What is a faithful brain?
The following is an abbreviated presentation of key elements of the FaithfulBrain approach to life described in Your Faithful Brain: Designed For So Much More!
It may surprise you to know that scientific research on the human brain supports the Bible’s integrated and indivisible approach to the human person. According to Scripture, we’re designed to be completely and fully integrated beings with a soul into which we grow. The importance of our brain is apparent when we realize that its biology and physiology are the foundation of our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
From a biblical perspective, a faithful brain is the brain of a person who reflects clearly the image of God, fully embracing God’s will for his or her life and in synchrony with created reality. According to Scripture, Jesus is the only person who developed and maintained a brain perfectly integrated, healthy, fit, and faithful to its design.
Scientific research is consistent with the Jesus model for brain health and fitness and optimization of brain design all of which are key to a full and meaningful human experience. Jesus states in John 10:10, “I have come that they (those who follow him) may have life, and have it to the full.”
In his book, “Your Faithful Brain: Designed For So Much More!” Dr. Matheson describes a “faithful brain” as one fully integrated with God, within itself, and with others, optimizing its design.
What is brain integration?
Brain integration starts vertically with God down into the cerebral cortex, to the limbic system, brain stem and spinal cord and through the vagal nervous system integrating brain with body, heart and internal organs and synchronizing the autonomic nervous system.
Vertical integration aligns us with God’s created reality. Jesus’ number one instruction is vertical integration, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your entire mind.” Matthew 22:37.
Internal or horizontal integration occurs between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, each of which is able to be either dominant or submissive moment by moment and situation by situation. We function much better when they’re integrated, as perspective and emotion centered in the right brain is integrated with the language and logic of the left brain.
Social integration occurs through relationships and social interaction. Every human brain affects and is affected by the brains of the people we interact with and much of the integration occurs below the level of our consciousness. Science has affirmed that the brain develops and operates best in an environment of many loving and trustworthy relationships. Jesus states that loving one another is second only to loving God. We are made for relationships and our brains thrive in healthy community with others.
What are the benefits of a faithful brain?
As our brains becomes integrated, we move toward synchrony with God’s created reality. We become emotionally and physically healthier and more resilient. Conversely, when our brains are not fully integrated and out of synchrony with God’s created reality we experience emotional and physical distress, illness, and premature death.
A person with a faithful brain is someone operating at peak performance. They are resilient, able to handle the inevitable challenges and transitions of life. They are enjoying the company of others and moving toward a valued future in pursuit of a purpose larger then themselves. They are experiencing life as God intended.
Joy is the designed state of a faithful brain, erupting as we fully engage in the moment.
Contrary to common understanding, joy is not dependent on circumstances. It is not, as the Oxford English Dictionary states “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.”
Searching for joy in our circumstances is a fool’s errand and inconsistent with God’s created reality in which joy is a consequence of our ability to safely rest in God.
C. S. Lewis considered joy as a signpost that points to God. Joy pulls us out of the dark woods toward the light of God’s love. Relationship with God brings us joy described by the Apostle Paul as the “peace that passes all understanding.”
We were created in the image of God, but we all have fallen away and tend to see ourselves darkly. As our brain integrates with God, within itself and with others, we experience joy more frequently regardless of our circumstances. The Apostle Paul explains, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
How do I develop a faithful brain?
According to the biblical narrative, Jesus was both fully divine and fully human. As a human, his brain developed and functioned in the same why our brains develop and function. The difference between our brain and Jesus’ brain is that he cared for his brain as we cannot care for ours. Scripture tells us that Jesus was “without sin” which means his brain was always perfectly and fully integrated with God, within itself, and with others.
While we will never develop a perfectly faithful brain, we can use the capacities God built into our brain to develop a more faithful brain. We can approach faithful brain development by emulating Jesus and following his guidance: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32). Developing a faithful brain is in essence another way of saying becoming a disciple.
