Volume VI - (2004-2005)

Learning to Live in Cheon Il Guk: Lessons from Brain Research

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 11, 2010 - Pages 167-184

It is very difficult to break a habit. While living in the satanic world until now, you have cherished self-centered habits; these harden and set like cement, becoming even more deeply ingrained than the addiction Koreans have to kimchi, doenjang (soybean paste) and kochujung (thick soybean paste mixed with red pepper).

It is a historical fact. Since the emergence of the devil, our habits have become very deeply rooted. How do we eradicate them? However deep a pit you dig, you cannot get to the root of this serious problem. To get to heaven, one needs to replace all those past habits with God-centered habituality. (213-19, 1991.1.13)[1]

All human beings grow up and learn to live according to their cultural and personal understandings and behaviors. They develop habits that enable them to manage life and its up and downs. Many of these habits are not based on God’s ideal, but on our fallen nature. In order to enter and live in Cheon Il Guk,[2] these habits need to be changed. However, we have heard it before: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” “I don’t under­stand this, I am a right-brain type,” “I couldn’t stop it, it was a fight-or-flight reac­tion,” or similar statements. What all these statements have in common is a general concept on how our brain and emotions work, often as an excuse for not trying to change.

We are faced with the daunting task of having to re-educate people and their habits. In the last few years, brain research has made huge steps toward understanding how the human brain works, mostly due to new technological advancements. These findings have shown, contrary to common wisdom, that change and learning is possible, even for those who are set in their ways or seem to be difficult to teach. This paper addresses some of the findings from recent research about the brain and learning.

 

A Brief Tour of the Brain and Brain Research

History

Our human brain is the most complex structure known in the universe. It enables us to function as humans: living, loving, thinking, creating, communicating, and solving problems. It consists of billions of neurons and is capable of forming trillions of connections. But this was not always known. Throughout history, humans were aware of the existence of the brain, but not necessarily of its function. The Egyptians, for example, considered the brain a useless part of the body and discarded it when preparing a body as a mummy. The ancient Greeks believed that thinking took place in the heart and throughout the body. Only around 200 B.C. did doctors discover that the brain actually was useful.

In the Middle Ages there was rudimentary research on the brain and its anatomy. Major breakthroughs were achieved in the 19th century, when scientists found out that brain injuries in specific locations led to specific problems in people—for example the inability to communicate or changes in emotional behavior. Discoveries included the location of the language center, and that the right side of the brain controlled the left side of the body and vice versa.

In the beginning of the 20th century the brain was mapped, that is, the various areas of the brain were allocated to functions. Since then, advances in technology made it possible to observe the brain in real time. The electro­encephalograph (EEG) is a device that can measure the electrical activities of the brain, but cannot look at the structure of the brain. The CAT scan (com­puterized axial tomography scanner) takes images of the brain’s structure, but cannot capture how the brain functions. The PET scan (positron-emission tomography), MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and fMRI (functional mag­netic resonance imaging) respectively provide images of the brain in action, the soft tissue, and the blood flow in the brain. Recent brain research has blossomed because of these last inventions, enabling us to understand more the intricacies of the brain and its procedures.

Current common wisdom, based on 19th century science, perpetrates a static view of the brain—specific areas of the brain dedicated to specific tasks. But the newer technological developments, which enable scientists to observe the behavior of the brain while doing its job, direct us to modify this view. Studies reveal that not only are many parts of the brain involved to complete a single action, for example reading a word, but also that the same action may activate different areas in different people. While the areas assigned to handle a function generally are located in the same area of the human brain, they are not positively localized with clear boundaries, but have a “fuzzy” edge. “The human brain can reorganize so quickly because indivi­dual parts of the brain are not necessarily committed to processing particular senses. We can, and routinely do, use parts of our brains for many different tasks” (emphasis added).[3]

If an area is damaged, the brain is able to “rewire” itself, by taking over other areas of the brain to com­plete the task at hand. The term used to describe this ability of the brain to change itself is called “plasticity.” It is important to understand that plasticity is not elasticity. Elasticity enables the item to stretch and then to return to its original shape. Plasticity causes a lasting effect until the item is formed again into a new shape.

