I was trying to find answers, which converged with my general interest in the way the brain works; we operate from a neuroscience standpoint, so that conversion of science and human behavior captured my attention and my heart.”
How Dr. Curt Thompson Learned to Integrate Faith and Psychiatry
“Though a follower of Jesus at the time, it was unclear how I could integrate my interest in psychiatry with my faith. How would I make this something I could do in real time and space? But then, I had a chance encounter with a woman who, at the time, was the Director of Medical Education at Emory University.
She was speaking at the conference I attended, and I raised the issue that I was interested in psychiatry. I’m quite passionate about it, but it didn’t seem clear how I could do this and integrate it with what it means to follow Jesus. She was trained as a pediatrician and said, ‘Well, if I hadn’t been a pediatrician, I probably would have been a psychiatrist’. So 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 have few people doing that.
I think it may be possible that this is what God might call you to do. However, we need more people who are interested in and 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. 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.”
The Emergence of Interpersonal Neurobiology
“My friend and colleague, Daniel Siegel, wrote an important book back in the late 1990s called The Developing Mind. Dan was the first to begin 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 that there are many different ways and fields of study that explore the nature of the mind.
There are 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 Dan noticed that these different fields didn’t have a common language; they didn’t have a clearing house, as it were. They didn’t have a place to come together and ask, “What do we all have in common?” So with Dan’s work, The Developing Mind, Dan set the stage for a way to begin to think about the mind using the data from various 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 some blind men having their hands on the part of an elephant and trying to describe what the whole of that elephant is about. So the emergence of this gives us some fresh insight into how we think about the mind, what the mind is, and how it works. So all of that has been revelational and liberating for many of us working in the mental health field.”
How The Research of The Mind Connects to Creation
“One of the other things that 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 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 believe in a God and that God has relevance in our lives and has shown up in real time and space, in real history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So one of the things we must be careful about is that neuroscience, in its associated disciplines, is all very interesting and helpful ways of assisting us in better relationships. But, still, it too can become something that we choose to use toward our ends, and it will be easy for us to leave God out of that equation simply thinking that neuroscience gives us one more way to become masters of the universe.”
Curt Thompson on Sanctification From a Neuroscience Perspective
“The verse in Romans where he asks brothers and sisters to present their bodies is striking because it helps remind us that the transformation of our mind is not just about thinking differently, as we 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. That transformation process includes our paying attention to not just what we think but what we feel and sense. I don’t do that by myself. I am doing that in the community with others. Jesus followers suggest that being with and 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. It’s not just about my fulfillment. It is about God’s Kingdom coming, regenerating me as a part of the community and world that He is regenerating. So it is in 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 actively living, moving, changing and renewing, and transforming the world that we live in right here and now.”
How Does Paying Attention to Your Present Surroundings Help Center Your Mind?
“An example I can give happened about ten years ago now. I was standing in my kitchen on a Friday evening, and my daughter, who was fourteen then, was sitting on the kitchen counter. I had spent the previous several days thinking I was being a good parent, preparing my kid to join other church members in a work detail at eight o’clock Saturday morning.
So I asked the simple question to my daughter, who was 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 do this work the next morning.
All this led to a twenty-five-minute conversation with her about how awful the last two days had been. It made me recognize that I haven’t paid attention to what my body says to me. I’m not paying attention to what I’m thinking, feeling, or sensing. That activates through a phenomenon called “implicit memory.” I’m not paying attention to those things.
With many things, I’m simply reacting to what someone says without being reflective enough to pause and consider. To shift the direction of my attention, we need to ask what is going on? How is God inviting me to change so that I can be a change agent in the lives of others?”
Trends Dr. Curt Thompson Sees Among His Patients
“In referring to my practice, I don’t know that my practice would represent culture 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 are technology. I would start with that, because the kind of technology we see is advancing at a pace like never before. We are increasing the pace with which we shift our attention from one thing to another, to another, another.
So everything from smartphone 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 human brain cannot pay attention to important things at the speed with which our lifestyle wants it to be able to do so.”
Why Does Technology Pull People to Such a High Degree?
“Well, you know it does use and access some natural proclivities that we have. For instance, when offered the opportunity for novelty, most humans tend to track with that if something comes into their field of vision. For instance, if you’re driving a car, looking at a television program, or reading a book, your brain naturally tends to gravitate towards that and notices that.
That’s just how 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. I don’t have to think about that to be naturally drawn to it. But, more importantly, those distractions on a website were intentionally created to be distracting.
We begin to practice immersing our minds in a world in which we are primed to be distracted. This means I spend less and less time being able to stay with and be with a single continuous interface of something, whether reading a page on a computer or reading a book, or conversing with others face to face. This is why we see an increased difficulty in face-to-face conversations because they need to develop the skill set required to take in all the nonverbal data coming at them, from facial expressions and tone of voice. You eliminate that by sending somebody a text.”
The Value of The Fruit of The Spirit in The Changing Culture
“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 one pours on which to build a house. They are chemical makeup in the concrete with which the footers are poured. To develop that fruit requires the same kind of care, tenderness, and thoughtful concern used to develop a great vineyard. That requires a pace and time that our world actively discourages from taking place.
That’s one trend that I would say is an overarching one that then makes lots of other things easier to emerge. So, for instance, substance abuse is just far easier to partake in 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. So suppose I haven’t learned how to regulate my distress. In that case, it’s just a lot easier for me to smoke or drink than it is for me 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.”
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