As the only human with a perfectly faithful brain, Jesus’ life and teaching guide us toward the optimal fit of our brains with God’s creation. The truth that will set us free can be thought of as God’s truth that puts us in synchrony with God’s design for creation and how we fit into his plans.
In our relationships with Jesus, we do our best to adopt his values. We ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” and allow those thoughts to guide our choices. As we follow Jesus and live his way, neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and neural epigenesis create predominant neural networks in our brain that are true to Jesus’ character. The development of our more faithful brain shows up in our developing character. As our character develops, we become more like Jesus.
What interferes with brain integration?
When we sin, our brain dis-integrates from God and we lose synchrony with his created reality. Our brain becomes confused, less efficient, and more labored and this has an impact on our minds because our mind and brain are closely linked.
Brain dis-integration underlies most of our emotional troubles and interpersonal strife. It’s what brings people to pastors and counselors, reporting confusion and emotional pain.
“I think I still love him, but I just can’t get over how much he hurt me.”
“My wife complains that I compartmentalize my feelings and doesn’t know whether she can trust me.”
“At first, it seemed like such a good idea, but the way things turned out, I should have tried to stop them.”
These are statements from people in counseling who profess faith in God but have had difficulty relying on God for direction. Their confusion is a warning indicator of brain dis-integration, signaling separation from God. It may have been willful, but it was often accidental. It doesn’t really matter; separation from God diminishes integration in every way.
What is FaithfulBrain Fitness?
FaithfulBrain Fitness is a whole person approach to increasing the integration of your brain with God, within itself and with others. As you increase your brain integration, you will become more like Jesus, more in sync with God’s created reality, more resilient, more hopeful and more joyful. Faithful brain fitness is about moving toward the fullness of life that Jesus promised to those who model themselves after him. What do you have to lose?
The following information about the brain is limited to key elements associated with the idea of the faithful brain and faithful brain fitness.
The human brain is a rapid cycling complex system of unknowable potential. It is the most efficient, resilient, sophisticated and amazing organism on the planet. It is designed to make, look for and complete patterns. These patterns make us unique and are the basis of our feelings, thoughts, memories, attitudes, and habits.
An adult brain accounts for 3 percent of body mass but 20 percent of total metabolism. It contains 100 billion neurons each capable of connecting with 10,000 other neurons. It conducts 38,000 trillion operations per second. Brains perform best that are well cared for and operated consistent with their design.
From before birth the brain is busy, it never sleeps. It monitors and responds to information its receives from your body, your mind and the world around you. It is constantly changing.
Your brain is molded by the choices you make, which is both good and bad. The good news is that you can choice behavior, thoughts and experiences that mold your brain in positive and healthy ways. The bad news is that unhealthy behavior, thoughts and experiences (even experiences beyond your control) also mold your brain.
Neurons are specialized cells that process and transmit information through electrical and chemical signals. The typical neuron consists of a cell body called a soma, an axon and dendrites. They account for 10% of brain mass.
As we experience life, neurons in our brains link with other neurons in patterns and networks reaching throughout the various regions of the brain and nervous system structures. These networks hold our knowledge, skills, abilities, values, beliefs and character traits. The number of possible neuronal patterns is uncountable.
Neurons that are well-linked to other neurons through repeated experiences are resilient. Neurons without many linkages are less resilient and tend to wither and die.
Dendrites are projections from a neuron cell body that receives and conducts electrochemical or electrical signals from other neural cells to the cell body.
An axon is a long, slender projection of a neuron that conducts electrical impulses away from the neuron’s cell body to signal other neurons, muscles and glands.
Glial cells support neuron health, growth, and function. For every neuron in the brain, there are ten glial cells that help guide brain development, maintain homeostasis, and provide housekeeping and protection for the neurons.
Neural networks can be extremely complex and may have a particular shape that depends on, for example, what we’re viewing. Repeated behaviors leads to distinctive patterns of connections among brain regions. Well-developed habits become difficult to change simply because they become predominant neural networks.