The Human Brain

What sets humans apart from animals is our intelligence, or ability to solve complex problems. We know that intelligence is based in the brain. But, when we compare the human brain to brains of animals, the most important difference is not its size. While the human brain is larger than an ape’s brain it is also smaller than an elephant’s or a whale’s. The ratio between body weight and brain weight is a better indicator of intelligence, but the most telling difference between animals and the human brain is the amount of uncommitted cortex,[4] in other words, that part of the brain that is unassigned to taking care of sensory input and bodily tasks, and free to form personal connections for the individual.

The brain has many different components that can be divided and described depending on the purpose. One way to explain it is by its most prominent biological features: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. Another way, which is followed here, is to explain it by basic function: from bottom to top the brain stem or Reptilian Brain, the limbic system or Mammalian Brain, and the cerebrum or Thinking Brain. Each of these parts can be broken down again into smaller parts.

The Reptilian Brain

The Reptilian brain is the “oldest” part of our brain. We have it in common with most other creatures. It connects the brain with the spinal cord and the rest of the body. The Reptilian Brain is necessary for the perform­ance of automatic actions like breathing and the beating of the heart. These are actions that we don’t need to think about but are crucial for the survival of the body.

The Mammalian Brain

On top of the Reptilian Brain is located the Limbic System, which is the seat of our emotions. Mammals have a similar Limbic System as humans; there­fore it is also called the Mammalian Brain. It includes, among other parts, the Hippocampus, the Amygdala, the Thalamus and Hypothalamus. For our purposes we need to be concerned with the Amygdala and the Hippocampus.

The Amygdala interprets information gathered from the senses. It com­pares the input it receives with past experiences and generates emotions based on its evaluation. Because the life of the person may be in danger, it first assesses the situation and then sends the information to the Thinking Brain. If the amygdala decides the input poses a threat, it automatically trig­gers the “fight or flight” impulse. By the time the Thinking Brain receives the input, the body is already pumped up with hormones and ready to act.

The Hippocampus is responsible for sorting memories. There are three kinds of memory: sensory, short-term, and long-term (including skills) memory. The Hippocampus decides whether a memory can be forgotten or whether it needs to be stored for later retrieval.

The Thinking Brain

When people visualize the brain they usually think about the cerebrum. It is covered by the cerebral cortex underneath which the white matter lies. The cerebral cortex is where all the thinking happens. The white matter is where connections are being made. The cerebrum is clearly divided in the middle, and the parts are called Left and Right Hemisphere. Each of the hemispheres has different functions and is divided into four lobes. The lobes are called the frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital lobes. The two hemispheres have to work together to make meaning from sensory input. They are connected by the corpus callosum, which allows communication between the two halves.

Every part of the brain needs to work together with the others as well as do its own job. If our Reptilian Brain doesn’t work properly, our body will cease to operate acceptably. If our Limbic System doesn’t work properly, our emotional reactions are inappropriate to the situations and we may have psychological problems. If our cortex doesn’t work properly, our ability to think intelligently is handicapped.

Brain Cells

There are two kinds of brain cells, glials and neurons. The function of glials is to protect the neurons, keep them in place, and move unwanted debris (i.e. dead neurons, neurotransmitters) out of the brain. The function of neurons is to collect information from other parts of the body received by the senses, transfer information from the body to the brain and vice versa, and process the information received. Therefore neurons can also be found in the spinal cord and other parts of the body. However, the majority of neurons are located in the brain and they are the marvel that enables us to think.

Neurons consist of the cell body, the axon that looks like a long tail, and many dendrites that look like branches coming out of the cell body. Neurons communicate with each other through the exchange of hormones called neurotransmitters. The axon is the sending part, and the dendrites are the receiving parts. Neurons don’t “touch” each other, they have a space (the synapse) between their axon terminals and dendrites, and through this space the hormone exchange happens. The process of hormones being released from an axon terminal is called “firing.” The hormones released can be excit­ers or inhibitors. Some of these hormones are common household names, for example Adrenaline (the hormone that puts our body at high alert and causes us stress), Dopamine (the “happy” hormone), Serotonin (responsible for sleep), and Endorphins (calming hormones).

