Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Flex Your Moral Muscle: God Can Change Your Brain

flexing muscles god change brain.jpg
In his newest book, “After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters,” Anglican bishop and biblical scholar N. T. Wright advises his readers not to cheat on their tax returns. Because that deceitful act may very well carve a neural pathway inside the brain that makes it easier to cheat on other things or people.

Scary thought.


But the reverse is also true: that the decision to grin and bear a conversation with a boring neighbor on the train–to try ever so painfully to remain patient–also leaves a pathway in the brain that facilitates patience the next time you are confronted with an obnoxious, the-armrest-is-mine train mate.

Says Wright:

Neuroscience is still in comparative infancy. But already the clear indications are that significant events in your life, including significant choices you make about how you behave, create new information pathways and patterns within your brain. It isn’t just that new patterns of wiring are being put down all the time, corresponding to the choices we make and the behaviors we adopt–though behavior is, of course, massively habit-forming. Parts of the brain actually become physically enlarged when an individual’s behavior regularly exercises them.


Take, for example, the simple act of smiling. According to Andrew Newberg, M.D., director of the Center of Spirituality and the Mind at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of the book, “How God Changes Your Brain,” smiling stimulates brain circuits that promote empathy. According to Newberg’s research, even looking at a picture of a smiling face can enhance feelings of empathy and happiness. Frowning, conversely, stimulates brain circuits that promote anger and disgust.

Or, if you want to stay intellectually sharp in your old age, Newberg says it’s important to continually stimulate the neural connections throughout your frontal lobe. You do this by using your brain: reading books, taking a class, watching educational programs on TV, playing chess, attending a lecture … all those things that can give you a headache if you don’t take a snack break every two hours.


Newberg begins the third and final part of his book with a “Universal Serenity Prayer”: “May I find the serenity of mind to accept the things about myself that can’t be changed, the strength to change the things that can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.” To assist us with the second part of the prayer, he then gives us eight ways we can exercise our brains (in order of least important to most important): smiling, staying intellectually active, consciously relaxing, yawning, meditating, exercising, talking to others, and having faith.

Why is faith number one? Writes Newberg:

Faith is embedded in our neurons and in our genes, and it is one of the most important principles to honor in our lives…The psychiatrist Vicktor Frankl, who was imprisoned with a Nazi death camp until the end of World War II, said that the single most important thing that kept a survivor alive was faith. If a prisoner lost faith in the future, he was doomed, because the will to live seldom returned.


Although Wright is a bishop and Newberg a neuroscientist, the two men argue a similar thesis: that with the right brain exercises, we can become better people, with greater character and virtue. And that God can do wonderful things with our brains if we don’t mind working a little for it.

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  • Jacqueline R.

    I LOVE this blog, Therese. Thank you so much for calling attention to this book. I’m ordering it from Amazon right now…

  • Karrine in Seattle

    Have faith. Take one day at a time. Believe in the goodness in the universe. Faith is individual. The point is to follow the golden rule in order to be happy. Do unto others. The other principle I get out of the blog is to not let adversity and negative stuff zap your spirit. Good stuff for us all to hear that what we believe my really be the most important thing after all.

  • Sheilah Summers

    I’ll be waiting to hear more about the other seven ways to exercise your brain, especially Talking to others. I’m such an introvert. My husband can talk, talk, talk … even to strangers. He does seem much happier than me.

