Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Human Mind: As a Man Thinketh, So is He (Part 1)

Our minds are astoundingly powerful. As Latter-day Saints, we no longer have to ponder the perennial philosophers' question of "mind-body connection", having been clearly taught that our spirits are the eternal offspring of God, and that our bodies are the physical dwelling place of our immortal spirits. But do we realize just how powerful our minds are? The Guide to the Scriptures suggests that "to create" means to organize. The Lord has told us that all things must be created spiritually before they are created physically: “For I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.” (Moses 3:5). When we use our minds, as when we think or plan, we are quite literally spiritually creating reality. Studies have shown that the unconscious mind cannot distinguish readily between what is vividly imagined and what we really experience.

I believe that learning to control our thoughts and actions are of paramount importance in our sojourn here on earth. I like to think of it as proving that we can become full-fledged citizens of the cosmos who will act in accordance with eternal laws and principles, and not go about destroying creation. (And despite what the anarchists teach, creation is much more difficult than destruction!) Understanding how the mind works can help us learn to control it better. In a nutshell, “we are born with some 100 billion neurons, most of them in the brain. These specialized, interconnected cells send and receive information in the form of electrochemical impulses. Each neuron is capable of 'firing,' that is, transmitting nerve impulses to thousands of other neurons which, in turn, transmit them to others.” (Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D. HOW THE BRAIN WORKS)

When we are very young, vast connections are made between these neurons, as any possible association produces a “link’, but as we get older, the “unnecessary” ones are pruned away. The brain perceives the ones that are necessary as the ones that are used most frequently. It is not unlike the traffic patterns of a town, where what began as a mere dirt pathway, with heavy usage becomes the well-paved highway. We choose, with each of our thoughts (and actions, which require thought) to wear a groove in our mind, or to allow that pathway to fade away with disuse. This is why we are told we must “use it or lose it.” If we practice a language, or any other skill, we get better, and those pathways become great blazing freeways that are easy to use. If we indulge in inappropriate and unclean thoughts, those pathways also become very easy to access. Conversely, not practicing the piano or speaking French, or not indulging in pornography will cause those routes in the brain to become less worn and less likely to be used.

Much of what we are taught by the Lord’s servants, both in scripture and in the talks by modern prophets, is concerned with this notion of cognitive processing, and what we allow to enter our minds. We are warned against the evils of pornography and other vile sorts of communications. Our minds are very like computers: Garbage in, Garbage out. It is very tedious work trying to edit out any pornographic content we have allowed to be downloaded into our minds. And not just pornography, but any fallacious ways of thinking (read “doctrines of men”) that we have absorbed from the world require painstaking care in their deletion. This is why repentance is usually a very lengthy process, often taking our entire lifetime. And the good news is that our mind will also store good stuff! I had a professor who often said, “Repetition is the key to learning.” Each time we think about a particular idea, the pathways increase in our brain, and that information becomes easier to access. This is likely why the Lord tells us many times to “treasure up in our minds the words of life.” (D&C 84:85)

Not only do our own thoughts create these “grooves” in our minds, but those ideas we absorb, consciously or unconsciously, from the world around us affect the maps in our minds. The music we listen to, the movies we watch, the books and magazines we read, the internet “stuff” we imbibe, as well as our daydreams, fantasies, prayers, and meditations all add new layers to our mind, and affect those pathways. Some of these communiqués, particularly lyrics set to music, can enter our unconscious without the usual censors that most information must be filtered through to be stored in the mind, and are inherently even more powerful and require greater care. Each of these modes is an important part of our daily lives, and I would like to examine them individually in greater detail, to understand better how and why it is that “As a man thinketh, so is he.” (Stay tuned for the rest of the series!)
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