Good Brain, Bad Brain

Our brain can be our best friend or our worst enemy and I’ve experienced it both ways.

One of Jesus’ most famous sayings is found in the gospel of John. Christ declared:

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10 NKJV, emphasis added).

At the heart of abundant living is physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being. What is usually called wholistic health. I have heard much said about the physical and spiritual. But I have not heard nearly enough about the mental and emotional aspects. Unfortunately, mental health still has something of a stigma attached to it. But what is happening between our ears is vital. It forms the foundation for everything else.

The apostle Paul put mental health front and center when he wrote:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:12 NIV, emphasis added).

This wonderful brain that we’ve all been given can either work for us or against us, depending on how we use it. I’m not talking about fleeting thoughts that last a couple of seconds and go away. I’m talking about thoughts that we dwell on, that hang around, that we pay attention to.

Over the years I have personally struggled at different times with anxiety and depression. Mental health has therefore become a very important theme for me. The following are a few points that have helped me along the way.

There is Empowering Thinking that brings peace, calmness, confidence, and hope. It builds you up. And there is Exhausting Thinking that causes anxiety, stress, fear, and discouragement. It robs you of energy and joy.

I’ll look briefly at Exhausting Thinking first:

Exhausting Thought #1 — Catastrophizing.

This is mentally turning a minor thing into a humungous problem. Turning a relatively small thing into a catastrophe in our mind.

For example, what I call “The Pantry Episode.” One morning I discovered a little pile of sawdust on the pantry floor at our house. The first thing my mind shouted at me was “TERMITES!” and all sorts of frightening possibilities quickly assaulted my thinking:

• Was the house going to collapse around us because these horrible bugs had munched through too many timbers?

• How many walls would workers have to tear open to view the damage?

• Would they have to put one of those huge fumigation tents over our house in order to kill the invaders? Embarrassment city.

• How could I possibly pay for the extensive repairs?

• Would my house plummet bigtime in market value?

I quickly found the phone number of an exterminator company and told them to come right away. I spent the next several hours scolding myself for not getting termite insurance. “I’m soooo stupid!”

The exterminator eventually arrived, examined the little particles for what seemed like an eternity, and then casually declared, “It’s not sawdust at all and doesn’t have anything to do with termites.” He then looked up at the wire shelving above and saw a plastic bag of beans. “You better throw this out,” he advised. “It’s full of bugs.” The harmless critters had been dining on the contents and their leftovers had dropped onto the floor below.

My panic had been completely self-induced. It all stemmed from runaway thoughts. A world of trouble swirling inside my exaggeration-prone head.

Exhausting Thought #2 — All or Nothing Thinking.

This is about using absolute words like always, never, nothing. We make a mistake and then we put ourselves down:

“I never do anything right.”

“I always mess up.”

Nothing I do ever turns out good.”

We’d never treat a friend like that, but we can be unmerciful on ourselves.

Exhausting Thought #3 — Oughts and Shoulds.

These words primarily exist to make us feel guilty. In an article entitled, “The ‘shoulds and oughts’ game,” Marc Freeman writes,

Whose standards are we trying to reach with these "shoulds" that we throw around in our heads so often? Is it some figure from our past who would have done it differently?

Was it repeated messages growing up that told us we aren't good enough as we are? How often when we are saying these things to ourselves do we challenge them?[1]

Of course we ought to obey laws and be moral persons. But apart from those arenas, oughts and shoulds need to be contested and, in many cases, dismissed as lies.

Exhausting Thought #4 — Regrets from the Past.

I have plenty of regrets from the past. And the more I go back there mentally, the more I do myself harm. Feeding mentally on regrets is poisonous to our mental and emotional health.

Few people in the Bible had more regrets than the Apostle Paul.

Before his conversion to Christianity, Paul, known then as Saul, was a notorious terrorist. He struck fear into Christians’ hearts very much like the Nazis struck fear into the heart of every Jew in Europe during World War II.

