My Brain Contains Multitudes
In Walt Whitman’s poem, Section 51, Song of Myself, we find this often-quoted stanza:
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
In the context of the poem, Whitman might be addressing how we exist in the past, present and future. Our present self, beliefs and activity may contradict our past self and our future self may contradict our present way of being.
However, the concept of containing multitudes goes far beyond time.
Humans have an integrated identity we like to present as our “true self,” but our identity is made up of many complex and even contradictory realities.
The human brain is wonderfully complex and the way we experience existence is greatly influenced by which parts of our brain are being used or stimulated.
A reductive understanding of the human brain acknowledges that the left brain and right brain process existence differently. Right brain processing has been linked to creativity, imagination, intuition, emotionally charged, non-linear, holistic processing. The left brain has been associated more with concrete, linear, sequential, analytical thinking. In reality, brain mapping continues to show a complexity to the human brain that goes far beyond left brain vs. right brain simplification.
Regardless of where processing takes place, we have become increasingly aware of how much our conception of reality is shaped by which parts of our brain dominate our processing. When we activate certain areas of our brain or create new brain pathways, we begin to see reality from a different perspective. In true Walt Whitman form, our brains “contain multitudes.”
Not only can our future contradict our past and present, but different aspects of our brain contradict each other. Or maybe they don’t necessarily contradict, but they simply co-exist with very different conceptions of reality. Our brain is a community of thoughts, ideas and emotions we give a singular voice to that we refer to as our true self or true identity. However, even when our integration concludes that this is who we are and what we believe, it does not change the aspects of our brain that disagree with this conception of our reality. We still have aspects of our brain that profoundly disagree with other more dominant aspects.
Consequently, our brains contain multitudes that are over and under-utilized based on our mind’s proclivity to give greater or lesser weight to certain pathways. Why we give preference to the right brain or left brain or any part of the brain is still a profound mystery. Regardless, we contain multitudes.
Our faith, beliefs and convictions are influenced by the dominant parts of our brains. Many disputes over truth have less to do with what we know and more to do with how we process our knowing. Linear, concrete sequential individuals are prone to worship a linear, concrete sequential God. Abstract, non-linear individuals worship a more mysteriously creative Creator. The differences in our brains even influence our ability to conceive of God existing or God existing as personal and approachable. The brain contains multitudinous conceptions of God that rise and fall depending upon which parts of the mind light up when God is mentioned.
I am wary of any theological conception that relies too heavily on one form of mental processing. A God who is primarily rooted in clearly articulated theological propositions is limited to those who process reality in such systematic ways. A God who is only found through nebulous feelings and mystery is not approachable to those who have a propensity to organize and categorize existence through shared language and structures. Of course, my theological proclivities are a manifestation of my brain’s desire to understand and present existence based on my own neurological firings.
In response to such complexities, I am drawn to grace and faith. Grace reminds me that I do not see or understand the complexities that exist within me, within others and within God. My inability to fully see and fully understand means I shall be gentle in how I communicate my strongly held convictions, realizing that my perspective may be less about knowing the truth than knowing differently than those who surround me.
Along with grace, I shall focus on faith; faith as the evidence of things hoped for and the substance of things not yet seen. I will have faith that God can find a way to communicate to every image bearer, regardless of the uniquenesses of our brains and the way our brains have been impacted by living in a fallen world. I will have faith that at some deep, profoundly significant level, we are each able to find and know God in the way God desires for us to find and know him. I will have faith that my conception of reality is not reality; that I cannot judge the responsibility and culpability of those around me who see God in a different way. And yes, I will believe that regardless of our multitudinous brains, and the multitudinous conceptions we may have of existence, there is one God who knows and understands. And although God is community, God is not conflicted or duplicitous. My multitudinous self is secure within the hands of God.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
I used to see only in black and white, right and wrong, systematic. It was safer … I had more control. Circumstances, however, drove me deep into the Psalms years ago and ever since I’ve seen more grays, become more comfortable with nuance, shown others and myself more grace and am learning that even though I may not know something nor have any control, God does.