Living the Light: Christian Nonviolence and Neurobiology

Issue XXIII May 2016

This fourth article in the series of Living the Light explores how our brains have developed for empathy and kindness, and how we can nurture these traits throughout childhood.

by Peg Burns

Peg Burns and her husband Greg Kerbawy created Our Golden Thread curriculum. See to explore their work and download free resources.

Peg is a catechist whose work includes promoting a better understanding of Jesus’ Nonviolent Way.

Living the Light: Gospel Nonviolence in Catechesis of the Good Shepherd

Part I: Living the Light: Dr. Montessori, Education to Life as Education to Peace

Part II: Theologians and Scripture Scholars on Gospel Nonviolence

Part III: Catechesis of the Good Shepherd Presentations

Part IV: Gospel Nonviolence and Neurobiology


The world is so filled with violence. Is this because Jesus’ Way goes against the capabilities of our very bodies? Must we resign ourselves to passing moments of living Jesus’ Peace?  Is the violence we see all around us inevitable despite our very best efforts? Is our neurobiology a built-in nemesis? Our final article will address the topic of neurobiology and peace. We think it will serve to increase your wonder at the graciousness of our God who is Love, who gave us the Son, a human being who lived nonviolent love—and who had the same brain we have!

Previous articles in this series touched upon Dr. Montessori’s method as solid human help for nurturing children towards nonviolence. We noted that Montessori herself had a place on the world stage in education as well as on the topic of peace. Over the course of several years she lectured internationally about peace, the cessation of war, and divisions among people. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize several times. We then noted several theologians and scripture scholars whose work clarifies our understanding of Jesus’ complete rejection of violence. We drew from several different disciplines including early church history, and the spirituality of Gospel Nonviolence. Moving from there we discussed presentations of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd which illuminate and thus deepen the child’s awareness and experience of Jesus as the Nonviolent Son of God. These included the Maxims, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, and the Plan of God where we hear that all war and dissension goes against God’s Plan for human beings. We noted the consistency throughout all these presentations. 

Unfortunately, in my conversations with people on Gospel Nonviolence I often hear great dissonance with the catechesis presentations. I hear notions such as violence is part of being human, or war is necessary and inevitable. In light of this kind of comment, I hope a little neurobiology would be beneficial.

How does neurobiology relate to Christ-like love and peace? 

When I was in Level III training, the trainer, an elementary level academic guide said something to the effect of “If Montessori were alive today she’d be all over today’s neuroscience.” I agree with that. Montessori’s own dissertation was in the area of neurosciences! I think that Dr. Montessori, as an educator, a peacemaker, and the originator of the method she referred to as the “nonviolent revolution,” would want catechists to make use of the discipline of neurobiology for the sake of supporting children as they write their “blank pages.” Children are bombarded with violence in their environments. Unfortunately this includes the current highly accepted notion that violence by Christians for the sake of righting a wrong is consistent with Jesus’ teaching. I am convinced that along with scripture scholarship, the essentiality of Catechesis presentations and theology, the person and teaching of Dr. Montessori, neurobiology can help us follow the Truth behind Jesus’ life and teaching, his way of Nonviolent Love. 

The beginnings of this started for me when I was guiding my own children at home using Montessori principles. I remember saying while the child repeatedly wrote a cursive letter, “Make those grooves on your brain.” We happily moved through all the sounds and became quite proficient at reading and writing. Well, it wasn’t really grooves but it was strengthening or increasing the electrical activity in particular synapses, synapses we hoped the child would retain. I knew the value of repetition as I knew that emotional security through mother infant bonding opened amazing possibilities.

Much later I came across John Carmody, a Vietnam veteran and neurobiologist who after leaving the military devoted his life to peace and is now the director of the Center for Christian Nonviolence.  John explained basic brain biology: The spinal cord and brain stem form the lower brain which controls our vital bodily functions. The higher brain areas include cerebellum and basal ganglia which are involved in movement; and the limbic system controls emotion and memory; and finally the cerebral cortex is the seat of all our willed behavior, conscious experience, and rational abilities.

In Human Neuroscience and Peace, John, the interviewee, speaks very briefly using the language “reptilian brain”, or lower brain. This portion of our brain is connected to quick responses, aggression, and survival and of course connects to other areas of the brain. This is important for us as you might imagine. John’s example is when a car on the highway swerves towards you your reptilian brain sets in motion the necessary hormones, neurotransmitters and the behaviors for a quick move out of the way. This portion of our brain is also where the mechanisms of aggression originate. This is understandable evolutionarily. Animals needed the physical dynamics and mechanisms that would ensure survival. 

With the evolution of mammals something new began. In his webinar called We are Built to be Kind, Dacher Keltner shares work done in his Greater Good Science Center. “We showed images of prototypical suffering to our participants. They triggered massively powerful reactions of compassion. And what we found in the brain is that a very old part of the brain called the periaqueductal gray, (which is common to mammals when they take care of offspring), lights up when you feel compassion. So that tells us compassion is really old in the nervous system.”

