Category Archives: Personal stories

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.

Banjos and God

When I started making banjos, I had no knowledge of the workings of the banjo world and no connections to even a single banjo player. I didn’t play banjo and hadn’t ever build one. I wasn’t even familiar with the vast majority of well-known banjo players and music out there. All I had was a suspicion that the banjo was the direction that God wanted my artistic career to take, and I dove in to building one.

I have had those suspicions in my life before. A few years after I graduated from college, where my belief in a Biblical Creator had been beaten out of me, I had a suspicion that God would be coming back into my life in a renewed way, even though I did not consider myself a Christian at that point. I soon got a job at a small bronze foundry casting artwork for the owner, a sculptor who had curious views about God. He took literally the words and directives of the Bible, trying to follow them in the way that they first century church did, before they were corrupted by government dominated “religion”. Being a self-confident young educated person, I argued points with him only to have him explain his stances in ways that actually made sense. He pointed me to his library of books (kept in our “break room”, which was also his little studio apartment where he lived on the foundry premises), and I spent all my breaks and lunches in there reading, often being late back to work. I worked at that job for 4 years and believed much (not all) of what I read and that the owner told me, and it put me on a slow path back to faith, a new and much more real faith than I’d grown up with. It grew in a gradual way over the course of the next 10 years, when I was finally baptized.

Around the time I started that job, I also started getting to know my future wife, who lived overseas, through letters (old-fashioned, hand written ones – neither of us had email). She had been a mere acquaintance in college, but we had a close mutual friend whom I was living with when she called for him on the phone one day. We talked. I started tagging messages to the back of envelopes that my friend wrote her, and then we wrote our own letters to each other. Then she came to the states to visit friends and families that had helped her out when she was in college. I had moved to a different house, and the old roommate/friend was out of town, so she visited me. It was a simple evening of conversation and tea, but when I dropped her off where she was staying, we both had an unspoken sense that this was not the end. She went back to her country, but I knew I had to ask her to marry me, and had a suspicion she’d accept. I did ask her through the next letter I wrote, and through a series of expensive phone calls (again, before either of us had email or Skype or anything free like that) she eventually accepted. We were married just over a year after that visit.

Both my relationships with my wife and with my Creator have had their struggles, but both of those suspicions have proven correct. Struggles just mean growth, even if it is not always apparent. I have grown quite a bit over the last 15 years, yet know I have a long way to go in both relationships. In both cases I have been extremely glad I listened to whatever voice gave me those suspicions.

My banjo suspicion felt much the same, but with even more certainty. Because of that certainty and my past history of following those suspicions, I started into this one with a passion and haven’t looked back. So now, almost 2 years after my banjo conversion, my suspicion that the banjo would become part of my life has certainly proven correct. It has, however, given me its own share of struggles. I had built some guitars before and banjos looked simpler upon first glimpse, so I thought it would be easy to pump a few out. That was just as wrong as me thinking I knew anything about God or the Bible before studying on my own, and just as wrong as thinking I could have a good marriage without putting real work into it.

When I got back into Christianity, I did so by studying everything on my own, not believing what anyone told me without first proving it for myself. It was, and still is, a lot of hard work. It turns out there are a lot of things in the Bible that aren’t taught in most churches, and a lot of things taught in church that just aren’t Biblical. My new faith didn’t really resemble much of what I had previously thought of as being a Christian. I’m not a member of any church organization, for instance. But it was a lot more real to me because the world started to make much more sense, even as it became harder to take part in. One of the first things I discovered was that you don’t become a Christian expecting God to make your life easier.

I also took the different path in my marriage; one that took extra hard work. Any marriage takes work, but an international marriage has its own set of stresses that come with it, trying to build on cultural misunderstandings that cannot be known ahead of time. We also didn’t realize immediately how polar opposite we were personality-wise. Yes, opposites attract, but they don’t naturally complement without a lot of hard work to align those differences. As a result there have been struggles, fights and times when all seemed hopeless. We both have ideals that are often in seemingly complete contradiction, but because neither of us gives up on them, our struggles have, over time, and only visible now in retrospect, found ways to not only coexist, but to harmonize with each other in ways we wouldn’t have come up with on our own. That I started into Christianity (and a funny version of it at that) didn’t help our getting along (again God doesn’t make things easy…), but I kept on with the idea that God had given her to me and this gave me faith that all would work out best for Him in the end. She was baptized this last year. These are the kinds of problems our Creator helps us to solve when we show him we are serious and don’t give up.

