The human brain has become absolutely fascinating to me. And as I study the brain it becomes more and more apparent to me how infinite God is and how mortal, small and ignorant I am. I want to study the brain is because I believe that Jesus became one of us, with a brain just like us. Born of the Spirit, yet in flesh like us, Jesus had a brain that needed to be trained to victory! He did it!! How? And can I?
I want to understand the part Jesus, as a man, played in His victory. I want to understand how He thought, how He felt, and how He prepared Himself to fulfill His Fatherʼs calling on His life. I want to understand what went on in His mind, in His brain, when temptation came to Him. Why did He pray all night? Why the experience in the wilderness? How did He prepare Himself for Gethsemane? How did He keep from becoming afraid of the wily spies constantly on His track, or of the devilʼs constant hounding? How did He always “land on His feet” when faced with conflict?
Yes, we know that ultimately it was because of the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, but He had a part to play in overcoming. So do we. I want to understand how He survived His time of trouble, for He is our Example in all things, and we have a time of trouble ahead of us as well. How did Jesus stay connected to the Power Source?
We are told in Desire of Ages, page 123, “The prince of this world cometh," said Jesus, "and hath nothing in Me." John 14:30. There was in Him nothing that responded to Satan's sophistry. He did not consent to sin. Not even by a thought did He yield to temptation. So it may be with us. Christ's humanity was united with divinity; He was fitted for the conflict by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And He came to make us partakers of the divine nature. So long as we are united to Him by faith, sin has no more dominion over us. God reaches for the hand of faith in us to direct it to lay fast hold upon the divinity of Christ, that we may attain to perfection of character.”
I want to understand how to cooperate with God in this process!
In an average adult the brain weighs only 3-4 pounds, and is so soft one could easily slice through it with a butter knife. According to a computer scientist at Stanford University, a robot with a processor as smart as the human brain would require at least 10 megawatts to operate. That's the amount of energy produced by a small hydroelectric plant. While one is awake, the brain produces enough electricity to light a small light bulb! The brainʼs memory storage capacity is 2.5 petabytes (2,500 terabytes). To put that in perspective, the entire print collection of the U.S. Library of Congress is estimated at 10 terabytes. But even this might be understating the brainʼs processing and storage capacity. Why do we struggle so to memorize Scripture with all that “hardware”?
At birth humans have around a 100 billion brain cells, but only a small number of neurons, or brain cells, are actually connected. By age three a childʼs brain has formed about 1,000 trillion connections, about twice as many as adults have, but by around age 11, the brain begins to prune unused connections. Connections, known as synapses, that are used repeatedly in the early years become permanent; those that are not are eliminated. Amazingly, every time we have a new thought or a new experience, a new connection is made in the brain. The more an activity or thought is repeated, the stronger these connections become, forming habits. And if a habit is neglected for a long time, connections will eventually be “pruned away.”
Recent studies have shown that our brains add new neurons throughout life, so it is a myth that we are born with all the brain cells we will ever have. The process of producing new neurons is called neurogenesis, and can be enhanced by exercising, engaging in mentally stimulating activities and eating a healthy diet.
Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, have provided scientists with amazing insights into how different areas of the brain actually work. Most people know that the brain is not only divided into halves, but into lobes as well. Each lobe performs specific duties. Some of the parts of the brain important for us to consider in our study include the frontal lobe, which is responsible for morality and critical thinking, and the emotional center of the brain, which includes the cingulate gyri, hypothalamus, amygdala (emotional reactions) and hippocampus (memory).
As I considered these emotional centers, I learned that these are among the most powerful areas of the brain, often “hijacking” the brain altogether. This can leave an individual helpless in the grip of a variety of panic or anxiety disorders. It is particularly the amygdala that is responsible for this hijacking. How did Jesus avoid this emotional hijacking as He faced stressors day by day? How can I?
Studies done on Navy Seals afford some interesting insight into this issue. We all know that the inability to breathe can cause panic like nothing else! As candidates advance through their training, they come to a part that includes underwater exercises. In these exercises, the trainees go underwater with SCUBA gear, and face the challenge of having an “enemy” repeatedly fouling the gear, shutting off the oxygen valve, kinking the lines, jerking the breathing apparatus from their mouths, etc. Due to the inability to remain calm and repeatedly solve the problems with their gear while suffering a lack of oxygen, this exercise eliminated more candidates than any other portion of the training. The Navy wanted to know why. What goes on in the brain that seems to “take over” and cause this panic? And is there a way this can be circumvented? What they discovered is fascinating to me.
The Navy study used the fMRI, and showed that the amygdala was responsible for the troubles. During the intense stress of the training activity, the amydgala responds by flooding the brain w/stress hormones, so that neurons, instead of working by electricity, work by hormones, which is much faster. This causes the amygdala to essentially over ride the frontal lobes and conscious reasoning, kicking in the “fight or flight” reaction, which results in panic as opposed to calm, controlled thinking. In order to combat this panic the Navy developed a preparatory training that included the following purposeful thought disciplines: Goal Setting, Mental Rehearsal, Self Talk, and Arousal Control.
