Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Your Brain, Technology and the State of Your Soul

Do you ever:
  • …find yourself frustrated because you went online to get some small piece of information and ended up spending an hour you never intended?
  • …experience anxiety if you don’t check immediately when you hear a ping for a text, email, or phone call?
  • …sit down to read a book and find yourself impossibly distracted?
  • …set aside a time for quiet prayer but feel so antsy you can’t get anything out of it?
  • …constantly feel as if the more you try, the further behind you will be with all the things clamoring for your attention?
If you answered yes to any of these, you are completely normal, but what you may not know is why.  Simply put, over the past ten or fifteen years, your brain and mine have been undergoing a silent restructuring as a result of modern technology and our ubiquitous connections to the virtual world. 
As I shared in last week’s post, our brains are incredibly adaptive, hosting a circuitry that can be wired and rewired over the course of our lives as needed.  This is really good news as we consider that we don’t have to be shaped by past experiences, but can alter the way our brain cells connect in order to change not only how we think or feel, but how we behave. 

But here’s the bad news.  Our brains basically work on a “use it or lose it” principle.  And because we spend so much time mentally connected—to the internet, television, smartphones, tablets etc.—our brains are getting really good at things like skimming for pertinent information, rapid shifts between topics, accessing knowledge on an as-needed basis, and surface-level analysis.   

Because modern technology increasingly rewards this kind of activity, we have become mentally dependent upon it—our brains in essence, require it.  In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, Nicolas Carr likens us to lab rats who continually push a lever to get a reward of some sort of social interaction or intellectual nourishment.

What's Really at Stake?
Why is this bad news, especially in light of all the benefits technology has produced?  There are dozens of concerns that are causing neuroscientists, educators, doctors, and psychologists to speak out, but perhaps the most critical is that because of the way the brain works, we are losing our capacity for things like reflection, contemplation, meditation, or even deep thinking or reading.  

In other words, as spiritual people, we are in danger of wiring out our ability to connect with God and other human beings in profoundly meaningful ways.  Carr writes:
As the time we … spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.
There are a plethora of books and articles addressing this.  In her book Alone Together, Clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle explains why we find it so hard to focus in quiet moments, noting that when we try to reclaim concentration, we are “literally at war with ourselves.” 

The Coming Dark Age?
Another journalist actually contends that we are entering into a new dark age, soberly warning:
Amid the glittering promise of our new technologies and the wondrous potential of our scientific gains, we are nurturing a culture of social diffusion, intellectual fragmentation, sensory detachment.  In this new world, something is amiss…The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention—the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress.  (Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, p. 13 by Maggie Jackson)
Interest in the threat of modern technological advances is not some passing fad, but one that is fueling research from every angle across a vast network of disciplines, from academia to medicine to business to science.   

The Church's Strange Silence 
Yet, while a growing cadre of cultural commentators is sounding the alarm, the church seems to be strangely silent. This is perplexing.  Of all those who are affected by this brain restructuring, it seems we as Christ-followers have the most to lose.  How will we experience transformation into his likeness if we can’t seem to engage in practices designed to renew our minds (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 4:23)?  How will we come to know him more intimately, something Jesus pointed to as the nexus of eternal life (John 17:3), if we find ourselves incapable of sitting with him in solitude, engaging in meditation upon his Word or contemplation of His person?

Let me quickly point out that I love technology and I am not intimating that we need to go back to some simpler time.  That is not going to happen, and in fact, the pace and quality of life as a result of this technological revolution is only going to become more complex at exponential rates.

But I do want to pose the question—do the tools of technology control you, or do you control them?  Are you a servant to their demands, or do they serve your purposes?  

Your Technology Control Checkup
In case you're not sure, I have put together a brief 10-question survey for you to do a personal check up.  When you finish the survey, go back through and add up the points on each page from the far right column to see your total.  Then check here to see how you did (by the way, I scored 33 out of 50, so obviously I have some work to do!).   Click here for the survey--it can only handle 100 people, so take it soon!  
The point I am trying to make here is simply that we need to be aware of what is taking place and start being proactive about how we invest our time and energy.  

