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Do our brains grow toward what we choose?

Our brains our changing. At least mine is. It has to, in order to keep up with the constant influx of information, sensory input, and data. To analyze it properly and make the right decision. I read and process information differently. My brain is adapting, as a  survival strategy.

I’m not sure what that means, exactly. But, it seems, based on information provided by the new technology of brain study that we may actually be laying down new neural pathways, repairing some and pruning away others, all the time. In the “old days” – which by scientific standards was only 15 years ago – we didn’t think so. We thought that the brain’s circuitry, at least after a period of pruning from “excess” neurons that happened early in our lives, was fixed and unchangeable. After this, we had to live with whatever we had left. (Thus, the significant concern for some of us who were “killing off brain cells” with our brain-altering recreation.)

But what if our brain’s structure continues to adapt and grow in response to our thinking? What if we actually grow brain pathways toward what we are thinking about. More pathways to the frequent thoughts. More scattered pathways if we head in lots of directions.

This isn’t so far-fetched.  Exercise and its increases to brain blood flow apparently result in enhancement of executive processing function and stimulate the production of brain growth factors. Do these repair nerves? grow them? re-route them?

This is exciting…and dangerous. It means that our brains are more like the rest of our bodies than we thought. The “use it or lose it” threat we address to our bodies may apply to our minds as well. Which means the things we focus on, that we learn and pattern and practice, are enhanced. The neural highways to (and from) those places are firmed up, bolstered, paved in concrete and there to stay. Pathways to those things we dismiss or fail to attend to would shrivel, get grown over, fall to disrepair and die.

What if our thoughts and actions actually act as our own pruning mechanism? A self-fulfilling brain circuitry. This sounds pretty good if we’re rightly directed. But, if we give into temptation or satisfy our pleasure center at the expense of other things, those pathways will be the ones enhanced. And, the highways to them will become easier to travel. The more connections we make, the more likely we re-visit.

Could addiction happen just this way? Can temptation that leads to sin be this simple? At some point is an “urge” truly irresistible?

No wonder God wants us focusing on Him. Because the world is full of distraction that tempts us away. Marketing and media and online ads flash to get our attention. Do we click – harmlessly, just to see?

During Advent I have downloaded a Christmas devotional playlist on Spotify, the free version because I have not paid extra for the “ads free” version. Today I play “Make Me A Servant”… and in the margin of my computer screen scroll a line of attractive men, the faces are photos like we used to take in the photo booths, one on top of the other, with a different expression on each. Though my ears hear…make me a servant today…my eyes see the message that pops up, “Do you want a boyfriend in Herndon?” All I have to do is click on the age group I prefer. Even in our devotion, Satan lurks.

To protect my brain from engaging the images I close my computer screen and focus on the listening. The Maranatha Singers sing…

Make me a servant, humble and meek

Lord, let me lift up, those who are weak.

And may the pray’r of my heart always be;

Make me a servant, make me a servant,

Make me a servant, today.

This is what I seek, but the world would draw me away.

Is the attraction and the paving and the same with you, Lord? Does the pathway to you grow stronger when I pray? Is making a way in the wilderness of our minds something we are meant to live? The more we seek and the more we search and the more we attend to things as you intend them, can we discover, uncover and lay down our way to You?

Are we otherwise, in fact, shaping our own brains according to our own will, own ways in our own circumstances, based on our own choices?

Let me choose You! And keep choosing you. Until the way to you is the only way I see.

Are there layers to listening?

Folks today listen fast. We have to. We have information coming at us from all directions at rapid fire pace. Young people are unfazed by this. They’ve grown up with it and seem to have perfected the technique.

The young woman at the register was completely amazing. I approached her to exchange a pair of shoes. In the next 90 seconds she:

  • scanned in my receipt
  • checked her computer for stock availability
  • found it in the size in another color
  • pulled up that color and described it to me

Then:

  • responded to the caller on her headset
  • asked if she’d like them to hold those for her
  • wrote up a slip

Then:

  • responded to the woman bringing 2 large boxes about where to put them
  • put the slip with these boxes

Then, she looked back at me.

Nearly, speechless, I asked if she’d hold my shoes while I went to look at what they had available. I had no doubt that my shoes would be waiting when I returned. This woman was astounding.

And I tell her story this way, in bullet points, because I must. It’s how we read and how we hear — these days. Our lives are filled with distraction and diversion, but we manage to take it all in. Just enough of it to get the idea, because that’s all we have time for. Funny, diversion used to be such a good thing. It was something that rescued us from our monotony and lifted us to the sublime, the humorous or at least the entertaining. Now, it’s standard. Comes on the basic model.

What, then, of us “contemplatives?” And I don’t mean monks or hermits or cloistered religious folk, but people who tend to cogitate and reflect by nature. Are we being shallowed, too? Perhaps, we, like the Universe, are slowly moving away from our center. Not exploded by the force of the Big Bang but drawn outward by a magnetic force.

I was struck by this definition of contemplative prayer offered by the Shalem Institute:

“Deep listening in the silence.”