Listen to what Paul says about himself in Acts 26:

“I threw these believers…into the Jerusalem jail right and left, and whenever it came to a vote, I voted for their execution. I stormed through their meeting places, bullying them into cursing Jesus, a one-man terror obsessed with obliterating these people” (Acts 26:9-11 The Message).

Later, after his conversion, there must have been many nights when Paul had terrifying nightmares about those horrific days. In his dreams he could still hear the screams from mothers as soldiers tore children from their arms. He could still hear the many people who begged not to be killed. He would wake up bathed in a cold sweat, shaking all over, staring wide-eyed into the darkness. He must have been filled to overflowing with regrets.

Thankfully, Paul tells us how he recovered mentally and emotionally. He points to one thing that kept him sane, one thing that kept him going. Listen to what he says in Phillipians:

“I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead” (Philippians 3:13-14 NKJV, emphasis added).

Paul’s “one thing” was to not allow the scenes he so deeply regretted to play over and over in his mind. Paul learned from the past. He asked for forgiveness for the past but then he moved on mentally. It was either that or become paralyzed by depression and self-hatred. I have learned from Paul and others that it is totally unfair to take what we know now and use it to beat ourselves up for what we didn't know sometime in the past.

Exhausting Thought #5 — Anxiety About the Future.

Anxiety often comes from two little words: what if. Our imaginations can have a field day with them:

What if the house burns down?

What if the car blows up?

What if I get hit by lightning?

What if they stop making dark chocolate?

What if Medicare goes broke?

What if…? What if…?

Jesus gave us some very good advice: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26 NIV.)

Imagine 40 sparrows sitting on a utility wire strung about 30 feet up between two large poles in the state of Maine. Sparrow #33 in line is talking to #34 in late October:

33: “I’ve been thinking.”

34: “Yah, what’s up?”

33: “Shouldn’t we have started migrating already?”

34: “Well, the leaves have definitely dropped off the trees.”

33: “If we stay here much longer we could get snowed in, you know. Frozen ground. No food.”

34: “Scary thought alright.”

33: “My stomach’s been feeling pretty queasy lately. Probably an ulcer from migration anxiety.”

34: “Or maybe you ate a bad worm or something. You been snacking on roadkill?”

33: “And look at my tail feather sticking out back there. It’s gonna create a ton of drag.”

34: “Yah, and smog is another problem. Too many cities on the way south. Ever heard about beak rot?”

33: “And the hawks. Those killing machines could take any of us down.”

That conversation doesn’t happen. Sparrows don’t manufacture trouble and stress. No “what if’s.”[2]

Now let’s take a look briefly at some Empowering Thinking:

Empowering Step #1 — Recognize Exhausting Thoughts and Label Them for What They Are.

Just because I think a particular thought doesn’t mean I have to believe it or pay attention to it. Our brains are thought producing machines. They bombard us with all kinds of thoughts all day long. It is the thing brains love to do the most. And our minds can come up with some really crazy, awful stuff. The brain has no built-in filter, no editor, it just makes things up.

So don’t let the exhausting thoughts hook you. Don’t take them seriously. Treat them like birds flying above you in the sky. As one person wisely said, “You can’t prevent birds from flying overhead but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.”

Also recognize that exhausting thoughts are not stamped out like a fire, they are crowded out when they are replaced by empowering ones.

Empowering Step #2 — Intentionally Build Positive Memories into Your Life.

Positive memories are like an oasis for the mind. Positive memories are like giving your brain a day at the spa. They give your mind an uplifting place to go when the going gets tough.

For example, our family of three has stopped giving regular gifts to each other at Christmas. Instead we give memorable experiences, which may or may not occur on Christmas Day. Last December, my daughter gave the family a journey to a wonderful sprawling botanical garden (here in Florida). My wife gifted everyone with a trip to watch the sunrise on the beach plus a picnic breakfast. My gift was buying each person a kite and flying them together at a nearby park.

When Exhausting Thoughts pummel our brains, we can replace them by vividly re-living these wonderful experiences in detail.

