Thursday, November 11, 2010

Myelinization and Spiritual Transformation

Algis Valiunis, in "The Science of Self-Help," critiques the American self-help industry and offers an alternative solution.

Self-help books make money but do not help people change. "Self-help, ­positive thinking, actualization, ­motivation, empowerment: the industry of worldly wisdom whirs on like a perpetual-motion dynamo, powered by the consumers’ insatiable compulsion to have it all and to feel good about themselves, and by the purveyors’ confidence that they, at any rate, can indeed have it all, by turning out swill by the boatload and feeding the cravings of the perennially feckless. Self-help has been around a long time, and its recipients are growing ever needier while its providers are becoming more and more energetic."

First there was Dale Carnegie. Then, Norman Vincent Peale. Followed by M. Scott Peck (whom I truly felt helped by), Dr. Laura Schlessinger (I've also been a bit helped by her wisdom), Leo Buscaglia, Tom Harris (OK, OK), John Gray (Mars/Venus), Dr. Phil, and Tony Robbins. Add to this Chicken Soup for the Soul and Valiunis sees the perfect storm for: making tons of money while helping nobody. "The recidivism rate for self-help users is high; if you go in for this sort of thing at all, odds are that you’re a repeat offender." At most self-helpers give a quick drug-like fix, but the user quickly returns to the needy life. Which has them turn to the self-help author's next 7-step book. And so on and on and on.

Valiunis admits to reading none of these books. But he has read three works critical of the self-help industry: Tom Tiede’s Self-Help Nation, Steve Salerno’s SHAM, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent Bright-Sided. Valiunis likes Ehrenreich's book the best. And, she has a Ph.D in cellular biology, so she's a scholar.

A point: If Valiunis wants to be scholarly here he needs to read the books he is critical of. What if he read one or more of them and got significantly helped? Like I was on reading Peck's Road Less Traveled?

Another point: I'm assuming Ehrenreich has data on the recidivism rates. Valiunis does not give them, only states that it is "high."

Valiunis spends much of his essay skewering self-help guru Wayne Dyer. I remember many years just seeing the title of his book Pulling Your Own Strings and thinking, "been there, done that." Valiunis on Dyer: "Along the way, or The Way, he has collected three wives and eight children. He gave up alcohol many years ago, and tells a chilling story or two about his behavior while drinking, but evidently does not speak of himself as a recovered alcoholic. An exemplar of energy, confidence, tenacity, self-reliance, and gentleness, tall and rugged and becomingly bald, Dyer appears to have overcome the bad things that have happened to him, or that he has done, and to deserve the great good fortune he has enjoyed. One is sad to learn that he announced last year he has leukemia."

And: "Dyer is a self-styled Transcendentalist epigone [in the footsteps of Thoreau]. And while there is a lot to be said for the high fliers of mid-nineteenth-century New England, a large portion of their teaching is bunk — and so is Dyer’s. To say that one’s thoughts and feelings are within one’s power to control is one thing, and not an unwise one: the Stoics said as much — indeed, insisted that they are the only matters one always can control. To say that one’s thoughts and feelings can rid the earth of cyclones and water moccasins is another thing, upon which any further comment is unnecessary."

Putting the ad hominems aside, I am largely with Valiunis re. the inefficacy of self-help literature. But for different reasons. The kind of help I'm interested in is: heart-transformation into Christlikeness (e.g., Galatians 4:19). Almost definitionally this kind of morphing cannot be done by the self. Any idea that we could pull our own chain to become like Christ seriously devalues Christ. All authentic trans-morphing into Jesus-likeness can only be effected by God, and not self. Therefore: abide in Christ. Live "in him."

What Valiunis says next intriques me and fits, I think, with the kind of spiritual transformation things Dallas Willard and J.P. Moreland are saying. Valiunis:

"Amid the blather, hokum, and trumpery, there is a sub-genre of self-help lit that represents the traditional granite in the American character, and which proffers hope that not all of our countrymen in a generation or two will be sops or ninnies. For some, the pursuit of happiness remains above all the pursuit of excellence. Three recent books, Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, examine high achievement — literary, musical, business, sporting — down the ages, in the light of recent discoveries in psychology and neurology. What all three writers agree on, despite some obvious ideological differences, is that hard work, so-called deliberate or deep practice, extremely intense and pursued over many years, makes the difference between the remarkable and the less accomplished. Inborn genius, to which we commonly attribute success, is in fact so rare that it doesn’t really figure in the calculations."

