Worship Planning, Cycles of Perception and the "Emergent" Brain

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Worship planning cycles of perception
A model showing how the brain perceives pain, by P. Forster. Public Domain.

The Goal of Worship Planning
In worship, we Christians "offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice" (UMH, p. 10). By the phrase, "we offer ourselves," we mean that we seek to give God all that we are as individuals and as a worshiping community. The older language from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and John Wesley's Sunday Service for the Methodists make the nature of our offering even more explicit. "And here, we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice unto thee" (UMH, p. 29).

What we discover as we offer ourselves fully to God in this way is that God connects with us, nourishes us, challenges us, corrects us, cleanses us, strengthens us, disquiets us, and comforts us. Opening ourselves to God opens us to God's edifying presence and action in our midst. See the post, Un sacrifice édifiant, for more on this.

So if we take our role as worshipers seriously, we gather in worship not to receive something for ourselves, but rather to offer all we can to God. This means the core question for worship planners is not, "How do we help worshipers feel edified?" Instead, the core question is, "How do we plan worship so that it becomes more likely that more of us may be ready and enabled to give ourselves fully to God?"

The Cycles of Perception
With our eyes on that prize, leading and motivating the people's self-offering to God, we can now turn to a consideration of how understanding the neuroscience of perception may help worship planners do just that.

The chart above illustrates how we perceive pain (Dolore, at the top of the chart, in Italian), but it is also an illustration of how we perceive any "feeling."

The chart starts at the bottom, with the word "Irritazione" (irritation). We can just as well say "stimulus."

Note what happens with the stimulus as it makes its way toward our brains/bodies registering it as the feeling of "pain." There are two major pathways involved. The first and most rapid is the pathway through the sensory system (to the right). But note that sensory input is necessary but not sufficient to "add up" to the "feeling" of pain (or any other feeling!).

The other major pathway (to the left) is through what is known as the "limbic system." This is the part of the brain responsible for processing and outputting emotion. It involves three specific regions: hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala. Note, too, that the role of the hippocampus is really about memory-- something we might normally consider a cognitive function rather than an emotional function. Again, both the "emotional chemistry" activated by amygdala (typically, responses of alarm and aggression in response to perceived threats or attacks) and hypothalamus (hormones associated with reward, bonding and regulating autonomic bodily functions, among others) AND the cognitive function of memory (remembering what this experience was like) are part of the "limbic signal" sent to the cerebral cortex.

When both of these kinds of signals arrive within close temporal proximity-- the sensory signals noting serious irritation and the limbic signals assigning it an emotional and "remembered" value-- the output is the "feeling" or "perception" of pain.

Note, again, cognitive processes are involved here, but primarily as a subset of what will become the overall "limbic signal."

What does all of this have to do with worship planning? And more specifically, what does this have to do with worship planning that makes it more likely that we will offer ourselves fully to God?

Quite a bit. Because, though this chart does not show it, a fundamental finding of neuroscience is that we make every single decision we ever make, every one of them, primarily based on outputs from the limbic system (emotion), and then, secondarily, later, our "cognitive" systems "kick in" to make sense of the decision the limbic system had actually already reached. The poet e. e. cummings, it turns out, got it very nearly right when he wrote "since feeling is first." Feeling per se, as neuroscientists describe it (the output of the combination of sensory and limbic inputs), is not first. Sensory outputs and limbic outputs (emotion plus memory) are. When limbic outputs are reinforced by sensory outputs, and thus resulting in feelings, the "decision" made already in the limbic system is powerfully reinforced. And then, and only then, does the brain come up with a stated "reason" for the decision.

If we were to put this into a kind of prioritized order of what moves us, we might think it would be it would be 1) senses, 2) emotion informed by memory (limbic outputs), 3) feelings, and then, dead last, 4) conscious thought.

However, the case of pain itself provides a different ordering. This is because we have ample evidence of cases where the "feeling" of pain can be experienced as excruciating at times when the objective "sensorial irritation" happens to be quite low, or, the reverse, where the feeling of pain is almost absent even though the actual sensorial irritation is very high. This is because the limbic outputs are capable, independently, of dramatically amplifying or dampening the signal the receive. So at least an equally likely, and maybe often more likely ordering might be 1) limbic outputs, 2) sensory outputs, 3) feelings, and 4) conscious thought. (For more on the formation of feeling, see Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain).

What tends to move us in any direction, Godward or otherwise, then, are first of all the outputs of our limbic system. This is why Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith asserts that we are fundamentally "desiring animals" (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, Baker Academic, 2009, Kindle location 534).

So if worship planners want to move people Godward, if we want to plan worship in ways that make it more likely that people worshiping with us will offer themselves more fully to God, we must pay attention first and foremost to the emotive and the memory-forming and memory-inducing aspects of worship, as well as the sensory aspects of worship. We must ask ourselves, as first matters, "What actions, music, songs, and sensory environments, and in what sequence, will best move worshipers to open themselves and offer themselves more and more to God?" And since memory plays a significant role in the limbic system, it will be important and wise to keep in mind that familiar and repeated elements may be as significant or even more significant in worship that opens people to God than the new, the "creative" or the surprising.