The three most important mechanisms through which your brain develops neural networks are neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, and neural epigenesis.
Neuroplasticity is the constant pruning and linking of neurons to form, reinforce and change neuronal patterns and networks. Neural pruning and linking is occurring right now as you read this, helping you organize and store what you’re learning so you can recall it later.
Pruning and linking activity is guided by experience. Neuroplasticity is called “experience-dependent plasticity” because repeated experiences strengthen linkages among involved neurons and allow linkages with uninvolved neurons to die.
Neurons will link up with other neurons whenever we practice, no matter what we practice. Neuroplasticity harnesses neurons together as we practice vocabulary words, participate in pornography, play video games, or practice the guitar. The combination of linking and pruning strengthens the repeated word meanings, sexual or competitive fantasies, or fret fingering while weakening those that aren’t practiced.
Neurogenesis is the birth and development of new neurons. Just twenty-one days after conception, the brain begins to develop as a tube of neurons growing from stem cells. Millions of new neurons are created every hour and begin migrating up the neural tube to organize the brain.
At birth, we have about 200 billion neurons in our brains. A few years ago, scientists thought we were born with all the neurons we would ever have. We now know that our brains continue to produce new neurons throughout our life time. It takes about three weeks for a stem cell to develop into a mature neuron and begin to link with other neurons.
Research has identified two brain structures in the adult brain where neurogensis primarily occurs one of which is the hippocampus, a major site of Alzheimer’s disease.
Neuroscientists are exploring how stress and depression limit neurogenesis and may accelerate dementia. Neurogenesis is vulnerable to chronic, sustained stress, which causes developing neurons to wither and die.
Protecting neurogenesis can become an important road to recovery from depression and may be helpful in treating other mental illnesses.
Epigenesis is the switching on or off of genetic code in cells, including neurons, based on life experiences. Research on neural epigenesis has revealed that early stressful experiences can cause enduring changes in brain health and function that may be passed down to the next generation.
Genetic predispositions in neurons are expressed or lay dormant based on whether stressful experiences trigger epigenesis. Neural epigenesis is part of the reason that one identical twin develops a genetic psychological disorder such as schizophrenia or depression and the other twin does not.
During pregnancy and throughout life, stress-triggered epigenesis is implicated in differences in temperament and personality, susceptibility to depression and anxiety disorders, and the onset of many fatal diseases and dementias.
Neuroconsolidation is the ongoing process of creating long-term memories as information temporarily stored in the hippocampus is integrated into existing neural networks and/or creates new neural networks. This is automatic, values-based neuroplasticity that brings personal truth to awareness, consciously experienced as Ah ha! moments.
The brain stem is the lowest part of the brain and the earliest to develop. It is responsible for unconscious but life-sustaining functions such as breathing, blood pressure and heart rate.
It is highly responsive to the slightest hint of danger. When a threat is perceived, it acts automatically without input from other parts of the brain responsible for conscious reflection and thinking.
Vagal Nervous System
The vagal nervous system connects the brain with the heart and other vital organs of the body separate from the spinal cord. It plays a vital role in your brain and body’s fight-or-flight reponse. Although most of the communication between your brain and body occurs through the spinal cord, important heart-to-brain communication travels through your vagus nerve. Because most (80 percent) of the vagal nervous system communication flows up to the brain, it’s crucial for providing the brain with information about heart function.
The limbic system is responsible for controlling emotions and instinctive behavior. It includes the hypothalamus, hippocampus, amygdala, and other structures that link the brain stem with the cerebral cortex.
The limbic system serves as a threat detection system. It processes information related to anticipation, reward, and motivation. It is involved with motivation, emotion, learning and memory, initiating and controlling the emotions, instinctive behaviors, and the sense of smell. Moral values are rooted in the limbic system.
