Surprise! No one expects brain plasticity!
In The Body Keeps the Score the author writes
Research from these new disciplines has revealed that trauma produces actual physiological changes, including a recalibration of the brain’s alarm system, an increase in stress hormone activity , and alterations in the system that filters relevant information from irrelevant. We now know that trauma compromises the brain area that communicates the physical, embodied feeling of being alive. These changes explain why traumatized individuals become hypervigilant to threat at the expense of spontaneously engaging in their day-to-day lives.
van der Kolk MD, Bessel (2014-09-25). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Kindle Locations 190-194). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
You will find not only the assertion about brain elasticity in just about every other popular “brain book” you find today but you will also find that it is assumed we receive this information as a surprise.
“Surprise! drugs, behaviors, and significant relational events reshape the brain!”
Why should we be surprised? That is the more interesting question.
If your leg it shot by a bullet you bone may be shattered and you will not be able to walk. If a knife severs an artery you will bleed. If it severs a tendon you might not be able to more your arm. If you lift weights your muscles become larger and stronger and your bones stronger. If you watch TV all the time your muscles atrophy and your arteries clog up. Older people who keep their brains active stay sharper. These things don’t surprise us.
So what did we imagine the brain was?
We might have thought it was like a radio, that no matter what is playing on it the electronic circuitry of the radio remains the same. Maybe we thought it was like a computer chip. No matter what we are doing with it the hardware (but not the electron flow) remains the same. Why did we think this? We mostly assumed it.
Our Deep Connection to Each Other and Our Past
So what we do in life, how we treat one another, who we are, all shapes us at a very deep level. It not only matters what trauma you suffer but at whose hands you suffered it matters. If a biological mother abandons her child the brain of the baby is shaped. If a father verbally abuses his son, as opposed to a stranger, the brain will be shaped in a different way. Our relational world shapes our brains and our brains shape our relational world. Anyone who has paid any attention to psychology since its inception knows that not all relationship are of equal importance and that relationships and events in our past shape our future relationships and events. We know that sometimes consequences can be devastating and at the same time there is hope for change. The brain remains plastic even if in decreasing measure.
Our spiritual worlds are also relational worlds. Part of the thesis of secularity is that your religious or spiritual life is incidental, private, inconsequential. The shape of your relationships will in fact shape the brain to impact future relationships and spirituality and religion will do the same. This too should come as no surprise. Sin shapes us. Virtue shapes us. Our practices shape us. The realization of this should too come as no surprise.
We are always being shaped into something. The mechanics of our brain tell the story. What are we being shaped into? That is the important question.