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Dr. Warren Throckmorton Christian Blog and Commentary

NARTH authors mislead readers about brain plasticity

  • Dr. Warren Throckmorton
    Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at Grove City College (PA). He co-founded the Golden Rule Pledge which advocates bullying prevention in evangelical churches. His academic articles have been published by journals of the American Psychological Association and he is past president of the American Mental Health Counselors Association. He is the author with fellow Grove City College professor, Michael Coulter, of the book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President. Over 200 newspapers have published his columns. He can be reached at ewthrockmorton@gcc.edu.
  • 2009 Sep 08
  • Comments

This post is a follow up to the one about Neil and Briar Whitehead's article titled, "Brain Plasticity Backs Up Orientation Change" published on the Anglican Mainstream.

In their article, the Whiteheads liken sexual reorientation to learning to play a musical instrument and proclaim that science leads us to this assumption:

Our assumption now should be, change is possible in many behaviors - sexual orientation not excluded - and extraordinary effort will produce extraordinary change.

In their article, the Whiteheads frequently quote and recommend a book by Norman Doidge called "The Brain that Changes Itself." To prove their contention about sexual reorientation, the Whiteheads use quotes from Doidge's book saying:

Doidge's conclusion about sexuality is that "Human libido is not a hardwired invariable biological urge, but can be curiously fickle, easily altered by our psychology and the history of our sexual encounters." and "It's a use-it-or-lose-it brain, even where sexual desire and love are concerned." This would apply both to same-sex attraction and opposite-sex attraction.

These quotes come from a chapter titled "Acquiring tastes and loves" and describe human sexuality as being pretty flexible compared to other species. Doidge says "human libido is not a hardwired invariable biological urge" on page 95 and is plucked from the middle of a sentence. Here is the whole sentence:

The plasticity of this man's sexual tastes exaggerates a general truth: that the human libido is not a hardwired invariable biological urge, but can be curiously fickle, easily altered by our psychology and the history of our sexual encounters.

Who is the man Doidge refers to here? While he is not named, he is described.

One homosexual man had successive relations with men from one race or ethnic group, then with those from another, and in each period he could be attracted only to men from the group that was currently "hot."

Dr. Doidge was talking about a gay man and the variability within his sexual orientation — not about easy movements from one orientation to another. The gay man was not changing his sexual orientation but his attraction preferences. The Whiteheads leave out this aspect of the story.

The Whiteheads say that Doidge is talking about same-sex attraction and opposite-sex attraction. However, in the quote provided, Doidge is talking about a gay man. The Whiteheads further obscure Doidge's views by failing to quote what he does say about sexual reorientation. On page 95 Doidge writes:

Even sexual preference can occasionally change. Though some scientists increasingly emphasize the inborn basis of our sexual preferences, it is also true that some people have heterosexual attractions for part of their lives — with no history of bisexuality — and then "add on" a homosexual attraction and vice versa.

I wonder why the Whiteheads did not quote these two sentences. This is directly on point. Quoting this section and another on page 341 would have presented Doidge's views more clearly. This is clearly not the same perspective as is portrayed by the Whiteheads.

On page 341, Dr. Doidge provides a reference for his view about adding on sexual responsiveness to an existing orientation. He first says, it is well known that straights can engage in homosexual relations when members of the opposite sex are not present and gives prison and the military as examples. However, he then quotes an authority with no research references.

According to Richard C. Friedman, researcher on male homosexuality, when male homosexuals develop a heterosexual attraction, it is almost always an "add on" attraction, not a replacement (personal communication).

Given the title of the Whitehead's article is "Brain Plasticity Backs Up Orientation Change," this quote from Doidge's book is far cry from what the Whiteheads would have us believe about brain plasticity and sexual orientation and even about what Norman Doidge says in his book. They could have quoted what Doidge said but didn't in favor of quotes which misrepresented what the author said. And they really did not need to wonder what Doidge thought since he spelled it out.

NARTH authors have not done so well lately with articles and public statements. They have misled various Christian and religious news sources and websites with inaccurate statements about the work of mainstream researchers and the American Psychological Association. Christian readers should be cautious in evaluating claims from NARTH, check out the original sources and consider alternative sources of information regarding sexual orientation (e.g., the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University).  

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Warren Throckmorton, PhD maintains a personal blog at wthrockmorton.com.