Our Experiences Make Us Who We Are

Sebastian Seung, Professor of Computational Neuroscience at MIT, coined a term and wrote a book on the connectome. He is in the process of using the technology of the MRI to map the brain, which has millions of more connections than a person’s genome has letters.

His research has led to a novel idea, your personal identity is encoded in the pattern of connections between your neurons – in short, the sum of all the experiences you have had up to this very millisecond makes you who you are. He calls this the connectome.

Even more profoundly, the relationships we have with others – our families, colleagues, teachers, fellow believers, and even the barista at Starbucks, creates the experiences that form our identity.

Taken this a step further, in our digital world, these relationships even extend to our relationships to cultural leaders like sports stars, TV personalities, politicians, and musicians.  Witness the out pouring of grief over the death of Prince, who at 57 died well before his time.  People flocked to his home and left flowers.  Cities lit up buildings and bridges in the color purple.  Saturday Night Live dedicated its whole show to showing highlights of Prince’s performances as Jimmy Fallon hosted the tribute.

Why are we so deeply moved by the loss of people to who we have never met?  Because through the experiences of listening to their music, or rooting for them to win a game, or voting for them, or following their tweets, our brains have incorporated these experiences into our very being.

Morgan Freeman’s new series on National Geographic on The Story of God explored the topic of “Who is God?” in the third episode of the series.  In one scene he takes an MRI to see if there is an evidence of God’s influence in his brain. Dr. Andy Newberg uses MRIs to see if the brain changes as a result of prayer.  After asking Freeman to meditate on God, Newberg took a scan of his brain and showed the printout to Freeman.  He pointed to before and after pictures, which showed parts of his brain lighting up after Freeman had focused on the divine.  Newberg has done this test with many people of different faiths and found similar results.  The only group that does not have this kind of result are people who have no faith – after they focus their brains, no change happens.

Newberg is convinced that his results show how the brain is affected by faith, in effect, the neurons in our brains are shaped by our faith in God.

Of course to people of faith, this should come as no surprise.  Psalm 1 says happiness is tied to what we focus on.  Those whose “delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night” are like “trees planted by stream of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.”

The connectome, the sum of all you are up to this moment, is deeply influenced by how you focus your time and the nature of your relationships.  These relationships, even if they are virtual, form your identity. The lesson is clear – how you spend your time and the ways you connect with others forms your very being – it makes you who you are.

The Black-ish Episode on Hope Challenges us to Care

Black-ish, the ABC sitcom in its second year of delivering powerful messages amid laughs, brought home the controversial issues revolving around police shootings and young African-American males in its most recent episode on “Hope.”

As the multi-generational family gathered around the TV waiting to hear the verdict in the most recent incident, each family member – from the grandfather who thought the police were thugs to the mom who wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt – voiced their opinions as news reports unfolded across the screen.

One of the threads that tied the story together was that the parents wanted to shield their two youngest children from the story. But as the episode unfolds, they come to realize in our ever-connected world of digital media, they needed to tell them themselves.

While we as adults have our own filters when it comes to issues of race, politics, and justice, this episode is a powerful reminder that each generation has to come to terms with the reality of the world, and it’s the older generation’s responsibility to show the youngest that they will do everything in their power to overcome so their children can live in a better world.

Questions for discussion:

  1. How do you protect children from the harsh realities of injustice and violence? When is the right time to talk about these issues?
  2. How do you offer them hope in the midst of what seems to be overwhelming odds?
  3. What experiences of overcoming do you have to share from your own life-story?
  4. How are you showing them through your own actions that you care about making the world a more just place for everyone?

More stories on this episode:

Black-ish and How to Talk to Kids About Police Brutality, The Atlantic
With Police Brutality Episode, ‘black-ish’ Shows How Sitcoms Can Still Matter, New York Times



The Release of Disney Infinity 3.0 Begins the Season of Star Wars Mania


When Disney purchased Lucasfilm and the rights to the Star Wars franchise for $4 billion dollars in 2012, many assumed Disney would focus on reviving the Star Wars franchise by producing another round of movies. But this was only part of the plan. What Disney really wanted was the characters and the stories. For characters and stories have always put the magic in Disney.

