This blog from May 8, 2017, is a popular one plus it is one I have sent to people I am counseling again and again and again. To me it is foundational to help people make a change of direction in their lives. And it’s full of truth! Such as you area not what your brain regurgitates!
For the New Year I received this email from an email subscription to Science in Congregations, associated with Fuller Theological Seminary. As a pastor, I am actively trying to bridge all of the new science discoveries to the Bible and to our lives. It is simply fascinating even as I find so much of it over my head. Science and math are definite weaknesses of mine. I received this email December 27, 2018, and promptly sent it to my two sons who are in prison. The reason why is obvious.
Rewire Your Brain in 2019
We’re all smitten with self-improvement, particularly as we head into a new year. As we wrap up the holiday season, many of us are contemplating not just how to drop those few extra pounds we gained, but perhaps make even more substantial changes.
And that goes for churches too, though we use quite different language—words like sanctification, holiness, discipleship, and the imitation of Christ. Our hope for such changes comes through the babe we just celebrated—and what He did for us on the cross and through the empty tomb.
What we often overlook is how that same Christ, while knitting us in our mothers’ wombs, literally wired us for change.
Wired for Change
Our faith can give us the power for change, but so does our God-given neurobiology. Scientists call it neuroplasticity. Our brains are malleable, and as our neurons and synapses rewire, we change. New neurons can even form. This happens throughout our lives, though at a slower rate as adults. Any repeated brain activity rewires us, and once rewired, our mental and physical experience of the world can be transformed.
This transformation can be for good or for ill. It can lead to addiction . . . or recovery. It can make us quick to anger . . . or spill over with gratitude. We can become more empathetic . . . or more susceptible to temptation. The changes can make us more—or less—like Christ.
What activity can rewire us? Pretty much anything, as long as it is repeated over time: regular exercise or inactivity, disciplines like prayer, meditation, or gratitude journaling. We can also rewire badly—through bursts of anger, fits of frustration, or holding grudges. Even our patterns of thought and belief impact specific pathways of our neurons. Yes, beliefs can change our biology.
Neuroplasticity is not the only force at work in our brains. Genetic traits or deeply rooted experiences can make change hard. Psychiatric conditions and neurochemical imbalances can fight against our most earnest efforts. And certain pathways—like those tied to addiction—can seem impossible to overcome.
Still, neuroplasticity gives us biological hope that change is possible. It’s no guarantee we will keep all our resolutions. But in Christ and through neuroplasticity, we have reason to hope.
Ponder this thought a while: What we often overlook is how that same Christ, while knitting us in our mothers’ wombs, literally wired us for change. What?!!!!!! This is Psalm 139 where he created us wonderfully complex complete with a way to literally change our brains. Here is some hope for you. Not blind hope but that Plan B hope where we continue to make a Plan B because we believe we are worthy enough and tenacious enough for that good thing to happen.
You are more than what your brain believes. You are a soul designed by God. Part of that design is the neuroplasticity of your brain which can change your habits and how you think.
Sounds great, you say. Sounds hopeful. But you also realize there is a big industry of self-help books to teach our brains about self-control and powering through to change but the reality is not much has changed out there—or for you. Think of that large self-help industry out there with their mottos and chants and all those books to buy—and so many are still a mess. If using willpower to keep yourself on the desired path feels like a struggle, that’s because it is. Your mind is fighting against itself because it is looking for that immediate pleasure, specifically that neuropathway that has already been created.
Is this how you are approaching your New Year’s resolutions? With such self-flagellating terms as I will do better, I will muscle through, I will wake up earlier. But it doesn’t need to be that way, and it shouldn’t. Self-control isn’t about feeling miserable.
Other research on self-control shows that willpower, for all its benefits, wanes over time. As we try to make ourselves study, work, exercise or save money, the mental effort to keep focused and motivated increases until it seems too difficult to bear. We just can’t power through. We need to change our neuropathways. And our brains are plastic enough to do this!
We have these good emotions—specifically pride (not hubris), compassion and gratitude—that can help lead our brains. When you are experiencing these emotions, self-control is less of a battle for these emotions work not by squashing our desires for pleasure in the moment but by increasing how much we value the future. There is lots of scientific research to back this up, decades of it. Think about it. When you are feeling pride for something you have accomplished, for example, you put the immediate gratification off because you value the future gain. That feels good. The brain is registering how that feels good and over time that immediate gratification pull wanes.
From varied research, feeling pride or compassion has been shown to increase perseverance on difficult tasks by over 30 percent. And gratitude and compassion have been tied to better academic performance, a greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity and tobacco and alcohol use. If using willpower causes stress, using these emotions actually heals: They slow heart rate, lower blood pressure and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. And create new neuropathways in your brain.
(Image cropped from Altamira Recovery, great infographic for more information.)
Once again, God has created us and wired us to actually walk this broken road of faith. To change the street we are walking down to find that new street. And the pathway to lead our brain are moral traits such as pride in ourselves, compassion and gratitude. The very things that make the world a better place.
Yet another thing that helps is relationships with friends who encourage you and support you. Friends who will tell you that your sacrifices now, putting off that immediate gratification, will have greater value with the future outcome. We need those honest and faithful rah-rah people in our lives. We need these people who are also making brave decision to brave decision to brave decision.
To have these sorts of people in your life you will need to show love, compassion and gratitude. What underlies these moral traits is the ability to put something else ahead of your own immediate desires and interests. We have chosen self-control to bless the other. We’ve come full circle, haven’t we?
In closing (this is a long one and full of sciency stuff, are you still with me?) let me add a piece of Scripture to match this science.
No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things. If you disagree on some point, I believe God will make it plain to you. But we must hold on to the progress we have already made. Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. Philippians 3:13-17.
I see the ability to lead our brains in there, I see the desire to overcome the instant gratification for the long-term goals in there, and I see our need to be with other brave people as we lead our brains.
Be brave. Your friends need you.