The Battle in our Brains

Several months ago I attended the Mormon Women Project Salon Event, at which I heard Tina Peterson speak. The title for her breakout session was, “Becoming a Deliberate Student of the Gospel.” Tina has a degree in Near Eastern Studies and has studied the Old and New Testament in their original languages from multiple sources including the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“That’s where you need to be,” I said to myself. So I chose her class. And by the end of the evening, it was Tina’s words that stayed with me most. They hung in my mind for weeks. She so revolutionized my study and thinking that, with her permission, I share what she taught here.

Tina first talked about the mechanics of effective scripture study. They were the standard “should-dos” until she got to #4.

  1. Pray before you begin.
  2. Read, cross-reference, immerse yourself in the texts.
  3. Keep a notepad and pencil near you. Write down every impression that comes to you, without dismissing thoughts that may seem random or out of context.
  4. Over time, look back at what you have written and search for patterns. Trends and themes will emerge. You will see what the Holy Ghost is trying to teach you.
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Wow, I thought. I jot down notes, scribble in the margins, underline in various colors, but looking for patterns, themes, and messages over time? That hadn’t occurred to me.

Then Tina got serious, because we were short on time, and she said, “Now I’m going to tell you what I feel strongly you need to hear.” We were listening.

“The battle today, between Babylon and Zion, is being waged between the synapses of our brains.”

(I’m no neurologist, but I’ve had enough physiology to know that synapses are how our brains process messages. They are crucial to the biological computation of perception and thought.)

Tina explained that in this information age when messages, images, and information are coming at us almost faster than we can receive them, our brains are creating new neural pathways to accommodate the input. The first time we see an image on a screen (we’re not talking about pornography here, although it does apply) – like a blog page, a news feed, texts, or facebook – our brain creates a new neural pathway to process that image. It is the same with new sounds or any stimuli to the senses, but let’s use the visual image for this discussion.

Input always travels the path of least resistance. So the second time we see the new image, it will travel the same route. And before long, the new neural pathway has been stimulated enough to “desire” of itself continued activation. A habit is born.

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After that, when the brain is not currently occupied, we long for that image. That is why we constantly check our phones or email. That is why, when we have a free moment, we click onto a favorite blog, check facebook, and tweets, or any other source of input we frequent. Without realizing it, we have begun to crave these places of input, hunger for them, to the point where they can surreptitiously dominate our time.

Tina said the only way to counterbalance this is with ancient and modern scripture. We must expose our brains repeatedly to the image or sound of God’s words. Printed, glowing on the page, read aloud, or discussed with friends. That is where God’s Spirit lives. It is where His mind and will can rise out of the texts we read or the conversations we share, and filter into our lives, allowing revelation to move through us.

Satan knows the physiology of the brain. He knows if he can encourage overstimulation through an overload of mundane or technical information, he can increase the odds that we will not seek more spiritual sources for input, thus making scripture study tedious.

Recent studies have also shown that when our minds are over-stimulated, we begin to make decisions without considering the consequences. Much of the time, these quick decisions are not the best ones for us. An abundance of “information” prompts reactionary responses and elevates feelings of anxiety. All of this distracts us from the peace the Lord offers through His Word, and deprives us of much needed pondering time – time when our minds can reinforce more spiritual pathways.

Then Tina said this,

“Your time with the word of the Lord is your personal Urim and Thummim. It is there that God will speak to you. Frequent the scriptures often enough that your brain craves that kind of input – that your day feels incomplete without it.”

Have you been there? That place of truly feasting on God’s word? I have. And I’m sure you have too. I love how Jeremiah describes it.

“Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart” (Jeremiah 15:16).

I have also been in that place where I don’t crave the scriptures, because my reading is sporadic, even neglectful. And in retrospect, I can see I have filled my precious time with things that matter much less.

