Brain Plasticity, Change, and Repentance

An interesting and recent development in the study of the human mind is known as brain plasticity. There is a fairly good wiki page on it here.

In a nutshell, brain plasticity means that when we learn or experience something new the function and structure of our brain changes. And this brain development can happen at any age. It has been called the most important discovery of the twentieth century by some. This knowledge completely changes what was previously thought about the brain. And I believe this has both practical and religious implications.

On the practical side, maybe there is something to all those self-help books. Perhaps cognitive behavioral approaches to solving problems can really work. Excuses like, ‘I was born this way’, or ‘God made me this way’, may not hold much water in the long run. If, through hard work, discipline, practice, focus, patience, etc., we can actually bring about change in how our brain functions, then real change and self-improvement in the individual is possible.

This all rings true for me. I believe I have experienced such subtle change in who I am over the last few years. I have been able to overcome panic attacks without medication. I have also been able to improve my self confidence and attitude with some training and practice. This new idea of brain plasticity should bring hope to all those who desire to become the type of person that they want to be.

All this has religious application as well. It could change or reinforce how we think of the principle of repentance. Mormonism seems to me to take a more pragmatic view of repentance than some other religions. Of course, Mormons believe that a forgiveness of sins is only available through the atonement of Jesus Christ. In addition, Mormons believe that reforming our behavior is a necessary part of the repentance process.

This idea of brain plasticity seems to tie in nicely with repentance. As the sinner acknowledges his sin, and changes his behavior, he becomes a new person, with a changed mind. As the bad habits are left behind, over time, the very desire to return to them can vanish.

The idea of brain plasticity does not make such fundamental change any easier. Forming new communication paths and patterns may take several weeks, or even months. It will take faith, courage, and a strong will to make any of this happen. But the fact that the structure and function of our brains can change as we stop bad habits and replace them with better ones fills me with hope.

33 Responses to “Brain Plasticity, Change, and Repentance”

  1. 1 Jacob J October 15, 2008 at 12:05 am

    Nice post Eric, I very much agree with your thoughts here. This reminds me of William James’ paper on habits that I posted on awhile back. There is so much brain research going on right now, it will be fascinating to see what the next 20 years of research teaches us.

  2. 3 J. Max Wilson October 15, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    Great post Eric, thanks. I’m in the middle of a book that is definitely related to this subject about the effects of sex on brain development and the long term implications of teen sexual activity in cognitive chemistry and brain structure. The book definitely has a pro-abstinence agenda (which I am predisposed to support), but the brain-chemistry, and restructuring of neural pathways argument for sexual abstinence and marital fidelity is new and interesting.

    I’m planning a review on my blog in the near future when I finish the book.

    On a related note, the related discovery of mirror neurons (also mention in the book I mentioned) also has implications here. Much of the function of Mirror Neurons is speculative at this point. However, because they raise the possibility that one’s brain structure can be molded through mere observation, they have all kinds of implications from everything from pornography and homosexuality, to why regular reading of those critical of the church can affect our testimonies.

    Interesting Stuff.

  3. 4 Eric Nielson October 15, 2008 at 12:43 pm

    Yes J., it is terribly interesting, with implications everywhere.

  4. 5 Jim Cobabe October 15, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    It is good news for those of us who accidentally lost parts of the brain through a stroke, too.

    I am working to regain some or all of the lost functionality, by trying to retrain new pathways in my brain. It is not easy. Compared to a new baby learning how to walk, I make slow progress. But thanks to the plastic nature of nerve pathways, I can learn to control parts of my body that have lost function because I have lost the nerve connections in the brain. I suppose I would have been very sceptical, before this.

  5. 6 Eric Nielson October 16, 2008 at 7:12 am

    Yes, Jim, it is great news for anyone who wants to improve of change themselves. And you are also right that this news does not make things easy, it just opens up the possibilities.

