Dear Inspiration Seekers,
In my youth, I recall Billy Joel had a song, “Only the Good Die Young.” I had an ambivalent response to a catchy tune with lyrics that I considered questionable (tempting “Virginia” to come out tonight, suggesting that she would enjoy losing the first two syllables of her name). However, being in a more fervent, and concrete, understanding of Christian principles, I thought, “He’s right. The good die young to a sinful life”. Well, that’s like saying that the Rolling Stones’ song, “Brown Sugar” is about Jelly Beans and not your jelly roll.
I recall a Christian rock group of that era having a song quoting lots of lyrics from 70’s rock songs, like “dust in the wind”, etc. I have not dredged up the group’s name or the song title yet, but the refrain that I recall went something like, “and, they believe what they record”. This brings us to the interesting field of neuropsychology. Basically, what I and this song are getting at is that any thought or action which one repeats numerous times changes neurophysiology and chemistry. Thus, we influence the development and function of our brains by what we think and do.
Last week, on the NPR program “Fresh Air” (www.npr.org, 6/23/11 program), Terry Gross interviewed a neuro-science researcher, David J. Linden about his book, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Food, Orgasms, Exercises, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, and Gambling Feel So Good. This professor at Johns Hopkins University discussed our understanding of the neuroscience of desire, compulsion, and addiction. I wonder how Paul would have incorporated such information into his ideas about how we are slaves to sin or grace. But, first, let me back up and discuss how our brains change with experience.
In my 20+ years of working as an occupational therapist, I have seen many clients progress or stagnate in the therapy. What I propose is that the difference is our ability to work together to alter their neurophysiology and chemistry. This could be working with clients who have mental illnesses, using various conditioning techniques to learn the steps of a functional task, or social learning theory to use role modeling of behaviors, or cognitive therapy to replace dysfunctional thoughts, which perpetuate depressive moods, with functional thoughts, which break the pattern of perceived failure. Or, I might be working with clients who are recovering from strokes or head injuries to relearn how to move an arm, or improve their balance while doing household tasks standing (folding laundry, washing dishes, cooking, running the vacuum…), building on the principles of neuroplasticity to build new brain pathways around damaged neurons. Or, I might be working with a child to stimulate visual processing areas of the brain to develop eye-hand coordination, in order to assemble a Lincoln Log structures or throw and catch a ball. All of these therapy techniques are based on the idea that doing a task numerous times creates new neuron connections or stimulates the brain’s productions of neurotransmitters, which then can bond with neuroreceptor sites to trigger some action.
Here is a short lesson in neurodevelopment. Our brains have the capacity to make additional connections and new connections from one neuron to another. These neurons have receptor sites, which bond with the neurotransmitters to stimulate some sensory perception, thought or muscle action. Our brains have the ability to grow more neuroreceptor sites, as well as to increase the amount of neurotransmitters jumping from one neuron to another. What makes all of this activity occur is stimulation.
The results of this are obvious to see in growing children. We watch them learn to roll, crawl, cruise, stand, walk, run, and say, “No”, “Mine”, “Oh, gross, I don’t want to go with you” (teenage response to parents). It is obvious that motor and language pathways are growing, allowing more complex movement and communication behaviors. More recent research has verified what we therapists have known for decades, that adults can make changes in their brains too. The development of brain-imagining technologies over the past couple of decades have allowed us to start studying the brain to better understand where different action occur in the brain, and how damaged brains recover.
For instance, the frontal lobe is usually most active when we are making decisions and contemplating concepts. Brain imaging techniques have determined that people who are good story tellers and liars both have more neural pathways and neurotransmitters going in this section of the brain. Both use their enhanced brain development to create stories, though for different ends. The occipital lobe, in the back of the brain, processes visual information. Artists who work in visual medium (painting, film, etc.) have more activity going on here and therefore are able to “see” so much more acutely than most of us, hence are able to create visual images which dazzle us in galleries and theaters. The parietal lobe (on the sides) control our muscles. Athletes can develop these area for more forceful and precise movements both by physically practicing the desired movement as well as by thinking-through the action. Interestingly, video games, which mostly use thumb and finger actions, develop very specific sections of this area related to the hands, but not the rest of this area, even though the gamer may be watching a character run around and lop off nasty beasts and enemies heads, etc. More recently, the Wii and other brands of games have begun to utilize body movements to control the game, but Wii tennis is not really the same motions as a real game of tennis. My nephews would probably tell me that I suck at both.
