Plastic brains and following Jesus

September 5th, 2013 in Behaviour. Tags: , , , , ,

Human brain

I’ve been reading a couple of books on the human brain recently, and have been especially impressed by new discoveries about ‘neuroplasticity’. I think they help understand some christian practices I learnt many years ago.


As we learn and grow in the early stages of life, our brains are very ‘plastic’ – they are constantly setting up new pathways and connections to best respond to the inputs they are receiving. But even as adults and into old age, our brains remains plastic (to a degree) – new neurons and new connections can be created.

If part of our brain is damaged, another part can often take up the load. If a part of our body is damaged and the part of the brain that controls it is no longer needed, it can be redirected to other tasks. If we start to learn new skills or focus on some aspect of life or knowledge, our brain can adjust, forming new linkages, pathways and maps to improve our abilities or recover lost abilities.

We can change our brain structure

This is occurring all the time, for good or ill, depending on what we give our attention to, but we can assist the process. We can improve our abilities, brain functioning, memory and even intelligence. We can recover lost abilities, slow the onset of aging, repair damaged areas, recover from strokes, and reduce the effects of depression or cerebral palsy. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson:

You can sculpt your brain just as you’d sculpt your muscles if you went to the gym. Our brains are continuously being sculpted, whether you like it or not, wittingly or unwittingly.”

Living as a christian

Years ago I remember learning two practices which helped me become a better christian.

Know where thoughts lead

Sometimes we succumb to patterns of thinking that are not helpful. Perhaps we allow negative thoughts or comments made about us to take away our peace. If we dwell on them, we can spiral down into a very negative state of mind.

But a wise old pastor, teaching on Romans 12:1-2 about the renewing of the mind, said we needed to recognise early on where such thoughts were leading, and break the cycle before it becomes too difficult. I never forgot it, I found it very helpful, and I rarely fell into such spirals again.

Build the formwork

Sometimes we know what we ought to do, but we don’t have the state of mind that motivates the action. For example, someone may have wronged us, but we lack any sense of forgiveness, and so continue to harbour a grudge (which never does anyone any good).

Larry Christenson suggested the image of preparing formwork for the pouring of concrete. If we are willing to do the hard work of doing a loving and forgiving action even when we don’t feel loving (building the formwork), God will use that obedience to start to grow the right attitude in us (pouring the concrete). In the end, the formwork of disciplined behaviour can be removed, revealing the freshly poured concrete of a loving attitude. I found it works.

What’s this got to do with neuroplasticity?

Because our brains are plastic, we easily develop habits and habitual responses. If we continue in these, the brain ‘hardens’, and they are difficult to change. But if we consciously work at making a change, we will be ‘sculpting’ our brains and creating new connections and brain maps that correspond to new responses. These two spiritual practices work that way, it seems to me.

I think it is exciting that God has made our brains this way. And there is much more we christians (and everyone for that matter) can learn from neuroplasticity.

Photo Credit: Mikey G Ottawa via Compfight cc

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  1. If you have not read it, I’d really suggest looking at “The Believing Brain” by Michael Shermer. Very interesting read, wide ranging, discussing belief of all kinds (political, pseudo-scientific, religious, etc.)

  2. Hi Brisancian,
    Thanks for your suggestion I have heard of Shermer but knew little about him until I checked him and this book out. It certainly seems to cover interesting matters, but I have a few concerns about it that I’d be interested to discuss with you.
    Neuroscience can tell us things about ourselves, and so some of its findings are contentious, and we need to be sure of our guide. The authors I have been reading seem to be open-minded and neutral about God, morality and self, and so I can trust them. But Shermer comes from a position as an atheist and strong sceptic, and so I wonder. Then I find on his website the following: “how and why humans put their faith in a higher power, even in the face of scientific skepticism”.
    What are we to make of this? Has he done a properly designed experiment to test the hypothesis “No God exists”, with full statistical design, and written up in a peer reviewed journal? Obviously he has not. So if he quite properly insists on a proper scientific study before he will accept (say) Intelligent Design as a part of Evolution, surely he should apply the same rigour to claims that scientific scepticism has some bearing on whether God exists?
    Then I look the book up on Amazon, where it is always useful to read the extreme reviews, both positive and negative. And among the negative I find the same criticisms, even from fellow atheists, including this one:
    “I’m a high school psychology teacher, so I’m always looking for books that will expand my knowledge base …. This book was really disappointing in almost every respect. …. In fact, the neuroscience covered in this book is covered in the survey text used in my high school class. Very simplistic, not very original science. The rest of the book is more information about the author’s personal beliefs, pet peeves, etc. Interestingly, when discussing theories he is critical of, the author holds studies to a very high standard, but when discussing his own theory, he references studies and concepts that often do not reach the same level of rigor. …. I actually agree with the author’s general premise about beliefs. I am equally skeptical of the existence of god”
    So before I read, I’m wondering what you would say about all that. Thanks.

  3. Hey Unkle,
    Shermer is pretty well known, founder of The Skeptics Society, a very unapologetic atheist. If that’s not your cup of tea, then perhaps you wouldn’t enjoy.
    I can offer only two data points, though neither extends beyond my initial description that its an “interesting read”. Not sure why that reviewer was down on it, but I can more or less say that the reading level is (at least in the middle) a bit above nominal high school level.
    First, I have a notable background in cult involvement. By (1) upbringing and (2) as a young adult, I was involved in *two* such movements, both of which I eventually escaped through some very rigorous interrogation of the claims being made. Along the way, I developed my own working theory of how and why such groups form among very intelligent people for very odd reasons. Shermer outlines a framework that proves both compatible with my own observations and filled in missing gaps of information that I had (as a non-neuroscientist). In that way, I found it useful, resonating, and interesting.
    Second, I can post the table of contents so you get a better scope of the book. I like how far ranging the scope is, as it deals not simply with religion, but with UFOs, political conspiracies, etc. My background provides an experience base with people of such types of delusion, and I find no essential fault in his presented explanations. The outline:
    Prologue: I Want to Believe
    Part I: Journeys of Belief    
    1. Mr. D’Arpino’s Dilemma    
    2. Dr. Collins’s Conversion    
    3. A Skeptic’s Journey
    Part II: The Biology of Belief    
    4. Patternicity    
    5. Agenticity    
    6. The Believing Neuron
    Part III: Belief in Things Unseen    
    7. Belief in the Afterlife    
    8. Belief in God    
    9. Belief in Aliens
    10. Belief in Conspiracies
    Part IV: Belief in Things Seen
    11. Politics of Belief
    12. Confirmations of Belief
    13. Geographies of Belief
    14. Cosmologies of Belief Epilogue: The Truth Is Out There
    So, there ye be. To read or not to read, up to you. Lotta books out there. Cheers…

  4. I think Shermer is also a New Atheist, but he is one of the most fair-minded of them as in that he’s the least likely to to tar all believers with a broad brush.

  5. Thanks Brisancian, I can see that it covers very interesting territory, my problems are whether it is fair – for example the misuse of science that I referred to before. I can appreciate where your background, as you have described it, would give you an interest in his views on cults and weird ideas, but it doesn’t give me much confidence when you show me that he seems to bracket these with normal christian belief. I think scientists like David Sloan Wilson and the guys reporting on the ‘Science on Religion’ blog have shown that is a spurious connection, for in some respects at least, believers have been shown to have better mental health than average.
    I will take an interest in the book, but I fear for the worst. Thanks.

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