Neuroplasticity and Spiritual Growth: Weaving Circuits of Faith

Jun 13th, 2012 | Category: Featured, Research in Education
By Sudi Kate Gliebe

Abstract

This article will explore the following triad, recent findings in neuroplasticity (the ability the brain has to rewire itself) (Siegel, 2010), the role of habits as explained by psychologist William James (1842-1910) and spiritual growth. The article also includes an illustration of how the triad relates to anger and concludes with implications for Christian teachers.

Keywords: brain, neuroplasticity, habits, spiritual growth, anger, teaching

A Basic Explanation of Neuroplasticity

It was once believed that the brain became fixed after childhood, however neuroscientific research confirms that the brain is not hardwired (Brown, 2008). With the help of technology neuroscientists are finding that the brain is changeable and plastic. It is “soft-wired by experience” (Arden, 2010). Regardless of age, the brain is capable of changing in function and structure (Brown, 2008). This means that throughout the lifespan the brain has the capacity for creating new connections and neurons “in response to experience” (Siegel, 2010, p.5). This quality of the brain is known as neuroplasticity (Siegel, 2010).

The human brain weighs about three pounds; it contains more than one hundred billion nerve cells called neurons (Siegel, 2010). Each of these neurons has an average of ten thousand connections, called synapses, creating trillions of connections between neurons (Siegel, 2010). Neural firing can be explained like this: When a neuron – known as the pre-synaptic neuron -becomes activated, the long slender projection of the neuron called the axon propels an in-and-out flow of ions (similar to an electrical current). At the far end of the axon, the in-and-out flow releases chemical neurotransmitters into a small synaptic space (gap) that joins the firing (pre-synaptic) neuron to the post synaptic neuron (Siegel, 2010, Brown, 2008). If the post-synaptic neuron has enough neurotransmitters then it fires again (Brown, 2008). Synaptic connections are strengthened by experience, repetition, emotional arousal and focused attention (Siegel, 2010).

Psychologist Donald Hebb discovered that when neurons fire together, they wire together (The Hebb Rule) (Brown, 2008). An example would be the experience of looking at a bird (visual synapse) while at the same time hearing it chirp (auditory synapse) (Brown, 2008). Since the visual and auditory experiences fire neurons simultaneously, those synapses wire together, creating an even stronger experience and therefore synapse (Brown, 2008). This firing and wiring process is the key to learning and neuroplasticity (Brown, 2008). When neurons fire together often they also begin to fire at a quicker rate (Arden, 2010).

The Triad: Neuroplasticity, Habits and Spiritual Growth

This section addresses the relationship between neuroplasticity, habits and spiritual growth (triad). To create the most cohesive understanding for the reader two assumptions must be clarified. First, God is the initiator and the enabler of spiritual growth (Heb. 12:2). Having said that, the process of becoming like Christ requires that believers discipline themselves toward righteousness (1 Tim. 4:8). It is this aspect of becoming Christ-like that this article will discuss. Second, the word habit will be used often, primarily because that is the vocabulary used by psychologist William James. However, the habits that will be discussed can be more accurately considered spiritual disciplines. These terms will be used interchangeably.

Psychologist William James was one of the most influential psychologists in the 19th century. He made considerable contributions to the field of educational psychology. One of the topics he wrote about extensively was the importance of habits. James (1920) declares: “[People] talk of the smoking-habit and the swearing-habit… but not the abstention-habit or the moderation-habit… But the fact is that our virtues are habits as much as our vices. Our lives are but a mass of habits” (p. 64). More than a hundred years later psychiatrist Norman Doidge has found that neuroplasticity is a two-way street (Brown, 2008). He believes that a malleable brain is also a vulnerable brain. Scientists are finding how easy it is for the environment to alter the brain; in fact bad habits reside in the brain’s ability to adopt a harmful behavior and become very good at it (Brown, 2008).

Ahead of his time, James believed that “the plasticity of the living nervous system is the reason why we do a thing with difficulty the first time, but soon do it more and more easily” (James, 1920, p. 65). He emphasized that “a tendency to act only becomes engrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain grows to their use” (James, 1920, p. 70). Philosopher Dallas Willard (2002) asserts that spiritual transformation “is achieved by the ministry of the Spirit in the midst of necessary and well-directed efforts” (p. 109).