Empowering Step #3 — Focus on the Present.

The only tangible experience we have is what’s happening right now, this very moment. Staying in each moment mentally as much as possible is key.

One Sunday morning I was very excited because my favorite basketball team, the Boston Celtics, was going to be on TV that evening for the first game in the playoffs. Later that morning my wife reminded me that we had a concert that night as part of the pricey series we had purchased months earlier. Very bad timing.

As the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra played Beethoven, I sat there in our regular balcony seats fuming. Roiling with regret, my mind was back on the game, wondering about the match-ups, the strategy, the score. Suddenly my brain woke up to what I was doing. “Hey dummy. Get with the program! You’re missing a wonderful concert with your wife!” I quickly re-focused and took in the powerful music that wafted up from the stage. It turned out to be a very inspiring evening. I learned later that the game was a boring blowout anyway.

That little incident reminded me that being fully present, living in the moment, is an important pathway to inner rest and calmness. Focusing fully on the present and not letting our minds wander into realms of discontent is foundational to experiencing peace of mind and joy.

Jesus counseled us in Matthew 6:

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (Matthew 6:34 The Message, emphasis added).

Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is yet to be.

I am helped by remembering this brief but compelling portion of a Jewish prayer:

“Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.”[3]

Giving ourselves the gift of the present doesn’t mean we never think about the future in order to plan. We just don’t live there. It doesn’t mean we never think about the past in order to draw lessons. We just don’t live there either. Living in the present means that mentally we are focused entirely on right now the vast majority of the time.

A poem entitled Walk Don’t Run by Rob Bell captures well what living in the present is all about:

Walk, don’t run.

That’s it.

Walk, don’t run.

Slow down, breathe deeply,

and open your eyes because there’s

a whole world right here within this one…

Efficiency is not God’s highest goal for your life,

neither is busyness,

or how many things you can get done in one day,

or speed, or even success.

But walking,

which leads to seeing,

now that’s something.

That’s the invitation for every one of us today,

and every day, in every conversation, interaction,

event, and moment: to walk, not run. And in doing so,

to see a whole world right here, right now.[4]

Notes & References:

[2] Creation Health Live Guide #2, “Rest At Its Best,” Kim Allan Johnson, Florida Hospital Publishing, p. 55.

Kim Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The Gift, The Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Photo by David Matos on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10022
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Have read a number of Rob Bell’s books.
Enjoyed the Calling to Life. To Walk, don’t run.
In any Journey, speed, whether by vehicle at 80 on the interstate,
or fast passed walking on a trail in the woods toward one’s objective,
prevents one’s senses to appreciate what is available to enjoy on
the periphery of ones senses.

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Wonderful article, Kim!

Thanks for being so transparent with some of what you have suffered from. I know that it will help many others to know that we all trod this Earth with “issues” and that there is hope for all of us. You write eloquently of what is really important- being “present”. We all only have the present…the past is gone…and the future is not here yet.

It was a blessing to see you as a young Pastor and have enjoyed your books.

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I love this!..specially because I always feel like I need to complete all of my tasks. Thank you for the encouraging and wise words. God bless.

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Kudos Kim! as an individual who experienced a severe brain injury in an auto accident, I suffer from these anxieties also! Being that yesterday was opening day for shotgun deer season in michigan, i awoke at 2:30 am on opening day worried that someone was going to be hunting in the woods on our property! It is a constant struggle to remember to pray and ask God to take these negative thoughts and turn my mind toward Jesus…I fail constantly in this but am positive with HIS help these negative thoughts can be erased!

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Very good points. For those who want further details, the following book has helped me along my professional practice.

https://www.amazon.com/Managing-Your-Mind-Mental-Fitness-ebook-dp-B07BH377MN/dp/B07BH377MN/ref=mt_kindle?_encoding=UTF8&me=&qid=1573904618

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The grace of GOD makes this a cognitive action and reality. I have shared this in sabbath school several times.
I call it THOUGHT REPLACEMENT THERAPY.

