Impulsivity and Self-control: The Problem of Being of Two Minds

doubleminded-680x506The Apostle James once wrote, “a double minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8). That being of two minds, or more literally of two souls (δίψυχος), creates an instability of the will that makes the task of overcoming impulsivity especially challenging. Part of us is utterly persuaded that addictive behavior is bad for us and part of us is completely convinced that it is good for us, and the self is at a loss to explain its actions, for as Saint Paul once put it, “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19). Commenting on this passage, Saint John Chrysostom notes that there is a part of our soul that governs consciously with reason and another part of our soul that is unconsciously (ἀλογοτερος: more like an animal) either guided by that higher part or led by what it encounters, which is experienced as a “a kind of abusive and crafty assault made by sin” (Homily 13 on Romans, PG 60.511).

What the Apostle Paul, the Apostle James, and Saint John Chrysostom so eloquently describe is the problem of impulsivity in addiction. A purely rational model for explaining human behavior, which posits that people act in their own best interest, is highly inadequate. If the rational model were a reliable method for explaining human behavior, life and people would be more predictable and perhaps less chaotic.  Bad behavior could be corrected through further education.  The binge drinker hurtling toward alcoholism could simply be taught about the negative physical, emotional, and social consequences of excessive drink and he would stop because those consequences are clearly not in his best interest or good for him.  Yet, anyone who has tried to help an alcoholic or a drug addict knows that it isn’t a matter of education.  Too often, the suffering person already knows about the consequences but continues along the destructive path.

Recently, advances in social cognition research have suggested another way to understand human behavior, which is in sync with what the Church fathers have been teaching for over a millennium. We are double-minded, literally. One part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, carefully reflects over choices and enables us to make those rational, in-our-best-interest decisions; while another part of our brain, the limbic system with the amygdala and other relevant emotional structures, makes an automatic, impulsive call about pleasure versus pain propelling the individual towards pleasurable activity with no reference to future consequences. The problem of addiction is then in Saint Chrystostom’s words “the soul has more wisdom, and can see what is to be done and what not (through the prefrontal cortex), yet is not equal to pulling in the horse (of the limbic system) as it wishes” (Homily 13 on Romans, PG 60.511).

Antoine Bechara, Xavier Noel, and Eveline A. Crone
in their article, “Loss of willpower: Abnormal neural mechanisms of impulse control and decision-making in addiction,” describe in detail how these two systems interact when someone gives into impulsive urges as follows: “Two broad types of conditions
could alter this relationship and lead to loss of willpower: (1) a dysfunctional reflective system, which has lost its ability to process and trigger somatic signals associated
with future prospects; and (2) a hyperactive impulsive system, which exaggerates the somatic signals from immediate prospects. When drug cues acquire properties for triggering bottom-up, automatic, and involuntary somatic states through the amygdala, this bottom-up somatic bias can modulate top-down cognitive mechanisms, in which the prefrontal cortex is a critical substrate. If strong enough, this bottom-up influence can interfere or “hijack” the top-down cognitive mechanisms necessary for triggering somatic states about future outcomes.” In impulsivity, rational thought is taken hostage and reality becomes strangely distorted exaggerating the benefits that acting on the urge will provide and dismissing to oblivion consequences that are indeed painful. Even one’s senses no longer function properly. All that one can hear is the Sirens’ calls to taste the forbidden fruit. In the paradise that God has given us, all that one can see is that the forbidden fruit is on a tree that “is good for food, and that it is pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired” (Genesis 3:6).

What then are “the double-minded” and impulsive to do? Saint Paul provides the answer with great simplicity, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:25). Turning to God with thanksgiving, praying to God for strength, and maintaining a moment-to-moment relationship with Christ Jesus are what can ultimately give our soul the strength to make those decisions that will ultimately enable us to be free children of light. Saint Dorotheos of Gaza also mentioned that if the passions “grow to any degree of maturity inside us, we shall no longer be able to remove them from ourselves no matter how we labor unless, we have the help of the saints interceding for us with God” (On Cutting off Passionate Desires). This means we can and should in times of trouble also turn to our brethren, “called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:2). With the grace of God, with the power of God, restoration is possible. When we turn Him in times of trial, our reason, strengthened by His grace, can help us make decisions in our best interest. The prefrontal cortex begins to function properly. Or as the holy fathers would put it, when we “set the charioteer upon the chariot,” when we “bend the eye of our minds towards God” (Homily 17 on Corinthians) “then we shall have disciplined these two faculties of the soul, anger and desire, and have put them like well-broken horses under the yoke of reason” (Homily 12 on Ephesians), standing “fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free (Galatians 5:1).

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