When neurons send or receive hormones they communicate. The communication routes are like a relay race along a track, where a baton (the hormone) is passed. The more the path is traveled, the more it becomes worn and easier to travel again. These paths are called neural pathways.[5] There may be hundreds or thousands of axon terminals and dendrites in a neuron, and so a single neuron can be connected to thousands of other neurons. Taking into account that the human cortex has around 40 billion neurons, the amount of possible configurations is staggering.

Scientists recently discovered a fascinating kind of neurons called Mirror Neurons. Have you ever seen a person yawning and had to yawn yourself? These were Mirror Neurons at work. They fire both when a person is doing an action, and when the person is observing the same action being carried out by someone else. The observed behavior is copied in the brain without being carried out in personal action. This explains the behavior of children to imitate those around them. For a child it is a way to form neural pathways by observation only, especially for emotions and social behavior like empathy and selflessness. It is not what the parents are saying that shapes the child, but what they are doing. The existence of Mirror Neurons also sheds light on the contagiousness of emotions. “Smile and the world smiles back at you” is not just a quaint saying, but it is a profound insight into the working of our brain.

Age and Brain Functions

The human brain is not complete at birth; it wouldn’t fit through the birth canal. A newborn baby’s brain is only a quarter of the size of the adult brain. It needs to grow and mature. Different parts of the brain mature at different times. For example, the right hemisphere dominates children up to the age of three, while the left hemisphere is starting to develop. The corpus callosum takes over ten years to mature, and therefore young children have problems in connecting ideas that originate in the two different hemispheres. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for socially acceptable behavior, is not fully grown until a person is 15 to 16 years old.

When a child is being born its brain immediately starts to assemble its neural pathways. Every time it encounters a new experience, neurons transmit the information to the brain forming a neural pathway. If the experi­ence can be related to previous experiences, a new connection is being made. This process is also called “branching”. The brain delights in making connections, in bringing order to the chaos of external stimulation. Especially during the first few years it hungrily devours any input it can receive. For this reason, childhood is a golden opportunity for learning to happen, and it is essential to provide an enriching environment to small children.

“You use it or lose it” has never been more correct than when it comes to the brain. The immature brain of a child has 50 percent more connections among neurons than the adult brain. This is due to a process called “pruning,” where neural connections that have not been used extensively are dissolved. Additionally, by age 20, neurons are beginning to die off. But this doesn’t mean that we are “losing our mind’” for scientists discovered that also new neurons are being created. The main activity of the brain at this age is to consolidate its neural pathways and strengthen existing connections.

Nevertheless, nothing needs to be lost forever. While children learn easi­er than adults, it is still possible for older people to learn. The human brain will make new neural pathways at any age. It just may take a little longer to learn a new skill, a new word, or a new behavior.

 

Changing Habits

We have seen that the human being is starting from birth on to assemble one’s neuronal pathways. This means that our ways of dealing with situations are being created. Each different activity changes the structure of the brain. It perfects its pathways to be better equipped for living. If there are new or difficult situations, the brain is trying out different strategies in order to handle the situation. The strategy that works will be repeated and will devel­op into a habit. “With repetition, the patterns are strengthened and the information more firmly encoded, such as happens in the formation of habits which, essentially, are facilitated neuronal networks that have been repeated again and again.”[6]

To have habits, especially if they are God-centered, is not a bad thing. However, humans live with fallen nature, which can be described as the tendency to form bad habits. These bad habits need to be changed if we want to live in the Kingdom of God on Earth. In order to change bad habits it is necessary to substitute the old habits with new ones. “Just say No” is not good enough for transforming habits, concepts, biases and stereotypes. If a neural pathway or habit is very ingrained, we will automatically perform its actions without thinking. It takes conscious effort not to do an automatic reflex, especially an emotional one. We have to prune the undesirable neural pathways by actively and consciously creating new pathways and feeding those. Scientists discovered from treating OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) that it takes around 40 days to change a neural pathway. [7]

New neural pathways are established when we learn and do new things. Because our brain is better and quicker at recognizing positive statements and identifications than negative ones, the best strategies to unlearn bad habits are those that encourage learning. “It takes over half a second longer to verify denials than affirmations; we seem programmed to think more readily about what is rather than what is not.”[8] We can assist people in creating these pathways by providing conditions in which learning can come about.