“Normal” brains have a certain range of neurons and neurotransmitters allowing most of us to function within the normal range of sensory perceptions, thought processes, and motor actions. People who lack either the neural connections or the neurotransmitters will not experience or behave close to the rest of us. Those who either do not have the genetics or life experiences to develop the limbic system may under-respond to emotional stimulus. They are not likely to get excited or passionate about events going on around them. People who have lots of neural connects in the limbic system are likely to over-respond to events. They may appear enthusiastic to short-fused.
As I suggested with using brain imagery techniques with athletes, we can enhance neural pathways by thinking about doing something before actually doing it. We do not need to actually experience an event to have the experience of an event. Dreaming is another example of this. When we dream, visual centers, auditory centers, and story telling centers of the brain become active. Sometimes, these might even stimulate motor centers in the brains, such as sleep walking, talking in one’s sleep, or moving limbs in response to the dreams. Ever see a dog run and bark while sleeping? Whatever is in our brains tends to be what we dream about. This is why we do not watch scary movies in the evening. Also, have you ever had that experience of dreaming intensely about something you wanted to say to someone, then the next day you were unsure whether you had already had the conversation or just dreamt about it?
Now take this a step further, for some people they have misperceptions of information. An external stimulus has occurred, but the person, based on his or her experiences interprets the stimulus in a way, which is not warranted by the activity going on. This could be a grieving person who sees someone who looks like the lost person and for an instant perceives that the other person is the lost person. This could be the person with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) who perceives danger when sounds, sights, or thought about the trauma occur. Because of their prior experience, they have developed neural pathways that are sensitive to specific stimuli. To go a step further, people who hallucinate, which is most typically an auditory experience, have more activity going on in those sections of the brain which perceive sound. No external sound is occurring, but the person perceives the internal stimulus of the temporal lobe (left side) as quite real. Essentially, the same phenomenon, which most of us experience and recognize as dreams, occurs for these folks when they are awake.
Okay, back to Dr. Linden’s research. He described how various activities that we do stimulate pleasure centers of the brain. With repetition these actions develop additional connections between neurons in specific sections of the brain. Then, with more repetitions the brain produces more neuroreceptors, then more neurotransmitters. An actions soon becomes self-perpetuating as the brain reinforces then seeks out more of the same stimulation.
In most people’s lives, these experiences are exploratory, soon replaced by other experiences, such that we develop a wide variety of neural pathways to allow us to a wide variety of actions. However, for some, the pathways become so dominant that they begin to compulsively seek out the stimulus in order to continue enhancing that pathway or to fill all those developed neuroreceptors with the correct combination of neurotransmitters. This is when the behavior begins to control the person. The final stage of development is addiction, when the person no longer seeks the stimulus for the sake of the experience, but seeks the stimulus to avoid the withdrawal because the neuroreceptor site loose the bond resulting in an unpleasant experience.
What I found interesting in this interview is that Dr. Linden’s research demonstrated that both socially detrimental actions (drug, promiscuous sex, gambling, over-eating) as well as desirable actions (generosity, carrying, compassion) could stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. And, repetition of desirable behaviors would develop the neural pathways, thus reinforcing the continuation of desirable behavior. Dr Linden stated that he believed that insight into this process and guidance could help someone come to realize his or her destructive behavior and to begin to take responsibility to avoid stimuli that triggered those parts of the brain to act, and to help the person develop alternative behaviors and pathways.
Compulsions and addictions are certainly a form of slavery to some behavior. Paul asserts that we can be a slaves to sin or to grace. If one repeats a sinful action, he or she becomes a slave to this. If one carries out a righteous action, he or she becomes a slave to this instead. I bet Paul would have been all over neuroscience to support his claims. I will be interested in future research on where faith stimulates the brain.
Romans 6: “I am what I think and do. Am I thinking about ‘Got To Believe’ (Sweet Comfort Band), or ‘Highway to Hell’ (AC/DC)”?
Until next time Inspiration Seekers.
Just a reminder, I will be posting only one Inspiration blog from now on, usually at the beginning of the week. My father finalizes his Bible study lessons on Saturday. So, if you want to join the discussion, post your replies by Friday.