If I am always operating at the surface, what is in the deep?

I drew 3 concentric circles in my journal and stood by to see what emerged. The surface was very easy to populate with words: shallow, listen up, easy to wake, distraction, diverge, snapshot, wander. Surprised myself with: productive and superconcious.

But these words did not emerge alone. They came in 3’s, partnered with under words and yet deeper words. Underneath were: dig, delve, order, explain, reason, data, apply, converge. Surprises: wonder and hypothesis. Perhaps those are borderline to the deeper words like: discover, uncover, naked, appreciate, adept, perspective, see, tiptoe. That was the place of deep listening.

How’d a kinesthetic get there? By one smooth, clear, baptismal stone. It was a gift from the folks at SOULfeast during one of their worship services. I like it because it’s surface feels right to my fingers. Somehow it clarifies my thoughts.

When I was finished writing words, I set it down on a word. I was surprised to see that it acted as a magnifier. The word it magnified was “subconcious.” Near it I had written, “How do you know that?”

photo 2 (2)-005

Amazing the power of one smooth, clear stone.

Up close. That’s what it said. From a distance, this small stone looked like a drop of water, beaded up from the page.

How can I magnify my listening from a distance? I can’t, but God can. No matter how far I pull away, I am still in connection with the center that holds me.

How do I know that? I have seen it.

Even when I can’t see it, I can feel it.

It spells itself out for me. Imagine that… just for me. Magnificent!

 

Out of Sight Insight

I am not particularly proud to admit this but…out of sight, out of mind. This may not guide my whole life, but it certainly takes a very strong hold.

My golden retriever (of photo fame) lies whining just outside the door to my office. I can see her as well as hear her. I feel so bad for her because she has a skin ailment that itches and makes her miserable. I spent most of yesterday either worrying about her or caring for her. Took her to the vet; now she has been treated and is on the mend. But still, just outside my door, she is a complete distraction. In sight, in mind.

I have lots to attend to today, having gotten most of nothing done, so I retreat…to the front porch. Where I can neither see nor hear her. Oh, she’s still miserable, may even be whimpering, but out of my sight, out of my mind.  Now, I don’t feel guilty at all. Not even a twinge. (this, by the way, works with siblings arguing with each other)

Where has my guilt gone? The circumstance is still the same. The dog is still fairly miserable, but I no longer feel guilty. Shouldn’t my guilt have a one to one relationship with the event or circumstance? Either I am responsible and feel guilty or I am not responsible and don’t. It shouldn’t depend on what I see, but it does. Or at least it seems to.

So guilt, I find, appears to be a creation of my mind – at least in cases like this. (aside here: If I have committed a crime or broken a law, I am guilty according to the law, regardless of whether I “feel” that way. This is not what I am referring to here, although I have on occasion found the law a bit unfair in this regard, but I will take that up with the officer who pulled me over in the school zone — who knew?)

What I’m talking about is, let’s call it, gray-area guilt or the absence of it. Guilt I assign based on what I am looking at. The responsiblity to do something about what I see. If I don’t see it, I don’t do. Out of sight out of mind.

Now, in life’s general practice, acting on what you see works. When I see the overflow of clothes in the hamper, I do laundry. When I see dishes in the sink, I put ’em in and run the dishwasher. When I see my kid planted in front of the tv and school starts in two days and I know she hasn’t done her summer reading, I fuss at her to turn off the tv and get her work done. Isn’t that how life works? (Btw – those techniques have variable efficacy.)

But what about what I don’t see that really needs doing? When do I make a place for what I don’t see? When do I put off or delay or shuffle in my schedule in order to attend to something that clambers quietly from my to-do list. Perhaps God has been calling me to quietly. God never shouts.

God is always out of sight. How do I keep God in mind?

and the flip side…What if Evil knows and uses my distraction by the visual to tempt me away from what I should be doing? To incline me away from what God wants me to do?

This is the dilemma for the in-sight-ful Christian. Who reflexively sees and does, without thinking. Are we aware of the effect visual impact is having on us? the marketing people out there certainly are. The folks who put pictures of that juicy burger on the slick menu as well as the ones who put the snapshot of the child with the cleft palate in my magazine. Both have designs on my action. Want to stir me out of inaction.

For now, at least, I am claiming attention. Noting the effect that “what I see” has on how I feel about “what I will do.” I am recognizing the hold this has on me, that maybe it shouldn’t. I have it within my power to close my eyes, to seek respite, to remove myself from the circumstance that has undue pull on my actions. I can go to a place away and, for a moment, seek direction…To have clear sight. Or at least cleared sight.

Without compulsion. Guilt free.

This is making me really wonder about the cause and effect of behaviors. Is that chocolate cake really calling to me when I see it in the refrigerator? What if I didn’t see it? What if I tossed it? What if I sprinkled dog food on top of it. So long, attraction. Well, not for the dogs, but then chocolate is not good for them.

Ha. Even my blog knows this about me. It’s “mode” to see the whole page and make it easier just to say what you gotta say and move on is called….”distraction free.” Really!!

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