Psychology Meets Religion, Part 3

Psychologists have often treated mental processes — attention, memory, and decision making — as divorced from the body. As if the mind was processing information in a mental vacuum undisturbed by the other forms of input that are constantly fed to our brain (e.g., heartbeat, fatigue, internal temperature, hunger, thirst).

However, recent theories in embodied cognition are challenging that idea by showing how our body can color our cognitive processing.

A quick and dirty example can be seen when you ask someone how happy they currently are. Traditional theories might suggest that a person would make this kind of judgment by calculating the degree to which they have attained of particular goals that are deemed necessary for happiness or searching one’s memory and getting a general impression of how joy filled our experience has recently been. However, an embodied perspective has shown that something like holding a pencil in between your teeth (which artificially makes you smile) will be interpreted by your mind as a sign of current happiness and lead you think you are actually much happier currently than you might report if you were not holding a pencil in between your lips.

The same goes for other emotion and experience like love and attraction. They have done studies where an attractive female experimenter approaches men while they are at the center of crossing a tall bridge or at the end of crossing a bridge. When asked how attractive the female experimenter was, individuals who were approached by the female experiment at the center of the bridge think she is more attractive than individuals who were approached by her at the end of the bridge. Why is that? Well presumably individuals are misattributing the source of their arousal (e.g., fear) for feelings of attraction. In other words, the perception of certain emotions are constructed based on what cues your body is giving you. Our emotion judgments are “embodied.” Crossing a bridge makes your heart beat faster so if asked how attractive a women is while crossing a bridge, you are likely to search for mind and body for cues and come to the conclusion that, “Well… my heart is beating fast, this women must be really beautiful.”

Some of the more fascinating studies that have come out in recent years shows that your perception of how warm and cold people are can be influence (or primed) by whether you’re holding a hot drink versus a cold one. You also judge job candidates as more serious and committed if you read their resume on a heavy clipboard but less serious and less committed if your reading their resume on a light clipboard.

Clearly, cognitive processing is colored by what our body is currently doing and experiencing. Memory, emotions, and perceptions are do not share a one to one correspondence with what is really going on. Even complicated judgments and impressions can be influenced by our bodily actions whether or not we are aware of it.

This work has also been extended to various religious and moral domains as well. For instance, it has been shown that people are more likely to cheat when they are in dark room (vs. a well lit room) or when they are in a well lit room but are wearing dark sun glasses suggesting that darkness primes particular sinful behaviors. In a different line of work, it has been shown that working in a room with a disgusting smell can increase the severity of moral judgments. For instance, both liberal and conservative participants who are exposed to a fart smell have much more negative attitudes towards homosexual men. And the opposite is also true, washing your hands prior to reading some moral dilemmas (e.g., eating human flesh to avoid starvation) can make these dilemmas seem less morally wrong. In one study, experiments asked participants to recall an immoral act they had previously done. Soon after, they found that participants who recalled an immoral behavior they committed rated cleaning products as more favorable than non-cleaning products relative to those who recalled a neutral past behavior. In a follow up study, researchers again had participants recall a past immoral event and then asked one of group or participants to wash their hands while another group was told to simply sit quietly. They found that if giving the opportunity to make a charitable donation, those who did NOT wash their hands were more willing to donate some of their recently earned money than those who did wash their hands.  The idea being that those who had washed their hands had symbolically cleansed themselves of their previously remembered wrongdoings and hence, where no longer in a state of moral imbalance that threatened their concept of a moral self. Whereas, those who had not washed their hands felt a need to rectify their previous misgivings by doing something nice like giving money to charity.

This research area has fascinated me for years so I thought of bringing up several points that relate to this work.

First, this body of research controversially suggests that our moral judgments can be pushed around a bit by our current feelings of moral cleanliness. It is important to understand what this work can and cannot say. Many secular researchers take this research to suggest that moral judgments are simply a scaffolding of previous physiological visceral reactions. So according to them, eating human flesh is not morally wrong, it just physically disgusted us in the past and we ended up constructing a moral story behind it. Of course, this line of reasoning is circular and does not address why eating human flesh but not eating animal flesh might have aroused a physiological feeling of disgust in the first place.