Learning

Our brain wants to make meaning. Jerry Larsen states that the brain has a full agenda, which is looking for meaning.[9] We observe the world around us, as a whole, and try to categorize events and things. The brain tries to make order, often creating groups, concepts or stereotypes. We expect cause and effect in the events around us. “Human minds work with information continuously to make inferences and conclusions and projections of possibilities.”[10] In fact, we are looking for clues to confirm our biases and expectations. We see what we want to see. Facts that contradict our concepts may be disregarded because they don’t fit the image we have in our mind of how things are supposed to be. We create a world within us that imitates the real world, with the difference that we are the creators of our inner world and are in charge of what is considered right and what is wrong.

Because our brain is looking for meaning it wants to be engaged when learning. It needs something interesting to do. Novelties challenge the brain to make new connections. “In order to keep the brain fit, we must learn something new, rather than simply replaying already-mastered skills.”[11] However, if the information is the same old, same old, the brain takes its attention somewhere else. The brain cannot give attention to two different things at the same time. People who say that they are multitasking are misled. Their brain tunes in and out of each activity.[12] At the same time, if the learning experience is not challenging enough, the brain will focus on distractions. If the place of instruction is too uncomfortable, the brain will give its attention to making the body more comfortable. If the stomach rumbles, learning will be impeded. Not only that, but if the subject or presentation is boring, the brain may prune the neural connection, and the end-effect will be worse than having never been taught. However, if the subject matter is engaging and challenging enough, time and space will be forgotten and the focus of the brain will be on the learning experience.

For many years, Edgar Dale’s Cone of Learning was used as a visual aid to help educators understand how much people learn. His cone shows that people generally remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they hear and see, 70% of what they say and write, and 90% of what they say as they do a thing.[13] While his chart is not exhaustive in the various ways learning occurs, it does indicate that the more senses and activities are involved in receiving information, the more can be remembered.

Brain research showed us that the reason for this is because our brain collects data through all senses. Any experience usually consists of several components, for example sight, sound and smell. All input is sent to areas in the cortex that simultaneously process it. Different neurons transmit information at the same time; they fire at the same time. Neurons that fire together, wire together. The neural pathways that are established connect these inputs and unite it into one event. In other words, when the face of Grandma, her voice and the smell of pumpkin pie always coincide, a neural pathway is created that will invoke the face and voice of Grandma when smelling pumpkin pie. This firing together of neurons, while it enhances the learning experience, can also have negative effects. If the only time your family talks about God is in the church building, then God will be locked into the church building.

Consequently, learning best takes place when several senses are involved. The more senses are engaged, the more paths are created. The more paths are available, the more easily the information is retrieved. “The more senses you incorporate, the more efficient learning becomes. Each stimulus is recorded in different areas of the brain. The more pathways you establish the more your memory can pull on to recreate that learning.”[14]

All this said, not every person learns in the same way. Because intelligence is “a means of acquiring information”[15] it is important for educators to understand the variety of intelligences, and how to use this information. The groundbreaking work of Howard Gardner towards defining multiple human intelligences, Frames of Mind, was first published in 1983. He suggested that intelligence is not limited to intellectual, i.e. mathematical, logical, and verbal feats, but that people use other competencies that deserve the name of “intelligence.” Gardner defined intelligence as the ability to solve problems or to create products that are useful for a specific commun­ity.[16] He proposed several criteria for a competence to be called intelligence, among them potential isolation in brain location, distinctive developmental history, and that it is used for problem solving. With this weaponry of definition he set forth the following intelligences:

  • Linguistic-Verbal, the ability to learn and express yourself best with written and spoken language, exemplified by poets and journalists;
  • Logical-Mathematical, the ability to learn and express yourself best with reason and numbers, exemplified by mathematicians and scientists;
  • Spatial, the ability to learn and express yourself through images and visualization, exemplified by artists and architects;
  • Musical, the ability to learn and express yourself with sounds and music, exemplified by songwriters and musicians;
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic, the ability to learn and express yourself by using the body, exemplified by dancers and athletes;
  • Two Personal intelligences, also called Emotional intelligence:
  1. Interpersonal (Social), the ability to learn and express yourself through give and take with people, and
  2. Intrapersonal, the ability to learn and express yourself through self-reflection, exemplified by nurses and ministers.

