Essays, Featured, Practice

Where Do Theology and Cognitive Psychology Intersect?

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInEmail this to someonePrint this page

Both college educators and students are rushing to connect psychological, educational, and neuroscientific findings to learning outcomes. Students study psychological research such as C. Dweck’s academic growth mindset in order to develop their learning trajectories. Professors are immersed in a burgeoning market of academic pedagogy models that stress retention of information in addition to conventional assessment. Three influential examples include: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, What the Best College Teachers Do, and Small Teaching.[1] These are indeed exciting developments. On the one hand, institutions of higher learning are challenging students as learners to cultivate integrative and appropriative methods for their own academic development and retention. On the other hand, faculty are ever lauded not only for the precise presentation of content, but also for fostering the critical and integrative skills that bridge collegiate learning into life and work. Concerning both, however, as any faculty or student will admit, these goals are much harder to actualize than to theorize.

As researchers in the psychology and theology of memory, we wish to suggest how another element in this discussion might provide a helpful mooring for the above efforts. In short, what if religion were neither extrinsic to the above efforts, nor an additive? What if theology, or more precisely, faith seeking understanding, coupled with psychology to provide an exciting integrative frontier?[2] We wish to note two trends which run counter to one another: first, as aforementioned, learners are now more than ever exposed to and invested in cognitive learning sciences. Second, there is a marked decline in the sacramental practice of Catholic students during college or university—regardless of type of institution.[3] These two realities, which may not in themselves be related, unfortunately eliminate perhaps a most potent arena for this cognitive development.

As faculty at Catholic universities, we limit our argument to Catholic Mass—there are many devotional and prayer practices through which this thesis could be expanded. In that way, it is important to say what we are not doing. We are not using cognitive psychology to explain away religious experience. Neither are we suggesting that religious experience diminishes the need for rigorous cognitive psychology. The modern history of our disciplines, psychology and theology, is marked by distrust from overreaches in both regards. Rather, our investigation brackets these disciplinary distrusts in order to examine a locus in which we might cooperate. The aspirations of educators and learners in general might be met and even augmented by regular sacramental and ritual practice. Is this simply an argument to get undergraduates and faculty to Masses? Yes, but for two unconventional reasons. First, the Mass—viewed from the psychological strategies for effective learning[4]—functions like something of a gymnasium or workout routine for the whole of the human mind. Thus, the particular practice of routine Catholicism becomes a regular and efficient practice for increased cognitive acuity. Indeed, the Mass becomes a place of the mind and the memory as much as it might be of the heart and the soul.  Second, this approach to the Mass projects back a theological meaning onto other non-theological academic exercises. The theological disposition of seeking understanding empowers learning—and the cycles of frustration and failure which characterize the journey of both students and faculty—to explore outcomes beyond retention.

Our argument will take into account both of these reasons. First, we will treat six prominent learning strategies in terms of the Mass. These will be presented both in terms of psychology and theology. These six strategies will culminate in a description of both the memory and the Mass in terms of a garden to be cultivated rather than a museum to be curated—drawing on an insight of Pope St. John XXIII. Second, we will investigate the manner in which the mutual enrichment of psychological research and faith’s seeking within the exercise of the Mass helps reframe theology’s relation to learning beyond religious exercise itself.

Mind and Mass: The Eucharist also as Cognitive Exercise

Before beginning, we need to repeat a disclaimer. Our goal in this text is to suggest ways to improve simultaneously one’s mental acuity through the theological seeking of understanding, not to use psychology to explain why some people would identify having a stronger faith than others. Our approach begins from the assumption that God would by nature have empowered cognitive structures in order to enhance faith’s understanding, and as such, faith would never be static but rather seeking or moving. Further, the cognitive perspective presented here is only a portion of the greater picture of one’s spiritual life. However, the increasing amount of literature on the role of memory in the area of imagination suggests that a strong memory will be beneficial in enhancing faith seeking understanding.[5] That is, in order to imagine and live into a dynamic relationship with God, one needs to have a strong set of memories on which to draw. The goal of the techniques we describe below is to strengthen the psychological structures which allow for faith to better seek understanding.

