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    The Role of Learning in Religion, Part II

    (Excerpted from the new book, Triune Brain, Triune Mind, Triune Worldview (Brighton Publishing)(available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble).
    In part 1 of this series, I explained that what one is taught and chooses to learn about religion changes the biology of the brain. Changing brain biology creates a change in who and what you are as a person. This principle applies to everyone, religious or irreligious.

    Here, I will explore specific ways in which we program our brains to accept and live religious ideas. Relevant learning principles include the self-programming by brains and neural plasticity. There are important implications of religious learning in child rearing and adult maturation. Religious instruction matters to who you have become and how you will be in the future.

    The Self-programming Brain

    Brains self-programfor better or worse. Much of this programming can occur unconsciously. Freud made his mark in history by showing how the unconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, and memories that we may not easily access. Freud called this mind “subconscious,” a term that has fallen out of favor, perhaps because so much happens during unconscious processing that this should not be considered as inferior function. After Freud, numerous scientific findings confirmed that a great deal of information processing occurs in the unconscious brain, even during anesthesia. I led one such study on visual processing in anesthetized monkeys.[1]Since then, numerous studies have shown in humans that the brain is quite active during sleep in consolidating the experiences of the preceding day into memory. The dream stages of sleep obviously reflect intense brain activity, much of which would likely exert programming influences. When we are awake, we deliberately program our brain by the choices we make of what to read or hear, who to hang out with, what environments we prefer, and what we do.
    Even while still in the womb, the brain of a late-stage fetus is programming itself to recognize sounds of the mother's pulse and visceral gurgles and external sounds from voices and music. Pressure changes in the womb are registered. Fetal brain continually programs recognition of limbs and the ability to move limbs. At birth, the process accelerates. I remember how astonished I was to watch my month-old great granddaughter program herself. When awake, her eyes were open and constantly scanning the environment. You could just imagine her brain going click, click, click, as it detected and stored input.
    All mental experience can have programming effects. These may create a bias. In some sense, what you have learned can hold you hostage. However, humans also have the ability to change how they have been programmed. All this applies to religion.

    Neural Plasticity        

    Minds can change, and when they do, brains can change. We know that brain structure and function change in young people as they mature through childhood into adults. Even adult brains change in response to sensory and cognitive experiences. Your brain cannot form memories without changing the synaptic structure and biochemistry needed to store the memory. Learning experiences stimulate growth of microscopically measurable dendritic spines that enable new synapse formation. The information learned at the synapse level exists in the form of a stored propensity to regenerate the nerve impulse pattern representation of the learned information. The changes in the synapse in response to new information are enzyme systems that synthesize and degrade neurotransmitters, storage of neurotransmitters in presynaptic vesicles, up-regulation of postsynaptic molecular receptors, and biochemical cascades triggered by the receptor binding.
    The brain’s greatest capacity for change occurs in childhood. As the learning of childhood progresses, many synaptic connections form to help store the new learning. In fact, in the fetus, far more neurons and connections form than needed, and the development process dismantles the surplus. This seems to be a competitive selection process, called “neural Darwinism.” Neurons and connections that survive are the ones that seem most useful to the brain.
    Adults generally seem to be constrained by their earlier learning, as described in the old saw, “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” Actually, you can. It is just harder and may take longer to develop the new connections.
    Because of the hard wiring that occurs in childhood, an “inner-child” persists as a memory throughout life. This fact formed the basis for the ideas in the famous book, I’m O.K. Your O.K., which emphasized that adults may be held hostage to their inner childhood. That is a burden if the childhood experiences were troubling.
    The religious teachings of children likewise can have a powerful lasting effect. For example, a study of ministers revealed that what they learned as children markedly affected their adult perceptions of God. If they had vague or limited teaching about God as a child, they tended as adults to view God as remote. If they had in-depth exposure to God ideas as a child, their adult view was of a more personal God.[2]
    The brain’s ability to change itself allows it to be responsive to outside influence aimed at alleviating mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, obsessions, and distorted self-image. One clinical method of treatment, known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), attempts to change undesired thinking patterns into more positive ones and preserve them as new memories. Studies involving religiously oriented CBT use scripture, prayer, and other religious practices to overcome negative thoughts and perceptions. One study improved patient coping skills by both religious and secular CBT approaches, but quicker results resulted from the religious approach.[3]

