The Brain on Lust

Today I’m doing a little celebrating! Yesterday marked the last day of the last class of my doctoral coursework! Wahoo! Now, I still have at least a year and a half left of comprehensive exams and dissertation writing before I can reach the PhD, but the end of coursework is definitely a milestone. Plus, coursework is the most baby-incompatible part of my program, so it’s nice to have that out of the way as well.

My last class, the class that I just concluded, was absolutely fascinating. I learned about how the brain works, particularly in regards to learning. What science is discovering about brain function has important implications for teachers and church leaders, and it helps us to better understand how God designed us.

I will probably write about my gleanings from that class multiple times in the future, but there is one tidbit I want to share with you today. It relates to how our brains are influenced and shaped by the things we see, the messages we hear, and the experiences we have.

(As a brief side note, I do not claim to be a scientist, or even good at understanding basic science, so if I describe something incorrectly feel free to offer correction in the comments section, but do so in layman’s terms so we can all track with you. Thanks!)

Now back to the brain. And I promise I’ll keep this technical stuff short.

Brain 101

So here’s a simple description of how the brain works:

Whenever you learn something new, your brain changes, both physically and chemically. As that new information is stored, your brain creates new neural pathways and strengthens old ones.

As an example of this neural process, think about a child who is learning about animals. He knows what a dog is because his family owns one, but one day he sees a cat. He points to the cat and says, “Dog.” He does this because his brain already has a category for furry, four legged creatures. He is drawing on that neural pathway and strengthening its presence in his brain by recognizing the cat.

However, the child’s mom corrects him and says, “No honey, that is a cat.” In response, the child’s brain will develop a new neural pathway for this new category of furry, four legged creature. And later on, when he learns that there are different types of cats, he will strengthen his existing neural pathway for cats, but also create new ones as well.

What is especially interesting about neural pathways is that they can be strengthened or weakened. The more you use certain neural pathways, the stronger they become, whereas others weaken with lack of use. Scientists believe this is how we forget things. It’s not that the information is no longer there, as if it falls out of our brains. Instead, the connections to that information have been so weakened my lack of use that we can no longer access it.

Why does this matter to you?

The brain is essentially plastic. It is constantly being molded by what you put into it. That is an exciting and encouraging aspect of the brain’s design–it means we can change and grow!–but as you can see from the above description of the child, our past experiences also inform our future ones. The neural pathways that already exist in the brain will direct how we process future experiences. Sure, we can form new neural pathways, but the existing neural pathways will be our go-to, at least at first.

In the same way that a child who owns a dog may only have one category–dogs–for ALL furry, four legged creatures, and mistakenly applies that category too generally, we can do the same. And I’m afraid we do.

The Sexualization of Women in the Media

In our culture we are inundated with a very particular image of women. Whether it’s on t.v., the internet, magazine covers, catalogs, or billboards, women are portrayed as beautiful objects, as seductresses. Even the most wholesome images communicate this message, using a beautiful female face to draw one’s attention.

Exactly what this does to the brain is hard to say, but I imagine it is shaping our brains rather profoundly. The category of “womanhood” as portrayed by the media is so powerful that when I look in the mirror, all I see is the ways I fall short. Clearly, those neural pathways for “woman” have been created and reinforced over and over again. What’s more, when many men look at women, they are tempted to view them the way culture teaches men to view women–as sexual objects.

Of course lust and the objectification of women is a matter of sin, period. But, research into the brain also helps us to better understand the process. It helps to explain why men who look at pornography are more likely to view all women that way; they have literally trained their brains to do so.

Brain research may also explain why some men have trouble interacting with women in a manner that isn’t fraught with awkwardness. Men who stay distant from the women they work with, the women at their church, etc. allow their understanding of women to be shaped by two or three primary influences–media, their wives, and maybe their moms. This can shape one’s brain in a very particular way, and makes for a very lop-sided view of women and female relationships.

All of that to say, brain research sheds new light on verses like Philippians 4:8, which reads:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

When God inspired these words, He knew exactly how our brains work. What we put into our minds changes the very structure of our brains and shapes the way we engage our world. This reality has implications that extend far beyond the topic of lust, and everything that I have here addressed to men is also true of women. Women are just as vulnerable to lust, in addition to other perverted ways of seeing the world and ourselves.

But there is hope. With the help of the Holy Spirit we can starve those negative neural pathways by creating and strengthening new ones. And as Philippians 4:8 teaches, we do this by focusing on the things of God. The less we feed ungodly mindsets, the less powerful they become in our brains, and in our lives.

Kind of brings new meaning to the phrase “food for thought.”