We both love how Matthew has taken the concept of sin and given a breath of fresh air to the topic. You must read this book because in its pages you will finally gain a biblical perspective on sin and what it takes to free yourself from the bonds that so easily entangle!

Gary and Michael Smalley
Smalley Relationship Center
When mental illness afflicts a loved one, how can we understand what is happening and respond appropriately? This biblically-literate and scientifically-informed book offers helpful insight, encouragement, and practical advice. For pastors and for those who hurt for those who hurt, Matthew Stanford offers sensitive and welcome guidance.

David G. Myers, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology, Hope College and author of Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

10 Ways to Keep Your Brain Healthy in College

For most students, college is the doorway to a career that they have dreamed about since childhood. As a professor of Psychology & Neuroscience for almost twenty years, I have watched a new group of freshmen arrive on campus every year, full of excitement about the new experiences and opportunities that lay before them. As their parents help them move in and unpack what they consider the most important things to make the college experience a success (laptop computers, smart phones, text books and office supplies), I have often wondered if they have given any thought to the single most important item they have brought to campus; the one that will determine the success or failure of the college experience: their child’s brain! Many bright and intelligent students attending college today put themselves at a disadvantage in every class they take because they make choices that limit the functioning of their brain. The following ten things have been shown to enhance brain functioning and can help any college student live up to their full academic potential.

Get Plenty of Sleep

Sleep is necessary for learning and allows the brain to repair itself from the stress of daily life. The average adult needs about 7.5 hours of sleep every night. Research has shown that sleep deprived individuals have a shorter attention span, impaired memory, longer reaction times and reduced neural activity during cognitive tasks. Sleep deprivation causes an individual to produce more cortisol and stress hormones. This “stress response” results in inflammation that causes cell death in the brain and limits neurogenesis (the growth of new brain cells during learning). College students who sleep six or less hours/night report significantly lower grade-point averages than students who sleep nine or more hours/night.

Movies, TV and Video Games in Moderation

Positive and affirming movies, TV and video games in moderation are certainly not damaging. Unfortunately, in our high tech society this type of entertainment is increasingly taking the place of more healthy activities such as exercise, time with friends and reading. In excess, video media can have a detrimental effect on brain function. Studies show that watching movies, TV and playing video games induces alpha or slow wave activity in the brain. This type of activity is usually associated with drowsy or resting states. Long-term exposure to video media can lead to a permanent change in brain activity (particularly the prefrontal cortex) resulting in impulsive behavior and an inability to concentrate.

Exercise Regularly

Everyone knows that regular exercise benefits our bodies; it helps us manage our weight, increases strength and stamina, reduces stress and improves mood. Exercise is also important for the health of our brain. Research in both animals and humans have shown that regular exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells (neurogenesis), increases blood flow to the brain (increasing oxygen) and reduces the level of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Those who exercise regularly learn faster, remember more, think more clearly and bounce back faster from brain injuries and psychological distress than those who do not exercise.

Stay Away from Pornography

Every second, 28,258 internet users are viewing pornography. This is not just a problem for men; one out of every three visitors to internet pornography sites is a woman. Viewing pornography significantly increases levels of testosterone, oxytocin and dopamine in the brains of both men and women. This flood of neurochemicals brings about a pleasurable feeling, heightened excitement and focused attention. Increasing dopamine activity causes serotonin levels in the brain to drop, resulting in feelings of euphoria and obsessional thoughts (not being able to stop thinking about the images). Through frequent exposure, a person becomes neurochemically attached to the pornographic material limiting their ability to experience pleasure and form long-lasting relationships.

Develop Good Eating Habits

The neurons of the brain, like other cells in the body, are made of lipids and proteins and require glucose for energy. Brain cells communicate through the use of electrical signals, produced by an ionic solution which surrounds the cells, and neurotransmitters, produced from amino acids within the cells. For your brain to function optimally, it requires sufficient levels of glucose, electrolytes and amino acids, all of which are obtained through the foods you eat. Deficiencies in any of these vital nutrients can lead to cognitive confusion, forgetfulness, lack of attention and mood swings. Making the right diet choices can also decrease a person's risk of developing brain disorders, like Alzheimer's disease, later in life.