After hearing Tina talk, I realized I can’t afford to neglect my time in the scriptures. I can’t risk being a voice to my children, my friends, or the Relief Society sisters I teach, if I am not partaking regularly of God’s word. Time with the word of the Lord is its own system of checks and balances for me. It’s how the Lord rights me, keeps me on course.

Naturally, the sources of input mentioned here are not bad things. But Tina’s words have helped me make a conscious effort to open my scriptures each day before computer time, reading any other book, or another leisurely activity. I have started recording impressions. And it is astounding the level of happy confidence I have felt. I am still working on the habit, but I’m getting better at hearing as I go. “The words of the Lord are pure words, said the Psalmist, and I am discovering that within them we can see things “as they really are and as they really will be” (Jacob 4:13).

What about you? How is your scripture study going? What do you think of this battle in the brain? 

About Catherine A.

(Blog Team) is a mother of five small children including two sets of twins. She and her husband spent nearly eight years in Northern Virginia, but now call Utah home. She reviews books for Meridian Magazine, writes for Power of Moms, dabbles in poetry and works on the prose editorial staff for Segullah. She blogs about her wild and precious life @ www.wildnprecious.com.

46 thoughts on “The Battle in our Brains

  1. I had the most wonderful experience reading Leviticus yesterday and today! I was so filled with the spirit and gained such personal witness that the Lord forgives our sins, that He gives usthe temple ceremony to teach us simple, but profound truths, that what we sacrifice according to His will brings us to holiness. I was amazed that reading about how the Levites were taught to sacrifice their animals gave me this witness. I am so grateful I teach seminary (even though it is just to my son, and he doesn’t make it every day.)

    I loved this post. I need to improve my study and will be writing down those 4 study helps. What a beautiful way t present the truth of the power and need for daily scripture study. Thank you!

  2. Catherine: Thank you so much for relating this information and for describing its significance and effect on you. I have been prayerfully trying to establish some new habits of mind, and this will help me move in the right direction. And I, too, need to spend more time away from the computer and in scripture study. I keep claiming that I’ll go to lds.org or to the Mormon channel on youtube, but working with a paper book allows me to sequester my mind away from all the overstimulation so easily at my fingertips. Thanks for the nudge!

  3. Wow, i love this insight. It makes so much sense. I know that in my own life i have gone from being a sporadic reader to a feaster and that it has made all the difference. Because if you want to know the answers to the hard questions you have to put in the time to make the right neuro pathways! Thank you so much for sharing this.

  4. Oh, okay one more thought. In revelations it talks about how the righteous will have the sign of god engraven on their foreheads and the followers of satan will have his mark engraved on their foreheads. I always assumed that it meant a litteral tattoo or something, but maybe it is something like you talked about here. So interesting!

  5. Thank you Catherine. I’ll be reading, rereading and sharing these words with my children and friends.

    And the rest of y’all can thank me because I’ve been bugging Catherine about writing this up for months. ;)

  6. I really appreciate this. Thanks for writing it out. I’ve felt the same as you–that feeling of hungering for the scriptures when I’ve been really diligent about my studying and that distancing when I’ve had difficulty getting into a regular pattern of reading. I like to study almost first thing in the morning (I exercise first b/c I’m afraid I would fall back asleep if I sat down to read first!) The times I’ve had a regular pattern of study in my life are also the times I’ve felt the Lord’s presence and guidance much more abundantly.

  7. Thank you so much for this post. I need to be better about my scripture study; over the last year the battle has definitely gone downhill. Thanks again!

  8. Awesome. I’m feeling a bit smothered by all the instant news/gossip on my laptop/Blackberry/PC & Dish TV. Not to mention I can’t get away from people trying to contact me. I love this. I’m going to print it and use it if I ever get asked to talk in church.

  9. I have been trying to upgrade my scripture reading to scripture study, but have been very hit and miss. Thank you for this encouragement to keep at it. The four “should dos” are great! I have had a scripture journal in the past and have been thinking about using it again, and now have more reason to do so. Learning how the brain works is a wonderful thing. I want my brain to desire scriptures more than it desires to go see what is on the internet today!