  6. 7 Kurt November 9, 2008 at 9:26 pm

    Brain plasticity is mostly related to new learning. Research has shown that ‘unlearning’ an old pattern is far more difficult than learning a new pattern. If I remember correctly from my old experimental and cognitive psychology textbooks in college, unlearning something takes ten times the effort that learning it did. This is based on operant conditioning research, which is definitely related to this topic.

    So I would be careful before drawing conclusions related to the ability of someone to change, or to the repentance process itself, from the current early stages of neuroplasticity research. I have long believed that one reason repentance must be accomplished within a spiritual context is precisely because unlearning is so difficult, we need the Lord’s help for that. And some tendencies can not be unlearned, such as some types of homosexuality. Research shows this unequivocally. New pathways may be created in the brain, and they can become stronger than the old pathways, but the old pathways will usually remain and can become easily re-activated. That is why recovered alcoholics must be so careful around alcohol for the rest of their lives.

  7. 8 Eric Nielson November 10, 2008 at 8:06 am

    I agree that the unlearning is more difficult. But the point is that it is possible.

    I disagree with some of your absolute conclusions on this. More difficult does not mean impossible – evein if it is 10 times more difficult.

    The book I have read (The Brain that Changes Itself) gives case studies that show that things like sexuality are not just plastic, but highly plastic.

    Nobody is saying that such change is easy, but new research in this area is turning the old assumptions upside down.

  8. 9 Kurt November 11, 2008 at 3:15 am

    I have not read that book, but I do know a little about this from experience and research. The 10 times more difficult is for ordinary learning, for instance, if you learn to type one way, and then unlearning that keyboard and learning to type on a different type of keyboard is 10x harder than the initial learning. That is simple neuroplasticity. However, when we are dealing with major neurological ‘trunk lines’ between brain segments, there are some things that can not be learned, or unlearned so simply.

    Consider Christopher Reeves, for example. He had damage to his ‘main line’ nerves in the spine. After ten years of hard effort and practice he re-gained the ability to move one finger a small amount. That probably involved some pretty powerful new nerve development, and that was probably hundreds of times the effort of normal motor neuron learning.

    Add to that the fact that there is tremendous variation in the genetics of brain development, we hardly understand this new area in neurobiology. Neuroplasticity is certainly an important new finding, and some things can change. But some can not. We still need the Spirit to make some changes, and even then, after prayer, fasting, Spiritual help, blessings, etc., some changes just do not happen. I have seen this first-hand. This tells me that some issues are beyond neuroplasticity.

    Also, we must differentiate between tendencies and behaviors. People can usually control behaviors even when that goes against their tendencies. But that is another topic.

  9. 10 Eric Nielson November 12, 2008 at 8:20 am

    Yeah. I don’t think we have any argument here. This is a new area. Some things may not be possible, others are very difficult.

  10. 11 Andrew November 13, 2008 at 10:30 am

    –>If, through hard work, discipline, practice, focus, patience, etc., we can actually bring about change in how our brain functions, then real change and self-improvement in the individual is possible. <–

    This hypothesis is somewhat incomplete, I think.

    I think one adjustment is to ask 1) what kind of change is possible (what accords itself with the facts and with evidence about all the change that has been attempted, and 2) what kind of *unintended consequence* of “self-improvement” is possible?

    We might find that you can self-improve yourself in some areas, but that plasticity may backfire in other instances and cause plastic changes in a negative direction.

    We might find that as one becomes more active in the Gospel, their feelings actually don’t match what people say their experience tells them it should be. If only you read the scriptures, go to church, pray often, standard seminary answers, then *you* can be a true believer. But this is toxic advice for anyone who does these things and still feels *nothing*. So, there is a kind of plasticity that occurs, but it is a plasticity that causes people to resent themselves, resent the church, or something like that.

  11. 12 Eric Nielson November 13, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Some really good thoughts here Andrew.

    This area is brand new, and little is known about it. Brain plasticity is not necessarily good news. The brain is resourceful, but also vulnerable. It can be healed but also damaged. But I feel the possibilities bring hope and insight.