 

Gardner later added Naturalist intelligence, the ability to learn and express yourself through patterns in nature, and is still wondering whether to endorse Spiritual intelligence, the ability to learn and express yourself through spiritual means.

As the parts of the brain mature at different times, so the different intelli­gences mature at different times in the life of a person. Musical intelligence is the first to be formed. Music is a precursor to language, and is a powerful emotional tool. The personal intelligences mature the latest, around 20 years of age. Therefore it is not reasonable to expect advanced social behavior from smaller children or even adolescents.

Every person usually uses several of these intelligences, although there may be a preferred one. Our society has focused too much on the linguistic/ verbal and mathematical/logical intelligences. If we want to address the whole person, and change the whole person’s outlook and behavior, we need to provide learning experiences that cater to the variety of these intelligences. One good example for such an experience was a recent performance in my son’s school. The students put on a show about Hip-Hop. They wrote poems about music and recited them, they made music with instruments and sounds with their voice boxes, they danced choreographed and free-style, they painted the props and the backdrop, and they did the technical set-up as well. Those youngsters will never forget the lessons learned.

Memory

Our senses are flooded with an incredible amount of information every second. However, not all this information is useful or important and therefore worthwhile to store in our memory. Can’t remember the shirt you wore two weeks ago? It’s not important and didn’t need to be stored. But you want to be able to recall that wasp that stung you two weeks ago and gave you a terrible pain. What does our brain do with all the information/stimuli it receives? It puts it into memory, at least part of it. Our memory is our data­bank of patterns, concepts and experiences. Efficient learning happens only if the information received and stored in the memory can be retrieved again.

There are basically three kinds of memory. When our senses receive stimuli they create sensory memories that last a few seconds. The informa­tion is relayed to the short-term or working memory. The short-term memory lasts a few seconds to a few minutes, and is our conscious awareness. It deals with the here and now. Usually our thinking happens in the short-term memory. The information in the working memory is sorted by the hippo­campus into those that are important and need to be recalled, and those that can be forgotten. Once the hippocampus decides that a piece of information deserves long-term storage, it is sent to the cortex in such a way that it can be retrieved again. This is called long-term memory, and may last a lifetime. Long-term memory can be divided into fact based memories and skills memories. Experts in a field use their long-term memory to solve problems, while others use their working memory. It takes about 10 years of effort to become an expert in a field. Old age has its rewards as well, because older people have better skills memory.

The working memory can deal with an average of seven facts or items at a given time. This means that if we receive too much information in a time frame that is too short for the hippocampus to make a decision, it will not be retained. The brain needs some time to sort and send the information to long-term storage. People often use PowerPoint and expect it to be the magical solution for the submission of a huge amount of information. It won’t work. Reflection time is critical for understanding. Just hearing or seeing something is not “understanding.” In order to understand, the brain has to process the data and make neural connections in such a way that it is able to retrieve the data again.

One way the brain deals with too much information is “chunking”. This is when similar items are grouped together into units. For example, there are too many books in the New Testament for the short-term memory to handle. However, when they are chunked into five units, e.g., Gospels, Acts, Letters of Paul, Letters of Other Disciples, Revelation, the working memory can deal with them. These groups can then be subdivided again, e.g., Gospels: Matthew, Luke, Mark and John. This has a very practical application: Information should be conveyed in small, bite-sized units.

Learning is the process of assigning information to our long-term memory. The hippocampus makes its decision on what to store based on two factors:

  • Does the information have emotional significance? All long-term memories have emotions attached to them, even if we are not aware of this; and
  • Can it be connected with something already known? If the brain has some prior information that is connected in meaning to the new information, it will use less energy to join those than to create totally new neural pathways.

 

The brain wants to do this task by itself. “If the right answer is constantly provided, the brain does not have much processing to do and the brain does not have to recall memories of times or events to support or refute the answer.”[17] And as a result, the brain will not store the information as readily as when it arrived at the same conclusion by itself.

Memories are not foolproof. Memories are being rewired each time they are recalled. They are strengthened, or weakened, or even mixed up with other memories. Having a déjà-vu experience? This is your brain comparing the current input with previously stored memories and finding pathways similar enough to consider the experiences equivalent, even though they may not be.