  10. Thank you so much for sharing this Catherine! I was at the Salon too, but I didn’t get to go to Tina’s session. This is exactly the kind of inspiration I needed to hear today.

  11. Thanks to Michelle L. for bugging Catherine to write this. This is just what I needed to hear to get me back into a more better routine of scripture reading and studying.

    I totally connect with so many of the things you shared. I wish I could have been there for the lecture, it sounds amazing.

  12. Rebecca – of course you were up at 1AM! ;) Love you and appreciated your comment.

    Sage – Thanks for sharing your experience. I love that you were in the Old Testament. If is full of the living water, more so than some tend to realize. Even in Leviticus! Hats off to you for being one of those stalwart seminary teachers, and for putting in the time for just one (especially if he’s your son!) No doubt you are being blessed.

    KDA – liked your phrases “habits of mind” and “overstimulation at our fingertips” – thanks for your comment.

    Heather – appreciated your addition to the question about seeking and putting in the time to find answers to hard questions. And your second comment was quite fascinating. I’d never thought of that prophecy that way. Yes, interesting! Thanks!

    Rosalyn – it’s what I needed too.

    Michelle – It took me months but I finally got around to it. ;) Tina was so kind to oblige and I was very grateful for her help and insights.

    Ana of the 9 – thanks for adding your testimony here. I love that you study first thing in the morning. Sometime my first moment for “leisure” isn’t until all the kids are in bed and I’ve picked up the house (10PM). But making time with the Lord has given me added energy and calm. We do the best we can, right, in our given circumstances! Blessings to you.

    Jean – I think we’ve all been there. Loved your honesty.

    annegb – “smothered” – good word!

    Jen – you made me smile.

    Karen – Love your last line: “I want my brain to desire scriptures more than it desires to go see what is on the internet today!”

    Kate H – It was a grand event, wasn’t it?

    For anyone interested on reading further about brain patterns, particularly with respect to addiction, depression, and other chemical disorders (yes, this is a bit migratory from our conversation), I recommend Dr. W. Dean Belnap’s book, “A Brain Gone Wrong.” He is currently one of the world’s leading brain researchers, and is LDS. His studies show that addictive pathways are formed after just four viewings of something (he was mostly talking about pornography). It was an enlightening read on so many levels.

  13. Catherine,
    This is great! I’ve always felt a bit embarassed about the marks and colors and things in my study scriptures, so I keep them from everyone’s view. No one (except my kids) really know what my study scriptures look like because I’m afraid they give off an intimidating appearance since I’m a copious note-taker (must be a carry-over from my college days. Sick, I know). It never occurred to me that there could be a pattern in this to learn from someday. That’s something I’ll think about!

  14. I love this, thank you. I’m filing it away because I’ve been thinking a lot about how we need more women gospel scholars. Not intellectuals per se, but women who KNOW the scriptures and words of the prophets like friends.

  15. Cath, this is beautiful and extremely insightful. What a gift this will be to so many. That statement about the battle being waged between the synapses of our brains will stay with me for years. Your wisdom and Tina Peterson’s words will not be forgotten.

    Over the past several years (mostly since we had faster Internet connection), I have had to do periodic mental detoxes. I’ve deliberately blocked out long periods of time which are media-free (except for the random text message). It was amazing to me how much more clearly I could think and respond to my life right around me when I did this. I had to literally re-learn how to focus long enough to pray and read my scriptures. I longed for the days when it was easy for me to do that (pre-kids and pre-Broadband connection). It has been absolutely worth it. There have been little moments of enlightenment during my study time or later in the day, insights that have deepened my love for people and increased my understanding of a God who is powerful, majestic, and merciful.

    Thank you for this. You have such a wise, good heart, Catherine.

