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.”


  • Adam Shields says:

    Sounds like you might be interested in Wired for Intimacy: How Porn Hijacks the Male Brain. The biggest weakness is that he didn’t talk about women at all. But it was still a mostly interesting book. Here is the book review I wrote up about it.

  • Gaylan Mathiesen says:

    It has been a commonplace to associate problems with pornography only with men, but with all the attention that 50 Shades of Grey is generating (popular with women in the church as well), I suspect we will see more applications coming out that include women in this discussion as well.

  • Tim says:

    Sharon, congratulations on this milestone. No more class work must feel so freeing!

    I really appreciate that you brought your studies here for us too. The application to Scripture and vice versa is illuminating, to say the least. I always dig it when science catches up with the Bible, as you point out with your exegesis on the Philippians passage. Nicely done.

    Your point here really spoke to me too:

    “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.”

    You’ve nailed one of the main reasons I so intentionally seek out and read blogs like yours. The take on faith you and other women have inform me in ways I would not get otherwise. It’s funny that you bring this up today too, as I just wrote a guest piece for Anne Bogel at Modern Mrs. Darcy on why I read women’s blogs like yours and hers (going up next Wednesday 12/19).


    P.S. Speaking of women writers, I reviewed Keri Wyatt Kent’s Deeply Loved today at my place.

  • Kelly says:

    I really liked this article and I think it is extremely unhealthy how women are sexualized in our culture. I am not a Christian, but I have been to some Christian services about sex. What worries me, is that sexism and blaming women (making them the seducers) is very present in the church. JD Greear, for example, has different messages for men and for women. The women are spoken to separately about how what they wear might “entice” a guy. Really? What about what men wear? This blaming of women of being seducers represses women’s sexuality and contributes to the rape culture we are dealing with in the U.S. If it is the women’s fault for dressing inappropriately, suddenly the man who raped her gets off free and the victim is blamed more than the attacker! I understand that Christians want to dress modestly and I dress very modestly in my personal life as well. But I think it is very sexist when the church has specific roles for men and women’s sexuality. More pressure is put on the women to be pure. All of their behaviors are scrutinized while the men get excuses “Boy will be boys.” In fact, women’s value is directly connected to their purity, not so much to their accomplishments or personality. Men can be flirty, seducing as well for sure! I think it would be more beneficial and less sexist to discuss sexuality to people, not to men and women separately. It worries me when people are divided into categories, stereotyped, and blamed.

    Lastly, I totally agree that interacting with the opposite gender is incredibly “educational”? and helps individuals break down stereotypes and see people as people and not as sex objects. Within this mindset, I think porn and erotica are okay in our culture and help people express their sexuality. Maybe for Christians it only makes sense in marriage.. But anyways, as a women I have enjoyed watching porn and I have read 50 Shades of Grey. Sort of unusual maybe for a woman to like porn. Both definitely need to be taken with a grain of salt. Christian Grey does not exist and most men are not like him, for example. Further, many women do not have the same sexual response (orgasm) as Anastasia Grey. Anyways that’s my 2 cents. Let’s fight sexual objectification!

  • Marc says:

    Thanks for this Sharon – very informative, and quite sobering as well.

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