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.

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.

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.