The upside of what we now know about our brains is that not only do we have the ability to alter our this recently developed destructive circuitry, but the Spirit of God is committed to helping us in our weakness (Romans 8:5-11; 26-27).  It will some take time, persistence and discipline, but we can recapture these critical capacities of reflection, quietness and attentiveness.  We can’t afford not to—for ourselves, our children, and the culture in which we live.

Coming next: Simple steps to recover critical spiritual capacities

To order any of my books, or Nicolas Carr's What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, visit my store by clicking here. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

How Christmas, 1956, Wired My Brain

It was Christmas and I was a precocious four-year-old, squirming restlessly on the floor, hell-bent on helping mom and dad figure out the best spot in our tiny living room for the spindly evergreen we’d just purchased from the local drugstore.  Surrounded by siblings and boxes of ornaments and lights, I chattered on mindlessly, tossing out ideas like confetti until suddenly out of nowhere a Christmas light came flying my way.  I looked up wide-eyed just as it hit me in the forehead, and was shocked to see that my mom had thrown it.  Before I could respond, dad jumped up, grabbed the tree and stormed out of the house, yelling: “We just won’t have a tree this year.” 

I didn’t remember that story until 14 years later in a freshman psychology class where we were tasked with writing about our earliest memories.  What came back to me then wasn’t just the experience, but the way I had felt in the days that followed.  I remembered how I’d watched my parents closely, hoping for a sign that things would be okay, that life would return to normal.  The relief I’d experienced when I came upon them hugging in the hall one morning was palpable, even those many years later.  The next time I was home from college I shared this with my mom.  The backstory she related upended my perceptions about what had really happened.  More about that later.

Life Experiences and the Brain  
My experience as a four-year-old illustrates something neuroscientists have discovered about the brain in the past few decades, which is that life events—both large and small— and our emotional response to them, have the capacity to “wire” our brains in specific ways that end up shaping our behavior, often without our even realizing it.   

Here’s my admittedly simplistic take on how this works:  There are gaps called synapses between each of the billions of neurons (cells) our brains hold.  Within these gaps, neurotransmitters carry electrical impulses and chemicals flow, enabling each brain cell to communicate with thousands of others.  In addition, the neurons themselves are often changing, growing new branches and discarding others, all as a result of life experiences.   This activity goes on every moment of every day, not only regulating how we see the world but affecting our behavior in it.  This is the way that memories are formed, and in essence is what distinguishes our mind from that Jello-like substance we call the brain.    As neuroscientist Dr. Susan Greenfield explains:
Each time you hear a noise, blink at the light, have a conversation, or cut another piece of cake, some small, imperceptible and unspectacular modification to the configuration of the brain occurs, and we interpret the world in a slightly different way. (Private Life of the Brain, p. 54)
Because certain powerful hormones rush through the synapses during traumatic experiences, these tend to affect us more tangibly, creating enduring changes in our brain circuitry and in turn, our way of relating to our world.   For me, that Christmas memory wired my brain in such a way that I began to live with a hyper-vigilance lest I make another mistake with even more dire consequences.  I won’t even begin to describe the behaviors this has produced over the years, but suffice it to say my saint of a husband has had to embody an inordinate amount of patience in the face of my compulsion to control things.

The Really Good News
But that leads to the real point of this particular blog post—the good news—which is that, as I noted last week (click here to read), no matter how old we are, our brains are still malleable.  This means that we do not have to remain victims of our circumstances, products of our upbringing or even our latest failures, but instead can choose to participate in altering the structure of our brains so that we can live differently.  Regardless of how deep-seated our unhealthy behaviors seem to be, we have the capacity to change them permanently by redesigning those neuro-pathways through new ways of thinking. 

