How the mind molds the brain

Anthony Zimmerman
December 31, 2002
Reproduced with Permission

Some time ago a TV program in Japan, where I live, showed how researchers altered the brain of a cat. As I remember the experiment, the research team would flash a certain picture for the cat to see, then send a mild electric shock to that part of the cat's brain which is connected with movements of the cat's paw. Each time the picture came on, the shock which inevitably followed would stimulate the brain on the specific motor control area of the brain, and the cat would slap with its right paw. The program then showed what was happening: the brain was building a new and direct neurological connection between the part of the brain which sees the picture, and the part which moves the right paw. In the course of time the connection was completed. The cat would then slap out with its paw just as soon as it saw the picture, without further need of an electric shock. The researchers had induced the growth of a novel neurological connection in the cat.

It appears that God has so arranged family life that parental life-styles directly affect the molding of brain configurations of their very young children. The perceptions which children receive of the behavior and attitudes of their parents imprints itself on their brains and modifies their neurological growth and configuration. "Psychic cloning" from parent to child is a normal benefit of a loving and congenial family life.

We invoke the help of specialists to provide information about brain structures and the neural substratum for control of the emotions. Our brain is a marvelous organ, a super-computer, which only God can have invented to process organically our thoughts, our free will actions, and our emotions. The brain is remotely comparable to thousands of telephone switchboards, each serving a gigantic megapolitan area, whirling with the activity of generating, receiving and transmitting messages which they make intelligible in the focused short term memory. "Through its incredible ability to hook together thousands of reverberating circuits in a fraction of a second -- each representing a memory of an idea -- the brain is able to bring together into one grand circuit the data needed to think and make decisions" (1).

The three-tiered structure of the brain

1) The stembrain consists of the basic ganglia which regulate the basic body functions, heartbeat, breathing, blood sugar levels. endocrine output, metabolic processes. It operates automatically whether we are asleep or awake. Some call it the "reptilian" sector in view of its lack of emotional perception.

2) Next is our midbrain or limbic system. It is sometimes called the "mammalian" sector, because we share it with the highest developed animals. This mid part of the brain is the seat of our emotions, of sentient joy, sorrow, anger, love, jealousy, greed, generosity, ambition.

The emotions playing in the midbrain keep the forebrain aware of what is going on, but they tend to operate independently, whether the forebrain agrees or not. When toddlers throw tantrums, this midbrain goes into high gear, whereas the forebrain of the toddlers is not yet wired sufficiently to play its due role in the control of midbrain operations.

3) The forebrain or neocortex is the specifically human sector. We use it to think, to speak, to exercise free choice. It does not automatically operate in lock-step with the emotions, but can act as a benign though sometimes aloof boss of the midbrain complex. In general, the forebrain is more adept at moderating excesses of the boisterous midbrain, than in initiating action there. Nevertheless we can insist with sheer will power to have the forebrain browbeat the midbrain into doing some of its bidding, for example, to love our spouse, and to forgive an enemy.

Geographic areas of this neocortex are mapped for their specific functions, such as abstraction and speech, motor control of foot, body, hand, face, eye, and areas which process vision, hearing and other functions. Yet none of these neocortex areas operate as isolated performers. Whenever they operate they do so in vital connection with the entire brain. As Philip Lieberman writes,

Although some brain mechanisms may be language specific, we cannot assume that all the brain mechanisms involved in human language constitute an isolated organ or faculty that is concerned only with language.

Although human language and thought probably are the "newest" attributes of Homo sapiens, their brain bases are not restricted to the phylogenetically newest parts of the brain (2).

What happens in the brain of a little girl, then, when she sees her bigger brother eat her piece of cake? Before her forebrain asserts itself, her midbrain probably boils up a fiery electric storm which she perceives as anger and frustration. Her stem brain obligingly jumps into action to prepare for a revengeful response by hitting him. The nerves of the stembrain stimulate an assortment of endocrine glands to upgrade the blood-sugar, to tense the muscles, to flush the face, to inflame the eyes with menacing lightning, to erect the hair follicles, and to accelerate the heart-beat and breathing. But before she strikes, the forebrain, now fully aware, may suggest a more reasonable approach. She is no match for him. It's wiser to go and tell papa who is strong. He will beat his ears and call him to justice. Her midbrain reacted first, then her stembrain. Last of all the forebrain functioned which capacitated her to take control of herself. She emoted before she could think, but she chose to make her forebrain take command eventually.