As a conclusion I want to suggest an analogy of feeding the memory with painting a wall: It is best to apply the paint slowly, several times, wait­ing between the coats for the paint to dry. First a primer has to be applied, then one, or better two coats of paint. If the paint is applied too thin, the old color will shine through. If the paint is applied too thick it will peel off after drying, and may take the first application of paint down as well.

Left-Brain, Right-Brain, Gender and Cultural Differences

In the past, knowledge of the brain has often been used to elevate one gender over the other. Women were derogatively called to be right brain types, because they seem to be more emotional, and not logical. A connection was being made with being emotional and being right-brain types. We now know that emotions drive every person, no matter which side of the brain they prefer to work with. But there are differences in the perception and processing of the left and right hemisphere of the cerebrum.

The left hemisphere, which controls the right side of the body, is also responsible for speaking, reading, writing, logical and verbal thinking. It analyzes problems using conscious processing. It needs facts, and things are broken down into components. It looks at the parts before putting them together to see the whole. Anything that involves analysis, time and sequence, is the domain of the left hemisphere. Interestingly, this left brain is also processing positive feelings and the known and familiar. An adult usually uses the left hemisphere more than a child. A person with a joyful temperament usually has greater activity in the left frontal lobe.

The right hemisphere, which controls the left side of the body, is also responsible for recognizing faces, places and images, and non-verbal communication, like reading facial expression and tone of voice. It processes visual and spatial input, and is associated with creativity and intuition. It perceives and analyzes things holistically; the whole picture is seen before the parts are put in. However, this right brain also deals with negative emotions and novelties. A person with greater activity in the right frontal lobe usually has a disagreeable temperament.

In order to understand a given situation, both hemispheres are involved. The two hemispheres are receiving the same stimulus, but extract different information from it. Each is processing its own result, as well as the result of the other hemisphere. Through the corpus callosum a give-and-take action occurs between the two sides. We humans have a unified brain; we are not exclusively right and left brain types. For example, when we hear a lecturer speak, our left hemisphere analyzes the words and the sentences, getting the actual meaning of the words. At the same time, the right hemisphere is analyzing the speaker’s tone of voice, enthusiasm or attitude. If the speaker exudes sarcasm, the actual meaning of the words is reversed. Without the right brain, the left brain would be clueless. Only through collaboration between the two halves can we recognize and identify reality.

Despite the fact that men and women use both hemispheres for inter­pret­ing the world, there are physical gender differences in the brain. There is more difference between the male left and right hemisphere than in the female. The cerebral cortex is thicker on the right hemisphere for men, and on the left hemisphere for women. The male brain is on average 15% larger than the female brain. In women the corpus callosum is usually more developed than in men, making it easier for women to reconcile different worldviews or conflicting issues.

Men have a tendency to be more visually/spatially oriented. This makes them better at manipulating objects. Women tend to be more verbal oriented. This makes them better at communication. Scientists found that already in babies males were more attracted to pictures of machines, while females were more attracted to pictures of faces. When dealing with abstract problems, males are into the right hemisphere, while women work more with both hemispheres.

There is no gender difference when it comes to intelligence. Men and women may think and learn differently, but not as differently as long thought. Again, for learning to take place, diverse approaches to accommo­date male and female learners are beneficial. Variety is the spice of life.

In the Unification movement it is common knowledge that there are cultural differences between Western and Eastern people that effect not only behavior but also learning. When scientists did a study on the perception of Western and Eastern people, they found a remarkable difference. In the study, the persons where shown some pictures, for example a school of fish. One of the fish was different from the other fish, in color or in size. When Westerners were asked what they saw, they saw the special fish and could describe it well. When Easterners were asked what they saw, they saw the school of fish in a specific environment. When asked to identify other pieces of the picture, Westerners had difficulties recognizing the environment, while Easterners had difficulties recognizing the special fish. This study showed that the perception of Easterners was holistic; they saw objects in relation to each other or the context, while Westerners saw things in isolation. Interestingly, Asian children growing up in the US were able to switch between the perception styles.[18] The researchers drew the conclusion that culture influences perceptual learning. While this is no surprise to us, it does though make the point that Easterners and Westerners may hear the same speech but hear divergent statements; that they may attend the same event but experience it differently; that they may listen to the same lecture but draw different conclusions. A strategy that works in the East may not work in the West, and vice versa.

