The Renewing of Your Mind

Romans 12:1-2 and Research in Brain/Mind Science, Part I

Jesus tells us God's greatest commandment is to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength" (Mark 12:30). At a key point in his letter to the Romans, Paul the Apostle commands them to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2). The relationships of the mind, brain, body, soul, and spirit have fascinated people for thousands of years. In the fifth century B.C., Empedocles thought that the intelligence of mind lived in the blood and heart (the cardiovascular theory). Hippocrates believed that the soul resided in the brain, the source of intellectual powers (the encephalic theory). Plato had a hybrid view that the immortal soul resided in the headís "marrow" while the passions resided in the torso. Aristotle thought the rational soul was centred in the heart. Galen was a second century A.D. anatomist who believed that the life-giving spirits resided in the ventricles of the brain (the ventricular theory). In the fourth century A.D., Nemesius, a philosopher and bishop of Emesa, believed the brain had three basic sets of mental faculties - 1) sensation and imagination, 2) intellect/thought and judgement, and 3) memory, the storehouse of thought.

These ideas about the brain and mind shaped people's thinking until the A.D. 1500's. It was then that Andreas Vesalius, considered the "father of modern anatomy," dissected different mammal brains and made the first anatomically accurate descriptions of the brain. Unlike Aristotle who thought that the heart was the centre of the rational soul, Vesalius saw the brain and the nervous system as the centre of the mind and emotions. In the 1600's, Rene Descarte made a distinction between mind and body that lead to an understanding of the brain as essentially a physical machine and the mind as an immaterial holistic entity that controls the brain.

By the 1800's, scientists and physicians such as Jean-Baptiste Bouillaud and Paul Broca began to identify localized functions within the brain. Broca correctly identified the brainís speech centre. In his ground breaking neurological research and surgery on epileptics in the twentieth century, Dr. Wilder Penfield, located many more of the specific functions of the brain. Scientific research has discovered the organization in the brainís structure beginning with the basic building blocks of molecules which go together to form synapses, 15 to 30+ billion neurons and axons, networks, maps and the central nervous system.

Following Penfield and Descartes, most experts in neurology today make a distinction between brain and mind. As a complex organ, the brain makes consciousness and the process of thought possible much like a computer makes computation possible. In essence, the brain is the computer hardware and the mind is the software that controls, directs, and draws upon its resources. The mind is not so much an object as a process. The mind works through a stream of consciousness within the brain that integrates and employs its information organizing and directing power, a type of collective of all the amazing brain has to offer. The brain stores memories of events and thoughts through anatomical changes in its structure called "engrams." These are physical chemical changes in the brainís networks which store and recall the things and events which the brain remembers. The "self" is the collective of mind, brain, and soul, which experiences life and structures memories for recall and gives each individual their own unique identity and ability to make choices. The identification of the mind localized in the brain and how different parts of the brain support various functions of benefit to the whole person are enormous breakthroughs.

Scientists have gone on to make discoveries that are highly relevant to God's command to love Him with all of our minds and Paul's exhortation for the renewal of the mind. The mind/brain complex does not only change anatomically as it assimilates and remembers new experiences and information, it can change and re-pattern itself, even when injured. As John Dowling observes, "the view that the brain becomes hard-wired once we become adults is a common one, but not a correct one, and recent research on the mammalian cortex has shown that it is considerably more modifiable in adults than anyone believed just a few decades ago" (83). Norman Doidge uses case studies to show that the mind/brain complex is plastic and can indeed "change its own structure and function through thought and activity" (xix).

Science thus affirms what God says through Paul in Romans 12:2. The human mind is capable of change, growth, and renewal. As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:16, "Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day." While the mind can learn bad behaviours, it can overwrite these with new thoughts and motives and chose good behaviours. Traces of the old are still there but the new can become dominant. The highest sources of inspiration and motivation for these changes are God, His Word, and His Spirit. In Part 2 we'll look at the important and positive spiritual implications of being "transformed by the renewing of your mind."

Further reading:
Norman Doidge. The Brain that Changes Itself.
John E. Dowling. The Great Brain Debate: Nature or Nurture?
Malcolm Jeeves. Mind Fields: Reflections on the Science of Mind and Brain.
David Gareth Jones. Our Fragile Brains: A Christian Perspective on Brain Research.
John H. Kaas, ed. The Mutable Brain: Dynamic and Plastic Features of the Developing and Mature Brain.
Wilder Penfield. The Mystery of the Mind.

Paul Birston

August 2010©

<< More Articles