Avoid Drugs and Alcohol

Alcohol and drug use are significant problems on most college campuses; 73% of college students report that they drink alcohol at least occasionally, while 38% have used illicit drugs in the past year. Surveys show that the average male college student consumes 8.4 alcoholic beverages per week, while females consume 3.6 drinks per week. The highly destructive effects of alcohol and drugs on the brain cannot be understated. These substances wreak havoc on the neurons’ ability to send signals by altering the levels of neurotransmitters within the brain. In addition, alcohol and drugs literally destroy the cells within the brain which can lead to permanent brain damage and cognitive impairment.

Limit the Use of Technology

The average young person spends more than eight hours each day using technology. The internet, cell phones and texting have altered the social and educational landscapes of society. Unfortunately, they also appear to be rewiring our brains, resulting in an inability to form close relational bonds, false intimacy, an increased frequency of errors from multi-tasking and attentional problems. Chronic use of information technology appears to have a suppressive effect on frontal lobe executive functions. To overcome these negative affects, students should schedule regular breaks from technology, increase face to face interactions with peers and include the use of more traditional approaches to information gathering in their studies, like reading books, magazines and newspapers

Read Everyday

Reading is a highly complex cognitive task that simultaneously engages a significant number of neural systems throughout the brain. Much like an athlete that works his or her muscles through physical exercise, the brain is strengthened by the “mental” exercise of reading. Individuals who read often have superior memories, vocabularies, comprehension skills and attention. Good readers are also better writers. The neurocognitive affects of reading are perhaps most apparent in the fact that reading is protective against damage to the brain as a result of lead exposure, Alzheimer's disease, stroke, other dementias, sleep apnea, or traumatic brain injury.

Reduce Stress

In a stressful situation, the body reacts with a flood of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) to prepare you for the circumstances at hand. Your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises and you breathe faster, pumping oxygen rich blood to your muscles. This is the famed “fight or flight” response. Unfortunately, prolonged stress can have damaging effects on the body and the brain. Research has shown that extended exposure to stress hormones actually causes cell death in certain brain areas, particularly the hippocampus (which is vital to learning and memory). This is supported by the fact that highly stressed individuals consistently report forgetfulness and difficulty learning new material.

Develop an Active Spiritual Life

Spirituality encompasses the ways people find meaning, hope, purpose, a sense of internal peace and a connection to things greater than themselves. Studies show that religious and spiritual practices improve mental and physical health. Individuals who are able to connect with a transcendence larger than themselves are able to cope better with stress, resulting in lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels. They also report less anxiety, less depression, and increased feelings of security, compassion, and love. Neuroimaging research with highly religious individuals has shown that regular prayer and meditation can positively alter brain structure and function.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Addicted to Love

If you have ever been in a serious relationship, you know the symptoms: light headedness, upset stomach, loss of appetite, confusion, insomnia, obsessive thoughts and abnormally elevated mood. It’s not a new psychiatric disorder, its love! While the sexual motivation system drives us towards the opposite sex, the romantic attraction system enables us to focus our mating efforts on a preferred individual, Mr. or Ms. Right. Many factors such as timing, health, finances, childhood experiences and cultural forces play a role in triggering to whom one becomes attracted. Once all these factors are realized in a particular individual, the romantic attraction system takes over.

The primary neurochemicals in this system are dopamine, norepinepherine and serotonin. Dopamine could be referred to as the “pleasure chemical”. When released in the brain, it produces a feeling of ecstasy and bliss. It is most active in the areas of the brain related to reward and pleasure. These are the same areas involved in addiction, and that is why high levels of dopamine bring about a chemical rush similar to the effects of amphetamines. Norepinepherine is chemically related to adrenalin, and when released in the brain, causes a state of heightened excitement and focused attention. Serotonin is predominately an inhibitory neurochemical and is suppressed by dopamine activity. This means that when dopamine levels are high, serotonin levels are low. Low levels of serotonin in the brain bring about feelings of euphoria and obsessional thinking.

This is how the romantic attraction system works. When a potential mate that meets all the necessary attraction criteria is found, the romantic attraction system causes dopamine and norpinepherine to be released in the brain. This flood of neurochemicals brings about a pleasurable feeling, heightened excitement and focused attention. Increasing dopamine activity causes serotonin levels in the brain to drop resulting in feelings of euphoria and obessional thoughts (not able to stop thinking about the person). This type of neural activation is perceived as very pleasurable and causes the individual to want to be near this special person again and again. In fact the mere thought of them brings about a similar rush of pleasurable neurochemicals. Your brain has you hooked. You simply can’t get enough of them because in a very real sense, you’re addicted.

