Using Your Mind to Rise Above Impulses

executive functioningIt has often been said that executive functioning is part of that which makes us uniquely human, separating us from the animal kingdom and allowing for freedom, creativity, and complex problem solving. It is executive functioning that helps us manage time, pay attention, plan, organize, remember details, and use experience as a guide for future action. But when impulsivity takes over, all these gifts inherent in executive functioning seem to vanish and the frontal lobe activity responsible for executive functioning appears to shut down almost completely.

Impulsive behavior undercuts executive functioning in such a way that an impulsive person may act not very differently from a beast. The impulsive pounce on the desire of the moment without thoughtful reflection, without higher goals, without treasuring the gift of time, without a sense of the past, and without reckoning the consequences in the future. Saint John Chrysostom has some rather harsh words for such a state: “Consider then what a misfortune it would be for us to fall down of our own accord from the nature of human beings to that of beasts, when Christ is willing to make us equal to angels. For to serve the belly, to be possessed by the desire of riches, to be given to anger, to bite, to kick, is to become not human beings, but beasts. Some say that even the beasts have by nature a single passion. But when human beings cast away the dominion of reason, tear themselves away from the commonwealth of God’s devising, give themselves up to all the passions, they are no longer merely beasts, but many-formed motley monsters” (Homily 2 on John). Clearly for the fathers, the reason or executive functioning is meant to regulate behavior in accord with God’s will, and the failure to do so, makes us not like beasts, but far beneath them. The aim here is not to make the impulsive feel even worse when their executive functioning is again operative to reflect on the past, but rather to encourage them to maintain that executive functioning in good form in the present regardless of the particular temptation that beckons. After all, the impulsive person reacts to external stimuli and acts without engaging in the normal processes of executive functioning. When this type of behavior becomes the modus operandi, the person is reduced to reacting rather than acting. On the other hand, the person whose executive functioning is well honed makes decisions thoughtfully and carefully. Not only is such a person more apt to experience success in studies, career, and interpersonal relationships, but of great import for the present discussion, that person will wisely weigh the pros and cons of impulsive activity when the impulse arises and will make a decision truly in his or her own best interest.

The holy fathers recognized the importance of executive functioning and admonished their followers to employ it to seek a higher purpose: namely, virtue and union with God. Lactantius who served as counselor to Emperor Constantine once wrote an insightful passage about what we today would call executive functioning. Lactantius writes, “For the mind, which exercises control over the body, appears to be placed in the highest part, the head, as God is in heaven; but when it is engaged in any reflection, it appears to pass to the breast, and, as it were, to withdraw to some secret recess, that it may elicit and draw forth counsel, as it were, from a hidden treasury. And therefore, when we are intent upon reflection, and when the mind, being occupied, has withdrawn itself to the inner depth, we are accustomed neither to hear the things which sound about us, nor to see the things which stand in our way” (On the Workmanship of God, or the Formation of Man). The value of the executive functioning for the problem of impulsivity is clear. When we are fully engaged in executive functioning, we neither hear the sound of temptation, nor see the tempting sight, but find ourselves in another safer place. If that place is also with God, we find ourselves in an unassailable fortress. On a practical level, this suggests that when impulses arise, it may be useful to use that faculty, for instance, to read Scripture and try to understand what how it can be applied to life or to focus on important details in Christ’s teachings and make connections between them. In letter 125 to Rusticus, Saint Jerome even mentioned how he would study the Hebrew language in order to avoid giving in to sinful impulses. Such study necessitates the use of the prefrontal cortex for the purpose of executive functioning. And when executive functioning is active, impulses can be seen for what they are and handled accordingly.

Saint Theophan the Recluse provides another excellent example of using the executive functioning for dealing with impulses, not only at the moment they arise, but even beforehand through wise preparation. He writes, “We all ought to have an individual preparation. Every day, with your morning prayers, survey all possible contingencies, and in accordance with the thoughts and feelings which they might arouse in you, prepare counter-thoughts and feelings, and enclose them with godly reflections to make them inwardly strong. Do the very same thing every time you see something approaching: Quickly survey what could happen, and arm yourself with tools to counteract it. The unexpected dumbfounds and upsets the soul, and when it is upset, it can have neither strength nor understanding. This preparation consists in not giving in to impressions, and not letting any arousing movement through to the heart. Here a sight, there a sound or a word, an impulse or something else falls upon the heart, as does a stone on calm water…and the circles of thoughts and impulses spread in all directions. Struggle against them! But if you do not let anything reach the heart, if in advance you strengthen the surface of the heart with counter-thoughts and counter-feelings, so that it becomes like ice covering the water, then all these stones coming from the outside will bounce off, testifying by their noise that they have struck, but have not reached the inside” (Psalm 118 A Commentary by Saint Theophan the Recluse, Verse 60, p.163-64). On the one hand, the Saint suggests planning for impulses and for responding to them in a God-pleasing way. On the other hand, he advises us to keep that plan in mind as we go throughout the day, so impulses do not surprise us or captivate our attention that we keep jealously for Christ alone. All of this suggests a pathway to peace even in the midst of temptations and impulses on every side. This is what is meant to use the executive functioning in a God-pleasing way.

Just as giving in to impulses can become habitual, so can the use of executive functioning with a little effort and the grace of God become a way of life. Saint Athanasios the Great writes, “Those who become disciples of Christ, instead of fighting each other, are prepared to withstand the demons by their habits and their virtuous actions. They defeat them and mock their captain the devil, so that in youth they are self-restrained, in temptations they endure, in labors they persevere, when insulted they are patient, when robbed they make light of it: and, wonderful as it is, they despise even death and become martyrs of Christ” (On the Incarnation of the Word). This is the promise of transformation, the hope of peace, and the victory in Christ offered to the impulsive who will wisely use their minds for the sake of the virtues and fully give their hearts to the Savior of their souls.

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