In these steps, the candidates trained their minds to focus on a goal. For example, “the next minute”, or “the next breath”, etc. Next, as they anticipated facing a stressful situation or task they mentally rehearsed that task, going through each step of the process over and over. Next, they talked encouragingly to themselves of success. “You can do it.” “One more step.”, etc. Finally, they learned to subdue emotional triggers that would arouse fears, forcing the amygdala to yield to the frontal lobe activity. Once candidates underwent this training, the success rate for the underwater training improved dramatically.
The human will is amazing. But will that be enough? Will human will power and discipline suffice when “there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was...?” Daniel 12:1. And what does this have to do with Jesus? After all, He overcame by the power of the Holy Spirit, right? Yes, but He had to cooperate, and so must we!
Did Jesus train His brain to victory? Consider the Psalms, Isaiah 58, and similar passages. Jesus knew what was coming! Psalm 22 contains actual phrases made by Jesus in His passion, evidence that He had given considerable thought to His mission and its cost. What “professionals” of our day might call “self talk”, was actually prayer. He encourages His hope of victory in verse 22, “I will declare Thy name unto My brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise Thee.” I believe that the Psalms are rich with evidence of Jesusʼ cooperation with the Father for what He would face. Remember, neuronal connections have to be established in the brain to enable the frontal lobe to over ride the flooding effects of a stimulated amygdala!
“The time of trouble such as never was, is soon to open upon us; and we shall need an experience which we do not now possess, and which many are too indolent to obtain. It is often the case that trouble is greater in anticipation than in reality; but this is not true of the crisis before us. The most vivid presentation cannot reach the magnitude of the ordeal.” Great Controversy, page 622
There are both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters in the brain. The excitatory ones decide if a message will continue to fire off other neurons, and inhibitory ones decide it shall be carried no further. When a tempting thought comes to mind, our choice to yield or resist determines which neurotransmitter will be released. Reading the book, “Healing the Broken Brain”, by Dr. Elden Chalmers, I discovered something that absolutely fascinates me!
When temptation comes, it produces a certain level of electricity. Letʼs say we are tempted to eat something we know we should not. That temptation may produce 30 millivolts of electricity. It takes at least 10 millivolts of electricity to cause a neuron to fire. If we half-heartedly say, “I really shouldnʼt eat this...”, we may fire 40 millivolts of electricity, causing the inhibitory neurotransmitter to “win.” We know that the devil cannot read our minds, but can surely read our actions (Gospel Workers, page 417; 1 Mind, Character, and Personality, page 31). He sees our half-hearted resistance, and knows he must only “turn up the volume” on the next temptation in order to win. The more decidedly we say “NO!” to temptation, pleading with the Lord for strength, the more millivolts of electricity will be fired, and the devil will get the message! Further, the more decidedly we resist temptation, the quicker the neuronal pathways to victory will be developed in our brains.
“Resistance is success. "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." Resistance must be firm and steadfast. We lose all we gain if we resist today only to yield tomorrow.” Our High Calling, page 95.
What about Jesus? Watch Him in the wilderness! What did He say, and how? “Get thee HENCE, Satan!!”, was His command! I wonder how many millivolts Jesus fired with when He said that!?
The brain also contains “mirror neurons.” Mirror neurons respond when our minds picture something such as the actions or experiences of another individual. What we think about causes our bodies to respond. With mirror neurons, when we know the intention of anotherʼs action, we can empathize and/or imitate behavior--we “feel” what they feel, and vicariously participate. Just watch people at a ball game or a movie and youʼll get the picture. This is part of our ability to “enter in” to the sufferings or experiences of others.
We are told in Desire of Ages, page 83 that we should “spend a thoughtful hour” reflecting on the life of Jesus. The emphasis is given to “especially the closing scenes.” Are we really doing this? Are we setting goals? Encouraging ourselves in the promises of God? Subduing feelings, bringing them to the test of “it is written?” Are we daily training the mind to victory? Are we developing those neuronal pathways? If we think that we will be prepared for what lies ahead by any normal, nominal, casual, occasional mental and spiritual exercises, we must think again. God has “wired” us with the mirror neurons so that we can empathize with Jesus!
Is your goal to survive and represent Jesus in the coming scenes? According to Dr. Chalmers, the brain does not like a conflict between convictions and actions. In other words, if we donʼt live what we believe, in order to solve the dilemma, the brain will re- wire in order to match the actions. Hence, conviction dies away. Can we ever be victorious this way? It is risky business to delay cooperation with the Lord in the development of brain pathways of victory. We have a part to play!
“The only security for any soul is right thinking. As a man "thinketh in his heart, so is he." Proverbs 23:7. The power of self-restraint strengthens by exercise. That which at first seems difficult, by constant repetition grows easy, until right thoughts and actions become habitual. If we will we may turn away from all that is cheap and inferior, and rise to a high standard...” Ministry of Healing, page 491
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus...” Philippians 2:5.
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus...” Philippians 2:5. “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their live unto the death” Revelation 12:11