Have you ever heard of your basal ganglia? Yeah, me neither. But I’m telling you now, and I beg you, please do not waste your basal ganglia. Let me explain why.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about how habits are formed in the brain. There is in our brain a golf-ball size lump of tissue called basal ganglia, which is integral to the formation of habits. Duhigg writes how, in the mid 1990’s MIT researchers began experimenting with rats to determine how the basal ganglia plays a role in the formation of habits as the rats performed dozens of routines. Rats were placed in a maze with a partitioned entrance, and with the sound of a click, the rats wound wander up and down the maze walls, scratching and sniffing, looking for the reward of chocolate. Eventually the rats would find their reward. What researchers discovered during these experiments is that the basal ganglia of rats worked furiously and exploded with activity with each new sight or sound. They discovered that the basal ganglia was the center for processing new data with each new adventure.
As researchers began to place the same rats in the same maze again and again, they witnesses how the rats began to speed through the maze faster and faster to their reward. The cause of this was an unexpected phenomenon. As the rats began to form new habits, their mental activity decreased incrementally. The routes became more and more automatic to the point that brain activity was no long necessary. The rats were operating on the basis of a new habit. They began thinking less and less until their brain could basically be turned off, and they would habitually go about their routine toward their reward.
Here’s the explanation. During the first several trips around the maze, the rats had to use their brain, especially their basal ganglia, to access all the new information. With every scratch and sniff, the rats were processing and learning their way around. But after time, their familiarity with the routine made it less necessary to use their brain to determine how they were going to function. They were functioning “mindlessly” based on their newly formed habits. Simply, the rats had learned to internalize how to sprint through the maze to a degree that they did not need to think at all. The basal ganglia had become the repository of story habits while the rest of the brain went to sleep, the place where mental activity becomes automated into seamless action.
Now what in the world does rats in a maze and our basal ganglia have to do with the Christian life?
As Christians, we are commanded in Scripture to not love the world or the things in the world (1 John 2:15-17). We are commanded to not be conformed to the pattern of this world (Rom. 12:2). As Jesus said, the world loves darkness rather than the light (John 3:19). And yet this is the world that we are born into, and whether we admit it or not, we are being influenced by the world. Our lifestyles and habits have been formed from infancy in a world whose values and manner of life is contrary to the ways of God. There has never been a time when we have not been “discipled” or influenced in some form or fashion in the system, thinking, values, or manner of living the world thinks best for us.
Over time, we have learned to have the life we want in the world, and we go about it with such degree of success, that our habits have taken over our actions. Our lives have become automated through daily routines in order to get the reward we want, the success we desire. But what happens when someone is born again and becomes a follower of Jesus Christ?
Peter puts it this way. You were ransomed “from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:18). A price was paid by the blood of Jesus Christ so that you would conduct your lives with a heavenly reward that forms new habits in the here and no. Your basal ganglia is in overdrive because of the new way of thinking that corresponds to the new life you have experienced in Jesus Christ (“prepare your minds for action” 1 Peter 1:13). You have been crucified with Christ (Gal. 2:20), and that death also means the death of old habits fashioned from the world. The old is passing away, and all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17).
If the basal ganglia, naturally speaking, is so central to the formation of habits, and if habits are so normative for the way we operate in this world, then why shouldn’t we Christians be care to not waste our basal ganglia? I’m serious about this.
Think about this with me. If we are commanded to put away the old self, then what is that old self comprised of? Is it not, at least in part, old habits? And I’m not talking about habits like drinking, smoking, or cussing (though they could certainly apply). I’m talking about habits of living that are contrary to the kingdom of God. Habits like spending money on an idolatrous lifestyle that we cannot afford to impress people we do not know. Habits like seeking first our comforts and preferences rather than the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Habits like signing peace treaties with sin rather than making war to put it to death. Habits like keeping the Great Commandment and the Great Commission a theoretical hat tip rather than a standard by which we live our lives.
The gospel call us to venture out in faith for the reward of knowing and making much of Jesus. With each new day in the journey comes an opportunity to steward our basal ganglia for habits that cause us to walk worthy of the gospel, to make disciples where we live, work, and play–those very places which were once, in futility, inherited by our forefathers, are being redeemed as theaters for God’s glory to shine.
How do we know if we are wasting our basal ganglia? Would it not be just coasting through life? Turning off our brain and choosing to live with unredeemed habits that conform to the world and not been re-formed by the Spirit of God? Is it not compartmentalizing life so that the authoritative Word of God cannot confront old habits so that we live a lifestyle of repentance?
Brothers and sisters, don’t waste your basal ganglia. Let it be said that we have made a habit of making much of Jesus Christ.