Lately, I have been reading about brain development, especially as it relates to the age-ing process, nature, and our use of spiritual gifts. This seems rather strange to me as a pastor. I am usually reading books about the Old Testament, the New Testament, or the latest statistics about why people no longer attend church. Yet, this hasn’t been the focus of my reading in the past several months.
There is one more thing about me that you should know. I am a rural pastor. I have been called to a congregation of just over 200 individuals in a small community in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. It’s a great place for people to vacation, have a summer home, or just retire from big city life. So, I guess, it’s not really strange that I have been thinking a lot about brain development, the age-ing process, nature, and spiritual gifts.
The other day, at the local library, I discovered a book in the “New Book” section. It is called “Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative” by Florence Williams, a contributing editor to Outside Magazine. She follows scientists in Japan and America, as well as other nations, as they learn more about how nature effects our brain development and usage, as well as our overall health. Williams talks about Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and Stress-Reduction Theory (SRT). She states:
“Beginning in the early 1980s, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan noticed that psychological distress was often related to mental fatigue. They speculated that our constant daily treadmill of tasks was wearing out our frontal lobes. This part of the brain got exercised in premodern life too, but the difference is it also got more rest, said the Kaplans” (Nature Fix:48).
Our frontal lobes need time to rest and not process so much information in order for us to be more productive, creative, and less anxious. The Kaplans go on to find in their research that we need “soft fascination.” Soft fascination is described as something that interests us but doesn’t over interest us and catches our attention but doesn’t demand our attention. Examples would be watching the sunset or the rain or watching nature’s firework display of lightening bugs. This soft fascination gives our frontal lobes the rest it needs. And yes, we can find soft fascination indoors, but for some reason, being outdoors heights the rest our brains need. Roger Ulrich, a student of the Kaplans, discovered “SRT.” His research suggests that “nature exposure can immediately lower our anxiety and stress levels, and then we can think more clearly and cheer up” (Nature Fix: 50).
Hmmm….Jesus always went away into the wilderness (Luke 5:15-16), to a mountain (Matthew 14:22-25), in a garden (Mark 14:32-34) or on a boat to pray (John 6), to have Sabbath, to restore himself. Jesus was showing us by his example that we do in fact need to rest our brains. In this day, we move quickly and our days are packed, whether you live in an urban, suburban or rural area and are single, married, with children, divorced, empty-nesters, retired, or are homebound. There is an intense need in our society to be productive, maybe even overproductive. And our scarcity thinking (see previous blog) feeds our need to be overproductive. But Jesus shows us that while we are called to our vocation and to the ministry of serving others, we still need to care for our brain and our bodies. We need to rest our brains.
Resting our brains is restorative. It helps us be more creative, kind, generous, and loving toward one another. I also suspect that it stimulates productivity, creativity, the use of spiritual gifts, and brain-growth even after we retire. Resting our brain takes intentionality. Maybe that’s what it means to take Sabbath…the intentional resting of our brains, finding the soft fascination in our lives.
Tonight, I’m going to be intentional. I plan to sit on a log or a sandy beach in a national wilderness area by my home and be fascinated by the sunset and God’s created world. I will be discovering the soft fascination in my life and giving my brain a rest.