The hippocampus (there are two, one in the left and one in the right hemisphere of the brain) is part of the limbic system. The hippocampus is where incoming information is temporarily stored before a very small proportion (less than 1%) becomes permanent memories.
It is where your self image originates. When you tell yourself and others who you are, the story was written by your hippocampus.
The amygdala is also part of the limbic system. It triggers fight-flight-or-freeze responses and helps in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions. It is closely involved with the episodic-autobiographical memory network responsible for encoding, storage, and retrieval of these types of memories.
The cerebrum accounts for two-thirds of the brain’s mass and is divided into left and right hemispheres which are linked by the corpus callosum a fibrous bundle of approximately 250 million axons.
The cerebrum and all its subparts control most of our cognitive and volitional function.
The left hemisphere of the cerebrum develops more slowly than the right hemisphere. Its focus is on the rational, comparing what is with what should be. It is ordered and sequential. It reasons based on examples and rules. It processes verbal information, scaffolding with syntax. It organizes information like a library and prefers rules and definitions.
It down-regulates or modifies emotions and helps us know “things.”
The right hemisphere develops before the left hemisphere resulting in implicit memories. It is intuitive with decisions based on hunches and patterns. It is comfortable with gist and doesn’t focus on details. It likes analogies, is emotional and spontaneous. Information is patterned and clustered like a tapestry, musical score or choreography.
The cerebral cortex is the outer cover of the cerebrum, also known as the “gray matter.” Neurons in this area control many of our cognitive processes. It consists of up to six horizontal layers, each with a different composition of neurons and connections among neurons.
It is approximately 3 mm thick, the equivalent of six playing cards, with each layer having different functions and patterns of connections.
The prefrontal cortex a region of the cerebral cortex and is unique to humans. It is what sets us apart from other creatures. It is the last part of the brain to fully develop sometime between 22 and 25 years of age.
It integrates information from the rest of the brain for analysis and decision-making and regulates emotions. It is the primary location for planning, coordinating, judgement, focusing on goals, values-based decision making and abstract reasoning. It depends on other regions of the brain to send it the information it needs to do good decision-making.
Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system operates below consciousness regulating heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination and sexual arousal. It is the primary means for controlling the fight-flight-freeze response.
Oxytocin is one of 90 neuropeptides that help neurons communicate, often in concert with another class of proteins called neurotransmitters. The production and release of oxytocin is stimulated by loving intimate and social interaction. You were introduced to oxytocin through the birthing process. Oxytocin triggered your mother’s birth contractions, flooded your body and your mom when she first held you and was produced in her brain during breast feeding.
Throughout life, loving relationships produce oxytocin. In adulthood, oxytocin helps balance and modulate other brain chemicals, one of the most important of which is cortisol.
Cortisol is always present in your body to help you maintain adequate metabolism as you respond to challenges. Cortisol helps break down fats, proteins, and carbohydrates into glucose to be used for energy.
Cortisol is normally highest in the morning as your brain gets you ready for the challenges of the day after fasting for several hours while you slept. If you have a nice, calm day with no serious challenges, cortisol gradually ebbs to its lowest level just before you drop off to sleep at night.
Cortisol increases rapidly in response to stressful challenges as part of the “fight or flight” response triggered by the amygdala. Along with the release of fast-acting chemicals such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline), cortisol helps support your ongoing response to a challenge.
Cortisol tends to stay at stress-elevated levels longer than the other chemicals. Even after the challenge has passed cortisol remains elevated in the bloodstream. Every time you’re challenged, cortisol spikes. Because modern lives are full of challenges, cortisol may be triggered several times a day and sometimes all day for several days. If you’re being challenged continuously, cortisol remains abnormally high all day long.
Elevated cortisol levels at bedtime interfere with brain-restorative sleep, the first step in the onset of many illnesses. Prolonged cortisol elevation may also interfere with neurogenesis, stunt growth, and cause the death of new neurons in the hippocampus by inhibiting their ability to link with other neurons.