Switch on Your Brain
By Dr. Caroline Leaf
Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013. ISBN 978-0-8010-1839-8
In this book the author presents a systematic approach to training the mind, grounded in wisdom from the Bible and insights from modern neuroscience. Whether we are trying to shift from habitual worrying to trusting in the Lord, or from a pattern of complaining and unresolved anger to one of gratitude and forgiveness, or from endless mental chatter to remembrance of the Divine. In all cases we first have to overcome an entrenched habit which may be only partially conscious. The author assures us that we can choose to change. She quotes the Bible: ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.’ (2 Tim 1:7)
She explains in some detail the physical effects that take place in the brain in response to thoughts, showing how repeated patterns of thought create pathways in the physical structures of the brain. Essentially, the brain becomes wired to make the continued recycling of those same patterns of thought almost automatic or inevitable. The word ‘almost’ is key. As the author repeats several times, ‘You are not a victim of your biology.’ As she puts it, a predisposition is not a destiny. If we have wired those patterns in, we can also wire them out.
She asserts that we do have free will. We ‘cannot control the events and circumstances of our lives, but we can control our reactions. Don’t be reactive; take time to slow down and think.’ As humans, we have the power to choose how we respond. This power of choice with which God has endowed human beings is, she says, ‘the most powerful thing in the universe after God.’ She quotes the Bible: ‘Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call upon heaven and earth to witness the choices you make.’ (Deut 30:19)
She discusses neuroplasticity, the scientific finding that the physical structures in the brain are continually changing in response to our thoughts and our reactions to our experiences. She says that when we train our minds – such as by turning our thoughts toward remembrance of the Lord and the desire to please him, or by inculcating contentment, gratitude, trust, or other positive responses – we are essentially doing our own brain surgery. She quotes the biblical advice: ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ (Rom 12:2) As she explains, ‘We are designed … to rewire our brains by thinking and by choosing to renew our minds.’
How do we do this? The Bible gives the challenging instruction ‘to take every thought captive to obey Christ.’ (2 Cor 10:5)
The ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present issue, capture your thoughts, and dismiss the distractions that come in your way is an excellent and powerful ability that God has placed within you. In this busy age we live in, however, we have trained ourselves out of this natural and necessary skill.
It is necessary, daily, to ‘enter into directed rest,’ as she describes a meditative state of mind. Even taking time daily to calm the mind and engage in ‘deep intellectual thought’ helps us ‘to be aware of predispositions, evaluate them and choose to eliminate them.’
She calls multitasking one of the ‘plagues of modern existence.’ It is a kind of ‘hurry sickness.’ When we are multitasking, we shift our attention rapidly from task to task and, as the author says, ‘we can become shallow.’ The quality of our attention decreases, and this ‘opens us up to shallow and weak judgments and results in passive mindlessness.’ The opposite of multitasking is ‘deep, focused, intellectual attention.’ To maintain this focus, ‘we need to make a choice to be alert, practising the presence of God by sharpening our conscience and listening to our intuition.’ In such a state of attention, we will easily build a positive atmosphere around us by following the Bible’s advice: ‘Finally, brothers and sisters, 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)
The thought activity that spins so rapidly and so uncontrollably from the ‘nonconscious metacognitive’ level of the mind is highly repetitive. For example, the same memory appears again and again, triggering the same thoughts and feelings over and over. How did these thought patterns become established? Through many, many repetitions. Therefore, the only way to establish a different, more positive pattern of thought is through many, many repetitions. ‘The new, healthy thought is like a ‘tiny new plant’ that will need nurturing to grow,’ and the way to nurture it is by repeating it. It is all too easy to revert to long-established and familiar but toxic thought.
It is at the moment when a thought or memory comes into the conscious mind – that is, when the frontal lobe of the brain is firing – that the thought or memory becomes ‘weakened, vulnerable, malleable, and able to be manipulated.’ If at that moment we choose to replace that thought with a positive alternative, such as gratitude, forgiveness, or loving remembrance of the Lord, the entrenched pattern is weakened. If instead we entertain the thought, we reinforce it.
The results of rigorously practising the repetition of a new positive thought can be seen in brain imaging. As a thought is repeated, it looks at first like a tiny spine, growing to a bump, then a lollipop shape, then a mushroom. With enough repetition, the brain imaging starts to look like ‘lots more tree branches that are thick and well-established, with many branches interconnecting with other thought networks.’ At this point ‘that particular way of thinking or reacting embedded in the new thought tree has become an automatic part of you; you do it driven by the nonconscious mind, not the conscious mind.’
The author recommends a daily practice to create a “deliberate, disciplined and rigorous renewing of the mind lifestyle.’ This daily practice begins with a few minutes of quieting the mind and entering ‘directed rest,’ which allows us to reflect deeply on the positive thought pattern we want to establish. She recommends repeating the new, healthy thought at least seven times each day. She also recommends taking just one or two minutes to write our reflections, and then to read over what we have written. The writing and reading activate different parts of the brain and help to anchor the new learning you are trying to establish.
But the author also warns that simply repeating a thought that we don’t also feel to be true only creates cognitive dissonance, a state in which we are divided against ourself. Instead, she recommends taking a moment to think clearly whenever a long-established negative thought or memory comes up. Ask yourself: Do I want this thought or memory to become part of who I am? She says that if we give deep focused attention to this question, we will feel the truth of the positive, healthy choice.
Finally, the author recommends that we do more than merely cultivate new thoughts. She recommends that we commit to some definite action. She calls this the ‘active reach,’ because if we are to change entrenched patterns we have to stretch our abilities. For example, say we are trying to develop a habit of forgiving:
An active reach is not just the decision to forgive; it is the actual forgiving. … It is not just the decision to stop dwelling on the past; it is the actual stopping of the dwelling on the past. It is not just the decision to not talk negatively; it is the actual not talking negatively no matter how tempting it is to do so. This is when you reach beyond where you are.
According to neuroscience, action helps anchor the new learning in the brain. The author ties this to the biblical verse ‘Faith without works is dead.’ (James 2:26)
To change our whole mindset and way of being may sound daunting, but the author insists it is possible. In fact, it is our birthright as humans. As Christ said, ‘Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ (Matt 5:48) The author finds ample evidence in scripture and in science that we are designed to be healthy, intelligent, and happy. We were originally wired for love, not fear. Only our wrong choices have led us away from this norm. The author points out, ‘Because we are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26) and have ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor 2:16), our normal state is one of perfection.’
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