The brain you have at this very moment will be different than the brain you will create by simply reading this blog post. Can you believe that? Structurally, our brains are changing as quickly as our eyes are moving across the page to take in the information presented in this blog post. Yes, we are assimilating new information, but we are also building new biological neural pathways that will become the framework for our future thoughts, beliefs and behaviors
This is because our brains re-structure themselves, on a cellular level, every time we choose curiosity and openness to new information. If there were ever a case for choosing a growth mindset, let this be it: our brains were not created to stay stagnant. So how does this metamorphosis of the brain happen? Our brains, in their simplest form, consist of billions of neurons hosted in gray matter. These neurons connect with each other to create neural pathways, similar to GPS routes, in our brains. These routes gather information, synthesize it and then direct our bodies in how to respond. You could say these neural routes are the biological pathways for our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The more we use a particular pathway, the stronger and more automatic it becomes. For example, if you were to drive a 4-wheeler through a field, over and over, in the same path each time, that 4-wheeler will have created a well-worn path. This path makes it easier to see where to go next based on where you’ve been
God created our brains to be complex, but He also created our brains to be flexible. Modern brain imaging scans show that we have the power to change our actual brain structure and re-wire our neural pathways by what we choose to focus on and believe. Those well-worn routes in our brains change when we do. Neuroscientists call this neuroplasticity. Paul, in Romans 12:2 calls it, “Being transformed by the renewing of our minds.” Our actual brain structure transforms as we focus our mind (our thoughts, feelings, ability to choose) on new information.
This has many practical implications. The next time you have a choice to think on something that is “good and true” (Phil.4:8) versus the alternative, remember that this choice has both spiritual and biological benefits. Choosing the good cumulatively creates a well-worn path in our brains, making it easier and more automatic to choose that pathway again next time we are faced with the choice.
This is important because our brains can only sustain a certain amount of willpower daily, so developing regular pathways (habits) frees up our brain power for other things like trying out that new art class or train for a 5k. Ever wonder how some people seem to constantly take on new hobbies and still maintain their daily responsibilities? Chances are, they’ve been intentional about creating positive habits and rhythms which have, in turn, freed up mental energy to pursue new endeavors. When I hear Paul talk about transformation resulting from the renewing of our minds, I truly believe he is telling us that we have the capacity for sustained change in multiple different arenas of our lives if we choose to pursue it.
Neurologists and health psychologists have long studies the impact our beliefs have on our physical bodies. Their research confirms that our brains aren’t the only organ that transforms as we renew our minds. When we choose to believe fear-inducing thoughts, our brain’s threat detection system (the amygdala) sends an alert to our hypothalamus (a regulating structure in the brain), that sends out stress hormones all throughout our bodies.
These stress hormones are adaptive if we are facing a real threat, such as being chased by a bear. However, our brains don’t always recognize the difference between a threatening thought (“I’ll never be loved”, “People are always against me”) verses an actual threat. Stress hormones get released in both situations. Given that many of our negative thoughts never actually come to fruition, our thoughts could be triggering this stress response in our bodies quite unnecessarily.
If this pattern of excessive stress hormone release is repeated over time, an abundance of stress hormones flowing throughout our body creates something called inflammation. The medical community has determined that excessive inflammation in the body is a core pre-cursor to numerous physical diseases (hypertension, diabetes, etc.). So what we choose to believe can transform our physical health as well as our mental health.
A mind controlled by the Spirit of God manifests the fruit of the Spirit (Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Goodness, Kindness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control). The expression of these traits is good for us spiritually and relationally, but it also serves a healthful purpose in our physical bodies. The mental choice to submit our thoughts to the Holy Spirit can produce peace in our minds and support hormonal homeostasis in our bodies.
So the next time you catch yourself dwelling on negative things you cannot change, take a moment to pause and challenge that belief. Ask yourself, “Is this helping me love God, respect others and receive the goodness God has for my life?” If not, take a chance and choose a mental detour. Your Spirit will be strengthened and your brain and body will grow stronger as well. This is the beauty of being an integrated person: We recognize that our body, soul (mind, will and emotions) and spirit all work in tandem, weaving together to create wholeness, peace and purpose in our lives.