Believers can choose to fix their thoughts on God’s truth. As these thinking patterns become habitual, they will transform the brain (James, 1920). The synapses created by focused attention recruit a large number of neurons so that when the mind focuses repeatedly on the Scripture through reading, prayer and meditation, synapses are strengthened making these habits famous in the brain (put on the spotlight) (Brown, 2008 & Arden, 2010). “But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night” (Ps. 1:2). To meditate (hagah) means to muse, contemplate, consider or ponder (Blue Letter Bible, 2010). The Psalmist declares “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). Here the word hide (tsaphan) means to treasure or to store up (Blue Letter Bible, 2010).

The brain can be rewired through deliberate training. James (1920) asserts that the goal of education “is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. We must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible” (p. 66, 68) The Mental Toughness Program which Navy SEAL instructors use to transform the brain of recruits is a good example of brain re-wiring (Vagg, 2008). The instructor’s goal is to improve the passing rate of aspiring trainees on one of the many difficult tests Navy SEAL must pass to reach the next level of training. The test shows recruiters how capable candidates are at handling fearful and/or anxious situations. It consists of placing trainees under water for twenty minutes (with a breathing tank) while their trainers perform a series of attacks on their air supply during which trainees are expected to stay calm, untangle obstacles which prevent their breathing and regain composure.

To achieve this feat they are taught how the brain works. The amygdala is the part of the brain “especially important to the fear response” (Siegel, 2010, p. 18). It is located in the limbic area of the brain where emotions are processed (Siegel, 2010). To control the amygdala’s panic response, another area of the brain must be recruited, the cortex (frontal lobes) (Vagg, 2008). The frontal lobes are the brain’s supervisor, where planning and reasoning takes place (Vagg, 2008). To strengthen the frontal lobes’ capacity to control the amygdala, recruits are taught four competencies: goal setting, visualization, positive self-talk and arousal control (Vagg, 2008). By teaching recruits these habits (disciplines), they are then better able to focus their minds, transform their brains and improve their passing rate from one fourth to one third (Vagg, 2008).

Christians would be wise to look at two of these competencies in more depth. The first competency is visualization or having a vision of what a Christian should look like (2 Cor. 5:17). “If a strong and compelling vision of myself as one who is simply free from intense vanity can possess me, then I am in a position to desire to not have the desires I now have” (Willard, 2002, p. 119). Willard (2002) declares that the problem is that “most people cannot envision who they would be without the fears, angers, lusts, power ploys and woundedness with which they have lived so long. They identify with their habit-worn feelings” (p. 120). Just like Navy SEAL trainees must envision themselves passing difficult tests to graduate, so Christians must have a clear vision of who they are as victorious apprentices of Christ (Willard, 2002).

The second competency is positive self-talk. The mind focuses on an average of 300 to 1000 words per minute (Vagg, 2008). This might explain why the Bible gives the thought life supreme importance. Psalm 19:14 declares “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” The heart in this context is the seat of appetites and emotions (Blue Letter Bible, 2010). The Psalmist conveys a desire for his will, mind and emotions to be pleasing to his Redeemer. He understands that the meditations (self-talk) of his mind reflect his heart and will eventually influence behavior. Just like Navy recruits must focus on positive thoughts to achieve their goal, so Christians must meditate on biblical truths. When truth-filled concepts become “permanent fixtures” in the mind, Christians walk in newness of heart (Willard, 2002, p. 113).

Human character remains unaffected for the better unless people take advantage of every concrete opportunity to act (Willard, 2002). James (1920) declares: “Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make” (p. 69). Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor (2006) was at the height of her career as a brain researcher at Harvard when at the age of 37 she suffered a stroke. The function of her left hemisphere was severely impaired. Taylor had to re-learn how to walk, talk, write, and recall important aspects of her life; a recovery process that took her eight years. In her memoir she explains how easy it was for her to bask in the blissful state she found herself right after the stroke. However she also realized that if she was going to reclaim her life as an independent and productive adult she would have to force herself to put forth a herculean effort. Her commitment to “take advantage of every concrete opportunity to act” led to her recovery, enabling her to re-learn everything from how to use a spoon to how to teach brain anatomy (James, 1920, p. 70). The healing of her brain is a testament to the plasticity of the brain and the importance of conscious effort (discipline).