Emotions and Learning

We humans like to look at ourselves as homo sapiens, the wise, the thinking creature. But all our thinking is influenced by emotions, whether we realize it or not. Before any sensory input is relayed to the thinking brain, it is evaluated by the amygdala for its emotional content. Our thinking brain is always split-seconds behind our emotions. Before any item is deemed worthy to be put in long-term storage, it is evaluated by the hippocampus, which does an emotional assessment of the data. “Researchers have found that stored memories of our experiences include an emotional component, so even reasoned choices are probably influenced by associations that we're not aware of.”[19] Emotions are very important for us humans.

Robert Sylwester stated, “Emotion drives everything. We attempt to solve only problems that are emotionally important to us.”[20] In other words, the challenge or topic at hand has to have relevance for us or we are not interested to deal with it. The best logical arguments will not make an impact if the person is emotionally not ready to listen. On the other hand, our feelings are so deeply engraved in our neural pathways that it is “easier to change your intellectual beliefs than your deep feelings.”[21]

We have experienced it before: when we are upset or angry, our brain won’t function right. This is because our thinking is slower than our emotions. We can’t think, because our emotions, and therefore hormones, shortcut our brain. Because of the tendency of emotions to “hijack” our system, “We are more capable of logical reasoning when the content doesn’t matter.”[22]

If we live in a sustained state of anger or fear, i.e. stress, the hormones will damage the hippocampus, and learning will get even more difficult to attain. On the other hand, if we are happy, we will learn and solve problems easier. Happiness fires the frontal lobes, which are involved in generation of ideas. Sadness suppresses the firing of the frontal lobes, with the opposite result. If a person has always negative and stressful thoughts, those thoughts will become self-confirming. Such a person will not be able to see the positive. Especially to consider here is the contagiousness of emotions. Any which way the emotions are expressed, they will proliferate.[23] A whole group of people could fall into anxiety, or joyfulness, depending on the feelings of the dominant individuals in the group.

So how do we address then the topic of changing deep-rooted feelings and behaviors? “You can change the way you feel by what you think.”[24] When thinking about an action the same neural pathways are lighting up as when the action is done in reality. This means, that thoughts are actually changing our physical brain. This is a direct interface between the spiritual and physical world. For our purposes, it means that if persons practice actions in their minds, they will become more proficient in the action in reality. It also means that imaginary actions, good or bad, prime the person to act them out in reality. Have you got a tape about positive thinking? Use it and you will become a better person. Are you reading Hoondokhae and thinking about doing the right things? It will be easier for you to follow it.

When it comes to dealing with other people, our feelings often create stereotypes. Stereotypes are also neuronal habits. “Stereotypes change very slowly, if at all.”[25] One way to help to break down stereotypes is through working together on a project. Locally this can happen, for example in a band or in a service project. On the international level, our movement’s sport festivals, cultural exchange and youth service programs are great opportu­nities for changing our brain’s labels.

One crucial step for a person is to want to change. How do we encourage a person to be emotionally ready to want to change? Researchers discovered that there are two points in a person’s life when there is considerable neuronal pruning and neural reorganization in the brain: falling in love and becoming a parent. The pruning is necessary in order to make space for the connections needed to deal with the new situation. Both events are emotional highpoints in life when another person (loved one or child) enters the life, and lifestyle changes occur. They have in common that they are related to love.

The connection between love and massive unlearning is mediated by a kind of hormone that is released, a class called neuromodulators. While neurotransmitters are hormones that regulate the exchange of impulses through the synapse, neuromodulators are hormones that enhance or reduce the overall effectiveness of synaptic connections. Neuromodulators help to create enduring change.

In summary, we can say that logic does not necessarily lead to a change of mind. Love is the turning point. “Love creates a generous state of mind. Because love allows us to experience as pleasurable situations or physical features that we otherwise might not, it also allows us to unlearn negative associations, another plastic phenomenon.”[26] When a person feels loved, there is no room for fears and stress. It opens the person up for transformation. When a person feels God’s love, anything is possible.

 

Conclusion

Brain research and neuroscience are fascinating topics. They confirm some long held common beliefs and question others. As educators and agents of change, we would do well to heed their findings in order to evaluate practices in the Unification movement. What are we doing right, and where could we improve?