The "Emergent" Brain
In what has been discussed so far, it would seem that neuroscience dramatically downplays the role of the cognitive in forming or shaping decisions. Indeed, it does, and so it presents a serious challenge to much of what happens in worship and worship planning in many contexts. Where expository preaching is placed as the centerpiece or primary reason for gathering for worship, as is often the case in Protestant worship settings, the design of worship privileges the cognitive, often to an extreme degree. What neuroscience would seem to be telling us is that such emphasis on the cognitive in worship has the potential to undermine the capacity of the worshiping community to offer itself fully to God, since we are far less moved to action (if, indeed, we are ever directly moved to action!) by the cognitive processes of our brains than by the outputs of our limbic systems, over which we have relatively little direct cognitive control in real time.

Whither theology, then? Or whither doctrine? Or whither the value of teaching? Does it turn out these aspects of our faith and practice, which we tend to emphasize highly, even to the point of testing and ensuring the theological integrity of the texts we sing, are nearly useless as prompters to worship?

No. They are far from useless. Indeed, they are quite useful. But the question is how they are useful in mediating our worship to God and faithful discipleship to Jesus. And the deal is, counter to the expectations of the Enlightenment, "reason" is not a direct mediator of motivation or transformation.

But, it can be a very powerful indirect one! This is because the cycle of perception does not run in only one direction. Nor is nearly any part of it "fated" as it were always to generate the same results. Instead, every part of it can influence and even, to a certain degree, reshape the response of every other part, as we have seen in potential for the limbic actually to determine the degree of the sensorial to reach perception.

So, just here, we see indicators of an opening for what is sometimes called "downward" emergence. True, our thinking about decisions comes "after the fact" of our brains actually having made a decision, a process called "upward" emergence, because the thinking about the decision results from processes "below" and prior to the thinking itself. However, that very thinking about decisions also has the capacity to work "downward" to reshape how our limbic systems will make the next decision. In other words, the "upward emergent output" can turn out, thanks to the memory functions of the hippocampus that are critical in informing the limbic system, also to become a "downward" channel for input, if the hippocampus helps to store it and if the stored memory of it is recalled (and we so "re-member" it). This is the same mechanism by which cognitive behavioral therapy is thought to work. CBT teaches people to practice thinking differently both before and in response to a given kind of circumstance, thus through repetition of the practice encoding this different way of thinking in memory. This, in turn, can help people feel differently and then decide and so behave differently.

The process of downward emergence of cognitive processes is greatly aided by association with other processes that are experienced and so encoded in memory more directly. This is why music, rhythm and movement are so prevalent in worship, worldwide, and across nearly all cultures. Music, rhythm and movement all have immediate sensory processing and nearly immediate emotional processing. When joined with cognitive content, the cognitive content (doctrine, theology, argument) more easily becomes part of what is encoded in memory, and so comes to influence both our emotional and our physical response not only to the actions (music, singing, dance, rhythm, or movement) but also to the content itself and so to future cognitive content being evaluated through the limbic system.

This does not mean that music, movement, dance or the like must directly accompany the cognitive content. It can also be proximately connected, within the same or similar kinds of experiences, such as a song before a reading of scripture or the sermon, or singing some elements of the Great Thanksgiving. So not every element in worship must involve singing or dance to allow its cognitive content also to be encoded in ways that move us to open ourselves to God. But the presence of these other elements can certainly help. For more on the role of music, rhythm and movement in memory, see Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia.

And this is also why creating significant changes in the music, flow or practices of worship are likely to generate a nearly immediate and strong emotional response, no matter how good the "reasons" for the changes may be and no matter how well a leader or leaders may have explained it in a newsletter. meeting or sermon.

Putting It All Together
So what may worship planners learn from the cycles of perception and the principle of downward emergence of cognitive processes?

  1. Planning and leading worship is about helping worshipers increase their desire to offer themselves fully to God.
  2. What moves us to offer ourselves more fully to God is rarely an explanation (including this article!), and far more frequently the association of an powerful emotional response with the memory of past such responses and the content associated with it in the past.
  3. The primary role of cognitive input in worship may be to help prepare worshipers for a response in the future, as well as to reinforce responses from the past.
  4. Cognitive content delivered in conjunction with music, singing, movement, or other sensory stimuli that do not compete with the cognitive content may be more likely to be remembered more quickly than such content delivered without accompanying sensory stimuli.
  5. Regardless of the type of the stimuli (sensory, emotional or cognitive), repetition that forms familiar patterns of worship associated with appropriate emotions over time is essential when the aim is motivation or transformation.

What else do you learn from these insights from neuroscience?