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Waite Lecture ties science to faith, love and hope

Rev. Roy Pereira, SJ, PhDModern science met ancient wisdom Nov. 17, when the Rev. Roy Pereira, SJ, PhD, explained in depth how the intricacies of the human body’s three nervous systems affect, and are affected by, the mind.

During his lecture, Fr. Pereira, whose doctoral work explored the interdisciplinary areas of chemistry, neuroscience and philosophy, connected this still-emerging, modern understanding to the ancient wisdom of scripture, which asserts that “faith, hope, love abide.”

A native of Mumbai, India, holder of the Charles and Mary Heider Endowed Jesuit Faculty Chair, and a faculty member in Creighton University School of Medicine’s new Department of Medical Humanities, Fr. Pereira delivered the virtual Fall 2020 Waite Chair Lecture, titled “Mind Your Language: Our Immune System — COVID and Beyond!” – sharing his current research on the effects of emotions on health and healing, particularly in relationship to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Fr. Pereira arrived at Creighton in January 2020 as the Anna and Donald Waite Endowed Chair in Jesuit Education, which sponsors visiting Jesuits who pursue writing, research and teaching from a variety of disciplines. He was named Creighton’s Heider Chair in July. The Waite and Heider endowed chairs are two of three all-University chairs at Creighton. Endowed chairs at the University support excellence in teaching and research, and recognize a lasting legacy of the donor.

The annual Waite Lecture is intended to enhance student experience and education.

“The Waite Lecture is designed to stimulate thought about important, timely and innovative topics,” said Creighton University Provost Mardell Wilson, EdD, RDN. “Fr. Pereira’s account of the emerging science concerning the relationship between mind and body certainly honors that tradition.”

A performance of Fr. Pereira’s 1997 original composition, “Hope, Faith and Love,” made the point that despite life’s many stresses, and the uncertain interactions of neural and cardiovascular reactivities …

Hope, faith and love’s what keeps life moving on.
Hope, faith and love, that's what life's all about.
Hope, faith and love my friend,
Will see us through.

During an entertaining hour, in which the onetime actor, singer and dancer played videos of himself performing the Depression-era classics “When You’re Smiling” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” Fr. Pereira described both accepted science and emerging research demonstrating that positive thinking, constructive meditation and social interaction can improve mental and physical health.

“The mind does affect the body,” he said. “For a long time, we knew that but maybe it was not taken so seriously.”

A key issue in the modern world, Fr. Pereira said, is that people face constant stress, with little opportunity for downtime. This, he said, forces the sympathetic nervous system to remain always on alert, preventing the parasympathetic system from granting rest, balance and homeostasis.

“When our ancestor went out to get food maybe he came across a tiger and faced two options, either to fight the tiger or to run as fast as he could. That was the fight or flight syndrome,” he said.

“That carries on today. After our ancestor went back to his cave, he was allowed some downtime. He didn't have to search for food maybe for another two weeks. That is when the parasympathetic nervous system kicked in.

“But what happens to us today? From the time we get up in the morning, we are commuting either by bus or by train or by car, maybe someone overtakes you or cuts you off, maybe there is a terrible traffic jam, and when you reach the office there's piles of work for you.

“When we come back home, of course, more piles of work await us. The body in the 21st century does not really get time to cool down. Therefore, our sympathetic nervous system is constantly activated. We are always in a state of fight or flight. This leads to a lot of lifestyle diseases and to a compromised immune system.”

This is especially observable, he said, in the gut, also known as the enteric nervous system, where mental stress commonly spurs tightness, or “butterflies.”

“What is going on in the mind is affecting your gut, and if the sense of negativity carries on for a long time it can develop into ulcers or to other lifestyle diseases,” he said.

The brain, with its four distinct lobes, is the other arbiter of health, he said, whose processes are much better understood since the arrival of sophisticated scanning equipment in the 1990s. The development of neuroscience as a specific discipline, he said, has boosted our understanding of how the brain continuously changes in response to bodily stimuli, and of its need for constant stimulation if it is to remain active and healthy.

“It is never too late to learn the piano,” Fr. Pereira said. “If we want to stay active and alive, we must be constantly willing to learn new things no matter how old or how young we are. That keeps the brain active and is a prevention against alzheimer’s and dementia.”

None of this easy, he said. The brain, emerging from eons of human experience during which the fight or flight syndrome was essential to survival, retains its preference for fear and other negative impulses. Training it to think positively is work, he said, and requires constant rejection of negative thoughts.

“The first step is to repeatedly place positive thoughts in your mind,” he said. “That will keep negative thoughts at bay, and if they keep coming then reject them again and again.”

In this matter, Fr. Pereira said, modern science holds hands with ancient wisdom.

“Ignatius had a beautiful insight when he asked a Jesuit that before going to sleep to think what is the grace that he needs from God,” he said. “As soon as you wake up in the morning ask, ‘What is the grace that I need from God?’ Keep in your mind the change you want to bring about in your life.”

Ignatius, Fr. Pereira said, knew this 500 years ago.“And Jesus, who keeps using the word ‘believe,’ knew it 2,000 years ago, for he was the master neuroscientist.”

Fr. Pereira says the video of his presentation will be up shortly on his YouTube channel at “Roy Pereira SJ” Until then he invites viewers to review his other videos concerning COVID-19, dedicated in thanksgiving to all the frontline workers.

And, he says, please subscribe to the channel because subscriptions, which are free, help the algorithm spread the information shared in his videos.


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