Culture At Large

Brain fast-mapping and an innate way of seeing God

John Van Sloten

When I read a recent article about brain “fast-mapping,” a dormant learning process used by babies that may assist Alzheimer’s and amnesia patients, I wondered if there was something in this science for those of us who suffer spiritual short-term memory loss - the inability to perceive and recall the here-today power and presence of God.

After all, many of us will go to sleep tonight with no memory of the fact that today was filled with His glory. ("Yet in distant lands they will remember me..." promises God in Zechariah.)

The main idea behind fast-mapping therapy is to re-accessother and olderparts of the memory-making brain, the now dormant parts that we used to use when we were babies.

"[Fast mapping] is essentially learning by exclusion,” the article reports, “and it’s thought to be the mechanism by which children acquire many new words in a short period of time.” An example given involves a preschooler who is faced with a truck, a ball, a doll and a stuffed animal with a blue face. If someone says, "Let’s play with the dax,” the child picks up the stuffed animal. Since the child knows the words for the other three toys, he or she has deduced that the unfamiliar toy must be the dax. What’s more, the article points out, two weeks later most children have retained that information.

Similar experiments were conducted with patients suffering from short-term memory loss. The article recounts how patients were presented with the image of two animals, a zebra and a numbat, and asked, “Is the numbat’s tail pointed up?” “The patients deduce that the unfamiliar animal with its tail in the air must be the numbat and they retain that information a week later,” the article says, “even though they don’t remember learning it, or meeting (the doctor) and his colleagues."

There is something about learning in the context of not knowing that allows truth to stick in a more primal and lasting way. A baby's brain has an innate default toward learning new things this way. This happens physiologically (and naturally) in the infant brain and psychologically (but not so naturally) in the mature brain.

They say Einstein was like a child in his insatiable thirst for new knowledge. Some of the smartest people I know recognize that they know nothing. This keeps them humble and constantly aware of, awake to and remembering all that is happening around them. Surely people of faith - those who claim to know the All-Knowing - can act the same way. Knowing that we know relatively little about an infinite God, our brains can be perpetually sponge-like.

Yet they're not. What we think we know has aged us, undermining our capacity to remember a God who is new every morning ... every moment.

The innate physiology of a baby's brain allows the enormity of first learning to most fully imprint their blank slate mind. A special part of the brain allows this to happen. Is there a way we can access that part again and operate from a place where all of our learning is, relatively speaking, via exclusion?

In order to remember anew - to re-engage that time and place where we had no idea that we had no idea - it's almost as though we'd have to be as humbly aware and broken as an amnesiac or Alzheimer's patient. Or even be born again.

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Matthew 18:3

(Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.)

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Theology & The Church, Faith