The Battle of the Brain
The Battle of the Brain
God has a lot to say about the beautiful gift of our minds. The Bible mentions the words “mind,” “think,” “believe,” and variations of those words over 580 times in the English Standard Version (ESV) alone. Throughout these mentions is a huge emphasis on where we are to put our mental energy. Colossians 3:2 tells us to set our minds on things above. Philippians 4:8 tells us to think about things that are true, noble, right, and pure. Romans 12:2 tells us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Another important passage depicts our minds as battlefields:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. (2 Corinthians 10:3–6)
The battles we must fight against unhealthy beliefs and unwanted behaviors are spiritual battles that take place primarily in our minds. Why is so much attention given throughout Scripture to what we are to do with our minds? Because our behavior follows our beliefs. The way we think influences what we do.
We see this in Ephesians 4:23–24, which tells us “to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Paul encourages us to first change the attitude of our minds, or the way we think, and to then take action—to put on the new self, to live into the ways of righteousness that are consistent with who we are in Christ. Our behaviors will follow what we truly believe.
Every day we see our behaviors following our beliefs. If you believe you’re going to get a paycheck as a result of working hard at your job, you’ll probably keep at it. As you continue working and consistently get a paycheck, the belief that you’ll be paid for your work solidifies and your behavior will follow. If you believe the weather app on your phone is generally accurate (whether or not that belief is well founded), you will take an umbrella with you when rain is in the forecast. If you believe your office or school chair will support you when you sit, you will do so without checking it first.
We all have beliefs that influence what we do. Those beliefs become hardwired into our brains over time. Psychiatrist Norman Doidge, commenting on the work of psychiatrist Bruce Wexter, said:
In childhood our brains readily shape themselves in response to the world, developing neuropsychological structures, which include our pictures or representations of the world. These structures form the neuronal basis for all our perceptual habits and beliefs, all the way up to complex ideologies. Like all plastic phenomena, these structures tend to get reinforced early on, if repeated, and become self-sustaining.
In other words, every time we act on our beliefs, these beliefs are reinforced; over time and as a result of repetition, these beliefs get hardwired into our brains. I believe this is one of the reasons the Bible says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6 ESV).
Whether we are trained in healthy or unhealthy ways, intentionally or not, our experiences, especially as children, will form beliefs that in turn dictate behavior. This all takes place in an area at the center of our brain, called the limbic system, which is the emotional center of our brains.
Michael Dye, an expert in the field of addiction studies and counseling, describes the limbic system as “part of what the Bible calls your heart, the center of beliefs and emotions. . . . Thoughts and beliefs create emotions which drive behaviors.”
In the limbic system our experiences in life get recorded, leading to our perceptions about ourselves and the world around us. Our painful experiences and our unmet longings etch neural pathways into our brains. These pathways are like well-worn hiking trails that our minds and emotions easily and repeatedly slip into, shaping how we live, think, and see life. A core belief, simply put, is any deeply rooted perception you hold. Core beliefs can involve perceptions about nearly everything—spirituality, people, ourselves, culture, and hobbies.
Many of our core beliefs tend to revolve around our perceptions about ourselves, God, and others. Those core beliefs can be contrary to what we want to believe. They can be illogical. For example, you may say, “I know that I am a gifted and valuable person, but deep down I often feel inadequate or worthless.” Or, “I know that my spouse is trustworthy, but deep down I just know there’s something going on.” These core beliefs are developed over time through our experiences in life and are solidified as a result of our unmet longings.
We can also have positive core beliefs from experiencing our longings being met, especially in childhood as our brains are being developed. For example, children who had parents who accepted them as they were and encouraged and engaged them emotionally will more likely develop positive core beliefs about themselves and others—such as, “People are trustworthy and will usually come through,” “People accept me for who I am,” or “I have something of value to offer.”
Those neural pathways in our limbic system, our emotional brain, will often overpower our rational thoughts because there are more pathways from the limbic system to the rational part of the brain than the other way around. So, when we have repeated experiences with unmet longings and deeply rooted lies stemming from those experiences, those beliefs will often overpower the truths we want to believe, no matter how hard we try. No matter how hard we may fight to believe what is true, it can seem like something deep down in us will never agree. Those unmet longings can shape how we begin to see everything in our lives, especially when we experienced those unmet longings in childhood.
Some of us find it painful to reflect on our childhood experiences; we would rather just forget. But your unwanted behaviors are indications that you haven’t forgotten—or at least your limbic system hasn’t. It’s important to look at childhood experiences (among others) because they are some of the most formative that we take with us into every stage of life. If we fail to engage with our past experiences, those negative core beliefs will come up again and again. We take the chance that suppressing negative things in our past will simply reinforce the negative results of those experiences in our present and future.
Excerpted from Free to Thrive by Josh McDowell and Ben Bennett. Copyright © 2021 by Josh McDowell Ministry. Used by permission of Zondervan. Zondervan.com