A Feature Review of
The Soul of Desire: Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community
Reviewed by Jacob Reynold Jones
Do Our Desires Matter?
Desire is often relegated to lists of moral vices or taboos, taking residence alongside concepts like envy or greed. Because the human life beats steadily to rhythms of need and fulfillment— food, breath, sexual tension and fulcrums of relational change—life regularly begs a series of questions: Am I supposed to want things? Am I supposed to have things? Our desires and the seeming intentions of the universe do sometimes seem to align fairly capriciously, after all. Past traumas outside our control, or even our own regrets, can trigger a domino-like cascade of internal obstacles to the things we want most: deeper relationships, a healthier view of ourselves, and ultimately, a fulfilling life.
Psychiatrist Curt Thompson, MD, joins a growing community of Christian thinkers in modeling a better line of questioning: What do I want? And why? By taking us on a personal, judgment-free deep dive through our longings, he leads us to see that many of our desires find their root in a single source: a need to be known.
The Soul of Desire is predominantly a psychology book about how healthy, vulnerable relationships are physiologically necessary for our brains to process trauma, heal from our pasts, and work toward the lives we want for ourselves. Thompson’s writing paints an articulate picture of why our need for relationships is biologically grounded, and why creativity is a linchpin ingredient in the recipe for creating fulfillment in every area of our lives.
Creating Beauty Out of the Broken
The effects of interpersonal relationships as psychological soul food are well documented. Feeling connected raises our tolerance for negative emotions. Being part of an accepting community allows us to accept our own wounds and integrate them into a more balanced, cohesive version of ourselves.
Perhaps most importantly for Thompson, relationships can stoke our imaginations in viewing our trauma. After all, the process of reframing a broken relationship or understanding how parental neglect fits into our present relationships is inherently creative. Having an active imagination helps us create new beauty and meaning out of past hardships, and nothing enhances creativity like collaboration.
Deliberate pursuit of beauty is the crux of how we experience healing. Rather than suffocate desire with our piety, it is shame that we must overcome: shame poured into us by our churches and communities. Shame born of our perceived failure to meet the standards we set for ourselves. Instead of burying our desires or the shame we experience when those desires are thwarted, we’re called to press in, to uncover what we truly want, and to know ourselves more fully. By doing so, we can begin to imagine how our lives have been building blocks leading to the creative fulfillment of our desires—a fulfillment of our own making.
This brings to mind epistemologist Michael Polanyi’s subsidiary-focal integration model for learning. This model, which has become popular with theologians focusing on liturgy and sacrament, suggests that knowledge is constructed when we focus our attention on processes like playing a piano or finding a new way to look at past trauma. Then, these focal points become subsidiary building blocks for new focal objectives. We learn to play scales and chords first; then, our knowledge of basic harmonies having become a subsidiary function of our creativity, we learn to compose.
I can also learn to gaze upon what my heart truly wants, to look my hurt and shame squarely in the eye. Then I can learn to create, within myself, ways of attaining my desires.In this way, we become truth rather than acquire it. This is a distinctly sacramental way of thinking. Our bodies are shaped by what we do, and our mental lives are shaped by that physical transformation.
Honoring our desire to be known, loved, and connected to others helps to shape us toward the truth we are becoming. For Thompson, the liturgical system that refines our creative solutions to achieving these desires is something he terms “confessional community.”
Confessional Community: How the Brain Uses Relationships to Heal
Essentially a form of group therapy, Thompson’s approach cites Stephen Porges’s description of polyvagal theory, which explains how our relationships to others help our nervous systems regulate our emotions. Our brains contain networks of cells, called mirror neurons, that fire both when we experience emotions and when we observe them. This allows our brains to create a template for what other people are thinking and feeling, based on their facial expressions, body language, and other things we can see them do. This template is continually refined as we spend time getting to know people.
Importantly, this system regularly communicates with those involved in balancing our emotions. As our brains begin to model a more complex range of emotional experiences via the people around us, we have more tools at our disposal for navigating our own emotional range. Developing connections to people outside of us is critical for developing a fulfilling internal state.
Neuroscience Is A Lot Like Art
One of Thompson’s most powerful metaphors for this process compares creating beauty out of trauma to Makoto Fujimura’s nihonga paintings. Fujimura’s style involves painting with ingredients such as crushed gold or gemstones. It is the pulverization of beautiful things that allows the artist to create new kinds of beautiful expressions—ones that reflect light back to the viewer in multifaceted ways.
Among the best attributes of Thompson’s confessional community groups is that they allow community members to see each other in various states of deconstruction and reconstruction, including places where shame might have the strongest foothold. Thompson’s insistence that sexuality be acknowledged and discussed openly as mixed-gender members develop comfort with each other is welcome in a religious culture where community groups are often gender-segregated.
In one anecdote, with Thompson’s guidance, a man shares his attraction to another member of the group. Both of them are married. This allows both group members to think about their connection and what it accomplishes for them—what they want and why they want it—and how their underlying desires to be seen and understood can be fulfilled in healthy ways.
Some may find this idea scandalous and revolutionary. I believe it represents a return to a faith that is more grounded, incarnational, and human. Suppressing our desires causes creativity to wane, and we become less able to find new, appropriate ways of experiencing the feelings we want. Digging into our desires in a safe, secure community helps us distill and clarify them.
Rather than viewing social boundaries as static walls or binary doorways, Thompson likens them to a cell’s semipermeable membrane, or the diffuse, amorphous spaces found in nature—the ocean and the land; the waters above and the waters below.
With #MeToo and the seemingly endless revelations regarding abuses of power both in and outside of the Church, conversations about mental health boundaries have become a regular part of our vocabulary. Although this is not a new conversation to psychology, this book is particularly helpful for navigating boundaries within unhealthy work environments, dysfunctional churches, and relationships that seem to take more than they give.
A Highly Recommended Read
Thompson makes a strong case for biological science and cognitive psychology as essential lenses for spiritual growth and discipleship, graciously building bridges from grounded, biblical theology to its outworking in the physical body and in our social spheres. His writing balances clarity for the average reader with an obviously rich—if understated—awareness of research literature.
The emphasis on physicality is also a refreshing, welcome critique of evangelical dualism. Healing from trauma and relational disconnection is not just about finding the right attitude or mindset. We incarnate truth within ourselves: the truth that the universe is a precious, collaborative gift into which we are invited to create. This truth can anchor our view of pain in an orientation that leads to hope.
Ultimately, I highly recommend this book for anyone searching out relational boundaries, finding healing from religious or personal trauma, and seeking a better way to think about community. Thompson calls us to ask whether we are clutching for beauty and goodness anywhere we can find it, or if we’re trusting that it can be created—because true beauty has to be made.
Jacob Reynold Jones
Jacob Reynold Jones is a writer and editor who connects stories to people who will love them. A former science teacher, Jacob’s education in psychology, neuroscience, and language has given him clear analytical insight into the borders of the physical and cerebral. Having graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary with master’s degrees in media arts and theological studies, he also thinks often on how narrative shapes the soul of culture. He currently lives in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, where he supports publishers with editorial and marketing needs, while also writing on popular culture.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
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