What a shocking medical experiment can teach us about Christ’s atonement
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. – 2 Cor 5:17
Back in the 1960s, the maverick days of medical research, two scientists, David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, experimented on newborn kittens by sewing their eyes shut. When I first read this study as an undergraduate psychology student, I was shocked. It sounded like something a mad scientist or psychopath would do in their spare time. Yet Hubel and Wiesel were serious researchers who eventually earned a Nobel Prize for their work. What drove them to such cruel actions?
During the mid-20th century, optical surgery improved enough to allow adults born with cataracts to have them successfully removed. But something unexpected occurred. Even though the cloudy lens was removed from their eyes, these patients continued to suffer from visual deficits. In contrast, patients who developed cataracts late in life and then had them removed made a full recovery. Hubel and Wiesel wondered why this was the case. They developed the hypothesis that there is a critical period of time, early in development, during which the neurons dedicated to vision will fail to develop or will rewire if they do not receive stimulation. This prompted their research on kittens.
At birth, the ill-fated kittens had their right eye sewn shut, blocking its input to the visual cortex. After three months, the sutures were removed. Their results proved the hypothesis correct. The left eye worked, but the right eye was basically blind. There was nothing wrong with the eye itself; the lens was clear, and the optical nerve was intact and properly formed. The problem was in the brain. Due to a lack of input, the brain did not develop a section dedicated to right-eye vision, essentially making the otherwise fully functional eye blind. It was like my undergraduate mentor always said: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
What does it take for us to change—physically, emotionally, spiritually? At some crucial point, do we lose our ability to change at all?
This admittedly disturbing research study raised profound questions for me, both as a medical professional and a man of faith, about what it means to grow and to heal. What does it take for us to change—physically, emotionally, spiritually? At some crucial point, do we lose our ability to change at all?
The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means “to change one’s mind or purpose.” All of us need to change because, as Rom 3:23 teaches, all of us have “fallen short of the glory of God.” It is through Christ’s atonement that we are able to repent or change. But change is hard, some might even say impossible.
Everyone has tried to change something about themselves. Many have made a New Year’s resolution to work out more and eat less. Yet studies show that the majority of people will return to poor habits and regain all the lost weight. I have often resolved to be a more patient parent, only to grow frustrated and upset when my son makes a mess. Every night I tell myself I will wake up earlier, yet a few short hours later I am once again hitting the snooze button. Why do we find it so difficult to become the people we want to be?
When we are born, our brains undergo an incredible amount of growth. Neurons make millions of connections. As we grow, our brain begins to cull those pathways. Depending on our genetics, actions, thoughts and experiences, we will get rid of obsolete neural connections and keep ones we frequently use. The brain finishes growing in our early 20s with the frontal lobe. New neurons are thought to be impossible to create. Therefore, neural pathways are set and cannot change. One who is blind from birth will always be blind. That is what my medical training teaches me.
One who is blind from birth will always be blind. That is what my medical training teaches me. My faith, however, gives me hope for a different outcome.
My faith, however, gives me hope for a different outcome. In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John we read about a man who was “blind from birth,” just like our kittens. Perhaps the initial problem was an eye malformation or poorly formed optic nerves. Whatever the reason, this malady was with him since birth, so the evidence tells us that his brain was not wired for sight. Medicine tells us he would never see. Even if he were given new functional eyes or surgery repaired his optic nerve, he would not see because his brain was not built for visual stimuli.
But with a little bit of spittle and clay, the Lord gives this man sight. In light of Hubel and Wiesel’s research, this miracle takes on new depths. Christ did not just fix the man’s eyes. He reaches past them and rewires the man’s very brain, giving it the neural connections it needs to see.
What does this mean for the rest of us? What about those of us who suffer addictions or mental illness? What about those of us who have ingrained poor habits and neural networks based on our life choices and experiences? Can we change?
Through the atonement, Christ can heal our spiritual blindness, remove our addictions and excise our weaknesses.
Medicine would tell us no, people can act differently, but we cannot really change. The program Alcoholics Anonymous does wonderful things to help people overcome their addiction. They have helped thousands achieve sobriety, live healthy, productive lives and repair broken relationships. But whenever a member introduces themselves, they say they are an alcoholic or a recovering alcoholic. It does not matter if they took a drink this morning or 50 years ago. They are never a recovered alcoholic; they are always in recovery. There is no cure for alcoholism. A.A.’s TheBig Book describes it as “an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer.”
But as Christians, we can in fact hope for complete change. We can become a “new creature.” This is an amazing thought. Christ has the power, if he will, to reach into our minds and wire us into the people he hopes we will become. True change is possible. Through the atonement, miracles beyond the current knowledge of modern medicine can be manifested. Christ can heal our spiritual blindness, remove our addictions and excise our weaknesses.
For some of us who are lucky, this change will occur in this life. For many of us, we must wait for the life hereafter, the resurrection. Even Paul lamented some “thorn” that was not taken away from him. Our mortal journey is an individualized experience given to us from a perfect Father who is helping us grow. The weaknesses that we suffer provide us with lessons we need to progress and to lean on the Lord for his help. Thankfully, these weaknesses will not be our eternal companions. There is hope for a complete change.
So next time you lose your temper and say, “My parents were this way, our family have always been hotheads, this is just who I am,” stop and remember that just because one is a certain way, this does not mean one has to remain that way. We are to learn from and overcome the lesser parts of ourselves. We do not have to be defined by our weaknesses. Another phrase from my undergraduate mentor was, “Biology isn’t destiny.” We can change through Christ’s atonement, and we should seek that change through daily repentance.