    Child Rearing

    Religious upbringing helps children develop value systems, thinking styles, emotional development, and pro-social behaviors.[4] In all religions, education about the faith focuses on children, and the effects tend to be lasting. Religious parents often go to great expense to have their children educated in religious schools, because this ensures proper religious instruction, inculcation of moral values, and presumably fewer sinful temptations. In modern American culture, where perhaps a majority of children grows up without a father in the home, religious education might help compensate for the absence of a normal family environment. Government education has fewer mechanisms than religion for compensating for absentee fathers.
    The more religious parents are, the more creative and persistent their children are in schoolwork. These children tend to be more motivated to learn and more attentive. Religious conflict between parents or within the family may produce negative effects on children. The common lament about poor academic performance by U.S. schoolchildren might be due at least in part to the general decline of religious commitment by the parents and by school policies that keep religion out of the curriculum.
    A problem with religious education of children is that a child's brain is not yet developed, and certain limitations of emotion, language, and intellect limit what you can teach a child about religion or anything else. Typically, most religions teach their doctrines differently to children than to adults. Moreover, all religions recognize that children usually are unable to have an adult understanding of religious faith. Saint Paul explained this in the famous quote, "When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child. Now that I have become a man, I have put away childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11).
    Whatever one's religion, religion tends to create a partially closed mindset that prevents learning positive things about another religion. This is a special problem with young people. A study of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-grade students (half Catholic, half Jewish) revealed strong cultural bias. The middle- to upper-class students lived in the same city. Teachers judged them to be average or above average in reading ability. Yet, when the students read a straightforward passage about the religion to which they did not belong, their cultural bias frequently caused them to misunderstand the reading and make memory errors. This was religion-specific in that they showed no such confusion or memory errors when asked to read non-religious passages at the same fourth-grade level.[5] Why the confusion and memory errors? I suspect they were less motivated to be sufficiently attentive to reading about a religion they did not believe in.
    Age 13 (12 for girls) is often considered the transition point, as is expressed in Jewish tradition of Bar Mitzvah, where children are expected to be able to follow religious commandments. Christian groups also often set 12 or 13 as ages when children become sufficiently adult, as expressed in "confirmation" ceremonies.
    Such age markers fail to accommodate what neuroscience has revealed about the biology of childhood maturation. A child’s brain is poorly developed, even at 13. Multiple ways of measuring maturation indicate that the brain does not reach biological maturity until the mid-twenties. Moreover, beyond that, we can all mature still further through learning and life experience.
    A variety of evidence confirms that many teenagers are rebellious and pursue high-risk, ill-advised behaviors. Scientific experiments support the conclusion that the teenage brain is not "normal"no surprise to parents. For example, teenagers and adults have spatiotemporal differences in brain electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex. Teenagers are less able to use their prefrontal cortex to control behavior, especially to inhibit a desired action.[6]The real-world consequence is often poor judgment and self-defeating behavior. These limitations of brain function surely affect how a teenager deals with religious beliefs and behavior.
    Parents and teachers try to prevent and correct bad behavior in one of two ways: reward or punishment, carrot or stick. An interesting comparison of these options for young children revealed that reward for proper behavior is usually more effective. In particular, food rewards seem to be the most effective in children.[7]There may also be an effect of religious outlook. If a child thinks of God as harsh and punishing over sin, their sense of self-worth may be threatened, and their motive for repentance is mind-crippling fear, guilt, or shame. However, if they think of God as loving and forgiving, they may be more likely to respect themselves enough to want to become a better person.

