Change Your Mind, Change Your Brain?

This was in the Los Angeles Times this past month:

For the Trappist monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, life follows a pattern centuries old. They spend their days in the field and their nights in silence. They gather in prayer seven times daily, starting at 3:30 a.m.

Does this make them disturbing fanatics—or is it okay to self-persuade (or hypnotize) yourself in this way so long as you do so as a Christian?

Just asking.

And isn’t it curious that memory plays such a huge role in religious devotion? Prayer in so disciplined a fashion—seven times a day—is, after all, a form of turning toward, of remembering, God—and that with an obstinate persistence. You are literally forcing your brain and body to return—again, seven times a day, twice more than Muslims—to one place that is focused on one activity.

It makes me wonder whether the parts of the brain associated with memory, obsession, repetition, and compulsion light up (and get reinforced) when people subject themselves to such a rigorous course of discipline. Repetition appears to be a key tool for religion’s historical success: the more you pray, the more you want to pray, and the more convinced you are that the religious program is valuable. 

But here’s the kicker. Perhaps the lesson one can take from religious repetition is this: you can literally choose your future brain now, and what it will want; Thomas Aquinas and Dante appear to have been right: the habits you choose today can become your habitus—your habitation—later.

And so the question of life becomes this: where do you want to live? Maybe with persistent focus and determination, your life needn’t be (to quote the self-help guru, Zig Ziglar) “a wandering generality.” Instead, it really can be a “meaningful specific.” You can say things like this: 

I’ll pray seven times a day and submit my mind to remembering God constantly.

Or you can say of religious devotion:

No thanks. I’ll choose another course of life discipline—or let other forces, largely unconscious to me, choose for me.

I like this quote from Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise:

Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.

But maybe there is mental-to-physical causation, and, contra Don DeLillo and gnu atheists like Jerry Coyne, you really aren’t completely a puppet of blind material forces. Perhaps you have libertarian free will and can change your brain by changing your mind and exercising your will in a particular direction.

There’s a new book on Buddhist meditation that I’ve just started reading titled Buddha’s Brain. The book attempts to make a case, via insights from neuroscience, for mind-brain effects. It starts with the following clever aphorism from psychologist Donald Hebb:

[W]hen neurons fire together, they wire together . . .

If it’s true, that seems hopeful to me. (And also a source of existential anxiety: what do I want to do?)

Jean Paul Sartre would say that the field is wide open. Now choose.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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