    I am certainly no expert in this area, so of course can not give real complete answers to some of the questions you ask.

    I think the resnetment people feel is unfortunate and unnecessary. This reaction is a choice. If one feels they have given an honest effort and feel nothing – they could choose to feel relief. I would suggest choosing not to feel resentment and either keep trying or not worry to much about it.

  12. 13 Andrew November 13, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    I don’t think calling a *reaction* like resentment a *choice* is compatible with either neuroplasticity or common experience.

    From the common experience aspect, this sounds to me like saying something like, “When people die, it is a choice to feel sad. You should choose to feel happy instead!” Well, no, your feeling isn’t chosen. Your reaction isn’t chosen.

    However, I can agree with you in that you *can* choose what you will do as a result of your feeling. If you are sad over a death, you can choose to mourn for 1 day, mourn for a month, mourn forever and never get on with your life, or try to return to normalcy. I’d agree that mourning forever is unproductive and as you said, “unfortunate and unnecessary.” But just because you stop mourning and get on with your life doesn’t mean that the death didn’t have a major impact on your attitude, feeling and thought. However, getting on with your life can ALSO have a neuroplastic effect that lessens your grief felt.

    …and that’s why I think such a comment seems to go against your entire message with pointing out plasticity.

    When you have an experience…such as being facing a death or feeling disillusioned with your life, this is your experience. Neuroplasticity would suggest that this experience *can* affect your life, attitudes, thoughts, etc., The problem is that in these kinds of cases, it wouldn’t be for the better. You’d feel sad after a death, maybe angry or resentful after being disillusioned with faith or the church. But definitely, these experiences are plastic — they do lead to changes in your brain. The death and disillusionment caused some negative changes you didn’t choose but which now you must deal with.

    So, a question might be…what should someone who is disillusioned with the church do? Even here, I don’t think it’s fair to say they should “not worry too much about it.” This is something that was their *entire* life. This was and is their culture. How are they supposed to simply “not worry too much about it?” It is true that eventually, someone who mourns a death must *stop* mourning and move on with their lives, but…we don’t ask a mourner to never mourn…or only to mourn in private. Yet we’d ask that people who leave the church leave it alone as well.

  13. 14 Eric Nielson November 13, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    First, I would say that I believe we have much more choice involved with our feelings and reactions than we realize. This is of course not absolute, but substantial.

    So, a question might be…what should someone who is disillusioned with the church do?

    Well, I would ask disillusioned in what way?

    Disillusioned as to the existence of God?
    Disillusioned as to Christ as Savior?
    Disillusioned with the Book of Mormon as scripture?
    Disillusioned with restoration of priesthood?
    Disillusioned with some church leaders?
    Disillusioned with policies and programs?

    My answer (if worth anything) would depend on what type of disillusionment one is experiending.

  14. 15 Andrew November 13, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    I think we have much less choice with these things. I can recognize we have choice with our actions, yes. But emotions? Not really. We don’t say, “I choose to have or not have temptations” (which is like emotion)…we say, “I choose not to act on these temptations or I choose to act on temptations.”

    Disillusionment could be with any of these. What would you say to each of them? Although, I’d probably combine the first two (don’t necessarily need to get into all the other non-Christian brands of theism)…combine the middle two (let’s say that the Book of Mormon and everything about it is part of the Restoration process…) and combine the last two (let’s assume that programs and policies are from the church leaders.

    I mean, I guess each disillusionment is different substantively, but from an analysis of how shaking they are…they all kinda are in a same boat.

  15. 16 Eric Nielson November 14, 2008 at 8:15 am

    I believe in the long term we can shape the type of person we are. Someone who has anger problems, as an example, can choose no react with less anger to certain cituations. And if they do this, they will often experience less emotional anger in the future. After time the anger emotion can get smaller and smaller. This choice does not bring absolute or immediate results, but controling the actual emotions happens in a real way. I also believe that we can get to the point where we no more desire to do evil.