    Neural Development and Aging Influences

    The best markers for brain maturation seem to be age-related changes in amounts of cortical white matter (fiber tracts) and grey matter (cells and their processes). One kind of MRI (diffusion tensor imaging) noninvasively measures the amounts of both white and gray matter. An extensive study of 387 subjects from age 3 to 27 reveal that male brains are up to 10% larger than females. That may simply reflect that males usually have larger bodies than females. Total brain volume peaks earlier in females (10.5 years) than in males (14.5 years). White matter increases progressively over the years, but with a steeper rate of increase in males. At all ages, males have more white matter than females. However, females have more white matter in the fiber tracts that connect the two hemispheres. Grey matter increases early on in both sexes, and then decreases,[8]presumably reflecting the pruning of neural processes and synapses that normally occurs with learning.
    Brain size usually shrinks in the elderly. Most of this shrinkage probably occurs from shriveling the extent of dendritic trees. Staying mentally active in old age seems to arrest this shrinkage. Mental activity, especially learning, promotes the proliferation of dendritic trees even in the elderly. A negative factor is likely the cumulative effects of a lifetime of stress. Stress releases cortisol, which in continuous large amounts disrupts synaptogenesis and formation of dendritic proliferation. All these factors affect all aspects of our lives, no doubt including religiosity.

