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Soul and Body in the Quest for Human Flourishing

A visit with Brick Johnstone, Professor, Health Psychology

By Darcy Holtgrave
Published: - Topics: Center on Religion and the Professions Center of Theological Inquiry spirituality empathy forgiveness

The correlation between spirituality and health has long been recognized by many major religions, but proving that relationship is relatively new ground for scientific research. Exploring this ground is the calling of Dr. Brick Johnstone, professor and practicing neuropsychologist at MU’s Health Psychology department. From his clinical work at the Rusk Rehabilitation Center to his recent fellowship at Princeton’s Center for Theological Inquiry, Johnstone reaches across disciplines to expand our understanding of health and well-being, and he comes at it from a surprising direction: “The sciences absolutely have to be guided by the humanities,” he declares. “The humanities are much better at identifying the deep meanings and help get at the basis of human experience.”

At MU, Johnstone’s early projects in spirituality and health came with the foundation of the MU Center on Religion and the Professions. Established in 2003 with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Center “works to improve religious literacy among professionals to help them serve a diverse public,” according to their website. Johnstone relates the story of one of the Center’s first projects: “We followed people with a whole lot of different conditions — cancer, spinal cord injury, brain injury, stroke — and we wanted to find out what it is specifically about religion that makes people healthier or less healthy.” Prayer, they discovered, did not necessarily correlate with desirable health outcomes, but positive beliefs and the support that can come from a faith community did.

The right parietal lobe of the human brainAs a neuropsychologist, Johnstone is interested in how brain functions relate to aspects of spirituality and morality, topics traditionally in the purview of the humanities. Our right parietal lobe, the portion of the brain that helps us navigate through space and perceive distance, also plays a crucial part in our perception of self—which, in turn, is a key component in our relationships to things outside the self, including other people and even higher powers.

Related studies through the years have teased out different aspects of those relationships. Injuries to the right parietal lobe can affect people’s ability to care for themselves and recognize their own weaknesses. Johnstone and his colleagues also discovered that decreased functioning of this lobe related to an increased sense of spirituality. “And that made sense — the less you focus on the self, the more you can connect with things beyond the self,” he tells us. (More detail about Johnstone’s work in selflessness is available in this article.) Following up on this lead, he and his colleagues discovered corroboration of this connection between selflessness and spirituality in many different faith traditions.

Decreased focus on the self also affects a person’s ability to forgive. In a study published in 2014, Johnstone and his colleagues describe a group of 23 people with seizure disorders whom they examined using a combination of neuropsychological tests and questionnaires. Their findings suggest that the less “I-oriented” a person is, the greater his or her capacity for forgiveness, “which is experienced as a decreased focus on the perceived wrong to the self.” (More detail on this work in forgiveness is available in this article.)

These findings might seem to suggest that empathy, too, is related to a greater sense of selflessness, but Johnstone and his colleagues were surprised to discover the opposite: empathy is related to a greater sense of self. “In order to be empathetic, you have to both take another’s perspective, feel what they’re feeling, and in order to feel what they’re feeling, you have to incorporate it as if you are experiencing it. So you have to have a strong sense of the self in order to incorporate another person’s sense of the self,” he explains. (More information on this work in empathy is available in this article.)

Johnstone admits the difficulties inherent in bridging these areas of inquiry: “Science is usually very objective, and rigid, and exact, and the humanities are expansive and theoretical, and so they really come at things from many different perspectives … Scientific people will say, ‘You can’t study something as difficult to describe as spirituality. You just can’t do it.’ Individuals from the humanities say, ‘You can’t objectify belief.’ But I would say over the last decade people are really a lot more open to consider the scientific study of these very difficult-to-define concepts.”

In interdisciplinary study of any sort, definitions are problematic. In SyndicateMizzou’s interview with biophysicist Gavin King, we learned how a word as simple as “vector” means “an organism that transmits a disease” in biology but refers to “a quantity with magnitude and direction” in physics. For Johnstone, one problem is the definition of “transcendence.” His working definition is a compromise between those who advocate specific meaning and those who prefer to stay very general: “Transcendence is an emotional connection with a higher power.”

Another problem is measurement. How, for example, can a researcher measure the transcendence of an individual’s experience? Johnstone mentions the Likert scale, a common tool used in questionnaires. A person selects responses on a spectrum from, for example, “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.” A Likert scale might offer the opportunity for someone to rate the intensity of a spiritual experience, but it does not describe the qualitative nature of the experience.

An example of a Likert scale

In September 2013, Dr. Johnstone brought these questions and perspectives to Princeton for a 9-month fellowship at the Center of Theological Inquiry, where he worked with a group of international and interdisciplinary scholars on the project Inquiry on Religious Experience and Moral Identity. A group of theologians, philosophers, and scientists gathered in what Johnstone enthusiastically calls an “intellectual free-for-all.” He presented his own scholarship, heard and critiqued that of his peers, gathered to hear speakers from around the world, and “spent a lot of time thinking and writing. It was heaven,” he tells us.

The influx of new perspectives and constant flow of ideas were profoundly influential on Johnstone; it planted the seeds for new collaborative scholarship and even affected his day-to-day thinking at the neuropsychology clinic. “A term that I learned this past year that’s used in the humanities is ‘human flourishing.’ In health care we often talk about well-being, but for most people it’s more than that,” Johnstone explains. The concept of human flourishing dates back to Aristotle and is used today in the sense of being in an optimal state, not just living disease-free, but holistically thriving in mind, body, and spirit.

Cues from the humanities have taken Johnstone in other directions, too. His undergraduate interest in art history (which was his major, along with psychology) persists. He showed us a presentation that he has recently developed with MU graduate Gretchen Henderson, PhD in creative writing, on images of disability and illness in fine art and popular culture throughout history. He says, “Society is getting better at including people with disabilities, and I think art, literature, they’re probably the best way to do it.”

What’s more, his enthusiasm for the humanities’ guidance on scientific research and the difficult questions of health and spirituality remains undamped by criticism. “I and my colleagues have been challenged by everybody—which is appropriate,” Johnstone emphasizes. His openness to influences from the arts and humanities creates boundary-breaking, relevant scholarship. It takes us from the labs and offices where we work to where we live our day-to-day lives—and, perhaps, flourish.