Last week someone pointed me to this fascinating article on the implications of brain science for happiness. “Synapses that fire together wire together,” author Steven Parton writes; that is to say, our reactions to stimuli create paths between synapses in our brain. And the more we repeat a reaction, the more we strengthen the bond between those synapses.
So, to put it paradoxically, the more we respond in a certain way, the more likely we are to respond in that way. Says Parton, “Your thoughts reshape your brain.”
Now that might sound like a nightmare, and/or totally familiar.
But Parton finds within the science an “easy” road to greater personal happiness and goodness. Want to be someone who worries or procrastinates less? he asks. The next time you are faced with decision to do either, try something else. It doesn’t need to be “smart,” “mature” or pre-planned. It could be random as laughing instead of worrying or humming a little song.
Because here’s the other crazy-cool thing about the brain: it’s like Silly Putty. It remains flexible throughout our lives. That is to say, no matter how many times we’ve reacted in one way, no matter how strong the path we’ve forged between two synapses, the brain remains always open to forging new paths.
So if when faced with possible conflicts you choose acceptance or a smile rather than say, belligerence, your instinctive reactions can actually begin to change.
It’s crazy, right?
And it got me thinking about prayer. One of the gifts of being a Jesuit is how much it’s helped me to develop a personal relationship with God—that is, to have a felt experience of God as a presence in my life, a friend that I can lean on. That’s not to say there aren’t days (okay, weeks) (okay, months) when it feels like’s the Big G has taken a long and unannounced vacation.
It’s also not to say we have actual he says/she says conversations. It’s more like sometimes when I’m quiet I feel as though God is there, with me, in the midst of all my mistakes and fears.
Some might write such a relationship off as crazy and/or just stuff that nuns, priests and brothers can do. #CatholicSuperPowers
But what if it’s really about what we each do with our brains? Twenty plus years of retreats, daily prayer, etc., spent trying to listen, trying to be open to the presence of God in my life means some pretty deep pathways are quite literally grooved into the old noggin at this point. Someone else, who spends their time mostly talking to God or reciting prayers has molded their brain in a different way. And consequently, their default relationship with God is different.
But again, what brain science tells us is that our defaults really can change. You don’t have to be particularly religious or educated to have a personal relationship with God. You just need to be willing to try some new things—like reading stories from Scripture and let them play in your imagination; paying attention to the world around you and try to savor what you hear and what you see; or just sitting in the dark and being present as you breathe.
In other words, fumble around, be patient, listen a little every day, and we can forge new paths for the Holy Spirit to travel. And like Rainer Maria Rilke writes, someday, “gradually, without noticing it,” we can each find our way into the relationship with God that we seek.