The exciting thing is that this reality, one that science is only beginning to grasp, was revealed long ago by our Creator, who so fearfully and wonderfully made each one of us.  Again and again, Scripture calls us to change our minds so that we can be transformed.   Ephesians tells us to get rid of our old ways by being renewed in the spiritof our minds, while Romans calls us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, and in 2 Corinthians Paul describes this process as tearing down strongholds, which happens as we take our thoughts captive.  

Of course, these are not new principles for Christ-followers, but many of us are finding hope and a fresh sense of destiny in realizing that when it comes to our brains, we can become what neuroscientists refer to as “neuroplasticians.”  As Dr. Caroline Leaf suggests, our role is to partner with God’s Spirit in order to create new brain circuitry that can change our lives for His glory.  She writes:
When you make a conscious decision to focus and direct your attention correctly, you change physical matter—your brain and your body change in a healthy way.  Purposefully catching your thoughts can control the brain’s sensory processing, the brain’s rewiring, the neurotransmitters, the genetic expression and cellular activity in a positive or negative direction.  You choose.  (Switch on Your Brain, p. 73: click here for my Book Review at a Glance)
It was while working through Dr. Leaf’s five step “Switch on Your Brain” process that my Christmas memory came up again.  I was trying to understand and overcome an internal feeling of angst that has plagued me at random times throughout my life, causing me to feel as if I needed to do something, even when there was nothing to do.  

One day as I wrote in my journal (part four of the five-step daily process), I realized that what I was really feeling was a sense that in any given situation I was responsible and must never let down my guard.  As I wrote, I suddenly realized just how and when that particular neuro-pathway had come into being.  I’ll share the process I of rewiring that I went through in another post, but for now I will just say that Jesus’ words, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” have taken on new depths of meaning.

This is the glorious, good news.  Whatever area you may feel stuck in, however unhealthily you approach certain situations, or in whatever ways you long to walk in greater freedom and transformation, you can be your own neuroplastician!  Of course it will take some work, intentionality and discipline, but God has given us an amazing capacity to make substantive changes in how we live and think and act.

The Rest of the Story
We did have a Christmas tree that year and other than my
Me at the Ripe Age of Four
own invisible brain restructuring, life went on as before.  The backstory my mom shared with me years later was that just as we’d started to decorate the tree; my grandfather had shown up slightly drunk and she’d quickly ushered us all to our rooms so we wouldn't see him.  Meanwhile, he had proceeded to rant and rave about how ugly the tree was, insisting he was going to go and buy us a new one.  Once mom and dad finally got him out of the house and on his way home with grandmother, they brought us back in to decorate.  Of course I had no way of knowing the level of distress they must have felt in that moment, or the tension that caused them to act in ways so patently uncharacteristic.  My four-year-old brain, unable to process in any other way, simply assumed that I had caused the whole thing.  

Although it would take decades to decipher, I believe I’m well on my way to a permanent rewiring and am experiencing even now a lightness of being that is pretty wonderful.    

To read my review of Dr. Leaf's book, click here.

To visit my bookstore and order her book click here.

Coming Next: The not so good news about our brain's plasticity that every Christ-follower needs to know. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

This is your brain on_________________ (fill in the blank)

When I was in third grade, Miss Small, a stout, grey-haired, no-nonsense Sunday School teacher who showed up every week in the same charcoal suit and white silk blouse, stunned our entire class by cracking a raw egg into a glass of beer, soberly warning us that the egg represented our brains.  The lesson itself, if there was one to be had, was lost on us as we squirmed and snickered in awkward awe at that can of Pabst Blue Ribbon sitting there on a Sunday morning in our Southern Baptist church.  Truth be told, there wasn't an eight year old among us who had ever been in close proximity to a can of beer, much less breathed in its yeasty aroma as it bubbled and frothed its way to the top of the glass. 

