A mother was asking me the other day for resources on how to talk to her six year-old son about death. It wasn’t that a family member had died—or the family dog had. The boy was playing violent video games on play dates (“I don’t allow them in our home” she said), and he came home asking, “Mom, what’s ‘kill’? What’s ‘death’?”
Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” says technology amplifies everything—the exalted and the base. The trouble is, it makes it so much easier to engage our baser instincts. And Carr is saying what legions of brain researchers are telling us: what we habitually focus on actually re-wires our brain. It changes our brain!
We used to think of the brain as a kind of computer that “processes” everything. It was technology that was standard issue at birth, like a machine. You had a certain brain and that was that.
Now we’re discovering that the way we live creates a certain kind of brain. If, for example you live in fear, grab what you need before someone else can take it, harbor deep suspicion of those who don’t belong to your “tribe,” you will live mostly in the amygdala—part of your old, reptilian brain. All those neurons and synapses will fire brilliantly, and your brain will develop a pattern. That will become its default setting.
But if you try to cultivate compassion, an awareness of others and their inherent beauty and dignity, if you intentionally set aside time to worship and pray, you will live more and more in the anterior cingulate. The neurons and synapses in that little sliver of your brain will grow stronger, will respond more quickly. That will become the default setting of your brain.
In other words, how we live literally re-wires our brains.
That is stunning—and yet it’s common knowledge, isn’t it? We all know people who have lived most of their lives in anger and resentment and judgment, and that’s pretty much the way they respond to everything. And we know people who have given themselves to others, cultivated a reverence for what is sacred and beautiful, and found reasons every day to be happy—and when they get up in the morning, that’s their basic default setting. Both have been creating a certain kind of mind, one synapse at a time, day after month after year.
Knowing this, I want to do one thing today—just one simple thing!—that fires my little anterior cingulate. How about you? Let’s focus our hearts and minds on what is true and life-giving so that if our brains are going to be re-wired, God will be the technician.