Looking at some traditions and practices we can see the vision of our founder in achieving long-lasting change in his followers. With his emphasis on true love, Rev. Moon strongly encourages cross-cultural and cross-racial marriages (Blessings). When the spouses in those blessings are able to truly love each other, their brains will re-wire themselves and create a whole new outlook for life, transforming stereotypes and changing habits, often abandoning selfishness for selflessness. Every time true love is encountered, for example when having a physical or spiritual child, it enables the same radical changes. Likewise, when the spiritual child encounters true love by us, he or she can as well undergo fundamental transformation. Encountering the “other” through sports festivals, international Youth Service projects, Mr. and Mrs. University pageants, and other international gatherings helps to break down stereotypes as well, and prepare individuals for world citizenship.

The practice of setting conditions for spiritual goals is being affirmed by brain research, too. It explains why forty-day conditions seem to be effective for changing bad habits or establishing good habits. Hoondokhwe similarly trains our brains to think in godly ways and prepares us to live daily with God. These daily studies of scripture are positive reinforcements that allevi­ate stress and fear, and change our brain’s internal worldview.

On the other hand, there are some practices that could do with improve­ment. Many of those have to do with teaching. It has been shown that purely lecturing is not the best way to convey a message. The same holds true for repeating a PowerPoint or slide show word-for-word. It will not hold the attention of the students, be they members or guests. Especially lectures that go on for too long without breaks may actually be worse than not giving lectures at all. Our brains need time to digest the information. Another change for the better would be for leaders to develop cultural sensitivity, because one size does not fit all in our diverse movement.

More implications or applications can be drawn. This paper is limited in scope and addressed only some conclusions from brain research. There are a multitude of books available if the reader wants to study more.

As much as we have learned already from brain research, it cannot answer all questions about the human brain. Where is our mind located? “Our individual consciousness cannot be experienced by anyone other than ourselves, nor can it be located in the brain by PET or any other device.”[27] What makes us uniquely us? It is not just our individual and collective memories. We are able to contemplate ourselves. Our brain is able to reflect about its own working. And above all, there is human freedom. “No neuro­imaging device can portray our capacity for unpredictability, arbitrariness, even just plain irascible uncooperativeness. That is the wonder and the power of human freedom.”[28] It is given by God, and as individuals we have to make our own decisions, for better or for worse.

 

Notes

[1]       Sun Myung Moon, Cheon Seong Gyeong (Seoul: Sunghwa, 2006), 561.

[2]       A Unification term for the Kingdom of God on earth.

[3]      Norman Doidge, The Brain That Changes Itself (New York: Viking, 2007), 211.

[4]      Morton Hunt, The Universe Within (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), 36.

[5]       Some people refer to these pathways as neural networks. Because the term “neural network” is widely used in artificial intelligence to describe a computer simulation of the human brain, I am using the tern “neural pathway”.

[6]      Richard Restak, Brainscapes (New York: Hyperion, 1995), 125.

[7]     Please note that the old pathways still exist after 40 days and can easily be resurrected.

[8]     Hunt, 213

[9]      Jerry Larsen, Religious Education and the Brain (New York: Paulist Press, 2000), 6 ff.

[10]       Theodore Brelsford, “Lessons for Religious Education from Cognitive Science of Religion,” Religious Education 100 (Spring 2005): 184.

[11]      Doidge, 252

[12]     An exception to this is if an activity is coming from the skills memory, because for these “thinking” is not necessary. They become almost automatic.

[13]     Barbara Bruce, Our Spiritual Brain (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 25.

[14]     Ibid., 111

[15]     Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 334.

[16]     Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 7.

[17]    Bruce, 63.

[18]   Doidge, 301 ff.

[19]     Ron Brandt, “On Teaching Brains to Think: A Conversation with Robert Sylwester,” Educational Leadership 57/7 (April 2000)

[20]     Ibid.

[21]     Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1995), 158.

[22]    Hunt, 213.

[23]   Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon: Alban Institute, 2006), 26 ff.

[24]   Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, 246.

[25]    Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 2006), 158.

[26]   Doidge, 116.

[27]   Restak, 89.

[28] Ibid., 90.

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