Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cortical Remodeling and the Power of Forgiveness

A few nights ago, I joined my sister at a seminar conducted by Dr. Timothy Vollmer, a leading neurologist at the forefront of MS (multiple sclerosis) research. He spoke about how new science and research are reframing the discussion about the disease's course in individuals as researchers better understand when and where the actual damage occurs in the brain and when and how symptoms show up as a result.

Whereas scientists used to believe there were three distinct phases of the disease that occurred throughout a patient's life, each marked by respectively more and more disease activity in the nervous system leading to greater and greater symptoms or disability, they're now learning that the disease really does most of its damage early on. What's interesting is that early on, when the disease damages nerve fibers, the brain is able to "rewire" itself through different neural pathways, thereby compensating for the loss of damaged nerves (a phenomenon known as "cortical remodeling" or "cortical remapping"). So it's actually possible, or likely, for the disease to be at work in someone before there are noticeable symptoms because the symptoms are masked by these compensatory activities of the brain. Eventually, however, the brain loses its ability to reroute its signals as easily and therefore can no longer compensate for the damage; this is when new or permanent symptoms arise.

It's actually very much like the process that occurs during aging. From birth, we all lose brain cells and neural pathways to the extent that we don't use them (which is why we're encouraged to expose babies and children to other languages, to music, etc., so that these neural pathways remain intact). At some point through the years, our brains lose their plasticity, their nimbleness, their ability to form new pathways, and this is when we begin to see deterioration in eyesight, hearing, mobility, memory function, etc. The brain literally shrinks with the loss of neural pathways as we age, or in the case of MS, with the nerve damage caused by the body's inflammatory immune response. In fact, the size of the brain of a patient in the first stage of MS (the relapsing-remitting phase) is akin to that of a healthy sixty year old.

Fortunately, as with aging, the best defense against MS is a good offense: use the brain as much as possible, both cognitively and physically, in order to maintain its optimal ability to rewire.

Now, all of this is fascinating in and of itself, but as I was spinning this morning on the patio of the rec center, looking at the endless rows of mountains, listening to the entire American Idiot album by Green Day (the instructor was in a Green Day mood), soaking up every ray of sunshine, I had this thought: what if our "hearts" actually function like our brains?

I mean, I've grown more and more convinced lately that people act out of their pain. People are hurt, wounded by someone else in their life, sometimes horribly and deeply, sometimes less obviously, and so they lose a little of themselves. They harden this part of their heart and then rewire their behavior to compensate for this loss. They learn to protect themselves through meanness or performance or humor or victimization or perfectionism or abrasiveness or avoidance. And so they become, in some ways, defined by their hurt.

Recently, I was talking with a friend in the throws of making a significant life decision, and all she could think about was how it would affect her parents; the whole discussion was framed not by whether the decision was right for her life and her goals and her values but by whether it would anger her parents too much. The irony was, the decision she wanted to make was actually the one her parents would want her to make, but she couldn't even evaluate her own thoughts because the voice of her parents was so strong in her head.

I think this is why I struggle so much with the idea of a bad guy, because I know that every villain has walked his own painful journey through life, and who knows the experiences that may have shaped an innocent child once upon a time? This is also the source of so much of my anxiety about my children: worry that they will run into one of these deeply wounded people one day; worry that they will be inadvertently wounded by me or someone else and compensate in destructive ways.

But I also think that this is where the power of forgiveness comes in.

I try to apologize to Ben when I have treated him impatiently or unfairly because of my own tiredness or stress or worry, and when I do, I ask him to forgive me. And he always asks, "How do we forgive?" That's a difficult question to answer--one I haven't understood very well to this point--but as I've thought about it more these last few months, I'm beginning to think that forgiveness involves letting go of the hurt that we've endured so that it doesn't damage our heart, so that we don't lose or close off that part of ourselves, so that we don't nurture a trespass and wake up one day to find we've become a different person to compensate for the loss.

As I watch Ben interact with his world, I find myself holding my breath when he encounters meanness or selfishness or aggression or manipulation, praying that he will not let those encounters or experiences change him. I understand now that what I'm really hoping for is his ability to forgive those people--to let go of that pain--so that it doesn't take root in his heart and shape who he becomes.

I also think that this may be what God was able to accomplish through Christ: to take on every hurt, every shame, every trespass, every cruel or ugly or false thing that people do to themselves and others and yet forgive it all, let it all go, so that He is not defined by fear nor by anger nor by pain--except that now He understands our struggle for he's walked much more than the proverbial mile in our shoes.

Instead of hardening His heart or seeking revenge or exacting penance, He offers peace with God and gives us the grace to forgive those around us so that we will no longer be defined by our hurts, so that we will no longer act out of our pain, so that we can be free from the way others have defined us and instead stand in the truth of who He has created us to be. The places where our heart was once hardened become the places where God's mercy and grace are most brilliantly displayed to the hurting world around us.

So I sat there pedaling, listening to Green Day, marveling at the power of forgiveness to prevent our hearts from dying little by little and having to rewire themselves like our brains. Then I realized, as with aging and MS, the best defense is probably a good offense: to exercise our hearts as much as possible.

And I think that's called love.

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