Discipline is an essential ingredient to spiritual maturity. Jesus declares: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Mt. 26:41). Willard (2002) explains this by saying there is a “rigorous consistency in the human self and its actions” (p. 39). Internal transformation will result in Christ-like behavior. “Do not merely listen to the word as so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (Jas. 1:22). King Josiah exemplifies this passage. Upon reading the word of God he tore his robes (1 Kings 21:11) and he sought the Lord’s guidance (1 Kings 21:13). He read the Scriptures to his people, (1 Kings 22:2), got rid of pagan priests and destroyed all pagan temples (1 Kings 22:5-7). Finally he ordered that the Passover be celebrated which had not been observed since the days of the judges (1 Kings 23:21-22). Josiah did not merely listen to the word, he obeyed it. The result was a fashioned character that led to righteous action (James, 1920). He acquired God-fearing tendencies to act in decisive ways during a dark period in the history of God’s people.

James (1920) encourages his readers with these words: “Put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way, make arrangements incompatible with the old” (p. 68). He relays a story about a gentleman who pledged never to drink again and promised a reward of 50 gulden to anyone who found him at the pub (James, 1920). This man wisely created a condition that encouraged abstinence. For the Christian, spiritual disciplines invite the Holy Spirit to transform thoughts, feelings and behavior (Willard, 2002). They are the conditions through which Christian character and Christ-like behavior flourish.

Through spiritual habits deliberately pursued, the layers of self-deception are peeled away (Willard, 2002). The Apostle Paul illustrates this in 1 Timothy 4:8 “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” The Message paraphrase words it like this, “Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever. You can count on this!”

The Triad and Anger

This section focuses on the application of the triad (neuroplasticity, habits and spiritual growth) on anger. Spiritual maturity and emotional wholeness are closely interwoven. Feelings that must dominate the transformed life are love, joy and peace which are not only feelings, but choices and conditions of the heart (Willard, 2002). Ephesians 4:26 declares “In your anger do not sin” and the following verse warns: “. . . and do not give the devil a foothold.” Although a struggle with anger might conjure up images of people needing to enroll in anger management programs, the fact is that anger is a common experience to all. Every human being experiences anger. While anger can be expressed in volatile ways like murder or violent acts, anger can also be shown in cooler ways like grumbling, complaining, bickering, holding a grudge or judging others harshly (Powlison, 1995). Powlison asserts that “every aspect of the fruit of the Sprit is the explicit opposite of sinful anger” (Powlison, 1995, p. 43).

He believes that one important characteristic of anger is that it is learned (Powlison, 1995). Habits and tendencies toward anger “are easily acquired from others” (Powlison, 1995, p. 44). That is why the Bible warns: “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered man”(Prov. 22:24a). Anger is contagious. The good news is that Christians do not have to be defeated by angry thoughts and emotions. These habits can be replaced by emotional wholeness through discipline.

James declares:

Every good that is worth possessing must be paid in strokes of daily effort. By neglecting the necessary concrete labor, by sparing ourselves the little daily tax, we are positively digging the graves of our higher possibilities (James, 1920 p. 73-74).

Because of its intense nature, anger is a particularly insidious emotion that can trigger harmful action (Willard, 2002). Grumpiness, self-pity, cutting remarks, hostile judgments and attitudes are all at the root of an angry heart (Willard, 2002) Resisting the impulse to act in anger is a fundamentally important task; it is the root of self-control (Goleman, 1995). “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control” (Prov. 25:28). “A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control” (Prov. 29:11).

The deep limbic system lies near the center of the brain and is responsible for setting the person’s emotional tone. Through the use of SPECT (single photon emission computed topography) Daniel Amen (1998) studies how emotions affect the brain. He observes that when the limbic system is overactive, it results in painful and negative feelings that filter incoming information through a negative lens (Amen, 1998). When the limbic area is cool (peaceful), positive or neutral interpretations take place instead (Amen, 1998). Amen (1998) observes than an overactive limbic area results in moodiness, irritability, anger and increased negative thinking and emotions.

