Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Play-doh Brains

Our brains are physically formed in childhood by our input and environment. Like play-doh dented and squeezed with each new experience, our thoughts literally change the material structure of our brains. As neuron connections develop and brain maps form, our perception of the world and the mental software of our culture are installed. 

Lenin was (almost) right when he said, "Give me a child for the first 5 years of his life and he will be mine forever." Ideas reinforced in the early years gradually become self-sustaining. We accept what agrees and reject what doesn't.

As we age and plasticity naturally declines, the Confirmation Bias holds even more sway, and we navigate towards people who think like we do, and ignore or explain away views that are not comfortable to us, ie. information that does not match our beliefs. (No wonder the children of immigrants have a much easier time adapting to their new culture than do their parents. Old habits die hard.)

TFI (and other cults) use brain plasticity to their advantage, inculcating doctrine into their little ones through manipulation of their environment, making sure they have constant feeding of Family publications through devotions, school time, and evening "story time." The kids' "normal" becomes the insular world of the cult.

This same process works on adults as long as their environment is controlled, which is exactly what happens when a new disciple joins the cult. Told they must relearn all their values to "become a new creature in Christ" they submit to hours of reading and memorization of the Bible and Family literature, effectively rewiring their brains. With enough repetition, they actually "unlearn" former ideas. This is possible only because of the brain's plasticity.

The happy news is that the brain plasticity that allows for such manipulation can also be used to our advantage. According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, PhD, "Everything that you can see happen in a young brain can happen in an older brain." It just takes focused concentration. 

Plasticity is competitive, so if we want to undo past learning, we need to focus on building new mental pathways. The memories are still there, but become grown over as new pathways form and gradually rewire our brains. (See It's Only Jesus.)

Just learning one new thing that requires disciplined study and focus is so invigorating for the brain that not only are new connections built that facilitate that new knowledge, but the whole brain is sharpened. This applies to not just mental learning, such as studying a new language, but to physical learning as well, such as learning a new dance or sport.

While there's life - and a determination to learn - there's hope.

3 comments:

  1. I read your entire blog with great interest; I can see why a lot of people wouldn't get why and how you are proceeding with your study of brain chemistry and environmental factors. It's hard to explain to people working... 'theoretically' in classrooms and academia, that someone might research this kind of heavy material out of a desperate need, not from some mandated homework.
    It's good stuff. I have some comments about the comments on the Salon website, but some other time.

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    1. Thank you for your interest and kind words! I appreciate feedback and am open to whatever comments you may have.

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  2. It's kind of funny; well, not really, but to me it's funny. A guy I met in a Holiness outfit, working construction, told myself and another guy, a biker, that he had, for real, grown up with Jim Jones in Indianapolis and had borrowed Jims' Camaro for his first 'courting'; this guy tells us, "Jim always had nice cars. And, you know, Jim had a lot of good ideas; he just... (and he said this in the blandest way possible, like he was asking for Splenda in a Greek Restaurant, after Church)... "lost his way."

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