So, we have seen that the structure of our brains can be changed by what we focus our attention on, and that this can lead us to “harden our hearts” and be inflexible in our thinking, especially as we grow older.
What can we do to prevent this?
Taking steps to keep our brains fit
The basic component of the brain is the neuron, an electrical on/off switch which works similarly to the miniaturised transistors in computer chips. We have about 100 billion neurons, connected via about 100 trillion synapses. (For more on the brain, see Are our brains like computers?). As we age, millions of the neurons die, but neuronal stem cells also create new neurons.
Neuroscientists have found that we can help our brains can grow new neurons and prolong the life of our existing neurons through a range of activities and attitudes, and can thus apparently lower our risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The following physical and mental activities are all believed to be helpful:
- Cardiovascular exercise, such as walking at a good pace and cycling, stimulates the production and release of a neuronal growth factor and strngthens the blood vessels to the brain;
- having a better education;
- giving attention and focus to activities (a necessary condition for plastic change);
- developing new interests and focusing on them for a time;
- travel and new environments;
- participation in mentally stimulating activities which require concentration and learning new skills – dancing and learning new moves, learning a musical instrument, learning a language, playing board games and reading (activities that tend to repeat, such as playing golf, or doing crosswords, are probably not so useful);
- avoiding stress or learning to cope calmly in stressful situations (stress releases glucocorticoids which can kill brain cells);
- specially designed computer-based mental exercise programs, designed to be used regularly over a period of time.
Improving our brain through religious/spiritual practices
As christians, we believe spiritual practices have benefits in bringing us closer to God and allowing God to act for good in our lives and the lives of those we pray for. In the discussion below, I focus on the mental and physical health benefits that accrue to us naturally.
“Having faith has been shown to be one of the best things you can do for your brain.” (Dr Andrew Newberg). Faith helps people be positive and calm, and have hope, all of which reduce anxiety and stress and improve brain health. Newberg points out that this doesn’t have to be religious faith, but religious faith is a very good form of faith.
Prayer and meditation
We believe prayer connects us with God, but it has also been shown to have good effects on the brain – because it generally focuses on positive emotions like love, gratitude and compassion, it reduces anxiety, stress and depression, and lowers heart rates and blood pressure.
More intensive and focused (mindfulness) meditation takes more commitment, but is very effective in reducing stress, improving memory and slowing neuron loss. Centering prayer and contemplation of God helps us maintain faith, reduces stress and relaxes us.
Anger and forgiveness
Anger is a destructive emotion that increases stress and harms our brain. Centering prayer and active forgiveness are important practices to reduce anger and focus on the positive.
We need to keep stimulating our brain via reading, learning, new experiences and challenging ideas. These also allow us to keep growing as christians.
Reinforcing the positive
Attendance at church, prayer meetings, Bible studies, etc, are all processes that, at their best, reinforce positive thought processes, gratitude, our desire to help others and our commitment to pray and behave in a christian way. Thus they all have benefits, if we engage actively in them.
Understand other people
It can be helpful to practice listening to viewpoints different to our own, and allow them to challenge and stimulate our thinking. Even if we don’t change our minds, the exercise will have been helpful.
God is love
The value of faith and contemplation of God depend on our view of God. If we view God as loving, as is revealed in the New Testament, we are having a positive effect on our brain and our mental health, but studies have shown that belief in a punitive God can make us fearful or angry, emotions that are not helpful. Thus many of the above practices may not be helpful if we have an unloving view of God.
Keeping a balance
Keeping our brain plastic requires us to focus on stimulating activities and ideas. Relaxation may require us to ‘unfocus’ and ‘let go’. These two are to some degree opposites. Thus a healthy person must try to move in and out of each state, to get the benefits of both.
All this allows us to identify some warning signs that our brains/hearts are becoming ‘hard’:
- Talking mostly to like-minded people, and criticising about those who think differently (especially calling them names or repeating negative stories about them), gives us an in-group mentality that may close us off from the mental stimulation of new experiences and ideas, and reinforces our thinking and brain processes in unhelpful ways.
- If we find ourselves often expressing anger, hatred or unforgiveness to others, or getting stressed, we are in a dangerous state of mind.
- Believing God is unloving, vindictive or cannot possibly forgive us will have a negative effect on us, and likely lead to other unhelpful habits.
- Building a closed belief system which doesn’t permit questioning and change may prevent the Holy Spirit from doing is work in us, and will likely make our minds more rigid and less healthy.
- Attendance at boring and repetitive church services and activities where we remain passive and unengaged will likely have unhelpful effects.
Unbelievers and God
Unbelievers are also prone to the same ‘mind-hardening’ effects, and can also benefit from the positive practices.
- Neuroscientist Andy Newberg – website, books, talk, and audio on spiritual practices.
- Psychiatrist Norman Doidge’s book, The brain that changes itself.