St. Thomas Aquinas, following the lead of Aristotle, described our limited power to dominate the passions by the term "political control:"
Hence the Philosopher (Aristotle) says (Polit. 1,2) that the reason governs the irascible and concupiscible not by a despotic supremacy which is that of a master over his slave, but by a politic and royal supremacy, whereby the free are governed, who are not wholly subject to command" (Summa Theologica I-II,17,7).

Political control is a good description of what our minds can do in relation to the emotions. Our reason can agree or disagree with the spontaneous movements of instincts and emotions. Reason can assent or dissent. If the latter it can divert attention from the object that stimulates the emotion and allow the passion to run out of energy (3).

We also note that the forebrain is more adept at distracting, diverting and inhibiting excessive emotions which are already in full-blown motion in the midbrain, than in commanding inert emotions to take off from a stage of zero activity into active operation. "The cortical centers are much more effective in inhibiting the free flow of these functions than in initiating them" (4). For example, if a man makes a free decision which plays only on the forebrain, "I will love my spouse" the midbrain may be puzzled about what to do. But if the spouse awakens emotions of sentient love in his midbrain, then his forebrain may eagerly vote in favor and all three sectors of the brain go into high gear, forebrain, midbrain and stembrain. We have all the equipment we need to obey the Ten Commandments, to make the forebrain boss over the midbrain, while the stembrain supplies the vital energies.


Saint Augustine confessed that he had found it exceedingly difficult to break out of his habit of sin. Once he had this habit it became a kind of second nature to him. Its demands were impetuous, taking over a kind of secondary control of his mind and body. His father had not educated him to control his sexual appetite. In fact, his father had noted with pride certain signs of his growing sexual prowess, whereas his mother ineffectively warned him against fornication and especially adultery. Had both father and mother educated him effectively by word and example to be chaste, and had his neighbors, his village, his school, his parish, his entire known environment expected him to be chaste, then perhaps he would have chosen to live chastely from the beginning.

Love between parents and children is the powerful engine for nurturing the characters of very young offspring. Loving and educating the children also generates a benevolent feedback for parental character development. Children yearn for parental approval, and by wanting to please their parents they tend to develop good habits of behavior. Believing that parental conduct is the norm for themselves to follow, they tend to make themselves into adapted "clones" of paternal and maternal thought and action.

Tiny tots can turn their necks to look straight up into the faces of father and mother, which they often do when they have questions about how to react in unfamiliar situations. Watch the little one the next time you attend a wedding or a funeral, when the little one searches your face to learn what its own attitude should be. Their eyes are upon you when at Mass and the bell rings at Consecration time. Your reverence becomes their reverence.

Mimicking of their elders is darling behavior of little children. Doctor John Willke and his wife Barbara, proud parents of a large family and now grandparents many times over, gave this picture of how children learn from their parents in a 1978 lecture on sex education: (5)

Barbara: "Have any of you ever seen a mother sit her little child down and say, 'Now honey, this is what a mother is'? Never! The children learn it by watching their mother, every hour of the day, for weeks, for years; and by the time they're two and a half or three years old, they can play out what a mother is to the last inflection in her voice. They indeed are little mimics! And they know very much about what it means to be a mother:

"Do mothers like little children? Do mothers like to take care of little people? Do mothers think it's nice to have children? Or would they think it would be so much nicer if they were a daddy? Do mothers like other people's children? What are mommies all about?

"These little people watch every day. But probably even more important is: What's it like to be a wife? Because again they're watching their mother:

"And how do wives treat daddies? Is it nice to be married? What's marriage all about? Is marriage when these two people give each other the silent treatment for days on end; or there are loud voices, and they are not very nice to each other? Or is marriage when two people seem to like each other? Oh, they have their problems here and there; but then there is that smooching, and they always seem to have their little funnies together. What's marriage all about?

"These big eyes are busy watching, and learning very deeply what these roles are all about."

Jack: "You see the little girl; she tags along after her mother, hanging on her skirt (if she can reach it!); and she learns what moms are all about. She learns how moms treat kids and react. The same is true of her little brother. How many of you haven't smiled tolerantly at that little mimic who at maybe age one and a half or two - reaches out, and stretches and grunts like dad just an absolute mimic of his dad. And we smile at this little guy tolerantly.

"And yet we rarely think that, just as he consciously or otherwise has picked this up from his father, and will repeat it in his life, so 30 years from now he will be treating his wife exactly the way dad today has shown him how a husband treats a wife.

"Are you gentle with her? Do you understand? Are you helpful? Or do you exploit? Are you intolerant? How quick do you fly off the handle? When does one shout? When does one turn on his heel and walk out of the door? When does one finally get fed up and come in drunk? When does one raise his hand against her? Or does he ever?