  16. Amazing for me to read this today because I read a chapter out of the Book of Mormon a few hours ago…the pattern jumped off the page. Just as you said…that singular experience has positively influenced everything else about this day. Even looking outside at the gray world has been joy. I want to sing. I feel this amazing peace and love. I received those words and the were delicious unto me.

    Thank you. xox

  17. Awesome. Thank you Tina, Catherine, and Michelle.

    I firmly believe that so many battles are in our brain — not just from media we might be exposed to, but with patterns of thinking we’ve grown up with and sometimes not even known were not truth-based. I love the phrase “firm of mind” in the scriptures, and this post adds more meaning to my thoughts on that phrase.

    I also am reminded of Elder Scott’s recent talk.

    Just wish I could have heard this in person!

  18. Just wanted to thank you for this. I read it this morning and it has been on my mind all day. The image of our brain patterns being the mark on our forehead is so powerful to me.

  19. Love this, Catherine! You’ve given me much to think about. I have noticed that spending time in the scriptures helps me feel more calm and centered throughout the day, and your post helped me better understand why.

  20. Thank you so much for this! I had a serious “a-ha!” moment. I know where my focus needs to be; now I’m diving in!

  21. I loved this, Catherine. I love what she taught about looking back and reflecting on the messages and focus you seem to be continually receiving and then being about to recognize what the Holy Ghost is both prompting and teaching for you specifically.

  22. This has been on my mind constantly since I read it yesterday. My new year’s resolution was to spend less time on the surface of things: more time doing things that matter rather than frittering away the day with trivialities, so it really gave me some direction. I especially liked this: ‘Time with the word of the Lord is its own system of checks and balances for me’.

    I bought a scripture journal yesterday, and have a day’s worth of entries :-)

    Thank you!

  23. Ladies and Gents – I appreciate all of your thoughts so much. To see the value of what Tina had to say seeping out there into the fingertips, minds, and hearts of so many of you who responded, is thrilling to me.

    Steph – I loved your thought about women being gospel scholars, not intellectuals per se, but women intimate with his word. Beautiful.

    Roberta – I hadn’t thought of looking back at what I’ve already written in my scriptures for themes. Thanks for that observation.

    Anne Marie – I could probably do with a mental detox on occasion as well. It was wonderful to be out of town for a week and totally disconnected, except for the few books I brought, including the GA Smith manual. I liked this very much: ” There have been little moments of enlightenment during my study time or later in the day, insights that have deepened my love for people and increased my understanding of a God who is powerful, majestic, and merciful.” Thank you.

    Cristie – “Even looking outside at the gray world has been joy. I want to sing.” I love you.

    Michelle – I too love the phrase “a firm mind” and appreciated your added insight re: patterns of thinking we may have grown up with that are not truth-based. The Word seems to have a healing effect even in those areas, of aiding us in seeing things as they really ought to be seen. Thanks for your comment and goodness.

    Melissa Y – me too.

    Rachel via “hole in my iphone” – read your post and chuckled all the way through. “like a crack addict in a nunnery” – lol. Impressed that you deliberately knocked out facebook for a spell. Would love to hear your observations after the week. Blessings to you.

  24. I just wanted to come back and say that this post has stuck with me. It’s made me want to recommit to better scripture reading. It’s made me more intent on looking for patterns of truth in my study and recording them. It’s reminded me how much I need the good Word. Thank you!

    p.s. I also wanted to add another thought on patterns…I have been a topical reader for most of my life, but in the past couple of years, I’ve decided to engage the BoM looking for ONE topic, all the way through. I’d done a little of that when President Hinckley challenged us to read and on my mission (although I was looking for several themes). That’s been an amazing way to learn from patterns, too…in other words, sometimes the inspiration about what patterns to look for can come *before* reading. ;)

  25. Thank you for posting this Catherine! It answers questions I didn’t know I had! I’ve posted it to FB (I have an established neural pathway to FB!) hoping to share. So fascinating! and inspiring. Somehow, because I understand the physiology of habit making, it makes it easier and more urgent to spend time with the scriptures – a neural pathway I don’t have, but want to create. Can’t tell you how significant it was for me to read your post …

  26. I was already planning a true vacation soon so that I can decompress (I work from home online and so I use computers and social networks every day,) but this gives me some purpose. Thank you!