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.Is 55:7
For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he :Prov 23:7
There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. 1 Cor 10:13 …way of escape is other thoughts.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Phil 4:8

Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; 2 Cor 10:5

People have about 7000 waking minutes each week to think…
1-2% at church …the rest on WORLD STUFF.
They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them 1 JN 4:5.

Where in SOP did I read about where work is an antidote for sin…something like that…TOO MUCH FREE TIME FOR PEOPLE.

IDLE MINDS = DEVIL’S PLAYGROUND.

“The greatest help that can be given our people is to teach them to work for God, and to depend on Him, not on the ministers. Let them learn to work as Christ worked. Let them join His army of workers and do faithful service for Him.” 7 T 19

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, Eph 4:11-12

So many inept irrelevant sermons, when this is the crucial issue about getting prepared to have a character fit for eternal life. The shallow stuff & cliches tossed in sermons are junk food and commands to share JESUS & 3 angels messages to increase the number of lukewarm LAODICEANS with bait & switch evangelistic Daniel /Revelation seminars…what a bunch of fanatic, institutional garbage!!

Salvation… Grace & volition taking a bad brain from…"Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. Rom 8:7

to a good brain…“That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Rom 8:4

throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception.Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Eph 4:22-23

So many shallow cheapo sermons about Jesus constantly accepting losers like woman caught in adultery, and prodigal son and Jesus will never leave or forsake you low life, lousy, lukewarm Laodocean losers…just perpetuate the fanatic dumbed down SDA ranks.

I dare you to copy & paste this and send to your pastor, elder, conference ministerial secretary or GC big shot.

:joy::rofl: Why? “I dare you to copy & paste this and send to your pastor, elder, conference ministerial secretary or GC big shot.” :rofl::rofl:

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I’m curious though, from you perspective, do think that we can adequately see the truth of this subject apart from the context provided by the evolutionary biology as it relates to the “layered brain” that packs basic functional information necessary for our survival?

Religious aspect of it merely addresses that “animal brain” as some “sinful” part that’s incompatible with who we are, but It’s not really the case at all from a scientific POV. That part of the brain is necessary for our basic operational needs, but we have later get to sublimate these via interpretive layer that links these to some social construct of moral behavior.

But which brain is “bad” in this context, especially if we are discussing it from perspective of living in modern society that’s very distant from a setting that we still find in Amazon tribes? Their “fight or flight” exists in a context in which it is very real and necessary. Does it become “bad” when we shift the context and don’t adequately educate kids about how their brain works?

It seems to me that the job of religions was to develop a social operational framework that would sublimate our “primal brain” and channel sustain biological urges into “productive” human development that allow specialization with some degree of managed trust. And in that sense, it’s great. But, from a different perspective, it hides ourselves from ourselves as it labels that primal driving mechanisms as “evil”, and it generates enormous degree of mental incoherence and anxiety when these mechanisms take the wheel.

So, do you think it’s fair to position ourselves as “PFC being”, and emphasize “PFC-primacy”, especially since it depends on external framework to adopt learn, which shifts from culture to culture. How can it be “better” in that respect?

It seems to me that the only constant that we have in the brain is that underlying “limbic-emotional” mechanism that needs to be contextualized in some broader cultural setting. Of course, we don’t have to accept “is ought” of these mechanisms, because PFC exists for a reason… but we can we really reject these as evil? It would seem to me that the “evil” would be in the imbalanced culture and religion that:

  1. Hides the reality of who and what we are
  2. and exploits these mechanisms to channel operation resources in certain direction of few that tend to understand how things work… or perhaps do it intuitively to ensure their survival and security

which results in

  1. Anxiety-driven culture that constantly has to fight the “evil aspect” of their own being as they try to fit into expected reality painted by both religious and cultural narratives.

In that respect, I’m not really sure whether I’m bending over backwards to secure the future for my children, or whether I’m putting another wall, brick and bar on their prison that they get to maintain and be constantly tortured in… and that goes in both religious and cultural sense.