As the length of vulnerability of offspring increased the need for maternal care increased. This impacted physiological developments. We were shaped for the sake of caring for the carriers of our genes. We are shaped to care about others. Perhaps you have heard of mirror neurons, now becoming common knowledge. When a person feels pain a particular part of that person’s brain lights up. If I see that person experience pain, the same part of my brain lights up. “It’s as if we’re wired to have the same experience of other people. Empathy is this really complicated task. It really engages the frontal lobes, these newer regions of the cortex that are involved in more complex symbolic processes like language and imagining the future, because empathy requires that you think: there’s someone else out there who has feelings and thoughts that are different from mine. That’s a really complicated cognitive achievement” (Keltner, webinar).

Science shows that mothers, looking at pictures of their babies, report feelings of compassionate love and their brains light up in a particular region. Another scientist building on that same idea noticed that it is not just pictures of one’s own baby that fires up the brain but also seeing pictures of another human being in suffering or distress. Keltner writing on this research said: “This consistency strongly suggests that compassion isn’t simply a fickle or irrational emotion, but rather an innate human response embedded into the folds of our brains” (Keltner, edx course).

The hypothalamus, part of the limbic system, “is responsible for converting neural activity into hormonal signals.” Sometimes the signal is physiological, as when a mother nurses her baby stimulating the release of oxytocin, a hormone also referred to as the love hormone or the bonding molecule. “Sometimes, however, the hypothalamus triggers hormonal responses solely on the basis of emotional stimuli . . .” (Eliotp. 81). Science knows that oxytocin lowers stress hormones in our bodies. When we have less stress we are more able to access the content in our prefrontal cortex. Connected to this also is the information relating to pleasure centers in the brain which light up when we do deeds of love. By design we are meant to feel good when we act with love! 

The human infant is born with 100,000 billion neurons (which were multiplying at a rate of 250,000 neurons per minute during the early part of prenatal life). Neurons connected to capacities that are not stimulated are pruned away.  Whatever a child consistently receives from her environment is retained and strengthened. The brain becomes an internal expression of the external environment (Carmody, interview). Actual neural pathways are created and retained, potentially into adulthood. The more pathways strengthened, the more choices the child has to choose from when responding to incoming stimuli. If a child takes in her from environment experiences of Christ-like deeds of love towards herself and others, that child will build her brain with strong capacities to do likewise. Remember the mirror neurons are at work in this as well as oxytocin. If any person acting in an enemy-like fashion (mean, impatient, etc.) receives a deed of love in return everyone benefits. The giver of the Christ-like deed, as well as anyone watching, has a release of oxytocin. 

John Carmody sums up the situation: “The human brain has, as part of its inheritance, an innate capacity for care and compassion. These capacities reside in the most highly developed areas of the brain, and thus can regulate lower brain areas that give rise to violence, fear and aggression” (Carmody, interview). 

Implications for Serving Children in the Atrium

Violence is not inevitable. God did not cruelly give us an impossible task. In our bodies we have the capacity for Christ-like mercy. If we hear from neuroscience that violence is not inevitable (and Dr Douglas P. Fry does the same from an anthropological perspective) we will carry something different into our atria. It may be subtle, but it is important. Perhaps it will be a more direct return to “Who do we follow—Jesus” as I have had to do when children bring into the atria discussion content from other environments. This is not a quick response meant to shut down conversation and thinking through the problem, but to help us avoid proposing secular understandings or contemporary philosophies. In responding with the essential message, “We follow Jesus”  “What would Jesus do?” we fulfill one of the main goals of the catechist. 

We have all been in spaces in which we can tell an artist or a musician lives or works. Perhaps we can prepare our Level II and III environments with sensitivity towards Jesus’ Nonviolent Way. Can our atria be places where the children are artists of profound peace, speakers of the language of mercy in all circumstances, including love of enemy? Something as simple as a picture of the human brain in the Strip of the Gifts materials can nurture this. As adults are sensitized towards the topic of Jesus’ rejection of violence and its consistency with our bodies and the brain we have been given–we are built to be kind, humans have the capacity for compassion–conversations will potentially take on a new flavor. The reality of the truth behind Jesus’ Way, specifically as the way that works for humans, will empower our children. The story of who we are as followers of Jesus will increasingly strengthen the children as they take on the adult search for Truth, meaning, and the conquering of evil.

In the virtues material we can include stories about people who were true to Jesus’ Way of nonviolent love, people who stayed consistent with Jesus’ most difficult of teachings–love of enemy–people who attempted a complete “Yes” to God’s Will as revealed by Jesus in the Gospel. 