Technique 1: Elaboration

Elaboration refers to taking in information and then expanding upon it in some way. For example, one might compare and contrast two parables or relate a psalm to one’s own experience. The idea here is that information should not be taken at face value but rather related and enhanced. This is built into prayer practices of various types by imagination.[6] By not just listening to or reading about the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38) but rather picturing the scene and comparing it to the announcement of the birth of John (Lk 1:5-25), a richer memory will be formed. Elaboration also takes advantage of memory’s preference for self-referential material.[7]

Within a Mass, not only is scripture proclaimed, it broken open in the form of a homily. The relative strengths of the preacher notwithstanding, the purpose within the Mass of the homily is “an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture . . . and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.”[8] That Catholicism mandates a homily be a part of the prayer on Sunday and on particular holy days is itself the opening of elaboration as a necessary space.[9] Continuing with the example of the Annunciation, one can see in a contemporary sermon of Pope Francis, this same sort of questioning of the present based on the reading itself:

Today is the celebration of ‘yes’ . . . Indeed, “in Mary’s ‘yes’ there is the ‘yes’ of all of salvation history and there begins the ultimate ‘yes’ of man and of God: there God re-creates, as at the beginning with a ‘yes’ He made the earth and man, that beautiful creation: with this ‘yes’ I come to do your will and more wonderfully he re-creates the world, he re-creates us all”. It is “God’s ‘yes’ that sanctifies us, that lets us go forth in Jesus Christ.” This is why today is the right day “to thank the Lord and to ask ourselves: am I a man or woman of ‘yes’ or a man or woman of ‘no’? Or am I a man or woman who looks away, so as not to respond?[10]

The homiletic move that the Pope makes is to move the question of the feast—and indeed the Christian life—into the mind of the hearer of his sermon.

Technique 2: Dual Coding

Dual coding occurs when information is learned in multiple formats. The Mass provides excellent example of this when considering the Eucharistic portion of the liturgy. The Eucharistic prayers create an environment of vocal exchange, universal and singular expression within the same prayer. The actions are visual; elements are elevated and gestures are performative such that the injunction to “lift up your hearts” is not only corroborated by the verbal response of the assembly “we lift them up to the Lord,” but the presider lifts his hands in hope. The assembly responds not only orally to the presider—while simultaneously re-inscribing this as a lifting up to God—but also takes up an internal action. No one’s heart shifts physically. That gesture is meant to be spiritual. Kisses or embraces of peace are exchanged in human touch. The reception of the sacrament is an experience of taste—the material elements of bread and wine being the substantial presence of the body and blood of Christ in Catholic theology.

This Eucharistic example is but one of the ways in which exercises of dual coding are part of Catholic liturgy. Other ways include the manner in which the songs and prayers reflect the scriptures of the day. Or, the color of the vestments or the decorations in the church might underscore the root emotion (expectation, penitence, resurrected joy) of a particular time or season. Certainly the practice of weekly attendance at Sunday Mass and frequent reception of communion is for far more than the mere cognitive benefit of exercise in dual (or multiple) coding. Yet, one cannot help but point out many layers of coded experience folded into a mere hour of one’s Sunday.

Technique 3: Spaced Practice

Engagement in spaced practice occurs in contrast to massed practice in which repetitions occur one right after the other. Or, in the terminology of exam preparation, “cramming.” Memory and learning are much better when items have time in between presentations. If one seeks a rich spiritual life, the tip to pray a bit every day is a good one. This would then be a natural occurrence of spaced practice. Further, if one is using less effective learning strategies such as reading, it is still better to repeat these over time than to do so in a massed fashion. Again, the prescription of weekly Mass takes this into account. One’s memory would benefit more from attending Mass every Sunday for a month than by making up for missing several weeks by going to the 7:30, 9, and 11:30 Masses in one day. Spaced practice is also often combined with the other techniques such as dual coding. When one hears text during the first reading and then it is referenced again by the prayer after communion, and the closing song, the idea has been repeated with space in between. If it also came up during the homily, then elaboration has been added to spacing.

Technique 4: Retrieval Practice

Testing oneself on material is an excellent way to improve learning over simply repeating information by re-reading or re-listening. While we are not advocating quizzes after the scripture readings, testing oneself provides a chance to evaluate what is and is not known. It requires more cognitive effort than simply rehearsing or representing information.

Retrieval practices also make relevant ways in which people prepare for Mass and make relevant the missioning aspect of the Mass for the rest of their week. It is common for Massgoers to have some modern form of a missal—whether readings on their phone or one of the many forms of disposable monthly booklets—in order to prepare for Sunday liturgy. If one considers those texts either alone, or with others, in the course of the week leading up to or following the Mass itself, these congregants will have been practicing retrieval. Further, as college students go to dinner or back to their dorms after university liturgies, a brief discussion of the gospel reading after the liturgy serves the same function.

