ethics philosophy science

the neurology of self-control

brain mapOf course, I’m not a neurologist. Heck, I haven’t even spent any considerable amount of time browsing Wikipedia entries on neurology…

I have been thinking, however, about life, our brains, choices and the like…

Without delving into how our brains might have developed or evolved into the state they are, I think it’s just fascinating how they work now. As we live life – as we see, hear, things, say things, do things, have things happen to us, touch things, are touched by things, etc., etc. – a correlating ‘network’ of associations, memories, etc. is continually being ‘built’ somehow, somewhere under our hair…

I’ve been thinking about this ‘networking’ process as it relates to the choices we make in life, and what we control and we can’t…

(Incidentally, Ken recently shared a quote with me –which I actually like a lot– from Christopher Hitchens; “Of course we have free will – we have no choice about that!”)

Some things that happen in life happen to us, and we have no control over them at all. Other things, however, we do have control over, and can cause to happen or prevent from happening. Both, however, are things that ‘shape’ us, emotionally, mentally – and yes, (in the case of our neural networking) even physically/biologically.

mappingI was talking to a friend the other day about temptation and resisting it, and we talked about how fragile our imaginations are, and how what we view, what thoughts we entertain and what we allow ourselves to do/think can shape our imaginations. In a sense, we both agreed, you can gain a kind of (to coin a phrase) ‘neural imaginative momentum’ by consistently choosing to think the same kind of thoughts.

I find these notions quite helpful. We all have things that we think and/or do that we wish we wouldn’t do – even at times acting against our own desires (See Romans 7). I wonder… Had Paul lived on our side various neurological discoveries, how would he have worded things?

In a sense, these notions of self-control and neurology don’t change anything, because common sense and common experience tells us that we develop behavioural (and mental) patterns. But I find it helpful still.

So… What kind of neural map are you building?

12 replies on “the neurology of self-control”

Another insightful post, Dale. The Bible does talk about thinking about higher things, what makes us unclean, what we think about, etc. Today’s equivalant phrase…Garbage in, garbage out.

Thanks for the thoughts.

I can relate to the idea of promoting ‘neural imaginative momentum.’ I’ve noticed that when I am contact with my siblings they always tell me their health problems. I consciously try to start by saying I am disgustingly healthy – it’s become a habit for me (just as their negative talk has become a habit for them).

I heard once that one has only to repeat something 28 times before it becomes a habit. For example – force oneself to go for a daily run for 4 weeks and thereafter it’s a habit – you will feel bad if you don’t. Dietary changes seem to work the same way.

On the other hand, some stages of life are very formative. What happens to us in the first few years we may never escape. The neurons have formed all those links at a very time when the whole cognition and personal “reality” system is being formed. A lot of the brain cells actually disappear as part of this initial learning stage. The linkages remain to influence our lives for the next 70 or so years. In many ways, we don’t have equal opportunity – low self-esteem prevents us from recognising, let alone taking, opportunities.

Of course the ‘neural imaginative momentum’ probably works in a bad way with many people – helping to form and reinforce negative or dangerous personalities.

Super subject, if you know what I mean. I am working very hard to eliminate the cynical and feed the idealist inside me. These two maps are always competing for my attention it seems. Hope is winning today. While there certainly is momentum that binds us and hinders us, neuroplasticity is really the miracle. We can always rewire, and become more agile at it the more we do it.

Interesting topic Dale. Over the last year or so I’ve been pouncing on any podcast that I can find that talks about neuroscience and am constantly blown away by how complex the brain it.

There is one that I’ve learnt a lot from called the Brain Science Podcast. It’s pretty poor quality and the host sounds a little… shall we say… southern? but there are some real gems to be gained there. If you’re the podcasting type I recommend you take a look. See if you can find the one on neuroplasticity.

Yes, the ‘neural imaginative momentum’ as you call it is fairly well known. I play golf (poorly) and have noticed that if I spend time off the golf course just imagining swinging a club it actually makes a vast improvement in my game. It’s fascinating to observe a purely mental process having such a physical effect. A lot of coaches say “visualise to realise” and they’re dead right.

“The power of positive thought” is a bit of a tired cliché but there’s a grain of truth in it. The same would probably apply to negative thoughts.

Anyway, check out those podcasts.


Thanks again for the encouragement!


Indeed the momentum can be good or bad…


Thanks for reading! Good to get the perspective of a Neurologist… I would love it if you wouldn’t mind un-packing what you mean by ‘neuroplasticity’… Sounds very interesting!!!


Indeed the imagination is very powerful. Our acting and choosing is very influenced by our imagination…
This, of course, is how advertising works (not if I have anything to do with it, however! :) I try very hard to laugh at advertisements attempts to generate ‘neural imaginative momentum’ for spending money on their products!)…


Neuroplasticity is the ability to make and strengthen new synaptic connections. We are born with an amazingly flexible brain. Infants that have strokes at or before birth often have no defect because different areas of the brain will take over the function. It has recently been found that we actually make new brain cells well into adulthood. Plasticity is what allows us to learn new things. It also allows us to develop new habits and behaviors. That takes work.
For example, in depression, the brain becomes hard wired to experience self criticism and a negative emotional response. The goal of cognitive therapy is to counter automatic hardwired negative thoughts by reevaluating if they are really true, are they helpful, what does it mean, what does this mean, we do we need to do to respond to this feeling, make it better. etc. You can learn to strengthen relaxation circuits, meditation, and positive visualization. All these things grow stronger with practice.