    Religious Instruction

    Teaching of religious doctrines may be explicit or presented less obviously in the form of environmental conditioning. There are two kinds of conditioning, “classical,” as with Pavlov’s salivating dogs, and “operant,” a positive reinforcement technique used to train animals.
    As a religious example of classical conditioning, kneeling is a natural reaction of submission, but when coupled with a cue of "let us pray," can trigger the impulse to kneel. Church bells or well-known hymns make you think of God and church.
     Such cues are not involved in operant conditioning, where repeated reward for a given action causes a person to repeat that behavior. A religious example is that churchgoers attend faithfully because past participation was rewarding for them. If you believe that confessed sins are forgiven, then it is positively reinforcing to confess sin.
    In typical religious environments, conditioning tends to be informal, and perhaps thereby less effective than it would be with the more systematic formal methods of conditioning. Religions do repeat their doctrines of heaven and hell, and, when paired with religious ritual, constitutes a kind of classical conditioning. Operant conditioning might be involved in the positive reinforcement that comes from thinking repeatedly about the joys of heaven, while negative reinforcement comes from thinking about the horrors of hell.
    Operant conditioning occurs when people participating in worship service perceive a net positive.[9] C. S. Lewis, the famous Christian advocate, made it a point upon his religious conversion to attend worship service regularly because he found spiritual support, even though he did not like most of the hymns, and the preaching was done by intellectual inferiors.[10] In order to sustain attendance at worship service, a believer may need to gain increasing amounts of positive reinforcement. Akin to drug addiction, one can develop a tolerance to the same dose of positive reinforcement. If worship does not provide the reinforcement of growing spirituality, the religion may eventually be abandoned. The current state of decline of Christianity in Europe and the U.S. may testify to this phenomenon,
    At what point does teaching morph into "brainwashing?" We might say that teaching becomes brainwashing when it occurs in a closed environment that does not include alternative views. Learning, and certainly brainwashing, creates measurable changes in brain, and the differences vary by gender. For example, memory of emotionally charged information caused distinctive brain-scan changes in the right amygdala of males, while in women the changes occur in the left amygdala.[11]
    Some believers deliberately place themselves in environments designed for brainwashing, where there is minimal exposure to secular matters and maximal exposure to religious thinking and practice. Examples include Catholic monasteries and nunneries or Muslim madrassas. People who commit to such environments may do so for different reasons, but a common denominator may be the desire to reduce secular temptations and gain some measure of "insurance" for God's favor. However, that insurance may be jeopardized if those people remain cloistered and do not reach out to the suffering masses.
    The best way to avoid sin is to avoid the temptation in the first place. As a child, I remember my uncle Bob, who chose never to drink alcohol. When I asked him why, he said, "I am afraid I might become an alcoholic, and the one sure way to avoid that is to not start drinking in the first place." Many people today, knowing that cigarette smoking is highly addictive and unhealthy, pledge to avoid the addiction by never taking that first smoke.
    If our positive reinforcement system promotes sinful behavior, why do we have such a system? Religious people might answer that God gave us such a system to test our faith, an idea as old as Adam and Eve. Other religious people might say we have the system because we can learn to avoid the negative reinforcers that are bad for us and seek out the happiness that positive reinforcers can produce.
    Another advantage of the reinforcement systems comes from the motivation those systems provide. The reward system drives the brain to do beneficial things rather than reside as a passive recipient of whatever comes its way.
    People tend to avoid religious practices or experiences that they find negatively reinforcing and seek to repeat those that are positively reinforcing. Thus, religion hooks everyone in the sense that the experiences compel a reaction. Atheists wiggle off the hook by rejecting spirituality. Believers find that the hook drags them into a positively reinforcing world. They may become hooked on religion.
    Motivation is central to learning, and motivation is affected by personality type: people may fall into categories of those who “see the glass as half empty” and those who “see the glass as half full.” Each of us has an inherent predilection to be pessimistic or optimistic. The psychologist Martin Seligman pioneered the concept of learned optimism and learned pessimism. He argued that learning could adjust where a person is on this scale. In the case of learned pessimism, a person adds to a pessimistic mind set with every instance of bad life experiences if they are viewed as pervasive, personal, and permanent. Thus, a bad situation becomes much worse in the mind’s evaluation if it goes beyond the immediately obvious, is demeaning to one’s sense of confidence and self-worth, and will be long lasting. So, for example, if your religion teaches that you are fatally flawed by “original sin,” you are learning to be pessimistic and that there is nothing you can do to prevent more of the same in the future. Learned optimism is the attitude of mind that sin need not be typical of what you usually do, and that with God’s help you can prevent it from occurring again.
    Religious implications have been explored in a study that compared fundamentalists (Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and Calvinists), moderates (Catholics, Conservative Jews, Lutherans, and Methodists), and liberals (Reform Jews and Unitarians).[12] Surveys reflected their degree of optimism vs. pessimism. The religious conservatives were the most optimistic, whereas the least optimistic were liberals. Variables such as income, sex, and education were irrelevant.
    More optimistic people have more control over their emotions. Even a brain structure difference may account for this. Brain scans show that more optimistic people have larger volumes of the parahippocampus gyrus, a key structure in the limbic system of structures that controls emotions.[13]
    Scripture calls for an optimistic outlook. The Christian Bible reads, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). The Hindi teaching of Swami Vivekananda asserts that the essential features of Hinduism are its universality, its impersonality, its rationality, catholicity―and optimism.[14] The Qur’an states, “Hoping for good is also an act of worship of Allah.”[15] All these religions try to promote optimism in the form of hope.
    Adolescence is a time of special responsivity to memories of religious experience. Church camps and mission trips can have life-long impact. Similar effects result from certain ceremonies, like confirmation in Christian churches or Jewish bar mitzvahs. In adolescents, brain scans indicate that the nucleus accumbens reward center is more sensitive to positive reinforcements.[16] This could have the effect of augmenting emotional responses to religious experience at the expense of reasoned examination of the implications and ramifications.
    Repeatedly participating in positive religious experiences should strengthen religious memories, including all associated emotions. Self-control and discipline is at issue here, a fact long understood by ascetic religious groups such as monks and nuns.[17]  In the brain, one study using transcranial magnetic stimulation to disrupt function in the left, but not right, lateral prefrontal cortex, lessened self-control, in that immediate reward became more preferred over delayed rewards.[18]
    It is one thing to forget, and quite another to remember falsely. In the context of religion, we may have false memories about our transgressions or those who transgressed against us. We may misremember scripture. In the face of temptation, we may forget our moral standards.
    We should also consider a possible role for false memory in the creation of scripture, especially the oldest of scripture that was handed down from generation to generation by oral tradition. We have all perhaps seen this first hand in the parlor game where one person tells a story secretly to another, who then repeats the story privately to another, who in turn does likewise. After going through a chain of five to 10 people, for example, the story told by the last person in the chain is quite different from the original. Because most scripture originated and was repeated orally for centuries, this kind of corruption seems likely.
    All religions expect the believers to remember the tenets of the faith. This is commonly manifest in the expectation to memorize significant portions of the scripture. Certain Islamic sects require children to memorize all 6,236 ayats (verses) of the Qur’an. The memory encoding stage involves a small group setting where the student memorizes half a page and recites it to the other students before reciting again to the teacher. The procedure repeats for the second half of the page and finally learners recite the whole page. The consolidation stage, involves five rehearsals of the previous memorized pages within 30 days so that the verses stay in the mind.[19]
    "Memory athletes" use powerful mnemonic techniques, but these are not appropriate for the word-for-word memorization required of the Qur’an.[20] Here, the youngsters must use the tedious and inefficient rote method, where they repeat sections repeatedly and then move on to memorize the next section. They use chanting and rhythmic rocking movements to make the memorization easier.
    Muslims and fundamentalist Christians regard their scripture as the literal "word of God," but Christians don’t require memorization of the entire Bible. The emphasis on memorizing scripture has two main problems. First, it reduces the necessity for thinking about the underlying truths and implications of scripture. Second, memorization keeps one from thinking about discrepancies in scripture, which are obvious upon analysis of both the Qur’an and the Bible. Fundamentalists often fail to recognize the possibility that they have confused worshiping scripture with worshiping God.
    Memories shape who we have become.Long-term memory storage resides in the synaptic junctions among neurons. Repeated memory recall can cause changes in brain anatomy and chemistry that outlast the memory itself. Depending on experiences and on our health, new synapses may increase or decrease in number, and existing ones grow or shrivel. Thus memories of religious experience can make us more spiritual, even when we forget certain specific religious memories.
    What we have become can predict our future. Our past religious experiences, good or bad, create yearnings, attitudes, beliefs, and hopes about religion that affect how we act and react to religious ideas and experiences in the future.

