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New Ideas: Brain development and spiritual pathways

Alex Drew

07 Mar, 2016


What connects mental development and spiritual growth? Alex Drew reflects on the crucial role youth workers have in helping young people with their long-term spiritual development.


According to the ‘use it or lose it’ principle, the latest studies on the brain suggest that if synapses are not stimulated during the teenage years, the brain shuts down the ability to use them. One psychologist, Lisa Miller, has connected this to spiritual development in her latest book The Spiritual Child. In this, she argues that if young people are not given the opportunity to exercise their ‘spiritual synapses’ in their teenage years, they may lose the opportunity to connect spiritually for the rest of their lives.

Extract from Lisa Miller's The Spiritual Child

‘The focus and form of the brain is based largely on use – the greater the use of neural networks, the greater and deeper their growth. This makes adolescence a crucial time because the brain is altering itself. If your teen doesn’t use a capacity – for example, he avoids maths or reading, or even face-to-face conversational skills – the connections between that region and others begin to be pruned away. […] The developmental opportunity here is to set up the wiring – the brain’s connective white matter – that supports this dialogue between regions. You want your teen’s brain to establish a strong, positive link between the region that governs her perception of reality (frontal lobe), where she ‘tells her story’ of her experience and uses it to inform her focus and direction, and the back brain (parietal and occipital lobe) through which transcendence appears to be perceived – opening up the link for travel. If this connection remains undeveloped or if it develops to reject or block messages of a transcendent nature, then it can atrophy or grow thin, blocking access to transcendent experience itself. The impasse, or incomplete neural path, leads to an adult some twenty years later who makes statements such as, ‘I would like to feel spiritual and I’ve tried, but I just don’t feel it’.

COMMENT: Alex Drew

As a youth worker, I believe that the most important conversations we are going to have with young people are conversations about spirituality. And yet I know that these are the dangerous conversations, the conversations that many deliberately steer away from. Although in ‘The Spiritual Child’ Lisa Miller is writing for parents about the damage caused when spiritual development is neglected, her findings speak right into that tension. And there are several things that I believe it challenges us to do, as Christians, and as those working with young people.

We need to realise that in this often-neglected area of development, we as open-hearted Christians have a valuable contribution to make in the spiritual lives of young people. We need to find creative ways of:

  • Sharing spiritual perspectives, teaching young people about our Christian worldview and telling the stories of our faith.
  • Demonstrating spiritual practices and offering tools that can strengthen the inner life of young people as they discover reflection and prayer.
  • Offering spiritual experiences, the sense of belonging and becoming aware of the transcendent.

We need to reflect on our practice and be open to critique. We are likely to naturally have a bias to one of the above and yet all three are needed in the support of young people and their spiritual development. So please take up Miller’s challenge and in this much misunderstood and neglected area, choose to be informed, reflective practitioners who make significant contributions to the spiritual development of young people in your youth groups, churches and schools. We youth workers play a crucial role in cultivating the soul, the spirit, and the spark of young people - what could possibly be more important to dedicate your life to?

[1] Lisa J Miller, The Spiritual child: the new science on parenting for health and lifelong thriving(Bluebird, 2015), Chapter 8

This article originally appeared in Vol. 2 (2016) of Youthscape's quarterly research publication The Story.

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