    As far as disillusioned with the existence of God. I would say that one must have religious experience and feeling from the spirit for a belief in God and religion makes any sence. I have had a handful of such religious experiences. What if I hadn’t? I don’t know, it is hard to relate to. I would think that if I had no such experiences that I would not really care much about religion – no passion about it, take it or leave it, whatever. But I also wouldn’t just give up either.

    I think the same could be said for the middle two. I have had religious experience with these areas. If I hadn’t …. see above.

    The bottom two are different. My advice is to chalk problems one sees in these areas as the products of human weakness.

  16. 17 Andrew November 14, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    I still disagree. Someone who has anger problems does not choose to have less anger. Someone with anger problems can choose to, even though he feels anger, count to ten and withhold whatever action he might have done under the anger. This is not the same as saying he “chooses to be less angry.” That’s not how things work. You don’t “lose desire to do evil” — you don’t come to a point in your life where you no longer have temptations (I’m equating that to a desire to do evil). The Savior lived a perfect life, but he was still *tempted*.

    This is important, because it leads to other things. “One must have religion experience and a FEELING from the spirit for a belief in God and religion to make any sense.” Well…we don’t choose our feelings. We don’t choose to be angry or to not be angry. We choose what action we will take (for example, we *can* choose to shout at someone…or to not shout. ). So…how do we *choose* to have a religious experience? How do we *choose* to have a feeling from the spirit? We do not. We choose to go to church, to read the scriptures, to be obedient, etc., But we can’t choose to have a particular feeling from it.

    You say if you hadn’t had any religious experiences, then things might be different. It would be hard to relate. You’d lack passion. But the church says differently. The church would want you to DESIRE to believe, even if you don’t (in fact, going against your sensibilities), and still do everything just as well as someone who has had religious experience. You can’t “lack passion” or else that is a problem with you. So that’s a very antagonistic scripture, an antagonistic doctrine, and antagonistic church policy. But I recognize that the churches is *supposed* to be antagonistic in this area. Churches are antagonistic towards perceived sins…because they have a vested interest in showing that sin isn’t ok!

    Now, when you don’t have the religious experience or the spiritual feeling, etc., then I think that the bottom two disillusionments become much more important. You can say the church is separate from how humans run the church because you have a spiritual dimension to the church, but if you don’t have a spiritual witness telling you that the leaders are inspired (or you believe they are inspired so much as their actions are inspired), then you’re taking their actions on a human level. So, if a church, taken on a human level, is subject to human weakness, that’s not very good at all for that church if the humans are, in fact, very weak.

  17. 18 Eric Nielson November 14, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    I guess we will just have to disagree then. You have not persueded me. I believe things like anger can be an addiction. We get angry, we get the results we want, it reinforces things. I have simply had to many self-improvement experiences to deny real change is possible – even at very fundamental levels.

    I think we can choose our behaviors and experiences, learn from them, and this can change our future in fundamental ways, even at the feelings and emotion level. Similar with religious experience. This is much of what plasticity is about.

    So if I had made serious efforts at having religious experience and received nothing, I would feel apathetic about religion. That is all. I am not saying that is the right way to be, but that is how I think I would feel – apathetic. This does not mean that I do not desire to believe, just that there is no supportive spiritual experience behind it. This also does not mean that those with no religious experience will be expected by God to do things the same way. Where much is given….Individual judgement…

    It would be different if I had counter experience. Like if I really felt God told me something was wrong, I would likely get passionate about that thing. Counter experience would be different from no experience.

  18. 19 Andrew November 14, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    I think we can change our behavior too — that’s the common ground. It’s just that that’s not saying we choose not to be angry or we choose to have a confirming religious experience. No, anger is an *emotion*. A religious experience is highly *emotional*. Emotions are unchosen. Now, what might happen as a result of continual behavioral changes is that we might respond differently because of a reinforcement of our behavior, but then we have to ask how far does this plastic effect go…and could it go in unexpected ways?