So, the good news re. real change is: work hard. Spend 10,000 hours over ten years practicing a skill and you will master it. That... is change. You will have been, actually, helped. What happens?

Neurophysiologically, myelin is produced. Serious work stimulates myelin manfacture. "Serious work that best stimulates myelin manufacture. The more one diligently practices a particular activity, the more myelin is wrapped round and round the active nerve fibers. Each myelin wrap encircles the fiber in layer upon layer, as many as fifty times. The process is so painstaking and protracted that one scientist at the National Institutes of Health compares myelinating a single neural circuit to insulating a trans­atlantic cable. Indeed, myelin fortifies and quickens nerve impulses much as rubber insulation does transmission along a copper wire. Studied repetition grows myelin and thereby enhances the particular skill you are working on, whether you are “playing shortstop or playing Schubert,” as Coyle writes. One commonly speaks of muscle memory in describing a physical skill honed to a saber’s sharpness, but that is an evocative misnomer: the locus of perfected motion lies in the cultivation less of our muscles than our neural pathways."

"Deep practice carries you to the very edge of your abilities: here you inevitably fail, and fail repeatedly, before you succeed. Just as you gain in physical strength by increasing the weight you lift to your upper limits, so, by performing over and over again the skills you can hardly manage to get right, you train your neural circuitry in the direction of competence, or even excellence."

Valiunis considers this good news. "The myelin theory should somewhat ameliorate... unhappiness. At the heart of this theory is the confidence that every person of normal capacities can surpass, with the help of fine teaching and by dint of perseverance, limits on his achievement that once seemed fixed."

OK. I have no doubt that practice makes near-perfect. And that repetition strengthens neural circuits; indeed, that I can now play this guitar piece that I could not play a year ago is the indicator of personal neural transformation.

Valiunis's entire essay is worth reading for more detail. But what about spiritual transformation? I do not believe that all the hard work and practice in the world will help me become what I most want to become; viz., into a being that loves like Christ loves. My answer is: 1) abide in Christ, like a branch connected to a vine; and 2) engage in the spiritual disciplines, over and over and over... The repetition of, e.g., worship is empowered by the Holy Spirit to effect changes in me that go beyond hard work.

I suggest reading what Dallas Willard says in "The Human Body and Spiritual Growth." Take a thought like this and view what Valiunis says in light of it:

"Of course one cannot overcome the hardened patterns of desires by force of will alone. ["Hard work" alone won't do it. But we must "do" something.] Rather, it is as we by faith place our bodily being in subordination to Christ that we experience a new presence in our members, moving them toward the good things of God and allowing the old bodily forces to recede into the background of life where they belong. Thus it truly is "by the spirit" that we "put to death the misdeeds of the body." The natural desires, and my body itself, remain with me, of course, but now as servants of God and of my will to serve Him, not as my masters. Our part in this transformation, in addition to constant faith and hope in Christ, is purposful, strategic use of our bodies in ways which will retrain them, replacing "the motions of sin in our members" with the motions of Christ. This is how we take up our cross daily. It is how we submit our bodies a living sacrifice, how we "offer the parts of our body to him as instruments of righteousness." (Romans 6:13)" (Emphasis mine)

When J.P. Moreland spoke at our HSRM conference a few years ago he was saying similiar things. See J.P.'s beautiful The Lost Virtue of Happiness. Pay attention to what he says in his conclusion:

"What made the difference in Chris's life? [Moreland met "Chris" and introduced him to Jesus.] What set him in the right direction early in the game? Many things, of course. But one factor is of crucial importance because it is often left out of discipleship today, and it is badly misunderstood. Notice that I did not simply teach Chris about self-acceptance and challenge him to listen to wonderful praise music that would motivate him to feel good about himself. Both of these I did, but three things were central to is transformation: practice, practice, practice. It was his repeated practice of doing certain things that formed [e.g.] the habit of courage, which replaced the habit of withdrawal."

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, one's physical brain get myelinized in terms of Christ-strengthening. Spirit-empowered meta-morphing affects one's entire person, to include one's physical body.