Brain plasticity explains much of how we change our minds. Yet few over the age of 25 ever change their mind in significant ways. There are two ways to fix this.
Have you ever wondered why the older we get the less likely we are to shift paradigms? Research strongly indicates that few over the age of 25 ever make a paradigm shift. That’s when male neural pathways are set (female are established earlier). By age 25, most of us believe what we believe what we believe for the rest of our lives.
I came to faith at age 18. Today my friends, including believers, span many generations—early 20s to late 70s. As the research indicates, hardly any have undergone a paradigm shift after 25. Why?
Two reasons. First, paradigm shifts disrupt our core assumptions, and we are not conscious of most of them. For example, few are conscious of how their language often reflects Enlightenment assumptions. Bringing this to the level of awareness is usually unsettling. Plus, the older we get, the more we cherish our assumptions, even if unexamined. They get harder and harder to disrupt.
Second, a paradigm shift doesn’t add to what you already know you know. It radically rearranges what you think you know. Copernicus’ sun-centered model didn’t add to Ptolemy’s earth-centered one. It overturned it. Both models used the same words—earth, sun, planets—but were incompatible. If one’s right, the other’s wrong (or inadequate). Both models can’t be right. It’s like trying to pour new wine into old wineskins.
I’ve experienced a few paradigm shifts since coming to faith at age 18. They upended my assumptions about the gospel, my body, and the church.
In my late 20s, my understanding of the gospel shifted from the popular evangelical fall-redemption model (FR) to a creation-fall-redemption-consummation model (CFRC). Both models use the same words (God, gospel, Jesus) but are incompatible. CFRC starts with creation and fundamentally views God as present in the entirety of creation. All of life is sacred (good), or sacramental. FR starts with the fall and fundamentally views God as absent in much of the fallen world. Much of life is secular (best avoided).
A second shift began in my early 50s. It has to do with human nature and my physical body. I shifted from the Enlightenment model (learning goes from head to heart to hands) to the ancient model (hands to heart to head). Both models use the same words (head, heart, hands) but are opposite. The ancient model says we operate by the order of our loves (desires). The gospel is best told in our physical body—not just our brain—specifically in our sexuality as male and female. Reading “The Master and His Emissary” only reinforced that we are hardly the rational folks we assume we are.
A third shift soon followed. I shifted from an assumption of the church as a collection of individual Christians to a view that she is first and foremost the Bride of Christ. Both models use the same word (church) but have radically different starting points. Individual choice (I fundamentally choose a church) versus a Bride falling in love and longing to be married to her Groom (we are betrothed to Jesus). As the Bride of Christ, we are moving toward a mind-blowing folding into the triune Godhead (what Paul meant in I Cor. 15:28, how God one day will be “all in all”).
My last three shifts have occurred after the age of 25. Some of it is due to brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to modify its connections or rewire itself. It’s why babies and young kids learn great gobs of stuff. It’s how adults shift paradigms.
Yet few adults do. The problem isn’t plasticity. It doesn’t decrease with age. The problem is paradigm shifts mean you leave your old ways of thinking, and your old tribe. That’s hard for most.
Furthermore, as we age, the filters in our neural pathway filters get clogged. Gobs of data (beliefs) gum up core assumptions (paradigms). Disruptive data challenges our assumptions. They feel dangerous, overheating the system, just as the clothes dryer overheats with clogged filters.
How do we clean out our filters? Tara Swart, author of Neuroscience for Leadership, recommends two tasks. Learn a new language. Tackle a daunting task. Both force your brain to work in ways it’s unaccustomed to, growing new neurons strong enough to connect with existing ones, forming new pathways necessary for paradigm shifts.
I’ve never had a plan for my life, but I learned Greek at age 27, Hebrew at 30. Later in life, I learned the language of neuroscience, how it aligns with scripture. Now Kathy and I and a few colleagues are taking on a daunting task: ending systemic poverty. Gulp.
I doubt the sons of Judah had a plan for their lives. But in the Babylonian exile, they spent their first three years learning a new language. They tackled a huge task, seeking the flourishing of the Babylonian captors (Jer.29:7). I bet they cleaned out their filters.
Now, at age 64, I feel my filters being unclogged again. I’m undergoing yet another paradigm shift. I’ll tell you about it next week.