From the vagus nerve, to alpha brainwaves and confirmation bias, pastor and psychotherapist Jo Hargreaves explains the intersection of science with the word of God

I have always been curious and full of questions. I wasn’t far off twelve when I asked my science teacher: “What is a thought?” I don’t remember his answer but it’s safe to say I deemed it somewhat unsatisfactory as for nearly three decades I continued to ask that question. 

As a pastor and a psychotherapist, I am just as curious now as I was then, studying, researching and being curious about what makes up a thought and how that thought impacts us at every level of our being – body, soul and spirit. 

Asking the questions

The question that informs a lot of my work is this: “What if?”

What if…wholeness and wellbeing is all God’s idea and design for us? What if…scripture is full of God-given, heaven-breathed tools to help us take hold of our minds and manage our thoughts?

Many of the tools and insights popular in today’s culture have their origins in biblical teachings

What if…science is always catching up with scripture and so much of what is being discovered in the world of neuroscience, psychology and trauma-informed practice has God’s fingerprints all over it? What if…God is always making us holy and whole in our body, soul and spirit? (see 1 Thessalonians 5:23, The Message).

Many of the tools and insights popular in today’s culture within the realm of mental health, emotional regulation and wellness have their origins in biblical teachings, and of

course God’s presence is pivotal in our journey towards wholeness. 

After all, if we align ourselves with the beautiful truth of Psalm 139, that tells us we have been knitted together by a loving God who has made us fearfully and wonderfully, it makes sense to my curious mind that we would become inquisitive about how these parts work best and what they need to function and flourish.

God’s ingenious design

Take the vagus nerve, for example. You don’t have to scroll too far through social media to find someone somewhere talking about the power of activating your vagus nerve to promote wellbeing. So often this narrative gets dominated by academic rhetoric or, more recently, new age practices and popular psychology, but who created our vagus nerve? God did. 

Our vagus nerve is our tenth cranial nerve and plays a key role in helping us manage our emotions, moods and even our immunity. When the vagus nerve is stimulated, it sets off a chain reaction in our body that brings about some wonderful effects, including a slowing down of heart rate, a drop in blood pressure and a reduction in stress hormones to induce a sense of calm. And here is where science is only just catching up with scripture, as one of the very best ways to activate your vagus nerve is to sing. We were created to worship and, when we do, it brings health and wholeness to us – body, soul and spirit.  

Alpha brain waves are just another wonderful example of how the creator God has made us so exquisitely. As you wake up and as you drift off to sleep, your God-given brain transitions into a state known as the alpha state. This phase, characterised by relaxed brainwave activity, serves as a gateway to the subconscious mind and during these moments your subconscious mind becomes remarkably receptive. It’s as if the door to your inner thoughts and beliefs is slightly ajar, allowing affirmations and positive suggestions to slip through more easily.

In the morning, as you awaken from sleep, your mind hovers in this receptive alpha state. What a powerful and precious opportunity to set a positive tone for the day ahead and to both meditate on and declare scripture over yourself and your circumstances knowing that as you do, you allow the words of God to take root in your inner being.

Managing our thought life

How we use these God-given brains of ours is of utmost importance. Scripture reminds us again and again about the power of taking our thoughts captive (2 Corinthians 10:5), about being transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) and about being careful about what we think, because our thoughts run our lives (Proverbs 4:23, NCV). 

Far from being outdated or irrelevant, the word of God is both God-breathed and more relevant than ever. We need God’s perspective. We need eyes to really see.

Perhaps you have noticed that you tend to see what you want to see? That’s confirmation bias at work. It’s like your brain is wearing tinted glasses that make things look the way you expect them to; essentially your brain is always looking for evidence of what you have already told it to be true.

So what if we allowed this principle of confirmation bias to work for us rather than against us? What if we heeded the word of the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8, who exhorts and encourages us with this: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”

The word of God is both God-breathed and more relevant than ever

If we want to learn to manage our minds, our thoughts and this brilliant God-given brain of ours, we need to do it

God’s way and, time and time again, scripture points us in the

right direction. I am now equipped to answer that question that

was curiously and tentatively asked in that secondary school science lab many years ago and here is what I would tell twelve-year-old me:

I would tell her that thoughts are generated in the brain, which is composed of 100 billion nerve cells that transmit impulses through synapses. When a neuron is stimulated, it generates an electrical impulse that moves from cell to cell with information travelling through the brain at speeds up to 268mph. We truly are fearfully and wonderfully made.

But, more than that, I would tell her that learning to manage her thought life would be one of the most powerful and profound journeys of her life. I would tell her that at times in her life her thoughts would become overwhelming and sometimes dark and anxious. But the God who calms the raging seas can calm a raging mind. The God who speaks light into darkness and order to chaos can do the same in your life today.

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