Disney’s first cultural icon, Mickey Mouse, became the template upon which all future characters would be built. In 1928 he starred in Steamboat Willie, the first animated film to use synchronized music and sound effects. As the movie captured the imagination of popular culture, Walt Disney did what he did best — he teamed up with merchandisers to put Mickey Mouse in every house in America. Along with stuffed animals, Mickey appeared on pencils, in books, on children’s clothes, pillows, and sheets. Soon he had his own syndicated cartoon in the newspaper. But nothing said he had arrived better than the release of the iconic Mickey Mouse Watch, which sold over 11,000 units on its first day, a record for its time. But that was just the start. By the 1950s Mickey had his own television show, the Mickey Mouse Club, and a starting role in his own theme park, Disneyland, in California.

So when Disney purchased Star Wars, the production of movies was only one piece of the franchise pie. From now till the release of Star Wars VII The Force Awakens on December 18, 2015, a whole series of video games, animated TV shows, and books will be released to build momentum toward the opening of the movie.

Disney has even created a slogan and website called “Star Wars A Force For Change,” which promises to harness “the strength of Star Wars and its global fandom to empower people to come together to make a positive impact on the world around them.”

With the release of the video game Disney Infinity 3.0 Star Wars, Disney takes its popular toy-to-life video game to another level.  Included in the starter pack is the first of three Star Wars play sets that capture the breadth of the Star Wars story.  The starter pack comes with Twilight of the Republic, in which Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano battle during the latter years of the Clone Wars (episodes 1 – 3). The intergalactic adventure takes the characters to four planets, during which they battle droids as they try to save the republic from the separatists.

At the end of September the next play set, The Rise Against the Empire, will be released. Here gamers will be immersed in the original Star Wars movie universe (episodes  4-6) as they get to be Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia fighting against the Galactic Empire.  Then in December, in conjunction with the release of the newest movie, The Force Awakens play set will feature two new characters, Finn and Rey, that will allow gamers to play the in world of episode 7.

But this is only part of the story.  More than 100 playable characters will be included in the series, which at $14.99 a pop is quite an investment, along with the $64.99 starter pack and the $35.99 you pay for each additional play set.  Disney knows it will hard to resist the desire to play as Darth Vader, Yoda, Chewbacca, and Han Solo in a Star Wars experience that puts the gamer in the midst of the action.

Beyond the play sets, Disney Infinity also includes the groundbreaking Toy Box that allows gamers to create their own worlds using Star Wars images.  But more than that, in the Toy Box, Yoda can also hang out with Elsa from Frozen or Woody from Toy Story or Hulkbuster from Marvel’s universe of characters.

While it’s easy to see this as an attempt to separate parents from their hard-earned money, not to be lost is Disney’s profound understanding of the appeal of Star Wars to grandparents, parents, and children alike.  For Stars Wars is not only an intergalactic adventure, it also is an intergenerational cultural experience that started in 1977.

People in their fifties and sixties can easily remember their first experience of the release of episodes 4 – 6, when “let the force be with you” became part of the cultural lexicon of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Those in their thirties and forties became immersed in the story in the 1980s and 1990s with the advent of Video Tapes and DVDs that allowed them as kids to watch the movies over and over again in their home theaters.  In 1999, the series got new life with the release of episodes 1 – 3, which introduced the series to a whole new generation.  Now with Disney Infinity 3.0, the grandchildren and children of Star Wars fans have the opportunity to be caught up in the story in a totally new way.  Not only will they be able to watch the movies, toy-to-life video gaming allows them to become the characters as they interact in the Star Wars universe.

With the release of Disney Infinity 3.0, Disney has redefined the Star Wars experience.  Rather than buying a particular game, it becomes its own game system, which can be played on any gaming platform from the Wii U to the PS4, from the Xbox One to the PC.  If you have a grandchild or child, don’t be surprised if you find yourself investing in Disney Infinity 3.0, because deep down, you know if you have it, you’ll get to play it too.

Questions for church leaders:

  • How do Bible stories and characters become an intergenerational experience?
  • How will you handle the cultural phenomenon of all things Star Wars that will reach its zenith right before Christmas?
  • Will you ignore it?  Reference it in your preaching? Create a study?


7 Ways to Uncouple from “Now”

The operative word for the digital age is “Now.” Whether its getting a prompt to “Like” or a disquieting nudge because you haven’t answered that email, it seems that little is being done to remember the past or prepare for the future. Our devices are not created to encourage us to ponder, reflect, and discern. They are designed to get us to search, to click, and to hyperlink – always looking for the next best thing.

