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. 

1 comment:

  1. Tricia, I'm excited to see how this information you are integrating into your blogs will deepen our relationship with Christ in this crazy digital age. I'm all about re-wiring the negative neural networks!