    I think plasticity first of all isn’t a miracle cure-all…and sometimes, it can go in the *opposite* direction you’d expect.

    Consider, when you have a church that says the opposite of a confirming spirit is a stupor of thought…a blankness…a lack of the burning in the bosom, that “feeling nothing” is very much a counter-experience. Not only that, but people experiences with life, with the gospel, etc., can lead them to have actual negative counter experiences. So, I’m not saying that’s how things should be, but this would explain why there are people who are resentful. It’s not something they chose. But it’s something that has been reinforced and reinforced and reinforced by their experiences with the church, the gospel, with life, etc.,

  19. 20 Eric Nielson November 15, 2008 at 8:43 am

    Maybe this will help. (Maybe not)

    I might agree that our current emotion is not chosen, but our future emotions to similar situations can change as we change. So when a given situation causes us anger, the results of our anger may be very negative, we learn and change due to these results, and in the future we get less angry. Over time we might rarely get angry anymore.

    Yes, plasticity is not well known and ‘trained’. It is not necessarily good new. It can heal or damage.

    And sure, people can have some negative experiences with the church and therefore have a negative change as a result. But I do believe they have a choice about how that experience and future experiences will affect them. What did they learn, how do they interpret it, what does this change, will partly be their choice.

  20. 21 Kurt November 21, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    I agree with Andrew, and think that an important point is that this area of research is too new for us to draw significant conclusions yet. For instance, Eric points out that he has experienced significant change, and neuroplasticity might be an explanation. The problem is that one can not generalize from one’s own ability to change. Neuroplasticity by definition is a biological, neurochemical type of process, and there are individual differences between people in all things biological and neurochemical. Some people genetically lack certain proteins, for example, and may not be able to learn and adapt as easily. What might take x amount of effort for one person may take 10x amount of effort for another, and for yet another it might be 1000x. Then we have to start looking at what is realistic and how to accommodate things.

    And people have different levels of genetic vulnerability to specific life problems. That vulnerability must be paired with proper life situations to create the problems, but those without the vulnerability will not ever have the problems. For example, research shows that virtually every person on death row lacks proper brain geometry for moral reasoning. However, not everyone who lacks this brain geometry is on death row. It is a combination of genetics, environment, and personal choices that leads to our life experience. Neuroplasticity is certainly a factor, but it is only one of many issues, and it is probably not the same for all people. For someone without the murderer brain geometry (genetic), the choice not to kill when someone gets in their way is a simple one. For someone with the murderer brain geometry but a moral upbringing, a supporting environment and a low-stress life, they might want to kill a person who gets in their way, but they will not do that, and will not end up on death row. For someone with three strikes against them, the bad brain geometry, a terrible upbringing, bad influences around them, and a high stress life, they will murder when someone gets in their way. Neuroplasticity will work against them, as Andrew points out. Given their predispositions, they would need a HUGE amount of willpower to overcome their situation and not murder, thousands of times more than the person who never was tempted to begin with and just has a little passing anger to deal with from time to time.

    What I really dislike about the reasoning that everyone can change ‘as easily as I can’ is that it is a way to release people from the requirement of being charitable to those having problems. And it denies that not all changes are possible. Jesus pointed out that we come with different gifts, and different access to resources. That is a very real part of our reality.

  21. 22 Eric Nielson November 21, 2008 at 1:02 pm


    No one is saying change is easy or the same for everyone. And your goofy asignment of motive behind an interest in brain plasticity is completely off base. No one is saying that any change is possible. Of course everyone is different.

    Why be so defensive because someone is currently excited about the possibilities of brain plasticity?

  22. 23 Kurt November 21, 2008 at 1:18 pm

    I forgot one important factor, along with genetics, upbringing, environment and choice, there is also the issue of a person’s health. Poor health affects a person, even if they are unaware they are in bad shape. And this can also tip the balance when someone is trying to change.

