In week 11 of our blog posts, Kim shared with us a thought “God made the brain so we shouldn’t be surprised that neuroscience and theology can overlap.” The reading from this week in Your Brain at Work offered me another chapter in this area of discovery.
David Rock develops an analogy of our minds operating as a stage, where only so many actors can effectively hold a place in our attention, with the spotlight only being able to focus on one player at a time. He also relies heavily on the concept of a “director,” who … “can watch the show that is your life, make decisions about how your brain will respond, and even sometimes alter the script.”
To better deploy this director, Rock recommends the practice of mindfulness, which, if I understand correctly, is the practice of finding something in the present on which to anchor our thoughts. Rock is not alone in his opinion of mindfulness. A quick search in the New York Times informs me that mindfulness can help me in my dieting, in my consumption of the news, in my holiday shopping… the list goes on.
To be really good at using our director, Rock suggests we “practice activating your director while you are eating, walking, talking, doing just about anything”
This last portion made my brain hyperlink to verses that give us some idea of how God wants us to think about his instructions:
4 “Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.5 And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. 6 And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. 7 Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. 8 Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. 9 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Duteronomy 6:4-8.
Recently, I also started reading Scott McKnight’s The Jesus Creed I learned from this that this passage is a creed of Judiasm. Referred to as the Shema, it was and is taught to Jewish children as something to recite daily. Something to help the faithful stay focused on the center stage.
A second hyperlink my brain made when reading Rock was to another book I have been reading: James KA Smith’s You Are What You Love. In his work, he draws a parallel between where our brains focus, and our understanding of “The Good Life.” In other words, I will orient my thoughts around what I think will directly or indirectly impact my ability to get what I want. Following up with Rock’s idea of the director, then: my director will make decisions on who I let on stage and where I focus my spotlight based on what I think will satisfy my goals. Smith makes a compelling case that we are all in love with something, and our attentions are in service to those loves. 
Smith goes on to talk about the impact of our surroundings on where we place our attention, and by extension, our love. “We need to become aware of our immersions. ‘This is water’ and you’ve been swimming in it your whole life. We need to recognize that our imaginations and longings are not impervious to our environments and only informed by our (supposedly ‘critical’) thinking., To the contrary, our loves and imaginations are conscripted by all sorts of liturgies that are loaded with a vision of the good life. To be immersed in those ‘secular’ liturgies is to be habituated to long for what they promise.”
I don’t usually read the acknowledgements of a book very carefully, but those at the end of Your Brain at Work jumped out to me. Rock thanks his wife, the collaborators on the book and adds “a final big, warm, hearty thanks to my brain’s own director, without which I wouldn’t have completed even the first page of this book.” I guess this director is kind of a big deal. And he should be. An effective director orders what is happening on stage. They help the actors be more effective at what they want to convey. They offer an outsider view to us to add perspective to the play that is being acted out. If Smith is correct (and I think he is), then the director character is directing where we place our love; what we worship.
To pull this together:
- We learn from Rock that we have a neurological limit to how much we can focus on at once, and we have a director who will determine (prioritize) where we focus
- In our Judeo-Christian heritage, we have a pattern of spiritual practice that also reinforces where we should place our attention
- Where we focus is reflective of what we love.
Important Questions for Applying Rock’s Work:
- In the acknowledgement section of your book, who would you thank for being your director? How would that message read?
- What is the value we can capture today from the ancient practice of the Shema? Is this another instance of what Kim referred to as a place where “neuroscience and theology can overlap?”
- What is the water we are swimming in that is shaping who gets center stage in our minds?
 David Rock, “Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long” (New York, NY: Harper Business, 2009).
 Rock, 87.
 Rock, 97.
 Scot McKnight, “The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others” (Paraclete Press, 2004).
 James K. A. Smith, “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit” (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016).
 Smith goes on to refer to our thoughts and actions as acts of worship. He reviews that these acts of worship are often not toward God but to the objects of our desire. I especially appreciate his encouragement to do the “slow thinking” to take stock of these desires, moving them from our subconscious to our conscious.
 Smith, “You Are What You Love,” 38.
 Rock, 248.
 Rock, 97.