When children, especially Level II and III children, bring up the military, serious understanding of neurobiology becomes important. The young person’s brain is not fully developed until after 24 years of age, even as late as 28 years of age. The higher level brain functions of empathy, compassion and reasoning are the last to develop, not fully present in an 18 year old.  Yet young adolescent seeks out adventure and excitement. The military knows this. The military attends conferences on neurobiology! John Carmody, as a neurobiologist who participated in war a knows that training for battle uses the reptilian brain to develop aggression—the exact opposite of the prefrontal cortex that fosters empathy, compassion and creativity. A neighbor told me she toured a military base where fighter jets were housed. She saw the bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. The officer said young people fly these planes. The woman was surprised. The officer responded that no one older, in their right mind, would take on the responsibility of doing such a thing with such a dangerous expensive machine! As catechists we can educate ourselves about the reality that our young adolescents face, those children we have so carefully nurtured in relationship with Jesus.

Parent education is another area helped by neurobiological awareness. This is a very large topic that could include discussion with new or about to be parents on prenatal care, i.e. taking care of the mother during pregnancy so stress hormones are as low as possible. Silvana Montanaro, a psychiatrist from the Rome atria, wanted courses held at parishes for such discussion and education. Toddler atria, Montessori style home environments, and the spirituality of Gospel Nonviolence help the new parent nurture the young child so as to create and increase the capacity within the child of Christ-like loving deeds; like learning a language, the language of love in action, results in the fruit of joy. Our genes determine the basic structure of our neurobiology but nurturing is at least equally significant. Our brains are plastic, always capable of rewiring. “As I think and as I do I am actually changing the structure of the brain at some very serious level” (McCarthy, “The Neuroscience of Peace and Violence”, part 5).

Fr. Emmanuel McCarthy says: “The brain is about 80,000 years old and it has this neocortex which allows us to do the things that humans do, mathematics and language, etc. This human brain is critical to the whole process of being what we are or being what we want to be…because if something is not in the brain, in the mind, it can’t be chosen. It can’t even be thought about. It can’t be worked with creatively. Now for 1700 years, the churches have not been teaching Jesus’ Way of Nonviolent Love of friends and enemies” (McCarthy, “Putting on the Mind of Christ”). Putting on the mind of Christ, building a relationship with the Good Shepherd, the Nonviolent One, necessitates literally building connections in the brain in a particular way. “It has to be nurtured. Civilization does not nurture the mind of Christ. The Christian community is the only place where it can be nurtured” (McCarthy, “Putting on the Mind of Christ”). 


We are wonderfully blessed. God gave our brains the capacity to live the Way Jesus revealed as the way of salvation, the Way which is God-Love. And for catechists of the Good Shepherd, there is so much more. We have Montessori’s guidance through her methodology, Sofia’s wisdom in the Catechesis, we have access to scriptural and theological understandings of the Nonviolent Way.

My hope is that catechists will listen with a new openness; that we position ourselves to hear more powerfully the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us to follow Him, the path He walks, the Way He walks. I am convinced that this listening will influence discussions and help the child see through the false hope of justified violence the world so readily offers.

As Emiliana Simon-Thomas, a scientist of Greater Good Science Center said, “The human has indefatigable capacity for compassion.” Indefatigable capacity for compassion. God gave us in our neurobiology, in our bodies, the capacity to live out that to which Rev. Emmanuel Charles McCarthy refers: “To put on the mind of Christ is indeed to put on a mind that rejects violence and refuses to condone or cultivate the will to kill. But in the first instance the mind of Christ is not a ‘No’ to violence or greed or to anything else. The center, the circumference and everything in between the mind of Christ is a ‘Yes’ to Abba, the true God who is unconditional Love and everlasting Mercy. This, accordingly, is also the Alpha and the Omega of all Christian nonviolence” (McCarthy, personal email to author).


Carmody, John, “Neuroscience of Peace and Violence”, interview, part 1;  but see also parts 2-6. 

Eliot, Lise, Ph.D. What’s Going On In There? (New York: Bantam Books, 1999).

Keltner Dr. Dacher, Ph.D, “We Are Built To Be Kind”, webinar, Greater Good Science Center, UC, Berkeley. Published on Dec. 2, 2014;

Keltner, Dr. Dacher, Ph.D, “The Compassionate Instinct,” Edx course, “The Science of Happiness,” Greater Good Science Center, UC, Berkeley, May, 2016

McCarthy, Rev. Emmanuel Charles, “A Concise 10 Minutes on Putting on the Mind of Christ” /.

Montanarro, Silvana, M.D. Seminar on Preparation for Parenthood, October 15-19, 2008, St. Paul,  MN.

Siegel, Daniel J. MD, and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed. Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive. (New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2003).

Simon-Thomas, Ph.D, Emiliana, Greater Good Science Center, UC Berkeley, CA, (email to author).

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The Foundation of the Human Being

Issue XV Dr. Silvana Montanaro Quattrocchi provides much food for thought about how a child’s first years after birth are so important for the foundation of the human being. Offering five practical