Can You Re-Wire Your Brain?

Can You Re-Wire Your Brain?

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.

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.

  1. 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.

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