    I am not saying neuroplasticity will not help us learn more about change, just saying that it does not automatically lead to the conclusion that change is possible in areas where change has up to now been difficult. Much remains to be seen.

  23. 24 Eric Nielson November 21, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Yes it does. But I am still excited and optimistic about the possibilities.

  24. 25 Ty January 3, 2009 at 2:09 am

    Here’s a million dollar question – If you were to die right now, would you qualify for the celestial kingdom? If you’re like most Mormons, you’re not sure. You try hard to be as good as possible, but you still don’t know if you’ve done enough. If the Book of Mormon is really scripture, this hope will always elude you. Alma 11:37 says God cannot save you in your sins. Are all of your sins forgiven? Moroni 10:32 says you must be perfected in Christ, which can only be done by denying yourself of “all ungodliness”. Have you done that? Do you repent on a regular basis? If so, then it is clear that you sin on a regular basis, since only those who break the commandments need to repent. 1 Nephi 3:7 states that you are able to keep His commandments. In fact according to D&C 25:15, you are required to keep them continually! Since you haven’t done this so far, why assume you will in the future? Of course, we should all try to be holy; but if you think that sinning less will qualify you to live in God’s presence, you are mistaken (Gal 3:1-11). The assumption that good works are required for forgiveness only cheapens Christ’s atonement, making it nothing more than a partial payment. God chooses to justify us by faith. Jesus alone does the “perfecting” (Heb 10:14). God gives peace to those who trust in Him alone. If you don’t have this peace, it’s probably because at least a part of you trusts in yourself. Questions? Visit us at

  25. 26 Eric Nielson January 5, 2009 at 8:12 am

    Sure, Ty. And the Bible says nothing whatsoever about keeping commandments. Those who claim to have been ‘saved’ in traditional Christian churches should be dead to sin, right? You’ve been born again. So if you continue to sin then you have not really been saved. And here is the billion dollar question – if you have not been completely saved then you are going to hell – there is no other place. Yuck.

    For a review of scriptures that teach keeping the commandments – many of them in the Bible (see especially New Testament). see here

  26. 27 m&m January 5, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    I am running out the door and haven’t had a chance to read all of this, but one thought I wanted to capture that has wowed me was when someone I know who is a social worker/therapist talked about this concept — of retraining, rewiring neural pathways.

    And then she connected it with the gospel: When we talk of the Lord giving us a new mind (and repentance being a new mind), some of that can be literal changes in the brain wiring and pathways.

    Totally wowed me to think about…the connection between spiritual growth and biology and all of that.


  27. 28 Eric Nielson January 6, 2009 at 8:14 am

    That is why I am so fascinated by this.

  28. 29 Amanda February 28, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    I think we all need to accept that our brains in this life really are subject to mortal challenges–just like any physical challenges we might face–and of course, with that comes the spiritual challenges as we strive to do what we know is right. Any discovery is certainly a gift from God that can bless us- but there is such a thing as mental illness, Parkinsons, Alzheimer’s- that has brain function implications–that is difficult to change–much like willing your diabetes to go away will not always make it so–unless God advances science–which will eventually happen, at least we hope in our lifetimes.

    I applaud your efforts in dealing with your panic attacks–without meds–that is no easy feat–but not all mortal challenges will be reversed in this life–hence the need for our resurrected bodies. I myself have manic-depressive illness and have a difficult time feeling the spirit, even when I’m doing what I should be doing. Taking medication certainly helps–and without it, it is near impossible to turn off the intensity in my head. I’m just doing my best–and doubt that in this life I will ever achieve perfect brain function–however your point seems to not be achieving perfection, but progression–which is certainly an important distinction.

    The discoveries we have made in science are certainly taken for granted–and it is not hard to understand and follow certain commandments like the articles of faith– given our knowledge now of the harmful effects of too much meat, and tobacco etc.

    I’m rambling…sorry. Nice post.

  29. 30 Eric Nielson March 2, 2009 at 8:01 am

    Wow Amanda. Great comment. Thanks for visiting.

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