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.