Can You Re-Wire Your Brain?
In a recent post, I briefly mentioned the physiological power that sexual experiences have on the brain. This idea then raised a question: “If porn use or other sexual sin ‘wires’ our brains to that experience, is it possible to ‘re-wire’ our brains—and if so, how?” This is an incredibly practical and important question. If we know that our history of sin has left a biological imprint on our brains, should that fact encourage or discourage us?
Let me start by saying that I am not a neuroscientist. I am a theologian and a pastor. But the principles involved here are virtually mainstream. They have been a common pop-science topic for at least the last decade. Searching for any terms related to addiction, habit formation, or habit change produces dozens of posts, videos, TED Talks, etc., that describe the neuroscience in terms that ordinary people can understand. Why is this the case? People have always been interested in self-help. People are desperate to change. They want to believe that destructive habits are defeatable, and they want to know how to do it.
What is the consistent message you will find if you browse these pop science articles and videos? The message is this: “Change is not easy but is definitely possible.” One of my favorite words that comes up in this regard is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the fact that the brain is not “hard-wired” and static but really does change, even in the matter of habit and addiction. In fact, things like habit and addiction exist because of neuroplasticity. Many describe the “habit cycle”—a loop of trigger, behavior, reward, and repetition, which results in the brain constructing a strong set of neural connections that makes it easy, “natural,” and even compulsive for us to go back to a certain behavior. A common image is of a very well-worn path in our brains that therefore is the regular and easiest way to deal with the challenges, disappointment, stress, weariness, or boredom of daily life. Neuroplasticity describes the fact that your brain develops such a well-worn path, but it also describes the possibility of changing that path, of developing new and better paths and abandoning the old path until it is grown over and obscure again.
So, what do I make of this as a theologian? Let me give a few short ideas.
- We should be more encouraged. Every site, video, or article I have read on change and neuroplasticity is presented from a materialistic, evolutionary worldview. There is ultimately no concept of moral right and wrong and no influence or reality other than the “scientific,” “biological,” or “psychological.” There is no God and no gospel; it is purely self-help. But the biology they describe is real. So, if the non-believing world sees hope for change, we who know God and the gospel should even more. Our fight against the physiological momentum of our sin is empowered by the Spirit of God himself and anchored in an eternal hope and identity in Christ.
- Many of the applications, tips, and suggestions you will find in posts about neuroplasticity and changing bad habits look a lot like aspects of healthy, biblical, gospel life. For instance, here are a few…
- Awareness. Most writers assume, but some explicitly mention, that the first step to “rewire” a habit is to consciously identify it.1 So, too, we begin by honest confession of sin. The difference, of course, is that we don’t believe we are dealing simply with an unwanted habit, but a violation of the will of our Creator and Lord. So our identification of our “habits” is not merely an internal exercise of self-awareness; it is a humbling of ourselves before our holy and merciful God.
- A big goal. Amber Murphy says, “Find Purpose.”2 Emily Blatchford says, “Be Mindful of the Goal.”3 The idea is that a clear vision and goal is essential to motivating and guiding your efforts to change. Again, consider what we have in the gospel. Rather than a self-chosen goal, limited by our sense of personal ability and always uncertain because of the contingencies of life, we have the firm assurance that we are united to Christ, secure in his righteousness and destined for resurrection and glory. This is our current and future identity. Throughout the New Testament, this certain goal motivates and shapes our change efforts as we “set our minds on things above” (Colossians 3).
- Attention to deeper motivations. One writer gives an example I think many of us can relate to: “For instance, in college, biking past a Krispy Kreme was one trigger in a chain of triggers that led me to buy a bunch of donuts and eat them all. Yes, seeing the Krispy Kreme was a physical trigger. But, when I dig deeper and trace it back further, I recognize that I felt triggered going past the Krispy Kreme because of a deeper, unmet emotional need. I was particularly depressed in college, with no coping mechanisms or support.”4 We could put this in the category of the Bible’s teaching about the heart as the inner source of our patterns of thought and behavior. Much of the Tree Model that we use at Harvest USA is aimed at helping us uncover and apply the gospel to those deeper levels of our sin. (For a description of our Tree Model, click here.)
- Examine rewards. The idea here is to “disillusion the brain”5 by honestly facing the negative consequences of the behavior. The Bible repeatedly warns us that we reap what we sow. This principle is true even after we are united to Christ by faith. The book of Proverbs is full of helpful applications of this principle.
- Don’t do it alone. Amber Murphy’s final point is, “Be with the right people.”6 We are not islands; we are social beings. The encouragement and accountability of friends is built into the way we are created; it is also part of our redemption. When we are united to Christ, we are united to the church community, which the Bible calls Christ’s Body. God’s intent is that we would serve each other, enabling each of us to make progress against sin—even the sins that we find so difficult because of physiological momentum. This is why we encourage groups in local churches for mutual encouragement and targeting of certain sins. (For suggested group curricula, go here.)
These are just a few of the ways that popular advice on “rewiring” the brain recognizes truths that we have even more powerfully in the gospel. This should encourage us all the more to pursue the means of grace given to us. God has created us as a body-soul unit. It should not surprise us that the corruption of sin affects our bodies. Neither should it surprise us that the spiritual transformation of the gospel can reach even our bodies. This is not to say that we can expect to be completely rid of all of the corruption of our nature in this life. We will continue to be tempted both from outside influences and from our own hearts. At the least, we will always know by experience the “taste” of sin as a memory that the tempter can seize upon. But there is great hope that through the means given us in the gospel, we can “rewire” our brains from destructive and enslaving habits.
1 Blatchford, Emily. “Identifying them and labelling them is the first step.” https://www.huffpost.com/archive/au/entry/how-neuroplasticity-can-help-you-get-rid-of-your-bad-habits_a_23283591
4 Sheikh, Alyssia. https://mindovermunch.com/food-freedom/habit-loop-neuroplasticity/