Wednesday 19 February 2014

Neuroplasticity and “Spiritual Plasticity”

By Edmund Lo, S.J.


When we say that something is “plastic” or “malleable”, it is when that something can be moulded into different shapes and forms. An example of this would be wax. I recall a time when my friend unsuccessfully tried to shape the wax Babybel cheese cover into a cartoon character. The good thing about these types of materials is that we can always begin again due to its “plasticity”. A human organ that has been described as “plastic” is the brain. In fact, there is a term for it: neuroplasticity. This plasticity is not the consequence of generating more neural cells in the brain, but rather an increase in connections with other neural cells. The implications of neuroplasticity range from learning to compensating for sensory deficits (such as increase in hearing ability when blinded). The brain is much more adaptable that we once thought. But, what is the point of mentioning neuroplasticity here, other than to satisfy my neuroscience ego?

I want to use the concept of neuroplasticity to highlight the fact that we are biologically changed by our experiences. This may seem like a no-brainer for some, but the implications are not at all obvious. This is especially true when we think that we can engage in certain behaviours without being affected by them. Pornography is a good example. Addiction-like behaviours seen in pornography users point to biological changes in the brain. We can also extend this to other sinful behaviours. I am not saying that we are “only” our biology, but that our sinful behaviours often have lasting effects that can be seen on a neurobiological level. We cannot think that “I can mindfully control myself and not let these behaviours affect me, even though I know they are wrong”. On the positive side, the same goes for good habits: they can become hard-wired into our brains, forming what we call “virtues”.

If neuroplasticity is indeed real, then addiction to pornography is a complicated problem, and the observed neurobiological changes do imply the possibility of simple pharmacological treatment. Yet we are more than just biology, and the corresponding approach should be multifaceted. By the same token, virtuous habits can also be undone. We mustn’t get too cocky about our good behaviours, because they are not irreversible. Our biological base is not static, and neither is our spiritual life. Being a Jesuit, I do think that the Examen prayer along with the discernment of spirits are great tools to help us maintain our equilibrium and foster good habits: In which direction am I changing? Am I growing towards or away from God? Are we aware of the small, daily changes that shape us for better or for worse?

I am merely considering neuroplasticity to illustrate the fact that we can be changed by both our sinful and our virtuous behaviours. I am neither suggesting that we can have complete control over our behaviour through the mastery of science, nor that there is a kind of biological determinism. If we truly believe that we are more than just biology, then we have to acknowledge the existence of freedom. We also know that we receive an extra boost that is completely out of our control. We see this as the action of grace. As the prophet Zechariah says, the Lord is the one who will bring us through the fire and refines us as one refines silver, and test us as one tests gold (Zechariah 13:9). We need to be malleable in the hands of the Lord.

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