Not surprisingly the psalmist illustrates the process of becoming peaceful inside. “But I have stilled and quieted my soul … “(Ps. 131:2) This implies the necessity “to silence the noise and tumult” within (Powlison, 2000, p. 4). Psalm 131:3 reveals how, “… hope in the Lord now and forever.” To hope in the Lord means to wholeheartedly trust Him, to wait on Him to fulfill his blessed promises and to expect Him to do mighty deeds in human lives (Ps. 34:18, Ps. 106:12, Prov. 3:5, Phil. 1:6).

Redford Williams (1989) embarked on an interesting study to determine if heart disease was more common among Type A patients. He found that while “being in a hurry and being ambitious and competitive” do not put a person at risk of heart disease; anger is a toxic element of a Type A personality and does increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease (Williams, 1989, p. xiii). He proposes a detailed plan designed to help anger-prone patients to become less angry. Interestingly his plan places a significant emphasis on the need to stop angry thoughts which produce and perpetuate angry feelings and lead to angry actions (Williams, 1989).

As mentioned previously, the key to learning emotional control is enhancing the function of the frontal lobes (prefrontal cortex). This is the part of the brain “that decides on action, regulates behavior, plans the future and is responsible for firm intention” (Dispenza, 2007, p. 355). It is the area of the brain that houses clarity of choice, certainty and intent (Dispenza, 2007). Since impulse control (self-control) is made possible by the frontal lobes; it is the area of the brain that must be strengthened to conquer anger; otherwise the overactive deep limbic area takes over and toxic action follows (Dispenza, 2007). If emotions (deep limbic area) were considered to be like unruly children in a playground, the frontal lobes are a sensible and equanimous teacher who keeps them in check. The frontal cortex leaves nothing to chance. Its decisions are focused and deliberate (Amen, 1998). From a neurological standpoint, to achieve emotional control the goal is to decrease the activity in the deep limbic area while increasing the strength and activity of the frontal lobes (prefrontal cortex).

Controlling an agitated and angry mind, however, can be difficult because anger can be “self-perpetuating, for it tends to keep the person focused on unpleasant, distressing thoughts” (Wegner & Pennebaker, 1990, p. 397). People tend to have fewer strategies for controlling anger than other negative emotional states (Wegner & Pennebaker, 1990). Successful strategies include engaging in relaxing activities, going off to be alone to escape an angry state, seeking a distraction, inviting the help of friends and reframing the event (Wegner & Pennebaker, 1990). These strategies are crucial because the more people dwell on angry thoughts and past grievances, the more hostile thoughts will persist and escalate leading to hurtful behavior. Although one has little control over what initially triggers anger, “one can choose between brooding on [angry thoughts] or distracting oneself” (Wegner & Pennebaker, 1990, p. 405).

Dolf Zillmann has studied anger extensively; he asserts that “the primary function of cognition is to guide behavior, and the immediate objective of such guidance is the avoidance of harm and the minimization of aversion” (Zillmann, n.d. in Wegner & Pennebaker, 1990, p. 374). This leads him to believe that the way people appraise (evaluate) and reappraise (re-evaluate) their circumstances has the power to modify their behavior (Wegner & Pennebaker, 1990). He suggests that annoying events (actions by others) should be interpreted as unintentional and non-deliberate (Wegner & Pennebaker, 1990).

Zillmann’s findings concur with research conducted by John Gottman (1988) who has observed that the way one person interprets the actions of others can either escalate or deescalate anger. When people habitually attribute negative intentions to others, a “negative sentiment override” crushes the relationship (Gottman, 1988). The cognitive exercise of positively reframing an event is a necessary tool that can be applied to any angry situation in any relationship. Paul exhorts, “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Phil 4:8 is the hallmark verse of positive reframing.

One of the key ingredients to neuroplasticity is focused attention. Dispenza (2007) declares, “The stronger a person’s concentration, the stronger the signals that are sent to the associated neurons in the brain leading to a more pronounced level of firing. Attention creates heightened stimulation” (p. 194). Additionally, James (1920) declares that misery will be the result of “habitually fashioning” the self in the wrong way (p. 77). “Every smallest stroke of virtue or vice leaves its never-so-little scar” (James, 1920, p. 77). Habits determine destiny.