Notice the theme here of not doing things the same as others. To a certain extent maybe this is just a contrarian personality trait of mine. But I think there is more going on. I really don’t try to do things differently just for the sake of being different. I try to be critical in all things and not assume that the popular opinion is the correct one until I have had a chance to prove it. God said that his true church would be scattered at the end time. That tells me that belonging to a major church organization is not the best way to go. He also says to “prove all things” and to “test the spirits,” which tells me I better start proving from the Bible any doctrine that tries to be passed off on me. So here I am, not completely alone, but in a very small minority, even among Christians, because I don’t do things like celebrate Christmas or Easter that aren’t found in the Bible, but instead keep things like a Saturday Sabbath and Holy Days that God did command, such as the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles. It makes my life far less convenient to do these things, but the Bible never teaches acting out of convenience as a character trait He looks for. In fact He appreciates quite the opposite – sacrifice, in a personal sense.

When it came to creating banjos, at first I didn’t even realize I was following the same pattern. But having a small amount of hindsight to look back on now, I see that I was doing exactly the same thing. I distanced myself in many ways from the rest of the banjo world, not because I felt in any way superior, but because I knew so little and saw so many conflicting opinions among the “experts” that I had to find the best way (for me) on my own. I’m now starting to see that this distancing will likely be to my benefit in the long run, as I find a niche of people who are looking for something that is different from the rest of the banjo world, but different in a way that has reason and functionality behind it, not just a new look on top of an old design. By choosing banjos as my instrument to focus on I had also stumbled inadvertently on an instrument that had room for experimenting and improving but surprisingly few builders doing that. There are thousands of guitar builders, almost all of them trying to find some way to set themselves apart in world that has already been almost perfected, but there are only a handful of banjo builders who are really trying to solve any of the problems inherent to the banjo, an instrument that is far from perfect.

This is not to say I am on easy street now. Far from it. I am still starting out, with no name recognition, in a market that is dominated by people who couldn’t care less about improving the banjo, preferring tradition to what actually works better.

Again, this is exactly what I find with my version of Christianity, too. People tend to think that because their minister/pastor/priest says that something is right, it must be, because they went to seminary and learned how to interpret the Bible and we didn’t. But when every denomination’s claims are different from one another, where does that leave us? The Bible tells us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. Indeed, if that fear of going somewhere new with Christ isn’t there, there must be hardly any point in going at all. When Christ died for us, there was the sound of the curtain to the Holy of Holies being torn in two. This was the curtain that only the Levitical High Priest could enter on the people’s behalf, once per year. Back then it was required to have the Priest as an intermediary between God and us. But by that event, we are now able to come directly to our Creator, for there is no curtain keeping us out. We no longer have the need for an intermediary minister/pastor/priest. This is not to say we cannot learn from others, for that can certainly be necessary in our growth, it is just that we need to take what they teach at face value and look to God’s Word ourselves to see if the teaching fits with the patterns laid out there. I have and will continue to learn from others in my walk with God, and in learning the best route to building banjos, but I will check out everything myself before deciding the best route.

The question I am asked more often than any other lately is, “Why banjos?” I never know quite how to answer that. People obviously see the sudden change in trajectory in my life and wonder what caused it. Explaining about following a suspicion is a little like telling someone I’m listening to voices in my head, which is about as good of a conversation stopper as there is, so I usually just respond some vague way that doesn’t really answer the question. It is also a bit difficult to explain why when I haven’t really been able to understand completely myself. But after being exposed to the banjo world for a while now, I have come to see something quite unique about the people who play and build them. There seems to be a larger percentage of banjoists who have a genuine love for God than of any other musicians that I know of. Admittedly I have no scientific studies to back this up, and it is a big generalization with many exceptions, but I do think that it holds true in the general sense. Since being on the Banjo Hangout forum, I have seen many people offering prayers to those in need, forming groups for lovers of gospel music and for banjo playing pastors, and there seems to be an overall sense of community and mutual respect among each other. Yes, we all know the exceptions to those cases, too, but I just don’t see those things happening on a guitar forum, for instance (this is not meant to bash guitar players by any means, so please don’t go there). And the banjo music I have found has an incredibly high rate of songs relating to faith in a very real God. Maybe it is the banjos historic roots in old-time gospel oriented music or simply the faith that permeates the southern states where the banjo took hold. But whatever the reason I have seen it, even if it is not true, it is something that has helped me to embrace it even more. If it is something that brings people closer to their Creator or helps express a closeness that is already there, I want more of that, and if I can be part of that community and make banjos in the same way that I believe in God, then that is where I want to be.

I am interested in hearing stories from other people who may have a similar link in their life, be it banjos or anything else. Email me your stories in the Contact Form. I don’t allow comments on these pages because of spam and the tendency for select individuals to ruin an open forum.