Thanks to my generous in-laws, I get the Discipleship Journal magazine every other month or so. This was plastered on the front cover (making it very obvious in the sea of President Obama photos):
Neuroscience and the Renewed Mind
When you have a mind like mine, renewed sounds good, ya know? Sane even better. I read through this great article, subtitled “Wired for Change”.
The author explains,
“Understanding how brain changes happen can encourage us that transformation is always possible.”
You know how there are people who are the “glass half empty” kind? And some are more of a “glass half full” sort. What if, through repeated thinking, we develop a sort of well worn path between neurons? And what if our neurons impulses, sort of like water, seek the path of least resistance? Well, then you’d have a habit that is pretty ingrained. Now, I’m not talking about psychosis or the “broken mind” here. There IS such a thing, and that requires more help than just attempting to forge new brain paths… Bur what of some of us who simply have some bad habits? In particular, I’m thinking of the food thing. What food thing, you ask? Ah. That would be my love affair with anything that fits into my mouth. When stressed, what path is most worn in my brain? Self-soothing through eating. It kind of explains some stuff, no?
Well, according to the authors, Laura Barwegen and Dan Hami,
“Researchers have discovered over the past few decades that the physical function of our brains affects our attitudes, actions, and emotions. What’s more, a growing body of evidence indicates that physical changes in our brains are possible.”
Thus the popularity of cognitive behavioral therapy - which is just our medical term for transforming our minds. And then if we choose to transform our minds to Christ-likeness, we are rewarded with more positive experiences, peace that is so great most cannot put it to words, and a serenity that encompasses even the most tragic of circumstances. Who wouldn’t want THAT?
And how to change our brains? We all know how. It isn’t rocket science, and its been around for centuries. We need to forge new, more Christ-like, or if you will, more positive neural pathways (aka habits and thought patterns). The more we practice these habits, the more smooth the connectivity in our brains becomes, the easier that habit or thought pattern becomes. And before long we have a new way of looking at something. Notice that the something isn’t the thing that changes, it is us! Doesn’t that empower you to change your attitude? You are not a victim of your love life or parents, or tragedy. You can be the glass half full kind of person too. It just may take some work for those of us in the half-empty category to make this transition.
Back to the food for a moment. If I want that easy neuropathway to go away so I don’t automatically turn to food, then I have to abstain from that habit or thought pattern. So when stress comes along, I need to put the effort into journaling or calling a friend, instead of stuffing my mouth. The more that I ignore the stress-to-mouth response, the easier it will become. Am I the only one who has heard this over and over again in regards to dieting? Every single diet says to be conscious when you are eating, to stop snacking at night, never to watch tv and eat at the same time. And the commands of Christ - those things are holy - think on these things. How much easier life would be if I hadn’t let go of my attitude and practice of faith in my late 20’s. Perhaps that is wrong. Life may not be easier, but at least it wouldn’t be so hard to try and react to life with faith! Faith that I haven’t been actively practicing on a daily basis for years! Anyhow, it is what it is, right?
Another point on changing our neural pathways: Beware of associations, and reward success. We’ve all heard that experiement with the dogs and bells right? Ring the bell, the dog salivates. Because every time that dog ate, a bell rang. Many times over this was ingrained. And now when a bell rings, the dog salivates. Eventually I’m sure this would die down if it wasn’t constantly reinforced. In other words, if food stopped coming at the sound of a bell, the dog would eventually leave this association, right? I know that I associate evening with eating. When the kids are in bed - it’s snack time! Could I go a whole evening and NOT snack? What a bizarre concept! lol But wouldn’t it be neat if I abstained from this for a long time, and all the sudden didn’t WANT to eat automatically in the evening? Sounds like a plan to me!
And you know, how we are always told in our self help books to reward the small successes. Well, there is brain chemistry to back this old saying. (or new saying, whichever.)
“Celebrating provides another opportunity for us to strengthen desirable neural networks. When we are rewarded, our brains release dopamin, which gives us afeeling of thrill orenjoyment. Our brains want to remember the behavior or thought that caused that pleasurable sensation…stronger connections are made with th enetworks that led to the dopamine surge. (This also explains why it’s often particularly difficult to eradicate habits associated with a release of dopamine.)
I found this really encouraging. It is helping me stay hopeful that I can change these bad habits! It is possible to have the mind of Christ. Even for me!
I’m off to find a halo graphic to attach to my signatures…