Chaplain's thought for the week
Revd Tom considers how we will use our brains
One of the really impressive things about our brains is their neuroplasticity: the fact that they can be moulded and shaped throughout our lives. It’s encouraging for adults to know that while the brain’s development seems to level off at some point as we get older, its plasticity does not. In other words, throughout our lives, our brains can continue to adapt and learn new skills if we practise.
This week I’ve shared with pupils in the Senior School some interesting studies from neuroscience. In one researchers asked adults who had never played the piano before to learn a simple piano exercise, playing it for two hours each day over five days. When they scanned their brains five days later they found that their motor cortex – the area of the brain that controls finger movement – had increased in size and become more active.
However, you need to keep the practice up! Some studies have analysed the brains of people learning to juggle. For example, one study scanned people’s brains before and after they had practised juggling three balls every day for three months. At the end of that time they found that the regions of the jugglers’ brains that processed visual information had increased in size… but then they asked them to stop juggling for three months and tested them again. What did they find? The regions had returned to their previous size.
All of this shows us that ability isn’t fixed at birth and that hard effort and (effective) practice really does make a difference. But I’ve challenged our pupils this week to think about a bigger question: what are they going to do with this amazing brain they have?
The Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that the ‘battle-line between good and evil runs through the heart of everyone’. It’s a very good thing to celebrate our amazing brain, but (speaking metaphorically now) we mustn’t forget to develop the heart. Some of the greatest evil in this world has been done by extremely clever people who have put their brains to the service of darkness rather than light.
In Chapel this week we read a Bible story in which Jesus goes into a synagogue on the Sabbath, the day of rest. The religious teachers watch him closely, knowing how flexible he can be with the rules. There’s a man there with a withered hand, and they’d consider healing him to be a breach of the Sabbath. So when he does heal the man, they begin to make plots against Jesus to kill him. Contrast the compassion of Jesus in this story to the hard hearts of those religious teachers. They would have been very intelligent people, people who had trained and learnt great sections of the scriptures by heart… but with all their great learning they fail in a more important area: compassion. Jesus asks them: ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?’
That frames some wonderful questions for all of us to consider: what will we use our amazing brain for? Will we use them for good or for harm? Will we use them to bring life and joy to others? Or will we use them to knock down and diminish others?