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    [2]Worsley, H. (2002). The impact of the inner-child on adult believing. Journal of Beliefs & Values, 23(2), 191-202. doi:10.1080/1361767022000010842
    [3]Koenig, H. G., et al. (2015). Effects of religious vs. standard cognitive behavioral therapy on therapeutic alliance: A randomized clinical trial. Psychotherapy Research, 26(3), 365-376.
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    [7] Slocum S.K. and Vollmer T.R. A. (2015).Comparison of positive and negative reinforcement for compliance to treat problem behavior maintained by escape. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 48, 563-574.
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    [9] Crapps, R. W. (1986). An Introduction to Psychology of Religion. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press.
    [10] Lewis, C. S. (1955).  Surprised by Joy. New York: Harcourt.
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    [12] Sheena, Sethi, and Seligman, Martin E. P. (1993). Optimism and fundamentalism. Psychological Science 4(4), 256-259.
    [13] Yanga, J., Wei, D., Wang, K., & Qui, J. (2013). Gray matter correlates of dispositional optimism: A voxel-based morphometry study. Neuroscience Letters, 553, 201-205.
    [14] Aiyar, R. (1965). An introduction to Hinduism. Retrieved October 19, 2016, from http://www.staff.uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism.htm
    [15] Ghayyur, T. (n.d.). 12 Sayings of the prophet to inspire optimism. http://www.soundvision.com/article/12-sayings-of-the-prophet-to-inspire-optimism. Retrieved October 19, 2016,
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    [17] Rounding, K., Lee, A., Jacobson, J.A., & Ji, L.J.  (2012).  Religion replenishes self-control.  Psychological Science, 23(6), 635-642.
    [18] Figner, Bernd, et al. (2010). Lateral prefrontal cortex and self-=control in intertemporal choice. Nature Neuroscience. 13, 538-539.
    [19] Bhutto, Saifullah (2015). Traditional and modern methods used for memorization of Qur’an in Turkey. Ma’arif Research Journal, July-Dec. http://mrjpk.com/wp-content/uploads/Issue%2010/eng/10-Traditional%20and%20Modern%20Methods%20Used%20for.pdf. Retrieved Aug. 29, 2018.
    [20] Saat, R.m., et al. (2011). Memorization activity and use of reinforcement in learning. Content analysis from neuroscience and Islamic perspectives. J. Applied Sciences 11(7), 1113-120.

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