“The beginning of love for the brethren is listening to them.” Dietrich Bonhoffer
Don’t you love when a friend asks a really good question? One that makes you pause and think more deeply?
And don’t you love it even more when she listens well, waiting patiently as you ponder and process your answer?
You feel heard. Valued. Known.
Actually, it’s more than a feeling. It’s a function of brain chemistry.
Our brains are made of 100 billion neurons, communicating with one another biochemically through synapses, very narrow spaces between the neurons.
My friend Gayle tells me the Old Testament word for Spirit is the same word for spaces. I like to imagine the Holy Spirit filling those narrow spaces between our neurons, wiring our brains to welcome His love and mercy, experience peace and life, create healing and health in our relationships, direct and guide us, generate creative thought, receive wisdom, insight, understanding and revelation, and renewing our minds to wholeness.
God often does this through conversations in which someone is listening supportively, probing more deeply through questions, enabling the other person to step back and gain awareness and clarity.
It’s easy to get stuck, unable to move out of your own perspective or narrative. But when a person asks meaningful questions and listens well, your brain chemistry shifts, providing a sense of well being and connection. This in turn opens the door of parts of the brain needed for creative thought and new insight, allowing you to respond to stress with more flexibility, explore new options and handle challenges with increased capacity.
The brain is not a homogenous group of cells all doing the same thing. Different regions have distinct functions. Integrating those regions is the key to getting unstuck.
Simplified brain science helps us understand how integration works. The left side wants to resolve confusion, analyze, and solve problems. The right side processes holistically, lives in the present, and wants to feel connected and known.
Our brains are also ordered from bottom to top. The limbic system generates emotions and sensations. The neocortex controls complex linguistic, cognitive, abstract, and creative functions.
The prefrontal cortex is Grand Central Station, responsible for integration of all these regions and systems. If the regions of the brain are integrated, they communicate with one another, bringing what is in the dark to light, pulling the past into the present, and giving language to feelings.
This integration process releases hormones that give us a sense of well being, suppresses stress hormones, and allows us to think with clarity and focus, helping us make sense of our story, increasing understanding of self, others, and God.
“An important part of how people change – not just their experiences, but also their brains – is through the process of telling their story to an empathetic listener. When a person tells her story and is truly heard and understood, both she and the listener undergo actual changes in their brain circuitry. They feel a greater sense of emotional and relational connection, decreased anxiety, a greater awareness of and compassion for other’s suffering. The change is increased integration.” (Daniel Siegel)
Pretty cool, huh? God created our brains to experience healing through the simple yet profound act of sharing our stories with one another.
Here’s how it works.
The emotional part of the brain contains information we can’t access through the logical, linear part of our brains. Everything we experience is shaped and influenced by emotional tone. Emotion is embedded into our memories. Whether we tune in or ignore it, we are constantly impacted by emotion and responding to it. Unless emotions are integrated into the other parts of the brain, we are unknowingly tossed to and fro.
Emotion is not separate from the thought process. But emotions don’t translate directly into thought or language. Different parts of the brain are used for emotion and language, making emotion harder to identify and articulate.
As the emotional pieces of one’s memories are acknowledged and verbalized, the left and right brain integrate in a way that doesn’t happen when someone simply reports in a logical, linear manner.
Reflecting on and talking about emotions literally integrates the neural circuitry of your brain, nurturing health, wholeness, and wellbeing.
Engaging emotions in a situation changes the way our brain interprets a situation. Safety, security, comfort, and empathy alter a person’s interpretation of their own story as their brain rewires with the neurons firing differently because someone is listening in a nonjudgmental, empathetic manner, creating space for healing and wholeness.
When my mom was suffering the ravages of Alzheimer’s, friends often asked how she was doing. It was fairly easy to report on the facts. But when someone asked, “How are you doing with that?” I often didn’t know, struggling to express emotions in words, with a sensation of trying to bring to the surface what was churning underneath.
In fits and starts, the rambling process of trying to find adequate words to articulate something so complex was integrating the experience of that hard circumstance into my story and giving access to God to shape my story with His love and care for me.
Literally, the process of combining language with emotional experience was causing neurons in my right and left hemispheres to synapse with each other, promoting the integration of my brain, bringing a sense of wellbeing and wholeness to me.
The facts of our story don’t change, but the way we interpret our story is impacted when someone gives us space to untangle thoughts and feelings.
Listening well and asking meaningful questions is holy work, a quiet labor of love as we serve as agents of healing, creating and opening up spaces for God’s love to transform our stories.
When was a time someone listened well and asked questions that helped you untangle your story and grow in understanding?
This is The Grove and we want to hear from you! You can link up your blog post, or share your practices, ponderings, wisdom, questions, ideas, and creative expressions with us in the comments below.
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