For those of us who are temperamentally and instinctively on the more melancholic side of things, there’s good news. You can change your brain to think more positively and feel more cheerfully.

Until the 1970’s, most scientists believed that our brain structure and emotional makeup was primarily genetic and more or less set in stone, especially after teenage years. More recent research has demonstrated that we can actually change our brain structures and connections, improving our overall mood in the process.

A pill or surgery?
So how do we change our brains? Is there a pill, an operation, or a one-off intervention? No, we retrain our brains by multiple little daily decisions. That’s good news – and bad news.

It’s good news because it means we don’t need to do anything dramatic, expensive, or invasive.

The bad news is that it involves effort – disciplined and determined effort to increase the number of positive experiences in our everyday lives. These multiple, little, daily positives not only give us a quick squirt of happy emotions and improved performance but, as they become a habit, they raise our baseline happiness. Scientists call this neuroplasticity – yes, your brain is plastic and that’s actually a good thing – to convey how adaptable, flexible, and elastic our brains are.

New Pathways
Let me take you into the forest to explain. My kids love to cycle through the paths in the woods that back on to our yard. But every Spring the forest fights back and grows over the pathways. For a few weeks the kids slow right down, pushing away the leaves and branches that hang in the wrong place. They run over the fresh undergrowth rather gingerly, not wanting to take a heavy fall. But as the days and weeks pass, the branches and undergrowth submit to the repeated assaults and clear the way for our would-be X-games contestants to fly through the forest with the greatest of ease.

Something similar happens in our brains. We create electrical and chemical pathways with our thoughts. As we think our way down these pathways we strengthen the brain connections, As somebody put it, “cells that fire together, wire together.”  The more we travel these mental paths, the faster and easier these paths become, so that eventually our thoughts and resultant action feels automatic.  Harvard psychology professor and bestselling author, Shawn Achor, illustrates:

Just think of how you learned how to type at your computer. With practice it got easier as the pathways got more frequently used and the connections got stronger and faster. So much so that you can now type almost without thinking. Your thoughts and actions have re-shaped your brain roads. Through repetition, a good habit has become engrained and cemented in your brain structures and processes.

One of the most dramatic examples of this is a study of London cab drivers’ brains that showed they “had significantly larger hippocampi, the brain structure devoted to spatial memory, than the average person’s” [The Happiness Advantage, 28].

Renew your mind
I’m hugely encouraged by how this science confirms and explains Scripture. Through the Apostle Paul, God calls us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom .12:2). Both science and Scripture agree, we can change our brains by retraining them, we can renew our minds, and thereby be transformed.

Although science and Scripture disagree, to some extent, in the details of how this takes place, this “plastic brain” or “mind renewal” possibility opens up tremendous opportunities for personal change, growth, and development. And for Christians, who have the additional resources of the Holy Spirit and Scripture, the potential for transformation is hugely multiplied.

  • Joe Bailey

    Thanks for this post, Dr Murray. I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot lately.

    I’m a physiology undergraduate and have just been studying the theories of synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus and cerebellum. It makes me wonder about the interaction between the spiritual and natural here. If unbelievers can ‘renew their minds’ by positive thinking through the entirely natural mechanism of neural plasticity, do believers have some sort of ‘sanctified plasticity’ going on? What is the interaction between the natural and supernatural in this process in the lives of believers?

    If we say that brain plasticity is a major part of sanctification do we not open ourselves up to the criticism that the change observed in the lives of Christians is just natural behavioural change that anyone can achieve rather than the Holy Spirit effecting change?

    Do you know of any resources that deal with these questions? I would be interested to read up more.

    • David Murray

      Good questions, Joe. I’ve been thinking about them myself as well, and thus far I’ve not found Christian answers. But here’s my attempt to understand it. God uses the plasticity of the brain in sanctification, but sanctification is something far more than neuroplasticity because (1) the believer has the Holy Spirit (2) the Holy Spirit works on the “heart” (the immaterial part of us) as well as on the brain (3) and the Holy Spirit uses Scripture, which is more powerful than positive thoughts.

  • Frederika

    I believe this is true in my life. I have had times that there were circumstances and reasons to be depressed. But I have a wonderful husband who would point me to the Lord, His blessings and almighty power. He simply would not allow me to be depressed and looking back, I haven’t been really depressed for years. I could have continued to wallow in my depression and I think I would have had a “pity party,” to be sure. I would not go as far as saying that everyone’s brain is “plastic” to the same degree; there are things which are genetic and organic. I do think the kind of people who are in our life makes a difference as to how we respond to depressions – certainly mild ones. This is where especially Scripture comes in – I have Psalms in my memory and find that often the Lord will give something from His Word to help me and even cheer me. The kind of preaching and teaching we have in church also plays a big role. But could there not be learned behaviour that becomes imprinted on our mind and emotions, which may be described as “plastic” and “mind renewal,” but are just another way of describing the biblical process of sanctification?

    • David Murray

      Good points Ricky. The people in our lives make such a difference, don’t they. See what I wrote in the comment above about the difference between neuroplasticity and sanctification.

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