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The Power of Imagination

Call me a nerd, but my fascination with the internet and how we use it led me to read a book on that very subject. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr makes a compelling argument that because of this new medium, the way we process information is akin to skimming the surface of topics rather than plunging their depths to become more knowledgable. Aside from his thesis, however, I took particular interest in the studies the author cites regarding the “plasticity” of the adult mind — the brain’s ability to change in response to new experiences and behavior.

In one study showing this, a Harvard professor gathered two groups of people and taught them how to play a simple piano melody. Neither group had any piano experience. Afterward, he had one group practice on a keyboard two hours a day for five days while the other group — also in front of the keyboard — could only imagine playing the song; they were not allowed to touch the keys. The result:

the people who had only imagined playing the notes exhibited precisely the same changes in their brains as those who had actually pressed the keys. Their brains had changed in response to action that took place purely in their imagination—in response, that is, to their thoughts.

The minds of both groups were able to learn the same melody, based on brain analysis, despite the fact that only one group actually practiced. Imagination filled in the gaps for the other. After reading this, I was immediately reminded of Jesus’ teachings on lust. In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:27-28), Jesus warns that even looking at another lustfully outside of your spouse is adultery in your heart, whether you’ve committed anything physical or not. Powerful stuff, a mere thought being adulterous.

When it comes to sin, the above study conducted 2,000 years later only backs up what we already knew to be true from God, and was the first time I had ever seen clear empirical evidence that our thoughts can literally be as powerful as our actions. Keep in mind the point of the study was simply to show that the brain activity was uniform across both groups. Obviously, one can’t simply think about playing tennis, for example, and be an expert once he hits the court. 

But it’s in our hearts, Jesus says, where sin can also be committed. The individual struggling with pornography, though he may no longer physically look, may still imagine the imagery to the same effect. For people in failing marriages entertaining the idea of adultery, though they may not physically cheat, the thoughts of doing so may be changing their behavior one neural pathway at a time. These are examples I began to think about after reading the study. 

In the verses that follow that passage in Matthew, Jesus is figurative but graphic, urging us to take drastic measures in rooting out sin. Knowing the power of our imaginations, I clearly understand why.

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