  27. I’ve been working so hard trying to REMOVE many of the distractions in my life, (I quit Facebook a few months ago, for example.) but I haven’t been FILLING my mind with enough scripture study.

    THANK YOU so much for all the inspiration. I can’t wait to get started creating all those new pathways!

    Hugs,
    Rachel

  28. I’m so glad you shared this! I’ve been noticing an increase in anxiety after I spend a lot of time surfing the web – especially on Pinterest and Facebook. Not that those are bad sites, but I am spending more time stimulating my mind on empty things than on the word of God. I just hadn’t made the connection before.

    I have started studying my scriptures more. I’ve finally moved from the I-don’t-want-to-read stage to actually looking forward to that time. What got me excited about it was some pre-printed scripture journal pages and using the scriptures on my phone (that way I have easier access to cross references and general authority talks on whatever topic I’m studying).

  29. Catherine, thank you. Consistency is my “tripping point.” To have your explanation of why I can love my time with my scriptures so deeply and STILL hop online “for a second” (hour, morning) and miss feasting is genuinely helpful.

    I keep a scripture journal, my “small plates.” I pose a question, problem, decision, record it, pray and read. INEVITABLY, within a few verses, I have found relevant, rich words for thought. (And an “I love you” from Father.) I record the reference (or transcribe the whole passage), write about the impact of the passage, then highlight key words/directions/ideas. In one journal, I actually tallied the themes over fifty days. Certain messages recur, then recur, then recur. I know what I need to do or work on. :)

    Thanks for writing (and for reading). :)

  30. Catherine!

    I was in that little group as well. THANK YOU for recording her thoughts and messages (as well as your own) in such a way as to remember and refer. I too thought that step 4 was huge. I have passed this on to many friends who I tried to explain this too, and am glad you wrote it:)

  31. This is the first time I have ever printed out a blog post, but I really need to remember it. Thank you for the push to be more diligent about my scripture study.

  32. So inspiring, for me, personally, right now.

    I have just been introduced to Pinterest.
    Those synapses have been zinging and zapping as I have pinned things I love on my own personal, electronic hot wire.

    A few days ago, I received a new pinterest. I pinned it on my new board, The Spirit Resides. After reading your enlightening article, I realized this should have been my first pin not my most recent.

    I have been blessed for such a long time to receive a sweet message, every single time I personally pray, seek, ponder, and journal my time while in the scriptures. But, the webbing of these sweet messages into a pattern to help me with the bigger issues of my life is phenomenal.

    Thanks so much for sharing and your own insight. I believe our spirits yearn for the truth that will help us in our lives and the Holy Ghost can lead us to that truth…in very natural ways.

    Also, your random sharing of the book by Dr. W. Dean Belnap, “A Brain Gone Wrong” is a total answer to my personal, our couple, and combined family prayers. I know this is true before I even open the book to read. I am looking forward to locating the book and immersing myself in it also.

    Now, time for an even more dimensional scripture study.

  33. Catherine, you are so great for putting this vital subject in a different perspective for all your readers. I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear it until now. Thank you so much! And I’m so glad you followed your prompting to attend Tina’s class. :)

  34. An update: there’s still a hole in my iPhone.

    It was harder than I thought not to have Facebook at my fingertips. I hadn’t realised how much I checked it, however mindlessly. So I’ve decided just to look at it on the computer from now on. I’m on the computer a heck of a lot as well, but it won’t be continuous.

    I am, though, coming to love these moments with my scripture and journal in the morning. It brings a tiny bit of stillness into my day, and I can already feel the difference.

    Brilliant, thank you.

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