Two recent brain imaging studies of people deeply in love found that when viewing a picture of their beloved, blood flow significantly increased in areas of the brain known to be involved in reward and craving and decreased in areas related to negative emotions such as sadness and fear. In other words the brains of people deeply in love do not look like those of people experiencing strong emotions or sexual arousal but instead like those of people using cocaine.

Biologically, this makes sense since the romantic attraction system uses the same neural mechanisms that are activated during the process of addiction. Given this extreme change in brain chemistry during the initial phases of romantic attraction what happens if the relationship doesn’t work out? Much like a drug addict unable to get a fix, the romantic who is deprived of the lover goes into neurochemical withdrawal as dopamine and norepinepherine levels plummet in the brain and serotonin levels rise. This can lead to sluggishness, dejection and depression. So the poet was correct, "Love begins with a smile, grows with a kiss, and ends with a teardrop."

Monday, September 13, 2010

Schizophrenia and the Demonic

Schizophrenia is the most chronic and disabling of the severe mental disorders. It interferes with a person’s ability to perceive reality, think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others. This disorder is not only frightening for the one afflicted but also for their family and friends. The disorder takes on an even more bizarre and frightening twist when the hallucinations and delusions are of a religious nature.

A friend of mine is a local pastor and recently shared that during a regular Wednesday night service he was leading, he spontaneously decided to have a time of sharing. He asked those in attendance if anyone would like to share and a young man near the back got up and moved forward. My pastor friend did not recognize the young man as one of his church members. The young man said that he knew the church was a “Bible believing church” and that they were “praying for Christ’s second coming”. He just wanted to let everyone know that he had returned. This young man was schizophrenic and believed himself to be Jesus. He was having what is called a delusion of grandeur, believing himself to be a famous or powerful person. Now this incident ended well, my pastor friend took the young man to a local psychiatric facility where he received treatment. Several of his congregants initially thought that this might be the work of demons.

It is easy to understand how people of faith, who believe in fallen spirits, could mistake the bizarre behaviors of schizophrenics or psychotics as demonic, especially when religious delusions or hallucinations take a violent turn. Recently in Florida, a man with paranoid schizophrenia shot and killed a retired policeman. At his murder trial, the man testified that he had to kill the victim believing the retired policeman was the Antichrist because of the University of Alabama “A” on the victim’s baseball cap. We all know the Texas case of Andrea Yates, who in a delusional state, drowned her five young children saying that God had told her to do it to protect them from going to hell. These are tragic events, but is this the work of demons?

In demonic possession, as described in the scriptures, a human is inhabited or taken over by an evil spirit and consequently cannot exercise his or her own will. At a surface level, that doesn’t sound like schizophrenia. If we look at the examples of demonic possession in the Bible and compare their behavior with that of schizophrenics we see significant differences. Unlike schizophrenics, the demonically possessed in the scriptures are rational in their interactions (Matthew 8:28,31; Mark 1:34; 5:7; Luke 4:34; 8:28,31). When the demons speak to Jesus they are easily understood and have precise knowledge that He is the Messiah. Schizophrenics on the other hand are difficult to understand, their thoughts are very loosely associated and they often speaking in a stream of incoherent words or sentences based on delusional beliefs or misconceptions. A second difference is that the demonically possessed in the scriptures often manifest or are associated with supernatural phenomena such as supernatural knowledge or super human strength (Matthew 8:32; Mark 5:3-4,13; Luke 4:41; 8:33). This type of phenomenon is not generally associated schizophrenia. In addition, the scriptures teach us that illness and demon possession are separate things (Matthew 4:24; 8:16: Mark 1:32-34; Luke 9:1). So I would say that the scriptures show us that demonic possession and schizophrenia are two different phenomena.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Biology of Sin is Now Available

My second book The Biology of Sin: Grace, Hope and Healing For Those Who Feel Trapped was released last week. Here is some advanced praise for the book:

Sin doesn’t occur in a vacuum. We sin by choice, but our choices are often guided by inclinations that we often don’t understand. Dr. Stanford has provided a valuable resource to the church by integrating a wide range of research on the biological conditions associated with various kinds of sins together with Scriptural teaching on these problems and how to address them. Avoiding the extremes of moralism and determinism, he takes seriously both human responsibility and biological vulnerabilities. Peppered with case studies, this book will be helpful to pastors, laypeople, and counselors seeking a better understanding of this complex area of human life.