  • Michael P

    I really struggle here. I am in a major depression, a few months old. I have been attending church weekly for over 10 years, just some background.
    I grew up in an environment where mom slept in, while by brother and I reluctantly went to sunday school. Old school protestant indoctrination, I resented it. I resent my entire childhood.
    As a 48 yr old adult, I need to be happy, and address my dysfunctions, and I am doing a lot of therapy. I am leaving this marriage after being thrown to the curb, and treated as less than half of the effort. These are just some of issues that I ruminate on and catastrophize. I am working on that, but it is so difficult, because 14 years didn’t buy me any respect to be treated with much dignity.
    I have family of origin shame issues of neglect and have had anger and abuse issues my whole life, which I have been recently addressing in intensive therapy. I am recently divorced for the 2nd time, from a wonderful woman, and this has put another nail in my coffin. I have been fired from everything in my life, never do I quit or move myself in a healthy direction. So that is a few details.
    I have wanted God’s help, yet my faith is just non-existent. I have tried. I volunteer, I listen, I fellowship, I pray…yet I am empty of feeling that connection. I have been thinking of retiring my church effort, except that the fellowship is probably good for my depression. But it makes me feel guilty and hippocritical. Perhaps it is lack of self-esteem, that I can’t deem myself worthy of such a good thing, but I really don’t know. I just know, I can’t seem to do what this thread promotes, and derive benefit. Faith requires letting go. Yet if a really depressed person could let go, he might not have depression in the first place, or less severe.
    Just some thoughts. I love this blog, and especially the videos. I really appreciate the transparency, and I like seeing the real person, on even the bad days. Thanks Therese.

  • cb

    I am becoming a reformed impatient vessel for God to work with. I always bristled at the notion that patience is a virtue. If people weren’t such morons I wouldn’t have to be patient. Like the person ahead of me at a red light that turned green seemingly 1/2hr. ago…”why doesn’t he move already!” The people who keep me waiting on them because they were too disorganized to plan their day better…how inconsiderate is that! The clerks who love to chat with the customer immediately ahead of me in line. Enough already!! But recently I have adopted a kinder/gentler stance. I even reply with “But more importantly, how are you?” when clerks pose the obligatory “How are you today?” question to me. I get some surprised responses I figure because it shows them I’m interested in their well-being. Of course I do this all while conveying a charming manic approach (I’m bipolar) without tying up the line so the next person in line doesn’t have to wait on painfully slow conversation. I just spend a moment turning the question around on the clerk — especially if it’s a holiday, since they’re at work and I’m obviously not. This method has served to both calm me and make for a pleasant exchange. We’re all in this together.

  • Kim

    Very interesting information and proving a poiint I have thought so true. After reading this I thought back on my reactions that I have TRIED so hard to improve and I do actually find that ‘practice makes perfect’, so to say.
    This morning I was challenged with what I think is a quite funny ending.
    On Friday’s, I like to treat myself to a scone from a nice coffee shop near where I work. Unfortunately, most Friday’s I am rushed to get there and to work on time, so I am always hurrying through traffic (or my husband is, as I ‘gently’ tell him how to drive through traffic!) to get the coffee and PRAY there is not a large line. Being someone that always holds the door for another, this Friday found me doing just that for a nicely dressed woman that was coming in the coffee shop after me. She did not bother to put her hand near the door, or say thank you as she walked right in while I held the door (although I was still in FRONT of her). As I approached the bakery counter and waited for someone to say ‘may I help you’, this woman stepped right up and told them her coffee order – although I was CLEARLY in line first. WOW – I was P-SS-D! But trying my new behaviors to not tell everyone where to stick it, I fumed inside and waited to be helped (remember, I need to get to work on time! I know, I know – should have gotten up earlier – whatever!). Anyway, I was overly polite to the person helping me even after he first said to the woman who butted in front of me (he must know her). I was very nice and happy as I paid for my order. To me DELIGHT!! the woman had moved to the condiment counter and, SOB, had not put her lid on her cup of coffee all the way and the lid popped off and coffee splattered all over her, the floor and the counter and she was like’ oh no, oh goodness, blah blah blah’. I grabbed some napkins as I reached around her (for my scone, not for her)and out the shop I went – laughing and joyous. I know, maybe I shouldn’t haved loved that as much as I did! :-)

  • Stephen

    This is not directly related to any specific article.
    I value Beyond Blue more than most sites I access. However, I generally open it last of my day’s reading because of all the aggravation, technically, the site gives me. It is usually very slow, and it’s not unusual that it takes so long between clicks that I give up and then can’t get out because my computer won’t let go of it. Then I’m blocked from getting to anything else other than what I have already saved, usually on a flash drive. Granted, my machine is ancient by computer terms, a Mac iBook running 0X 10.3, probably eight years old at least, but I don’t have the problem with, say, Unte Reader, which snaps right to it. Thought you ought to know, in the case that I’m not the only person with that problem.
    Meanwhile, thank you for your bravery and obvious selfless love. You have inspired me and I’m sure others to accept their condition, stand up, work with it, and give what we have, as you do almost every day. Thank you.

