Rewiring Your Brain to Believe

brain-neuronsA couple weeks ago, I wrote about what happens in our brains when we try to develop a new thought pattern or habit. The brain is a stunning biological masterpiece, of course, but I personally felt a little betrayed when I found out how mine sabotages my efforts at change. And it’s not just me; yours does the same mutinous thing.

Here’s a little more about how that works:

Our brains have communication highways between our neural cells called axons. The established axons are solid—protected by a coat of armor called a myelin sheath. (I’m so tempted to envision a Monty Python skit here, but that must wait. This is science.) These axons seem as immovable as cast-iron plumbing pipes and often carry stuff just as toxic.

In reality, established axons are only immovable until you introduce a parallel axon—that’s the new a new habit or thought pattern. And then get this: the old one rises up and tries to devour the new one. Literally.

See? You feel betrayed by your brain too, don’t you?

This explains a lot of things, like why . . .

• most of your New Year’s resolutions failed.

• that earth-shattering new insight you got from a book, a sermon, or whatever, only stuck around for a few days.

• you try to have faith about a particular situation, you say you believe, and you still feel like you're trying to convince yourself of something that isn't true.

• that celebrity athlete or performer who turned his life around eventually relapsed into his old ways, and everyone said, “See, he was just pretending. I told you so. Leopards don’t change their spots.”

• every impulse like, “I need to be more outgoing,” or, “I should always look for the silver lining” remained just an impulse.

And that’s the pattern. Your brain, like mine, is sabotaging your new growth.

We’re wired that way so we don’t have to start from scratch each day, which is great for our desirable habits and patterns. They stick around. But it makes the ones we don’t want hard to get rid of.

The good news is that the old habits and patterns actually can be replaced by new ones. It isn’t easy—you have to be rather persistent. They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit, and that may be true occasionally. But it really takes about three years to rewire certain lines in your neural network. If you feed your new axons with electrical impulses—through daily, hourly decisions of your will—the old axons atrophy and disintegrate. But it can be an all-out war until they do.

The fact is that you can’t simply stop an old habit or a way of thinking. You have to replace it with something new. And in order to do that, you have to stubbornly, persistently, relentlessly focus on the new until it displaces the old.

What does that look like?

• “Seeing” hope even when you don’t see it.

• Assuming your new identity in Christ whether you feel like you’re new or not.

• Saying what you know by faith to be true, even if the words sound strange coming out of your mouth.

• Seeing others compassionately when you would normally have seen them critically.

• Living out new habits even when old ones try to tell you, “This is just the way you are.”

In all of these situations—and anytime you’re thinking or acting in a new way that isn’t yet natural—you have an untrusting voice in you saying, “That’s probably not true. This doesn’t feel right. I’m lying to myself. Just a load of positive-thinking self-talk.” This devilish voice is your old axons attacking the new ones. Ignore it. Be merciless toward those old pathways. Or, in the illustrious words of Journey, don't stop believin'.

I think this is a vital part of the process of being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). It’s also one of the reasons we inherit God’s promises not simply by faith but by faith and patience (Hebrews 6:12). 

Not much is accomplished in God’s kingdom without persistence. Add that to the power of the Spirit—we have supernatural help, you know—and transformation is not only possible, it’s certain.

Click to tweet: You can’t simply stop an old habit. You have to replace it with something new. 

Click to tweet: Not much is accomplished in God’s kingdom without persistence.

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©2013-present by chris tiegreen