Turns out, Alice Small may have been ahead of her time, at least in likening a brain to an egg.  In the mid-1980s the Partnership for a Drug-Free America launched a campaign with an ad which showed a close-up of an egg dropping into a frying pan, while a voice in the background uttered the now ubiquitous phrase: “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” 

Aside from the fact that the texture of a brain is more like a bowl of Jell-O than an egg yolk, these metaphors allude to a revolutionary reality that the exploding study of the human brain called neuroscience has uncovered.  Simply put, our brains are malleable, subject to change, and not hard-wired in the womb in some unalterable fashion as was once assumed.   This means that not only what we do and how we do it, or what we know and how we learn it, but every single life experience has the potential to alter the very structure of that three-pound organ that sits atop our neck, persistently utilizing 20 percent of our body’s energy, even when we are asleep.   

There is both good news and bad news in this, and in the coming weeks I will be exploring why it matters, particularly to those of us who seek to follow Christ.  Eventually I hope these meanderings make their way into my next book, so I hope you’ll come along on this journey, sharing your thoughts and questions as we go.

Over the past several days I have immersed myself in material on the brain, trying to get a layperson’s grasp of the current knowledge.  The more I have read, the more profoundly I have felt my finiteness.  It’s as if I’m trying to navigate some vast foreign country without a compass, plundering across an exotic terrain that holds mystery and intrigue, symmetry and precision, while the best mapmakers in the country lament the immense swaths of yet uncharted territory.

While high school biology taught me brain parts—from the stem to the cerebellum, the amygdala to the hippocampus and hypothalamus, the basal ganglia to the cerebral cortex—these seem pedantic in light of the discoveries of the past few decades.  Scientific understanding of how the brain works is increasing exponentially—more knowledge has been accumulated in the past 50 years than the previous 5000.  

Although scanning limitations have relegated neuroscientists to observing a piece of the brain so miniscule that it could fit on the end of a straight pin, that small fragment has revealed a world of activity a bit like New York City in the height of rush hour.  Here’s just a smattering of what they've discovered:

  • Your brain hosts 100 billion neurons (nerve cells) roughly the same as the number of stars in the Milky Way, each one unique, resembling a branch of a tree and exquisite in its complexity. 
  • These billions of branch-like neurons communicate endlessly and intricately with each other, like friends talking on the telephone. 
  • The synapses that connect these neurons throughout our brain measure upwards of 100,000 miles.
  • It appears  that our thoughts, perceptions and memories shuttle along these synapses like racecars at speeds of up to 250 miles per hour, escorted by neurotransmitters such as endorphins to reduce pain and increase pleasure, adrenaline to keep us alert and balance our blood pressure, or serotonin to regulate our appetite and mood (to name a few).
  • When we go to sleep at night, this activity continues as our brain sets about the task of pruning.  Neurons grow new branches and lose old ones, while synapses may be strengthened, shrunk, created or destroyed. This is the changing nature of our brains.

If this seems slightly overwhelming to you as it did me, then you are in good company.  Dr. Sebastian Seung, professor of computational neuroscience at MIT, shared his own emotional response to this study to which he has devoted his life:
As a scientist, I am not supposed to talk about my feelings.  “Too much information, professor.”  But may I?  I feel curiosity and I feel wonder, but at times I have also felt despair.  Why did I choose to study this organ that is so awesome in its complexity that it might well be infinite? It’s absurd.  How could we even dare to think that we might ever understand this?  [italics mine]
For me, this gives new meaning to the reality that we humans are created in the image of God.  I can only conclude, as did the Apostle Paul:
Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?...For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be the glory forever.  Amen (Romans 11:34-36)

Next week:  Why your brain’s malleability is good news for the soul. 

The Astronomist: A Cubic Millimeter of Your Brain. (2011, July 27). Retrieved from
Greenfield, S. (2000). The private life of the brain: Emotions, consciousness, and the secret of the self. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Horstman, J., (2009). The Scientific American day in the life of your brain. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Seung, S. (2013). Sebastian Seung: I am my connectome TEDTalk - YouTube. Retrieved from
Zimmer, C. (2014, February). Secrets of the Brain [e-magazine]. Retrieved September 9, 2014, from