This is true for our iKids as well. As we shuttle them from school to practice to church to camp to after-school events…are we giving them time to take a break? Where in our hurried lives do we hit the pause button and breathe?

So in attempt to break free, here are 7 ways to take a break from the tyranny of now.

  1. Read a novel. Our smartphones and tablets are full of ways to distract us and the reading we do is nothing more than scanning short bursts of information. Taking a break from screens and reading a real book helps our mind imagine, relax, and refresh.
  2. Learn to cook Moussaka. About six months ago my family and I went to a Greek restaurant and I tried moussaka for the first time. For some strange reason I went home and decided to learn how to make it. It was out of my comfort zone and cultural background, but now that I have cooked it a number of times, it’s not half bad. If moussaka is not your thing, find a recipe that takes a lot of preparation and challenges you. The act of cooking a complex dish gives you a sense of accomplishment and appreciation for the time it takes to make something good.
  3. Take a media fast.   We are so hemmed in by our screens and by our need to respond, that we don’t know how to live without a smartphone in our hand. So take up the challenge to shut it down for an evening or even a day. Turn off all media and give yourself time to think and reflect (fasting in Biblical times was related to food, fasting for us is giving up our media intake for a period of time).
  4. Write a letter. If you don’t remember how to do this, it entails getting a piece of paper and a pen and clearing a spot on a table to write. Writing by hand is slower because it makes you use the artistic side of your brain. When you write with a pen or pencil you are literally drawing a picture – one that others can recognize – that communicates a message to someone else. This is not the same as typing or texting. Writing by hand gives you an opportunity to think and to reflect as you share your thoughts with another person.
  5. Read a book to someone else. This is different than #1 above. By reading aloud to another member of your family or a friend the words take on another meaning. It also moves you to engagement.   This last week I picked up Love. Period.: When All Else Fails by Rudy Rasmus and starting reading it to my son. It has been a very rewarding experience as we are learning together and being challenged live out our Christian walk in today’s society.
  6. Listen to a story.   Take the time to talk with an older adult who grew up before the digital age. This might be an older relative or a member of your church. As you listen, you will see that they talk in stories and they focus on relationships. Talking to an older adult gives you an opportunity to break free from the onslaught of being “on” all the time and to hear about a time when relationships were built face-to-face and time moved at a slower pace.
  7. Pray. A long time ago I took a class on spirituality and we were taught a very simple prayer that has stayed with me. It goes like this, “I belong to God.” That’s it. Find a quiet moment and give yourself time to repeat this phrase as you pray it over and over again. It’s a very powerful prayer because it will remind you created you and will give you a sense of the timelessness of God’s presence in your life.

Disney Infinity 2.0 Reveals Its Strategy for Reaching iKids

Today’s release of Disney Infinity 2.0: Marvel Superheros is a watershed event for Disney. For years they have tried to figure out how to crack the billion dollar gaming market. With last year’s successful launch of the Disney Infinity video game, they finally found a winner.

If you are not familiar with Disney Infinity, it is at the forefront of the toy-to-life format, where gamers buy toy characters that come to life in a video game. Skylanders by Activison was the first to pioneer this concept which has generated over 2 billion dollars in sales for the company.

What gets iKids excited about the Disney Infinity video games is the ability to collect their favorite Disney toy characters (which sell between $12 to $15 dollars each) and to then play them in the game. Characters like Violet from the Incredibles, Mater from Cars, and Elsa from Frozen became popular choices to add to the original game.

But in Disney Infinity 2.0: Marvel Superheros, we see the culmination of a strategy Disney has focused on over the last ten years. After their successful collaboration with Pixar movies like Toy Story, Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast, they discovered what sells in today’s marketplace are the characters and their stories.

So in 2004 they bought the Muppets. In 2006 they bought the full rights to Pixar. In 2009 they purchased Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion. Then in 2012 they bought Lucasfilm and the rights to the Star Wars franchise. Just last year they continued their buying spree as they obtained the rights to Indiana Jones.

Disney’s goal to own all the characters and stories of our pop culture is readily seen in Disney Infinity 2. Rather then staring characters from Disney movies or Pixar, it includes Thor, Iron Man and Black Widow from Marvel in the starter set who play in an Avengers themed game.

