Neuroplasticity, Reticular Activation, & Thought Patterns
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.“
– Romans 12:2 (NIV)
What pattern does this world hold to which we, as Christians, should not conform?
I won’t use this post to explain my belief that selfishness is the enemy of business, I’ll break that down in another post.
For now, I’d rather focus on how to recognize selfish patterns and how to be transformed by the renewing of your mind.
What does that mean? How do we renew our minds so as to avoid conforming to a pattern of selfishness?
It starts with recognizing the negative patterns we’ve adopted from which we need to be renewed.
How To Recognize Negative Thought Patterns
So many of us do things we regret. Stupid things to be funny or to stand out from others, but that were ill received. Behaviors we then use in our internal narrative to paint ourselves as villains in our own story.
See, we experience life through a lens. Our self-perspective magnifies different elements of our day-to-day depending on whether we feel significant, loved, and accepted.
If we question our significance – if we question whether we are loved and accepted – we subconsciously seek validation and justification of this doubt whenever possible.
This leads to those times when we take things the wrong way. We over-react to an innoculous word from a friend or spouse. We think someone is a jerk because they look at us funny or drive differently. When we take it personally that a boss wants changes made to your work because it reflects them, not you, to the customers.
When we behave this way, we’re seen by others as overly-sensitive and we’re not generally enjoyable to be around. We gravitate toward complaining and making excuses and we tend to focus more on ourselves. We ignore how things affect others or how others may be feeling in a given situation. We don’t usually listen well or seek to understand the viewpoints of those with whom we’re conversing.
Negative thought patterns show up in a lot of ways. You may not always see the roots of the patterns, but the rest of the tree will be obvious. To start recognizing where you have negative thought patterns in your life, look first at who you’d like to be and then examine your actions.
What you do does not dictate who you are, it’s the other way around. What you do flows from who you are. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34) What you’re feeling and thinking will manifest in your words and actions.
As a tree is known by its fruit, you’ll know the state of your heart and mind by examining your actions. Are you lashing out in anger toward people you love? Are you making excuses for ignoring the things you know would benefit yourself or others? Are you avoiding certain people because they would hold you accountable? Fear, anger, laziness, false pride, and bitterness are all fruit that stems from selfishness.
Neuroplasticity: The Pit & The Path Out
Before learning how recognizing negative thought patterns can be helpful, we need to learn more about how and why these patterns exist.
Our brains are maleable. We were created in such a way that we would be able to act consciously or subconsciously. We have our nature, then we have our “second nature”.
This second nature is the culmination of our habits formed throughout our lives. When we experience something and act without thinking, we are operating in our second nature. We react out of habit.
This can often be a bad thing, as we fall in to patterns that do not benefit us or others. The good news is that this second nature is not permanent. I’ve not found anything conclusive stating that we can unlearn bad habits, but it is very clear that we can learn new habits and that those new habits can become our new second nature.
When we are in Christ, we are “a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come.” (2 Cor. 5:17) When we accept Christ something beyond our limited understanding changes in our spirit and our deepest internal longing shifts toward Him. We become open to the grace of the Holy Spirit that empowers us to fulfill His will for us.
However, it does not fix all of our bad habits. This often leaves Christians questioning their salvation as they struggle with the same sins and habits with which they struggled before choosing to follow Christ.
We learn that we should be better and we learn what it looks like, so we start trying to fix ourselves. Everything goes well for a while and then we slip up in a moment of weakness and fall back into our old habits and old ways of living. We become discouraged and ashamed of our shortcomings, making it harder to start over and work harder to be better. It’s just so easy to do the bad things, and so much harder to be who we should be.
But there’s good news…
Messing up doesn’t mean starting over. Our bad habits are not just our sinful nature, they’re learned behaviors. If we learned those behaviors, we can learn good and Godly behaviors as well.
By learning how our brains work, we can harness this amazing creation and avoid the pit that most fall into as they seek to live a more Godly life.
Let’s dig a bit deeper to learn what got us into this pit and how, by the grace of God, we can get out of it.
In my experience, the hardest part of becoming a Christian is denying self, denying immediate gratification, changing our thoughts and behaviors, and seeking to Glorify God and love others.
A big struggle for new and seasoned Christians alike is falling back into the pit of our old habits. When we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, the part of our brains that things logically and is able to consider the needs of others (the prefrontal cortex) doesn’t function as well and we find it harder to make wise decisions.
Our brains like efficiency and we’re tired, so the path of least resistance is the most likely path for our neurons to take. Add to that the fact that humans crave familiarity and you have a recipe for disaster. What could be more familiar than the habits you’ve been cultivating for an entire lifetime?
Despite all of the work we’ve put into being better, we slip up and fall back into our old ways. Great. Now I have to start over. How could I have been so weak? Didn’t Jesus die to save us from our sins? Why am I still a slave to them? Am I actually saved? I know so many other Christians that don’t struggle like this…
This is the pit. It is lonely and full of shame and the enemy takes advantage of our weakened state to kick us while we’re down. We beat ourselves up and the devil helps us find the best spots to hit. It’s a downward spiral. Why can’t we get over these bad habits? Why can’t we be healed of our sinful nature?
Well, aside from the fact that being healed from our sinful nature would take away the need to choose Christ daily, we would not be able to grow without this struggle. Humans are designed to grow under stress and strain. We lift weights and tear our muscles to strengthen our bodies. We learn increasingly complex things to strengthen our minds. The tougher the environment, the tougher the human that survives it.
