Plastic brains and hard hearts

September 14th, 2013 in Behaviour. Tags: , , , , ,


The Bible occasionally talks of people hardening their hearts, or having hard hearts (e.g. Pharaoh in Exodus chapters 7 to 10). This concept is now common in the English language.

Brain plasticity suggests it may be closer to literally true than we might have imagined.

Unbelievers and hard hearts

Some people hear the good news about Jesus and believe it easily. Others can hear it argued persuasively and not have the slightest interest. Why is it so?

Spiritual and natural explanations

I believe there are often spiritual explanations for things. In the case of unbelief, christians will often give some sort of spiritual explanation – “Satan has hardened their hearts” for example.

But I also believe that for spiritual explanations to be real, they must generally be expressed in a physical way. And brain plasticity illustrates how this might occur.

We get what we focus on?

There are many reasons why we might come to believe christianity is true, or why we would want to believe it is true. But there are also many reasons why we might come to believe christianity is untrue, or why we would want to believe it is untrue.

If we focus on the positive side, we will gradually re-structure our brains and our thinking so that belief becomes the ‘default’ – it is easier and seems more sensible. Christians will believe this will also be the work of the Holy Spirit confirming belief in us.

And it works the other way too. If we focus on the negative side, we will gradually re-structure our brains and our thinking so that disbelief becomes the ‘default’ – it is easier and seems more sensible.

“Youth is made for heroism”

Tony Campolo says that “youth is made for heroism”. The teen years are the most likely time for people to choose to follow Jesus – or to become communists, or environmentalists, or atheists. At that time we tend to be more idealistic, perhaps a little more naive – and our brains are still plastic and ripe for change.

But as we grow older, our neural pathways and maps become reinforced and it becomes harder to change. It may only be at times of crisis or external change – marriage, parenthood, bereavement, unemployment, sickness, etc – that we can be shocked out of our familiar patterns of thought.

A double-edged truth

So we need to be careful. If christianity is true, as I believe it is, then unbelievers should consider – if they are unwilling or unable to see any truth or value in following Jesus, they are making it unlikely they will ever believe. Are their assumptions and focus making it impossible for them to keep an open mind?

Of course the same is true for christians if our faith or understanding are mistaken – we are painting ourselves into a corner we will find it hard to escape from.

Christians and plasticity

It sometimes seems that arguments and divisions among christians are deeper and fiercer than between christians and unbelievers. To our shame, we can argue over minor doctrines and practices – I have heard of christians or churches arguing and splitting over whether to kneel when we pray, whether to use musical instruments in worship, or which version of the Bible to read. You could doubtless add other relatively unimportant matters you have seen christians vehemently argue over.

And often we argue over which of these differences are important and which are not.

In-groups and a sense of security

If we are not careful, churches can become in-groups that give us a sense of security in a troubling world. We each reinforce each other in minor beliefs until we come to believe that we are right and everyone else is wrong – or at least less right.

And then brain plasticity makes the connections and our thinking will find it difficult to escape these pathways. We will stay on the one path even if God’s Spirit is wanting to show us something new.

Keeping flexible

I am now 68 years old. I want to stay capable of learning new things and changing my mind as long as I live. I don’t want to have a ‘hardened heart’. You are probably younger than I am, but I reckon you want the same.

Believer or unbeliever, how are we going to do it? That’s my next post.

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

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