Thanks heaps for that, Doc.

I’ve heard similar things about muscle-building – the tissue can be built through exercise even at a very mature age; which, for me, raises the question of when is the right time to put our loved ones in wheel-chairs…

I like your language of ‘work’. Life is like that, isn’t it? I like it because I think we need to be responsible humans, not irresponsible. We don’t really like the ‘weight’ of responsibility, so we resist it. Far easier to blame my actions (or non-action!) on a ‘condition’ I’ve got or something…

Yes, there will be biological correlates for whatever ‘condition’ or ‘feelings’ we’re having, but (correct me if I’m wrong) things like ‘neuroplasticity’ suggest that – albeit via some hard ‘work’ – we can change more about ‘us’ than we may want to admit (depression, negativity, sexual-cravings, etc.)…

As for me, I don’t need to change anything about myself, because I’m perfect…



I just happened to stumble across this page and I am intrigued. People discussing thought process from a biblical perspective? Awesome!

Here’s my perspective for what it’s worth: When the Bible (especially in the New Testament) speaks of thinking it is not referring to the “human” (the old nature) mind but to the “new mind (of the new nature-the Holy Spirit). “WE have the mind of Christ” is a literal truth. The human or carnal mind, it says, “is not subject to the laws of God and is an enemy of God.

The natural mind with which we are born into is just a faculty of the human nature or soul (mind, emotions, will) and is, prior to conversion, the authoritative engine of the individual. The regeneration of a person means that the “Soul” engine is shut-off (crucified with Christ) from directing the body and a new engine (born-again) is deposited within the person’s human spirit which up to this point has not been running) and is activated (regeneration) beginning the dynamic of running the activities of the body.

The “I” of the person is the fallen human nature and is the same as the “flesh” or carnal directive that once controlled the desires, thoughts and actions of the body. Through the ministry of Jesus in restoring our relationship with our Heavenly Father (you cannot please God in the flesh) we are created as new creatures in Christ.

Now, the fallen nature is within the same “fallen realm” i.e. the demonic realm. It can have “supernatural” expression but not “spiritual” experience. It is a portal to the demonic.

The new nature of man, we are told, is “sitting in heavenly places” with Christ. This new nature is also called “faith” or “grace”. They are both the substance of the same quality, the Person of the Holy Spirit. This functions as both a substance and an activity. This is the human spirit being joined with the Holy Spirit (the picture of marriage)who now have become “one spirit”. The new man.

Unfortunately, during the course of the life of the fallen nature (mind, emotion, will) the physical body has developed habit patterns of perspective, process and action. The new nature moves the body through the daily drills of submitting the body into acquiring new habit patterns (sanctification). The ingredient that was an unknown prior to regeneration (there was no need to know this as we were captives) is “spiritual warfare”.

I had to say all of this to say this point: The old thought process is dead. The new mind of Christ is living. The enemy, uses the old ways of thinking, feeling, and volition to keep control.

The Word is clear that if we watch as the new engine (the human/Holy Spirit) destroys (lifestyle) of the old engine (soul) and watch as the new engine (the Holy Spirit joined in our human spirit) creates new activities within the physical body we will naturally (as in by-product) destroy the old thought patterns.

If you are led of the Spirit you will (naturally/spiritually) put to death the deeds of the fallen human nature.

In short (if that is possible), we no longer have the human soul to direct our activities, we have a new nature who is the Holy Spirit who has His own mind, emotions and, volition that has literally become a new spiritual soul.

How fun!!

Hi Jeff,
Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Lot’s of different ways to talk about self-control, aye? (I suppose none of us explain in perfectly) Cheers.

This is so fascinating
Just think back on your own relatively sudden transition from child to adolescent. I remember it well. One day you’re hanging out with your friends, playing baseball, joking around, hating girls. The next day….

It’s very disorienting. And it’s now understood by developmental neurologists that one of the reasons it’s so disorienting is that the brain literally disassembles at these developmental cruxes, and then reassembles at a “higher level,” so to speak. In other words, human psychological development is not like an addition to your house, or building a new floor above the existing one. Rather, it’s more the way a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. It’s a transformation, not just a transition.

Anyway, it’s these “in between” phases that are fraught with such difficulty, those interstices between one stage and another. That is precisely where a lot of the mind parasites get imported, because that is when the brain is much more “fluid,” open, and unstable.

Thanks heaps Ropata – for the great comment!
We are just SO fragile in terms of our thought/association/etc.-world. Easy prey, we are, for mind-manipulating ‘parasites’ (that a perfect word) like advertising; i.e. people who have ‘x’ are hot, sexy and flourescent –> you don’t have ‘x’, so you’re not hot, sexy or flourescent –> you can buy ‘x’ from us –> then you will be hot, sexy and flourescent… :)

Comments are closed.