God made us to adapt and grow. The Holy Spirit gives us the desire to change and the grace to keep turning back when we mess up, but taking away all challenges would not help us grow. Just as a parent that does everything for their children and gives them an easy life is doing them a disservice, it is an act of love that we experience “trials of many kinds”. (James 1:2)
So we know why it exists and we know that it doesn’t just go away when we repent. So what’s the good news? Is there some kind of hope before heaven?
The Path Out
There is hope! Just as we have neural pathways that are easy to slip back into for negative patterns, the Lord gave us brains that are capable of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to build new connections that grow stronger with use. Ever had to answer a question that made you stop and think? Maybe it was physically uncomfortable to think about. That’s because you were forming a new neural pathway in your brain.
Those new thoughts, as with new behaviors, are forging a new path through the frontier of your brain and leaving a small trail for future thoughts or behaviors “along that line” (maybe that’s where that phrase comes from?) to follow.
As with any trek across unexplored terrain, the trailblazer has the slowest and roughest journey, but it’s easier for the next group that follows. Each subsequent thought or behavior that follows gets easier and easier until it’s second nature.
It’s important to note that the new pathways don’t replace the old pathways. This is why we can slip back into bad habits. However, if we are able to recognize when we’re behaving or thinking in ways we’d rather leave behind, we can consciously choose to behave or think in the new way and it will get easier and easier the more we do.
This should be very encouraging because it means we don’t have to “start over” every time we mess up and give in to the selfish desires of the flesh. We’ll always go through peaks and valleys, but the peaks get higher and the valleys aren’t quite so low.
So the pits may be deep, but the path out exists and it gets easier to follow (or get back on the path when we stray) the longer we follow it. Armed with this knowledge, let’s look at how it looks in practice.
How Reticular Activation Works
Reticular activation is usually explained using the example of buying a certain type of car and then seeing that car everywhere. I like the example, but I also like to explain why it happens.
The subconscious mind automatically filters out any information that isn’t relevant or important to us. There are way too many inputs coming at us at any given time for us to process consciously without frying our brains.
Our subconscious perceives all of these things and whenever something is important or relevant, it activates the reticule to focus on that thing consciously.
Thus, if you buy a new car, it is suddenly relevant to your life and your subconscious now allows your conscious mind to focus on the things that were already there, but unnoticed.
How does this help us overcome bad habits?
It works with everything. Do you get stuck in a negative pattern of lashing out in defensive anger when your spouse asks you to do the dishes? Being aware of it and desiring to change your reaction can trigger your reticular activators.
Here’s how it works:
How To Harness Reticular Activation
When you have attention called to a bad habit and you have the desire to change it, you have one of the essential pieces of the puzzle. You’ve probably heard that knowing is half the battle. It’s not half, but it is the necessary first step.
What you need next is to recognize what triggered it. This will allow you to prime your reticular activators so you can watch for the trigger, rather than the habit itself. If the trigger is your spouse asking you to do the dishes, being on “the lookout” for that event will give you the chance to notice it and stop before you react in your normal anger.
Now if you know what you want to change and you know the habit you want to change and you know what triggers it, now all you need to do is decide how you’d rather behave.
If you try to get by without preparing a desired outcome you may end up ok, but science has shown that mental visualization of a behavior actually fires the same neural activity as behaving that way in the physical world.
So you can actually practice calmly responding to your spouse before being asked so those neural pathways are primed and ready to go.
Now the scene plays out like this:
Your spouse asks you to do the dishes. The emotional part of your brain starts to get angry because emotions fire before logical thought.
But…. Then your subconscious notices that you’re in this pattern you wanted to change and you have the ability to stop yourself (even if you’ve already started reacting poorly) and follow through with the new outcome you’ve been practicing mentally.
This is the power of our reticular activation system. It gives us the opportunity to be present and focus on our thoughts, feelings, and actions, so we can course-correct and train ourselves to repent and turn back to God.
That’s the whole point of all this, right?
Putting It All Together
Now that we have all of the pieces of the puzzle, let’s put it together to see the whole picture.
The idea is to start assessing your thoughts and behaviors for behaviors that are not in line with who you’d like to be in Christ. Anywhere in which the Holy Spirit prompts you to change (you feel convicted, you find yourself apologizing and desiring to change, but struggling to do so, etc).
Write a list of the things that come to mind now, then add to it as you experience anything that you’d like to change, and anything else the Holy Spirit brings to mind. Number each one in sequential order.
Next to each line item, try to think of the things that trigger the thoughts or behaviors you wrote down.
Then, on a separate page, write out the thoughts or behaviors you’d like as a replacement for the negative ones, making sure to write the correlating numbers from the other page.
Lastly, pick 1-2 numbers to work on first. Pick one that happens most frequently and/or one that would be most impactful.
Trying to focus on too many at once will defeat the purpose. Write the 1 or 2 you’re working on down on a separate piece of paper and look at it every morning and night to keep it top of mind.
When the triggers occur, you’ll be on the lookout and your reticular activators will kick into gear to help you recognize the situation.
Don’t get discouraged if you catch it halfway into your normal negative pattern. It’s hard to change your second nature! Just stop whenever you recognize it and switch to the positive outcome you chose.
Rinse, lather, repeat.
Keep in mind that this is not a quick, silver-bullet solution. It will take time, and the more you want it, the more likely you are to see it through when times get tough.
Pay extra attention to when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (H.A.L.T). It will be extra hard to override the amygdala use your pre-frontal cortex to make logical decisions consciously.
Lastly, and most importantly, keep spending time with God! Set aside specific times throughout the day for prayer, even a couple of minutes, and stay consistent with it. Read your bible consistently as well, even just a few verses or a chapter.
The more time you spend with God, the more you will become familiar with His character and attributes, the more you will recognize His voice, and the more you will desire to be like Him. The more you want to be like him, the better you can endure in making these hard changes over time.