Neuroscience is in its infancy. The complexities of the brain are vast. However, certain generalities can be seen. Our brains change and they continue to change and adjust throughout our life. This change is referred to as “neuroplasticity,” which is:
The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.1
Thus, our attitudes, thoughts, words and actions can form neuro-pathways. Once we have learned a way to do something and repeat it over time, habits are formed, and these habits are formed in the brain and nervous system. Handwriting is an example of how the brain becomes programmed, so to speak. The letters were not easy to form at first and much time was spent on developing our handwriting. And now we write without having to think much about forming each letter. The same thing happens when a person learns to play the piano, the fingers know where to go in relation to the musical score.
The latest tidbits of neuroscience news tantalize psychotherapists who are looking for ways to help their clients, and news stories tend to promise more than is currently available. In fact, back in 1992, a newspaper article spoke of scientists photographing and imaging in detail the structure, metabolism, and electrical activity of the brain and reported that researchers using neuroimaging techniques at UCLA found that “behavior modification therapy produces metabolic functional changes in the brain like that of drug therapy.” Fortunately the article was titled “Behavior therapy may help alter some disorders in brain” (bold added). 2 In other words, one study may suggest something that yet has to be tested again and again to be proven accurate.
Before we get too excited about neuroscience giving specific information connecting behavior and the brain, we need to remember again that the brain is complex and neuroscience is still in its infancy. In fact, a recent article in Scientific American begins with the words: “Despite a century of sustained research, brain scientists remain ignorant of the workings of the three-pound organ that is the seat of all conscious human activity.” The author speaks of the difficulty in trying to connect what’s happening in the brain to actual behavior, even of roundworms, and says:
The difficulty in establishing a link between biology and behavior in humans is still more acute. The media routinely report on scans showing that specific brain locations light up when we feel rejected or speak a foreign language. These news stories may give the impression that current technology provides fundamental insights into how the brain works, but that impression is deceiving.3
Various psychotherapists do try to integrate bits of information from neuroscience and apply that idea in their practice, but we must remember that the brain can change for better or worse. That is one more reason to seek the Lord and His Word when it comes to living the Christian life.
Since God designed and created the brain, which is the organ of the mind, He knows every detail and how every synapse works. Moreover, while scientists are trying to find ways to change the brain, God has already given us a manual for life that includes much information about how we can change our brain through what we think, say, and do.
Consider Romans 12:1-2, which states that believers are transformed (changed) by renewing their minds (changing their thinking) so that they will be able to show forth that “good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Romans 12:1-2).
Notice, however, the condition for such transformation. To prove or show forth “that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God,” a believer, by God’s merciful enabling, presents his/her body as “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God.” In other words one is giving oneself over to the service of God instead of self. Such a mindset, putting God’s will before his own and consistently seeking to follow Jesus will bring the kind of brain change that is pleasing to God.
In contrast, people can use ideas for changing the brain to enforce self-will. Our brains may be altered somewhat by every decision we make, every thought we have, and everything we do. But there must be constant renewal from self seeking to God pleasing. Another verse that emphasizes the renewing of the mind from the old self-seeking ways to the new life in Christ is Ephesians 4:22-24, which tells us to “put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and be renewed in the spirit of your mind; and that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.”
Numerous passages in Scripture instruct believers how to think and act (i.e., change the brain), such as Philippians 4:6-8.
Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
When problems, challenges and trials come along, the flesh drives us to fret and worry. Problems captivate the mind and even in prayer the mind returns to the problem. How might focusing on problems change the brain? In contrast,, when the believer continues to turn back to God in “prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” he is training his brain to form spiritual pathways according to the new life given by Christ.
While neuroscience may promise much to the world regarding the brain, we must remember that the brain is part of our physical body, in which sin resides and which, unless the Lord returns before we die, will be “sown in corruption”:
It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42-44).
Believers have a greater goal than simply changing their brain. They have been born again with the very life of Christ in them. They have the calling and the opportunity to reflect Christ in all they think, say, and do. While they may consider the good brain-change results of right thinking, acting, and doing, they have a higher goal: to reflect Christ now and then later in the future to see him face to face. So rather than consciously trying to change our brains, let’s behold Christ, to be changed into His image (2 Cor. 3:18) and eagerly look forward to that day when we will see Him as He is:
Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not. Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3).
Whether or not our thoughts, words, and actions repeated over time do change our brains according to the mechanism of neuroplasticity and whether or not we can make it happen, we can nevertheless be confident in the Word of God regarding spiritual growth. As we daily, moment by moment, love God and others and trust and obey His Word in our thoughts, words, and actions, we will continue to be changed into His likeness in the very essence of who we are in Christ.
2 “Behavior therapy may help alter some disorders in brain,” Santa Barbara News-Press, September 16, 1992, p. A-3.
3 Rafael Yuste and George M. Church, “The New Century of the Brain, Scientific American, Vol. 310, No. 3, March 2014, p. 40.
(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, May-June 2015, Vol. 23, No. 3)