Our Brains and Healing

I recently read, “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, MD and was fascinated by it and want to relate it to both my understanding about God and my own personal experience. The book is purely scientific, but I think has incredibly powerful information when used in conjunction with a strong understanding and faith in the one who designed our brains in the first place.

The Book relates information regarding the plasticity of the brain and how it can change and reorganize itself in response to certain stimuli, injuries, or events. It seems that the brain is capable of healing many injuries such as stroke by making new neural pathways and borrowing space from other areas of the brain. The research supporting this is fairly new to the scientific world, coming from the last two or three decades, and only gaining widespread support very recently. Before that the dominant theories regarded the brain as a “hardwired” machine that could not change after childhood, and once an area was damaged, it would be gone forever.

The healing that takes place this way is distinctly different from the healing that Christ offers us, or that He and the Apostles did (i.e. miracles). Christ’s healing is a true return to the previous uninjured state, so complete that it can resurrect the completely dead body. The healing of the plastic brain does not truly heal the damaged areas, but shows us that we can re-learn lost motor and mental skills, or even improve skills we never had, through practice and “rewiring” our brains to use areas previously reserved for other functions. Even so, some of the stories talked about in this book are remarkable and inspirational. And they do something that is often quite important for those who are suffering, which is to give us hope. What does having hope do? It leads us to faith – “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. Faith is the thing we need to gain the true healing that Christ offers us. Yes, there is a promise of something better. We hope for it first, not knowing for certain if or when it will happen, but having a suspicion it just might, whether now or later. This hope lifts us up, and if placed correctly in Christ, it can be led to grow, to know that healing will indeed take place – again, not knowing whether now or later, but knowing that if we do see healing now, it is only a foretaste of the healing that will come later. But it starts with hope. This is why Jesus healed during his ministry; it gave people hope for a better life. It gave them reason to understand that there is a path to a real healing faith.

This book was recommended to me by my cousin as I was describing a condition I came down with over a year ago, most likely as a result of a crazy ear infection. I lost at least 80% of my sense of equilibrium. I have very little sense of balance at all except through the information I get through sight (and I have been legally blind in one eye since birth). My vestibular system is all but useless as the nerves that send the information from my inner ear to my brain are permanently damaged. It turns out that the first chapter in the book relates the story of a woman who had the same condition (although from a different cause), but even worse with at least 98% loss of equilibrium. She could not even walk unassisted for over 5 years, whereas I can walk and do most normal activities, but may appear to be drunk sometimes, staggering and wobbling, sometimes falling if I do sudden fast motions. The chapter relates how Paul Bach-y-Rita, a pioneer in neuroplasticity, through his understanding of the plasticity of the brain, was able to reroute her sense of balance through a machine that replicated her vestibular system through her tongue and back to the brain, bypassing the vestibular nerve. Whenever she was on the machine her balance would immediately return, but would also stay after the machine was disconnected for a limited time. This residual, limited time effect would last longer with each session until it finally stayed permanently and she now has an equilibrium as good an anyone else again, even though her regular vestibular system is still in the same damaged state it used to be in.

This healing gives me hope for my eventual recovery as well, even though the treatment is not readily available, or even known of by the specialists I have seen. There are similar stories which give hope to many others – stroke patients, autistic children, those with many learning and physical disabilities (whether from birth or not), behavioral problems including addiction, anger and neuroses, PTSD, and a host of others. Many of these problems do have treatments now readily available to the general public through different exercise and therapy programs that these neuroplasticians have developed.

The one area mentioned above that I would like to discuss a bit more with relation to Biblical concepts is the ability to change behavior. We would all love to eliminate, or at least reduce sin in our lives, and that is just behavior. We all know that humans have the ability to change our behavior somewhat, but we also know that certain behaviors can be extremely difficult to change. We may have tried to do so on many occasions and failed, deciding that we just don’t have what it takes to change ourselves anymore, or that we are just too old to do so now. It turns out that the very mechanism that makes our brains plastic and changeable is also to blame for the rigidity that develops as we age. In order to change an ingrained habit, we must make a new pathway in the neural network that bypasses that habit or sin. Changing habits is not easy, as we all know. The book uses the analogy of sledding down a snowy hill to relate how ingrained behaviors or habits are formed. We start with fluffy untouched snow and no path down. As we proceed down for the first time, we make decisions, maybe good ones, maybe bad ones. The more we sled down (or come across the same situation in life), the more one path will become the most used and dominant path, with its ruts becoming deeper and harder to steer out of (neural pathways are being reinforced). After time, the only way to change the route will be to set up a roadblock in the path to force the change. That forcing of change can be painful, too. For example, for people with good eyesight it is extremely difficult to gain the finger sensitivity necessary to learn braille because they have neural paths used since birth that do not require that sensitivity to make sense of the world around them. Any amount of effort to gain that sensitivity will generally fail. But if people are completely blindfolded for just one week, they quickly develop incredible finger sensitivity and can thus learn braille much easier. The blindfold was the roadblock that forced our brain to change.

There is a biblical parallel to this roadblock technique. Jesus tells us “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out…if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Matthew 5:29-30. It seems that Jesus understood the extreme measures that it can take to rewire our brains to avoid sin. Sinning is often so wired into our brains that we cannot change the patterns that cause us to sin by our own will alone. In fact, the more we try to concentrate on it, the more we fail. The reason is that the more we think about the problem, the more we are using the same neural networks that cause them in the first place. We need to set up a roadblock. If we really are having some recurring sin that involves our right hand as a major component of the sin, literally cutting it off could help. This is not just figurative language here, although it does work in figurative ways as well. If we literally amputated that right hand, it is true that the hand would not be there to physically be able to cause the sin, but if that were all there was to it, we would likely just start using our other hand for the same thing. But because of the way our neural pathways work, we will have also set a roadblock forcing us to build new behavioral pathways, and if our will to not sin was strong enough to cause us to actually amputate our hand, we will likely have the motivation at that point to take the opportunity to build a new healthier neural network in regard to the old behavior we wanted to stop. The area of the brain that had been designated to control that hand will now be available real estate waiting to be used up by other parts of the body that can be more useful to us. We will have created a new hill to sled down, full of fluffy virgin snow. All we would need to do would be to work hard at modeling right behavior during the initial recovery period to build a more appropriate pathway down the snowy hill, so that the new habit will be the one we want. Yes, it may seem a drastic measure to be taken, but remember that our bodies are temporary anyways, and it can just be a matter of strategy to get to the end product, like sacrificing a pawn or even a rook or bishop in a chess match, if it will help us to win in the end.