  • Sush

    Amazing Piece of blog… Liked the pic esp 😉
    We are powerful. We can create peace, harmony, love , joy. We can create magic. Most often we have our priorities mixed up. Confusing ourselves with what we want which we think will make us happy rather than what we need. Everything in Life is a choice. It takes the same amount of time to make yourself miserable as it does it make yourself strong. All of us are wired differently & have different levels of tolerance to the same situation which can mould us to think differently. Your blog only proves that no matter how much a dark place we are in right now. We can get better. We can come out of this stronger & wiser. Seek help if needed but you will come out of this. You can do it. I can do it. Because there is God in each one of us. And he will never let us down.

  • Gail

    Dear Stephen, I had same trouble as you with this web site with my 2005 IMac. This year I got a new computer and now have no trouble. I know it is frustrating that computers become dated so quickly. And my 1989 Volvo is falling apart too. Some sort of lesson here…

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  • http://myhelp julite

    how i got my cheatin husband back
    My name is MR JULITE wood I married with two wonderful kid and I am a Canadian.My husband and i have been married for 10years and we were such a big happy family.But he started changing ” for the worse ” he looked at me like a stranger and he treat the kid like they weren’t even his.I knew at ones that he had another woman.I hired a private investigator that cost me a lot.It turned out that i was right all along.I couldn’t just believe it so I confronted him with the pictures I had but he denied it bluntly.He said she just just a girl he has some working project with and foolish of me i so believed him.But on bad day i caught them red handed at that moment my heart stopped for a while as i bust into tears.I was furious that i hit the whore so hard before I could ask why with my shaking voice my husband
    hit me so hard.I have never seen in his eyes so much hate before.I fell to ground crying my heart out it was so hurtful.He was no longer living with me and our kids I still remember his words ” keep the house and your sick kids “.I wanted to drop dead but my lovely kids gave me strength to fight for what was my.He was asking for a divorce but i wanted to my husband back so i had to delay the process to buy time for myself so as to figure out a way to get him back.On a good day “god bless the internet “i stumbled on an ad of how a girl got her boyfriend back after he broke up with because of some girl with the help of a witch doctor or a spell caster at first I told myself it’s scam but as pressure from my husband lawyer increased I became desperate and gave it try .I contacted him with his email address she left in her ad.His mail were so had to his English was not so clear but he helped me any way off course not for free he charged me and i pay every cent. thank the stars it work.I paid for the material which he used for the rite And when he claimed to have finished whatever he was doing i paid for his services.He sent me a hand written enchanting words and asked me to recite morning and night for seven day ” as he said seven is the perfect number “I did just that but at first nothing happened out of frustration i sent all kind of insult to him even calling a low life scam.He said he could destroy the entire thing he did but he wouldn’t so I can see how wrong i was.he said those enchanting words he gave me will make my husband see the demon in his new lover and its going to make him hurt badly.just a
    week later my husband was sued for physical abuse on his so called New girlfriend.he gave a black eye and didn’t show remorse in the court house.just what the spell-caster had said ” he would hurt her badly “.he literally confessed that he hated her all of a sudden.All the witch dr peter did worked.Thank the stars she only wanted him to stay away from her so the judge asked him to pay $5000.after all this is trouble my husband came back asking for my forgiveness and I did without thinking it was all I wanted for him to come back to me and the kid.My husband and i have never since this kind of happiness before.He his as faithful to me and as a saint.I know cos I hear his friends say “what happened to the fun guy we know “.so if you have a similar problem just contact i bet you this one is know fake.You can only choose to believe me cos i haven’t tried this spell thing before and now that I have i can only happily share with who ever is reading this.

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