Also, just because something that feels immoral is associated or even grounded within a physiological response like disgust does not provide sufficient evidence for its origin. Take a television signal for example. Imagine a classroom of 5 year olds who are trying to figure out where the pictures come from. Some think that the pictures are generated from the television itself while others think that the pictures exist outside of the television. One day, a child discovers that the television pictures are associated with an antenna such that, breaking the antenna prevents the pictures from appearing. This does not of course mean that the antenna (as a part of the TV) was creating the pictures itself, all it suggests is that the antenna was receiving the pictures from somewhere else. I bring up this point because social neuroscientist are publishing research studies every month showing how the concept of God is associated with this part of the brain, or a sense of the sacred is associated with this particular physiological response. While these kinds of conclusions represent faulty scientific reasoning, they nevertheless make an impact on the general audience because they are said to be “scientific.” Hence, as Christians, we need to critically think about the psychological arguments that are being made. Especially because many psychological results are interpreted by psychologists who are inherently motivated to see the world from a different lens. In fact, in a recent conference, a social psychologist presented research findings showing that over 90% of social psychologists identify themselves as liberal. I will leave this point alone for now because I would like to return to this point in the fourth part of this series.

On a more applied level, I think the research on moral cleansing brings up  a rout by which the devil can try to dissuade us from living a more sacrificial life by filling our minds with thoughts like, “why help a brother in need, you already did your good deed for the day.”   The opposite might also be true, the devil might try to fools us into thinking we are somehow morally justified by doing other symbols that can serve as moral tokens towards convincing us that we are righteous like  literally “washing our hands” of situations that require our love and attention the way Pilate did with Jesus. This idea of being in a state of “moral balance” seems to be very close to what most people consider a good moral life. In my attempts at conversational evangelization, I have often found it important to begin by questioning this moral balance premise that people can sometimes hold. It is important to remember that Christ calls us to actually be Holy and not simply have enough good deeds to outweigh the bad as is taught in other religions like Islam.

Biblically speaking, this research does of course bring to mind many of the aspects of the old testament like when God gave the Israelites not only the moral law to guide them to moral cleanliness and to becoming more like God but also a ceremonial laws which were meant to guide the Israelites into doing specific ceremonial actions like sacrifices and dietary restrictions as a means of keeping them in a physical states of purity. All of which were meant to prepare and foreshadow (or prime) the coming of Christ, and his continued requirement for holiness through a cleanliness of heart.

Although Christ has fulfilled the point of the ceremonial laws, I still think of the various high Church practices which guide how we should conduct our inner life through certain physical actions. For instance, in the Roman liturgy, people will make the sign of the cross over their forehead, their mouth and their heart prior to listening to the gospel.  These signs are meant to outwardly reaffirm our internal prayer of “May the Lord be on my mind, on my lips and in my heart.”

We also see these kinds of behaviors the various gestures that Christian children are taught when singing worship songs. These physical movements do more than simply serve external signs of what is going on inside, or make worship music fun and engaging, they also help us to process what is in our hearts with better fluency and prime particular concepts like holiness in the absence of feeling the sense of holiness. That is, the physical actions themselves make it easier for our minds to process praise and a call to sanctification through faith in Christ.

Thirdly, this work brings up a possible suggestion for how to grow in loving your fellow man. Many great thinkers, writers and men of faith have suggested that if you want to Love your neighbor, you should not spend all your time waiting for a dramatic sign from the Holy Spirit but go out and do it! Especially when you feel the least inclined to do so. Let the Holy Spirit shape your heart by your willingness to Love despite the fact that you may not currently be feeling the emotional, financial, social or spiritual motivational to do so. As Christ so wonderfully put it, “If you love only those who love you, what reward will you have?”

This third point leads well into a possibly understanding what Saint Paul may have meant by “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Just as psychologist are  growing in their  understanding of mental processes by situating them within body, so too might we learn to grow in living out our faith by situating it in works of love and understanding the various ways our bodily actions can influence our life of worship.


  1. Gerardo, thank you for sharing this series.  I don’t have time to read this right now, but I will soon.  We need to think more and understand psychology (as well as education and history) better if we hope to be any kind of blessing to others.

  2. Thanks, Gerardo. Your last point reminded me of a sermon I heard about doing that leads to feeling, rather than waiting for a feeling before doing. Thus, as you suggested, one who acts loving even if they do not feel loving, will begin to love. The converse is also true.
    A historian said that the Nazis first killed the Jews because they hated them. Later they hated the Jews because they killed them. This is morbid and sad, but true.
    It explains why Jesus repeatedly commanded that we love one another, love our brothers, love our spouses, love even our enemies. If we wait for a feeling before we love, we will likely never love.
    If God waited for a proper feeling to love us sinners, he would still be waiting today!

    • Yes, that was my point exactly! THanks for the great examples. Doing can also lead to greater clarity as to who you are interacting with. When Jesus met some of his diciples on the road to emmaus they failed to recognize him. It wasnt until they participated in the breaking of bread that their eyes were open to Jesus.