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What we put into our minds changes the very structure of our brains and shapes the way we engage our world.

Today I’m doing a little celebrating! Yesterday marked the last day of the last class of my doctoral coursework! Wahoo! Now, I still have at least a year and a half left of comprehensive exams and dissertation writing before I can reach the PhD, but the end of coursework is definitely a milestone. Plus, coursework is the most baby-incompatible part of my program, so it’s nice to have that out of the way as well.

My last class, the class I just concluded, was absolutely fascinating. I learned about how the brain works, particularly in regards to learning. What science is discovering about brain function has important implications for teachers and church leaders, and it helps us to better understand how God designed us.

I will probably write about my gleanings from that class multiple times in the future, but there is one tidbit I want to share with you today. It relates to how our brains are influenced and shaped by the things we see, the messages we hear, and the experiences we have.

(As a brief side note, I do not claim to be a scientist, or even good at understanding basic science, so if I describe something incorrectly feel free to offer correction in the comments section, but do so in layman’s terms so we can all track with you. Thanks!)

Now back to the brain. And I promise I’ll keep this technical stuff short.

Brain 101

So here’s a simple description of how the brain works:

Whenever you learn something new, your brain changes, both physically and chemically. As that new information is stored, your brain creates new neural pathways and strengthens old ones.

As an example of this neural process, think about a child who is learning about animals. He knows what a dog is because his family owns one, but one day he sees a cat. He points to the cat and says, “Dog.” He does this because his brain already has a category for furry, four-legged creatures. He is drawing on that neural pathway and strengthening its presence in his brain by recognizing the cat.

However, the child’s mom corrects him and says, “No honey, that is a cat.” In response, the child’s brain will develop a new neural pathway for this new category of furry, four-legged creature. And later on, when he learns there are different types of cats, he will strengthen his existing neural pathway for cats, but also create new ones as well.

What is especially interesting about neural pathways is they can be strengthened or weakened. The more you use certain neural pathways, the stronger they become, whereas others weaken with lack of use. Scientists believe this is how we forget things. It’s not that the information is no longer there, as if it falls out of our brains. Instead, the connections to that information have been so weakened by lack of use that we can no longer access it.

Why does this matter to you?

The brain is essentially plastic. It is constantly being molded by what you put into it. That is an exciting and encouraging aspect of the brain’s design—it means we can change and grow!—but as you can see from the above description of the child, our past experiences also inform our future ones. The neural pathways that already exist in the brain will direct how we process future experiences. Sure, we can form new neural pathways, but the existing neural pathways will be our go-to, at least at first.

In the same way a child who owns a dog may only have one category—dogs—for ALL furry, four-legged creatures, and mistakenly applies that category too generally, we can do the same. And I’m afraid we do.

Sharon Hodde Miller Sharon Hodde Miller lives in the Chicago area, where she is pursuing a doctorate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's blog for women, Her.meneutics, and you can read more of her writing at her own blog, Sheworships.com. Sharon is married to Ike, and is the proud mother of a new son.

More from Sharon Hodde Miller or visit Sharon Hodde at http://sheworships.com

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  • CJS

    Thank-you. This is good info and a good reminder to be careful and mindful of what we spend time watching, listening to and thinking about. In my personal experience, turning from things that support those negative pathways and replacing that time and focus with something more worthy of a Christ follower does tend to gradually reduce the temptations to even think back to those negative pathways.

    Reading your article brought to mind a couple verses that teach us this:
    Romans 12:2 (ESV)
    Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

    James 4:8 (ESV)
    Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

    There are other Scripture references that reinforce what you’ve mentioned (likely even better than these ones) but these just came to mind as I read through. Thanks again – it’s important to feed ourselves and those around us or in our care with “good food” – from the Word, and seek to model and encourage Godly behaviour, thought and lifestyles to keep our minds on “…things above”.

    Blessings!

  • Simon

    Absolutely brilliant article. Thank you. I am going to use some of it in my talks with my church this Sunday. God bless…

  • Angela

    Great article!! I agree with CJS’s comments and thank you for this insightful look at the brain and how it confirms God’s Word !

  • Sam

    Thank you sir for this wonderful article ,I think this article is for me . May God bless you and increase you in all facet of life.

  • Linda Ranson Jacobs

    Excellent take on the brain research. I love the brain research because I’ve worked with children for years and I now find the brain research is validating what I’ve known and thought about regarding children for years. I take all of the research and apply it to how we work with challenging behaviors kids. I’ll be saving this article for future reference in speaking engagements.

    Love the way you explained the neural pathways using the dog and cat example.

    Please keep posting such great information in an understanding way.

    Linda Ranson Jacobs
    DC4K Creator & Ambassador (DivorceCare for Kids)
    Ljacobs@DC4K.org

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