New Years Resolutions, Neuroscience, and What We Calvinists Knew All Along

Greetings, beloved fans, and welcome to the decade of the teens, and farewell to the decade of the “aughts.”  Some of you are no doubt thinking about New Years’ resolutions.  For some of you your resolutions, no doubt, have to do with issues of morals and manners, but for many of you they may have to do with issues of “fitness” and “wellness,” one of the significant “religions” of our time. (“Why There’s Not Much Intellectual Activity in Orange County“) But Jonah Lehrer, in the Wall Street Journal on December 26, has given us a fascinating survey of the latest neurology concerning “willpower. “

For one thing, willpower uses a “muscle” in the brain tissue that is the same as that part of the brain that holds short term memory, an area called the prefrontal cortex.  At Stanford, one batch of students was given a two-digit number to memorize.  Another was given a seven-digit number to memorize.  They were then walked down a hall to a room where fruit salad and cake were available to them.  Of the students that had memorized the seven digit number, twice as many percentagewise went for the cake as did those who had memorized a two digit number.  Even more interesting, at Florida State University, a group of students was asked to fast totally for three hours and then given a boring video to watch and asked to focus on it and not on words running across the bottom of the screen.  And then half of them were given lemonade with Splenda, a sugar substitute, and half lemonade with real sugar.  Then there were tests of self control – attention, or suppressing negative stereotypes, maybe some provocations to anger – (that’s what I think of when I think of self control) and the students who had had the sugar did a lot better on these tests than those who had drunk the Splenda.  It turns out that a brain deprived of calories has less self control than one not so deprived.

Another issue is that those who delay gratification best do not so much exercise self-restraint as substitute other thoughts for tempting ones.  Some four year olds were given marshmallows and told that if they could hold off eating them for 20 minutes, they would get a second marshmallow. The kids who did hold off were those who did not focus on the marshmallow and not eating it, but sang songs, played with shoelaces, or in other ways focused on other things.

However, it does seem that the willpower muscle can be exercised.  One group of students at Florida State was asked to work on their posture for two weeks – sit up straight, stand up straight, and all – and another was not.  Those who had been practicing their posture had a greater ability to exercise self-control in other ways than just posture.  Their “brain muscles” had been stretched.

For Christians who know their Bible, there might be some surprises here, but this information is exactly what they really should expect.

First of all, the fact that willpower is limited and has to share space with short-term memory comes as no surprise.  We all knew we could never be “good” by our own efforts, or in any way merit our salvation.

The second point, that self-control and willpower are best gained by focusing on something else, has lots of Biblical support.  When Paul tells us in Col 3:8 to “put off .…anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth” he follows it right up at verse 12 by telling us to “put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” etc.  You can’t put something off without putting something on in its place!  And he tells the Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true….noble.…just….pure….lovely….of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.” (Phil. 4:8.)  Not just spiritual  thoughts, but anything that is true, noble, lovely, or whatever.  Yes, it is good to pray when under temptation, and God appreciates it, but you need to put something in its place.  If you are tempted by porn, think of something you think beautiful that isn’t porn, like saguaro cactus in bloom or snow-covered volcanoes or red rocks, and punch it up on your computer!

The third point is that willpower and self control can actually be improved, though not made perfect, by practice, and that this practice can actually carry over to other things.  Confessional Protestants have often soft pedaled these aspects of “practicing” virtue; Catholics and Orthodox have done better at talking about them.  The “Kuyperian” Calvinists have been a little bit more open than what I will call the “Kierkegaardian” Calvinists, who tend to think there is little or nothing that we can do ourselves to improve our character. (A friend took offense when I called the Kierkegaardian view “creeping Lutheranism”, so I will call it Kierkegaardian Calvinism.)  I would just remind everyone concerned that improving one’s character is not the same as earning one’s salvation!  But this point does explain why the military, in forcing you to be aware of your surroundings, your posture, your language, all the time, can establish the kind of self-control necessarily to stay at your post when you are being shot at and might seriously be killed.  Which is what they have to do.  And perhaps, why in certain situations we dress up in slightly uncomfortable garments – being less relaxed, we may behave more graciously in an office, or at a party, or other such situations.

Related: WSJ Online “Blame it on the brain”

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