Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Three Degrees of Motivation?

Most children who grow up in the church are probably four years old or so the first time someone teaches them about the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial degrees of glory. Those are awfully big words for a four-year-old, but we teach them anyway because they're an important part of our core story about what life is about. It's not just about getting things wrong or right, we're saying. Life is about choosing the kind of being you want to be and then letting God shape you into it.

A four-year-old will not, of course, understand much of this. But we plant the story early, so they can process it as they grow.

It's been a long time since some wise woman drew circles on a chalkboard and told me about eternity. It's been a long time since I was taught that decency isn't the same as valiance and that Christ can heal us from our sins, but can't force us to change the fundamental carelessness that causes most of them. I've known about the three degrees of glory for a long time, but I'm still trying to process what this story of three means.

Three degrees of glory, we say. Like there's a light in you and you're choosing how much to let through. (And how much of the consequences of your actions are you really willing to see?)

Three kingdoms of glory, we say other times. Like there are three visions for how people can live together. (And which are you willing to step up and help build?)

And then sometimes we drop the glory and just call them laws. Telestial law, terrestrial law, celestial law. Like they are ways of being inscribed into the universe like grooves and you are still vacillating above, choosing one to settle into.

I've been wondering lately if it also makes sense to talk about telestial, terrestrial, and celestial parts of the human brain.

A deep part of your brain, after all, is genuinely focused on seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Which seem to be the dominant characteristics of telestial motivation. Another part seems to be concerned with group belonging and basic relational dynamics. Which seems to be central to terrestrial motivations. And as I understand it, only the most recent, outermost layers of the brain enable us to think ahead, to keep promises even when there are social costs, and so on. Are those parts of our brain necessary for celestial motivation?

According to my brief internet research, a "triune brain" model entered neuroscience in the 1960s and had become quite popular among laypeople for its simplicity, especially if you talk about the three layers as reptilian, mammalian, and human. That oversimplified version understates the complexity of many reptiles, exaggerates the uniqueness of humans, and fails to account for the complex interactions between layers, but still seems to articulate the important truth that different layers of motivation compete within us.

What do you think? Is it helpful to think of three degrees of motivation competing in our brains?


  1. There is a misconception in the church that confuses being "high strung" with being valient. That misconception usually ignores the very important idea of balance. When you refer to the three VERY basic concepts of brain function, it seems like we have to choose which one of the three we're using right now. Instead of having the goal of ONLY using the "human" brain all the time, as a "high strung" person might do, we need to realize that we need to use ALL of those levels to nourish our souls correctly and to be ready to nourish others correctly. And service is the ultimate goal of any resident of the Celestial Kingdom.

    1. This is a good qualifying point.

      Avoiding pain and seeking pleasure aren't necessarily bad. In fact, avoiding pain is usually the best course. And seeking pleasure is healthy as long as you keep that moderation and don't let pleasure-seeking lead to addiction or harm of others.

      The emotional social mammal part of us is mostly positive, too. It's good to want to be close to others--so long as that desire doesn't lead us to desperate Michael Scott style behaviors.

      I guess the usefulness I still see in a model like this is that sometimes, your legitimate interests are at odds. Sometimes we have to accept pain and break from group norms in order to do something good. It's in moments like that when it might be helpful to think of different levels of the brain.

  2. Actually, this reminds me of Kohlberg's 6 Stages of Moral Development. But they're all paired up, so there are effectively three levels. The first level is basic: avoiding things that cause pain and engaging in things that bring a reward. The second level is more social: wanting to be socially liked, understanding if you want other people to follow laws, you have to be willing to follow them, too. And in the last level, you start to understand the reasoning behind the laws, can judge what is just or unjust, and you do morally right things for the morally right reasons. Check it out! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Kohlberg%27s_stages_of_moral_development

    1. Kohlberg's stages are pretty cool.

      I think we sort of teach people this way in the church. We work hard to reward young children with attention at they learn what's right. From baptism through youth programs, we tend to focus on belonging and following positive norms. And the Temple invites you both to make promises and to think for yourself about what they mean.

      I'm not saying it's a perfect fit with Kohlberg, just that both his theories and our pattern of ordinances may be getting at a similar underlying thing.

  3. Fascinating theory. Recently I asked myself why it is that there are three fixed degrees of glory instead of any other number, like seven or forty-two. Why two specific partitions? Maybe there are really only two questions left to our souls now:

    1. Are we willing to put others' needs before our own?

    If yes move up from default telestial status to the terrestrial choice:

    2. Are you willing to put God's will before yourself and others?

    If yes move up to celestial status.

  4. I've also heard the three degrees of glory compared to these three motivations: 1) punishment/reward, 2) duty/honor, 3) love.

    I think these overlap well with the brain sections you describe and probably Kohlberg, too.

  5. One of the things I love most about the gospel is that eternal laws operate throughout our existence and can be seen, if not fully and completely understood, in many areas of the our understanding (including philosophy and sciences). It seems that this pattern is one that is seen in many different areas of understanding leading me to believe that we can apply it to many areas of our personal life.

    I also like Alana's point about operating in all three levels of motivation with the third or highest tempering the lower two. I think that could relate to the way that those who reside in celestial glory can visit and work in the other two degrees and are not bound to just the celestial. They are stepping stones, and having stepped through the other two, we can understand and help lead others from one to the next.



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