Technique 5: Interleaving

Interleaving is the intentional switching of the topics of information encountered during a study period. Again, the Mass is an excellent example of this by giving three readings from different parts of the Bible rather than only an extended reading of one. This promotes making connections across topics, which in turn assists with later retrieval of the information. This interleaving happens in such a way that the prayers of the Mass, the readings, the hymns, intercessions, and even the sermon treat different topics all woven together.

Technique 6: Concrete Examples

Finally, taking abstract information and creating specific and relevant examples improves memory. This technique is so firmly evidenced in the Catholic faith that it is hard to decide on which examples to use. Various postures during liturgy signify changes in spiritual disposition meant to embed ideas through bodily movement. Sacred art and stained glass provide means of capturing biblical scenes; reception of the Eucharist is a tangible example of God’s presence in personal relation; the spoken words of penance and absolution in the penitential rite make the abstract idea of God’s mercy concrete; and, the use of symbolic colors and hymnody attuned to occasion provide visual and aural markers within which a celebration of Christ unfolds.

Provisional Conclusions: Garden or Museum?

Up to this point, we have discussed six strategies for learning effectiveness and tried to show that they can all be practiced within the experience of Catholic Mass. Yet, for this to make much sense, one must understand that the Mass is not a museum in which one is observing old relics of a bygone age, but rather a garden. On this count, St. John XXIII remarked of the faith in general, “We are not on earth as museum keepers but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life and to prepare a glorious future.”[11] The analogy of cultivating a garden is apt for these tools because like a garden, these require consistent work on the part of the learner. A successful garden requires many activities like watering, weeding, pruning, and regular attention. By contrast, in a well-secured museum an accurately labeled object put in the right glass box could be dusted every few months and remain unchanged. Whereas a garden shifts with the seasons, a museum entry is stable unless disturbed. Similarly, one’s faith life if treated like a garden should be expected to sometimes flourish and sometimes fade but with the knowledge that in time flourishing will return.

In sum, the Catholic faith already provides opportunities to learn in a way that memory research has determined as most effective.[12] One should prioritize faith with regular and varied practices of seeking understanding and let such seeking open oneself to reframing and describing one’s own experiences. This is far more dynamic an exercise than half-hearted recitation or flat readings. By regularly watering the seeds the tradition has provided, a flourishing garden of faith is likely to grow into a dynamic place of seeking and finding.

From the Mass to Non-Theological Learning: Theology’s Contribution to Learning

In the previous section we discussed how it is that learning effectiveness strategies might on the one hand enhance the experience of faith seeking understanding for attendees of Catholic Mass. On the other hand, we have also noted how the Mass represents a single exercise in which all of these six techniques can be found and practiced. Here we now shift to a theological question, of whether, or not, there is a theological way in which practices found in the Mass might be useful to other non-theological learning?

One of the most helpful figures in this respect is Basil Moreau. A French priest and educator, he came of age with the hope of renewing relationships between theology and scientific disciplines. For perhaps the first time in France, he required seminarians to study physics. Further, he wrote that “We will accept the discoveries of science without prejudice, and in a manner adapted to the needs of our times . . . We will always place education side by side with instruction; the mind will not be cultivated at the expense of the heart. While we prepare useful citizens for society, we shall likewise do our utmost to prepare citizens for eternal life.”[13] At the same time, he saw a way in which theology might be of use to the rest of learning.

Moreau described education as “a work of the resurrection.”[14] This comes out of a fundamental commitment that the process of learning is correlated to the paschal mystery of Jesus Christ. Just as resurrection did not come without the cross, so, too, does true learning often require a great deal of work, even failure—at times the figurative, frustrated death of one’s own ideas and preconceptions. True learning, then, rises up in the learner like a small experience of the resurrection. Thus, in Moreau’s theological system, anyone who participates in exercises of learning—from physics to psychology and the arts—is experiencing (and even perhaps preparing themselves to appreciate) the paschal mystery of life emerging from death itself.

Moreau—whose ideas are still incarnate in Catholic higher education—gives a hopeful paradigm for how a theological concept, that one participates in resurrection emerging from death, might be of inspiration and use to those who are studying non-theological sciences. As the Mass is the weekly locus of Catholics practicing the Paschal Mystery, it becomes theologically the inspiration for how and why one might put more effort into all academic work in the next week.