But this is just the start. What makes Disney Infinity 2.0 unique is the Toy Box mode in which you can mix and match your characters and create your own games, sets, and designs – think Minecraft combined with Angry Birds. In the new version characters get their own stories in the Toy Box Mode and they get to play with characters from all of the Disney owned franchises.

So what is our take-away:

  1. Disney through its old and new franchises is the most influential company in the lives of iKids. Besides the Disney Channel, it also owns ABC, ABC Family, ESPN, and DisneyXD. Along with its movies and theme parks it has the capability to make its products wildly popular among children (think Frozen).
  2. Disney has always understood the power of story. In today’s culture, stories and strong characters impart wisdom and meaning.
  3. Disney’s ability to think long-term it now paying off. Its strategy of buying up the pop culture has positioned it to have even more influence than before.
  4. By purchasing properties like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, they are able to rekindle the love adults had for these movies when they first came out. As a result, their goal is to create experiences that children, teens, and their parents can enjoy together.
  5. The Disney Infinity Video Game franchise has the opportunity to fully exploit its strategy. No one would be surprised to see Disney Infinity 3.0 based on Star Wars next fall, just before the next movie of the series is released.

How Much Digital Media is Too Much?

If Norman Rockwell were painting a picture of today’s family, the dad would be on a Samsung Galaxy watching a soccer game, mom would be checking her Facebook on an iPad, the little girl would be playing a Disney Princess game on her Kindle Fire, and the older brother would be on his Nintendo 3DS immersed in all things Pokémon.

Of course chances are mom or dad might not be in the picture because they were separated or they might be Skyping each other because they are working in different cities – but you get the idea. Today smartphones and tablets are as commonplace in homes as TV sets, toasters, and the kitchen sink were to previous generations.

While there are varying opinions about the best use of this digital technology with our children, the one thing we know for sure is this: we are in the midst of a great experiment. No one knows how the use of techgear and digital media is affecting the mental and social development of iKids, the generation born since 2000.

So as a parent or grandparent, what should you do when it comes your children’s digital life? Here are three things for you to consider:

  1. How much is too much?A partial answer to this question is related to how old your child is. Before age 2, its recommended that digital media, including TV, be kept to a minimum as infants cannot distinguish between real life and what is seen on a screen. By age 4 the amount of time learning to read books will have a huge impact on academic performance when they are teens. At age 8, children develop digital expertise as their reading level coincides with the physical ability to manipulate all those buttons on game controllers.   At age 13, a child’s brain goes into its most important phase of development as it creates connections that will last a lifetime.So while the appeal of playing a game or watching TV can be very strong, time spent on techgear is time not being spent reading, praying, playing outside, or interacting with another human being face-to-face. It’s these non-digital activities that teach deep reasoning skills, emotional bonding, and spiritual values.
  2. How are you developing the informal education in your home?What happens at school and the homework that is connected to class time is the formal education that every child must do. What a parent or grandparent is responsible for is everything else – the informal education. A trip to a museum or the zoo, a walk in a park, reading a book aloud to each other, playing on a team, worshiping at church, singing in a choir, and memorizing the Lord’s Prayer is as formative to a child as their school work.In the digital world we now inhabit more and more schools are incorporating computers and tablets into the school day. So if your child has been on a computer or tablet at school for most of the day and then comes home and watches TV or plays a video game – they will soon be overloaded with digital media. So a key role for the adult in the house is to find the balance between screen time and everything else a child could be doing.
  3. How much are you on your techgear when you child is with you?A recent study by CrowdTap found that Millennials (born from 1992 to 1999) spend an average of 18 hours a day on digital devices. Which means other than sleeping, digital media is an all-pervasive presence in the lives of young adults. The one complaint researchers are hearing from children about their parents is their parents would much rather be on their smartphones then talking with them.   So part of balancing family life is looking at how we are modeling the use of our own devices with our children.

While it is easy to become overwhelmed by the possibilities the digital world promises, parents have the opportunity to bring balance into their children’s lives. So while its fun to play Mario Cart 8 with your iKid, you also might let your child catch you reading a book. More importantly, find times to work on face-to-face communication, like eating dinner without the TV on or smartphones in your hands. Or play a board game or cook a meal together. Even if your iKid is 14, you might go back to that old habit of saying a prayer together before bedtime – maybe not every night, but enough to remind your child that God is still involved in your lives.