Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe the brain’s ability to change its structure and function in response to experience — that is, the ability to “rewire” itself.
I first encountered this concept more than 30 years ago during my early work as a physical therapist. If, for example, a stroke had damaged the area of a patient’s brain responsible for the movement of their right arm, movement therapy was implemented to help the surrounding regions of the brain to learn how to perform the functions of the damaged area, resulting in a restoration of movement.
These early thoughts on the brain’s plasticity have been confirmed more recently with the aid of advanced imaging technology, and neuroscientists have discovered that the adult brain has a much greater ability to rewire itself than originally thought.
For example, studies have revealed that London taxi drivers’ navigational demands result in above-average memory centers in their brains. It is their intensive training that is responsible for this brain development.1
Similarly, studies among pianists and string musicians have revealed that practicing an instrument results in the growth of the brain’s areas involved in both motor and auditory functioning.2
Incredibly, researchers have also found that both practicing an instrument and just imagining practicing an instrument result in similar growth of the motor cortex area that controls the fingers. In other words, our thinking has the ability to change the physical structure and function of the brain.3
A similar effect has been found to occur in individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Brain scans reveal that OCD is associated with faulty brain circuits, which can literally be rewired by practicing new ways of thinking; that is, when obsessive thoughts are interrupted with new thoughts, new brain circuits are created, resulting in a weakening of the faulty circuits that initially created the obsessive thoughts.4
While the brain’s ability to rewire itself has profound implications for both physical and mental health, it can also help us understand the process of discipleship, which is the lifelong process of learning to follow Jesus and become more like Him. Central to this process of transformation is a renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2). Just as the brain of an individual who has suffered a stroke or who struggles with OCD can be rewired to improve their functioning, we, as disciples of Jesus, can renew our minds to become more like the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5). And, just as in the case of an individual with a stroke or OCD, where we place our mental effort can change the actual structure and wiring of our brains — setting in motion the forces that make us who we are.
But, you may ask, how does this happen?
As with all neuroplasticity, thinking is at the center of spiritual transformation. As human beings, we were created with free will — the will to choose. Our greatest freedom is the power to choose “what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon.”5 As the apostle Paul stated, by beholding, we become changed (2 Corinthians 3:18); and as Ellen White wrote, “As the perfection of His character is dwelt upon, the mind is renewed, and the soul is re-created in the image of God.”6
Some years ago, I encountered two contrasting models of change that have helped me understand how this renewal of the mind occurs — namely, the model of “trying” to be more like Jesus as opposed to the model of “training” to be more like Him.7 Many Christians adopt the “trying” model. Thus they work hard at trying to be more loving, kind, unselfish, and so on. However, this approach, which focuses on our actions and attitudes, often leads to failure and guilt. In contrast, the “training” model involves a commitment to developing devotional habits that train us to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7).
I had an “aha” moment in understanding the difference between these two approaches some years ago while teaching one of my daughters to drive. As she slid into the driver’s seat, she would often say, “I’m going to try to get all the way to my destination without making a mistake!”
Unfortunately, she would invariably make an error or two and end up feeling discouraged with her driving. I was at a loss to know how to help her. One day, I remembered this concept of “trying” versus “training.”
I said to her, “How about instead of thinking of this as ‘trying’ not to make a mistake, you think of it as ‘training’? That way, you’re not focused on trying not to make a mistake, but rather, on learning new skills and habits each time you drive.”
This shift in her thinking about driving made all the difference! When she made a mistake, she didn’t beat herself up because she knew she was in the process of training.
It also helped me to better understand the spiritual life. Our devotional habits are a basic component of training for discipleship because our habits ultimately shape how our brains are wired and thus who we become. Learning to make devotional habits an integral part of our lives requires effort and intentionality; however, the effort and intentionality is not aimed toward “trying” to become more like Jesus, but rather, toward creating time and space to be with Jesus. And as we spend time with Him, coming face to face with “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8, NIV), we are drawn to the beauty of Jesus.
Through this lifelong process, our minds are slowly “rewired” to love God more and desire to be more like Him.
1. Ferris Jabr, “Cache Cab: Taxi Drivers’ Brains Grow to Navigate London’s Streets,” Scientific American, Dec. 8, 2011, scientificamerican.com/article/london-taxi-memory/.
2. Marc Bangert and Eckart O Altenmüller, “Mapping Perception to Action in Piano Practice: A Longitudinal DC-EEG Study,” BMC Neuroscience 4, no. 26, dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/4734539/270043.pdf?sequence=1.
3. Karen Chan Barrett et al., “Art and Science: How Musical Training Shapes the Brain,” Frontiers in Psychology 4 (2013): 713, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3797461/; Sharon Begley, “The Brain: How the Brain Rewires Itself,” TIME, Jan. 19, 2007, content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580438,00.html.
4. John Gale, “OCD: How Intensive Therapy Can Rewire the Brain,” Mental Health Update blog, Jan. 24, 2008, mentalhealthupdate.blogspot.com/2008/01/ocd-how-intensive-therapy-can-rewire.html.
5. Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2014), 76.
6. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1903), 18.
7. Bill Hull, The Complete Book of Discipleship (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006).