We began this article by noting two trends, one of increase and one of decrease. The increasing trend noted the proliferation of literature and effort in order to enhance learning outcomes of undergraduate students. The second is declining numbers of religious practitioners among college-age, student populations. In this conclusion we point out that one of the unforeseen consequences of these two trends is that religious practices, in this paper the case study of the Catholic Mass, are themselves a place where learning and memory techniques are densely and regularly practiced. In not attending Masses—for any number of reasons—students are not engaging in the multi-faceted levels of psychological memory formation present in that ritual exercise. Second, awareness of these techniques may well help Catholic practitioners to develop faith specifically as seeking understanding. Finally we suggested that from the theological aspect, learning itself has a Paschal structure, allowing both successes and failures to be correlated to growth and life.

It is our hope that these small and preliminary steps might give way to future studies between our disciplines—rooted in the prayer practices which prove rich source material for psychology and theology alike.

Editorial Note: This paper is a revised version of “A Preliminary Investigation into the Psychology and Theology of Memory through the Specific Test Case of the Catholic Mass.”

Throughout the month of November, Church Life Journal will explore the Catholic imagination as an imagination of sanctification. By sanctified imagination, we mean the imagination which highlights the core narrative of the Paschal mystery, as radiantly incarnate in the saints. We seek to reflect on the manifold ways Christ becomes all-in-all through the men and women of his mystical body, the Church. As our authors explore the various dimensions of the sanctified imagination (please click the link for a list of the posts), we invite you to think along with us.

You will also want to explore the following post by Timothy P. O’Malley on the liturgy as a culture of formation:

Whose Liturgy? What Sacrifice?

[1] P. Brown, H. Roediger, and M. McDaniel, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014); K. Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); J. Lang, Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning (San Francisco: Wiley, 2016).

[2] Theology defines itself in this manner, adopting this particular phrasing from Anselm of Canterbury who, following Augustine of Hippo, described theology as fides quaerens intellectum, or faith seeking understanding, in his Proslogion.

[3] This data—including not only Mass attendance, but other factors of Catholic identity and belief—was produced by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).  See, in particular, Table 5.  Mark Gray and Melissa Cidade, “Catholicism on Campus: Stability and change in Catholic student faith by college type.” (Accessed Online: Nov. 17, 2017).

[4] K. Morehead, M.G. Rhodes, and S. DeLozier, “Instructor and student knowledge of study strategies,” Memory 24:2 (2016), 257-271. See: M. Sumeracki, Y. Weinstein, C. Nebel, and C. Kuepper-Tetzel. “Six Strategies for Effective Learning.”  Accessed Nov. 17. 2017.

[5] This is true not only in psychology (J. Carter, R. Kugelmann, M. Lloyd, R. Roberts, B. Narramore, D. Schacter, et al.) but also theology (e.g: K. Grove, J.B. Metz, B. Morrill, P. Ricoeur, M. Volf, et al.).

[6] While we are concerned here with the Mass, other immediately relevant prayer forms in this regard are lectio divina and Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises.

[7] C.S. Symons and B.T. Johnson. “The Self-Reference Effect in Memory: A Meta-Analysis. Psychological Bulletin 121:3 (1997), 371-394.

[8] General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2003), 65.

[9] Canon Law requires this practice throughout the Church worldwide. See: Code of Canon Law 767§2.

[10] Pope Francis, Annunciation Homily. April, 4 2016. (Accessed Online: Nov. 17, 2017).

[11] John XXIII, Lettere p. 481; qtd. in Peter Hebblethwaite, Pope of the Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2005), 131.

[12] A further psychological and spiritual challenge exists: if individuals recognize the benefit of Mass, how does one keep that in mind when tempted to sleep in, attend a sports match instead, etc.? One technique for moving from intention to action can be found in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which focuses on shifting ones thoughts and behaviors. For example, it would be beneficial to write a list of reasons one wants to attend weekly Mass and then read it daily in preparation to respond to the voice suggesting that it is okay to miss just this week and sneak in a different prayer later. CBT is beyond the scope of this study, but we highlight here its relevance.

[13] “Circular Letter, 34” qtd. in Basil Moreau: Essential Writings, eds. K. Grove and A. Gawrych (Notre Dame: Ave Maria, 20014), 417.

[14]Christian Education,” qtd. in Basil Moreau: Essential Writings, eds. K. Grove and A. Gawrych (Notre Dame: Ave Maria, 20014), 376.

This piece was co-authored by Marianne E. Lloyd, Associate Professor of Psychology Seton Hall University.