The quality of the thought-life has tremendous ramifications on spiritual growth and emotional health (Rom. 12:2, 2 Cor. 10:5, Phil. 4:8). “The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow our minds to dwell upon . . . we have the responsibility to try to retain God in our knowledge” (Willard, 2002, p. 95).

Implications for Christian Teachers

Several implications can be drawn for Christian teachers.

  1. Understanding neuroplasticity might benefit teachers. Science can add insight to the Christian faith journey.
  2. Understanding the importance of habits and their predictive nature might encourage Christian teachers to pursue spiritual disciplines which can be catalysts for change and learning new emotional skills. Neuroscientists confirm that adults are capable of learning throughout life.
  3. Paying close attention to and reflecting on one’s thought life might change angry patterns of behavior. Healthier (Spirit-driven) patterns will be noticed by students.
  4. Being aware of how anger works might yield better classroom dynamics between students as well as in one’s own responses to and modeling alternatives to their behavior.
  5. Providing “anger management” and conflict resolution training/modeling for children can readily include both the child’s physical/emotional response as well as self-control based in spiritual wellness.
  6. Developing better emotional control results in improved relationships with students, parents, colleagues and supervisors. It may also help to manage the stress of teaching that one brings home each evening.
  7. Understanding the dynamics of the above implications might equip teachers to teach children how to achieve spiritual growth and emotional health—the self-control that is a fruit of the Spirit.

Conclusion

The vast research on the brain gives testament to God as Designer and Creator. Science and faith are not mutually exclusive. The workings of the brain and the transformation of the mind are important conversations for Christian teachers to have. God’s handiwork, the brain, makes it possible for believers to exercise choice, engage their minds and achieve emotional wholeness. Yount concludes, “The brain obediently goes where the mind leads, mechanically wiring what the mind attends” (Yount, 2010, p. 537). He asserts that “as His mind speaks to ours, and we attend to what He says, our brains weave the circuits to think His thoughts” (Yount, 2010, p. 538).

References

Amen, D. (1998). Change Your Brain Change Your Life. New York: Random House.

Arden, J. B. (2010). Rewire Your Brain. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

The Blue Letter Bible. Lexicon Results. Retrieved from http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H1897&t=KJV

The Blue Letter Bible. Lexicon Results. Retrieved from

http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H6845&t=KJV

The Blue Letter Bible. Lexicon Results. Retrieved from http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3820&t=KJV

Bolte Taylor, J. (2006). My Stroke of Insight. New York: Penguin Group.

Brown, E. (Director). (2008). The Brain Fitness Program. Arlington, PBS.

Vagg, R. (Director). (2008). The Brain. New York, A&E.

Dispenza, J. (2007). Evolve Your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind. Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, Inc.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

Gottman, J. M. (1988). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York: Three Rivers Press.

James, W. (1920). Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Powlison, D. (1995). Anger Part 1: Understanding Anger. The Journal of Biblical Counseling 14 (1), 40-53.

Powlison, D. (2000). Peace Be Still: Learning Psalm 131 by Heart. The Journal of Biblical Counseling 18(3), 2-10.

Siegel, D.J. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Bantam Books.

Wegner, D. & Pennebaker, J. (Eds.). (1990). The Handbook of Mental Control. New Jersey: Century Psychology Series.

Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Williams, R. (1989). The Trusting Heart: Great News About Type A Behavior. New York: Times Books.

Yount, W. (2010). Created to Learn: A Christian Teacher’s Introduction to Education Psychology Second Edition. Nashville: B&H Academic.

Author Information

Sudi Kate Gliebe is a doctoral student in Childhood Education and Foundations of Education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, TX where she also completed the Masters in Christian Education. She is currently working on her dissertation which explores the relationships between stress, emotion regulation and optimism in early childhood teachers in Lutheran schools. This research project is made possible through a partnership with the Lutheran Education Association. Consistent with the Great Commission, Christ-followers in science, education and other fields of study have the privilege of submitting their endeavors to the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Sudi Kate Gliebe may be contacted at sudste@hotmail.com.

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