Eric L. Johnson, Ph.D.
Lawrence and Charlotte Hoover Professor of Pastoral Care, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal

In The Biology of Sin Matthew Stanford probes the fascinating interface between the spirit and the brain in ways that are sure to intrigue and stimulate those who are interested in how Christian faith can inform our understanding of a fallen corporal nature. I enthusiastically recommend this book to all Christians who are curious about science.

Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D.
Research psychiatrist, UCLA School of Medicine and author of The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force

In years of trying to help people through the complex issues of their brokenness I’ve longed for resources to help explain the power of innate sin in a person’s life. Thank you Matt for integrating biology and brokenness so we can help set people free from the pains and struggles of their lives.

Jimmy Seibert
Pastor, Antioch Community Church (Waco, TX) and author of The Church Can Change the World: Living from the Inside Out

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Call to Action

I am often asked by pastors and people of faith if mental illness occurs at the same rates in the church as it does outside the church. An estimated 26.2% of Americans (57.7 million people) ages eighteen and older (one in four adults) suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. In our most recent study of mental illness and the church we found that in a sample of 5,899 congregants, representing 24 different protestant churches, 27.1% reported that they or a member of their family suffered with a mental illness during the previous year. Clearly, mental illness is occurring at the same rates both inside and outside the church.

Those families struggling with mental illness also reported that they had significantly greater relational conflict, more financial problems and increased difficulty connecting with both God and the church when compared to families who did not deal with mental illness in the previous year. A quarter of our families in the church are struggling to survive on a daily basis. It’s time that the church stopped abdicating its role in mental health and started leading.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Do Men and Women Sin Differently?

If we look at sins such as violence, lust, addiction and criminality we find that men are more frequently involved than women in these behaviors. So the question must be asked, “Do men and women sin differently?” I believe that they do, and I suggest that this is just one more piece of evidence that sin has biological roots.

Physiologically men and women are very different. It is often extremes (both highs and lows) in the same hormonal and biochemical systems that differ between the sexes, which predispose us to sinful behavior. God made the sexes different but complimentary (Genesis 2:20-25). He instilled certain drives and desires in the man, so that he might fulfill his divinely determined masculine role. A different set of female specific drives and desires was created in the woman so that she might accomplish her God ordained purposes. The complementary nature of these physiological drives and desires changed when sin entered the world. Mankind became selfish and independent with each individual now relying only on him or herself to fulfill his/her natural desires and physical appetites.

The gender differences observed in sinful behavior are foreshadowed in the curse that God pronounced upon Adam and Eve in the garden (Genesis 3:16-19). The man is told that he will have great difficulty in providing for himself and his family, so the sins most often committed by men tend to focus on obtaining immediate pleasure or gratification (e.g., lust). The curse upon the women was that she would no longer be in an equivalent relationship with the man and he would rule over her. So the sins of women tend to be about relational status, privilege or position (e.g., envy). A recent Catholic survey supports this idea that men and women sin differently. The study was based on the confessions heard by 95 year-old, Jesuit priest Fr. Roberto Busa and focused on the traditional seven deadly sins (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, sloth). The most common sins for men were lust, gluttony and slothfulness, while women were more likely to struggle with pride, envy and anger.

God created us as embodied spirits, having both physical and spiritual aspects to our being. Deeply stained and scarred by original sin, both spiritually and physically, we are at birth separated from God and incomplete. Because God created men and women as physically different it is understandable that the effect of original sin on our bodies and minds varies between the sexes. Through faith in Christ, we are transformed spiritually, but like all the physical creation, our bodies still long to be redeemed and made new (Romans 8:20-23). While salvation occurs in an instance, sanctification (the process by which our bodies and minds are formed into Christ’s likeliness) is a lifelong process that will only be fully realized at Christ’s second coming.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mental Health Grace Alliance

I would like to officially announce the start of a new organization, the Mental Health Grace Alliance (MHGA). MHGA is a faith-based non-profit organization started by myself and Joe Padilla to assist mentally individuals and their families. Presently we offer individual family counseling, a bi-weekly support group, workshops, seminars and published mental health resourses, pastor/church training and mental health ministry development. For more information or to offer support please contact us at mhgracealliance@gmail.com.