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Genesis 4:7 specifically supports your assumption "If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Our task is to MASTER the biological drives that are encoded in our DNA as endowed by our Creator. As such, there is no “Good Brain, Bad Brain,” only Good Behavior and Bad Behavior resulting from the brain.

I gather when you refer to “PFC being” you are referring to the Prefrontal Cortex which is the part of the brain implicated in a variety of complex behaviors, including planning, and greatly contributes to personality development. Psychiatric disorders such as ADHD and personality disorders involve PFC and the initial treatment is professional psychotherapy with mental health professionals the likes of George @GeorgeTichy, Kim @cincerity & Patti @pattigrant. Should the disorder require pharmacotherapy interventions, there are medications specifically targeting the PFC that would relieve up to 90% of the symptoms and normalize behaviors.

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What does it mean to master a biological drive?

Since they are from the Creator, shouldn’t we embrace them?

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That Hebrew word for “desire” is also used in Gen 3:16 regarding the dominating controlling desire that females get from their first mama , Eve…who was used as an agent of Satan to get Adam to fall… The beginning of gender conflict which persists today on the WO issue.

I agree. That idea, that Eve was not savvy or smart enough to see through the snake’s motives, does seem to have survived. Some headship adherents have stated fairly clearly, and others have hinted at the idea that women are not smart enough or savvy enough or emotionally suited to lead a church or even to lead as co-equal with her mate, the home.

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We should embrace them but must not allow them to control us. Normally children acquire the ability to self-regulate by 6 years old which is important before entering school so as not to need a surrogate mother to calm their nerves in school. Otherwise, these children enter adulthood unable to tolerate uncertainties and ambiguities. They may also resort to controlling their environment to assure predictability and demand loyalty for self-validation. And those who end up in leadership roles may even form Compliance Committees.

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Now that you write that, I think then that I don’t know what you mean when you write “biological drives”. Can you explain? What biological drives do I need to not allow to control me? I’m mystified.

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Tim,
If you don’t get a satisfying explanation, consult a Psychologist… :innocent:
But I am sure you will get a full explanation from Elmer. He is really good at it. :+1:
@elmer_cupino

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I don’t think it’s just an idea. The bible states she was deceived. Not sure that means she wasn’t smart enough, exactly. A lot goes into deception. A person being deceived does not know they are doing the wrong thing - or that they are being deceived.

I have maintained that the idea that she sinned is incorrect for a more basic reason. She didn’t know the difference between good and evil, per the story. How can you sin if you can’t determine what is evil? Well, you can’t.

For example, a toddler isn’t sinning when he swipes his friend’s toys. He can’t steal when he doesn’t even understand ownership of objects (much less even object permanence.)

Further, if you read the creation story in Gen 2, God tells the man about avoiding the tree before He creates the woman. He never tells her. It was, it seems, up to the man to explain it to the woman. Which, if he did, proved ineffective. The man also didn’t seem to really get it, as he was there with the woman and the serpent and yet said nothing.

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Tim, you do amaze me (in a good way) with your creative thinking between the lines of the narrative. :smiley: Perhaps you could write an article on the concept because there are/have been those who’s linear thinking could use a tweak or two. :wink:

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Biological drives describes those physiological functions that govern and affect human behaviors such as hunger, thirst, sex and self-preservation among many. These are the forces that must be mastered to be socially appropriate. You would not want to have rude table manners in front of the public just to satisfy your hunger, would you? Similarly you would not give cat calls to those of your opposite sex or masturbate in public to satisfy your sexual needs, would you?

Now you get my drift… Am I right George? @GeorgeTichy

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Alright. I think I understand now.

Still, your second example seems to apply more than the first. I’d say controlling sexual urges in public is more directly related to sex drive than manners are to hunger.

If I was hungry enough, I don’t think anyone would slight me for being unmannerly. Perhaps a better example related to hunger is adopting an appropriate diet, including food selection and portion control.

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