"All of these things we learn - and we learn very deeply from watching our dad. We watch him in his presence, and his positive relating aspects to mother; and we learn by his absence. Because in this particular case, when the going really got rough, dad solved that problem by cutting out; by deserting; and that was the way that intolerable situation was solved. But the lad whose father used that solution to a domestic problem, who is now grown to adulthood, and is a father and husband himself, has two or three times the chance of using that same solution to domestic strife, than he would have had if his father had stayed with it, worked with it, worked things out, made it go. We mimic what we come from.

"Oh, we can be different, of course. But we will be different by a conscious on-going effort of our will to be different." (End of excerpts of lecture.)

Mastering the sex drive sweeps in its train a moderation of all life habits

Geneticist Jerome Lejeune noted that the forebrain projection of the genital organs is at the upper extremity of the Rolando fissure in the inter-hemispheric surface, very close to the midbrain. It is therefore the one and only cortical representation to be in contact with the limbic locale of emotions. This is the crossroads of the drives needed for the preservation of life (hunger, thirst, aggression) and the drives needed for the preservation of the species (reproduction, protection of the young, love). It follows that we are so constituted that whatever concerns genital activity involves also moral activity, neurologically speaking. This points to the impossibility of mastering emotional behavior if we do not first master conscious and deliberate genital behavior (6).

Professor Lejeune here made the significant observation that voluntary sexual discipline is the controlling lever by which we moderate all emotional life. The very important conclusion follows that one who governs his sexual appetite reasonably well is likely to control fairly life his greed, envy, anger, love, hatred, sadness. Boys achieve manhood, and girls achieve womanhood first and foremost by disciplining themselves in proper sexual behavior as they grow to adulthood.

The intense struggle to control the emerging sex drive which every boy and girl experiences during the process of growing to maturity is a necessary training needed to achieve maturity. This indicates that parents and teachers and society as a whole have an obligation to help young people to observe chastity. Sex education in schools by passing out condoms is treason against the nation. We are all losers if a generation of juveniles is induced by their elders to fornicate.

Lejeune indicates that there s a biological connection at the Rolando fissure which connects sexual discipline to general discipline. We should expect this biological connection to exist. For if a teenager controls this intense appetite, even when no one sees and approves or disapproves, we expect to see honesty and virtue in his or her behavior as a whole.

The time comes when teenagers feel the need to live their own lives and to cut strings from dependence upon the parents. That is nature's way. There will be prodigal sons. There was even a Judas after Christ had educated the Apostles. As St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote: "We are in a sense our own parents, and we give birth to ourselves by our own free choice of what is good" (PG 44, 702). Parents will grieve and be concerned, but can take comfort if they educated the child as best they were able.

Do the young children know whether their parents use the pill or are contraceptively sterilized? Probably not. Lack of such knowledge does not affect them directly. But humans do not have the luxury of compartmentalizing behavior in separate bins. Sinners against sexual mores are likely to be soft on morals in other areas as well. Soft parents likely educate soft children.

But it is never too late. Even if parents were at one time contraceptors or were sterilized for contraceptive purposes, if they convert subsequently this is also a powerful example for their children. It has been reported that the Pope once quipped that if there were no sinners, clerics would be in danger of having to join the unemployed.


We know that children develop specific neurological and biological automatisms for speaking the language of their parents. Language automatisms can be very specific indeed. For example, the "L" and "R" phonemes sound different to Americans, but not to the Japanese. And it is next to impossible for Japanese adults to pronounce them properly. We may believe that children also copy automatisms for virtuous living from their parents. These may be biological patterns which parents imprint upon their children unwittingly, by just living with them. Good parents, and good parenting, are therefore the primary social engines that build up each new generation of civilized people. We also know that two parents can normally perform this task better than single parents.

Dr. med. Josef Roetzer, father of the sympto-thermal method of natural family planning, whose clinic is in Voecklabruck, Austria, quotes the famous dictum that "the mind molds the brain" (7). He informs us that Brain researcher Wilder Penfield had coined the phrase which calls attention to the fact that the brain is subject to physical alteration by the teaching that parents give to their children, and by the personal efforts which the child and the adult makes. For the molding of the brain to facilitate the practice of virtue is a lifetime task, though it is enormously easier to start well, than to make adjustments and corrections later in life.

Nobel prize winner John C. Eccles, continues Roetzer, spoke of a self conscious mind which acts as a liaison brain to then mold the organ of the brain which we possess (cf. Roetzer, 769). We might say that this "liaison brain" is our conscious effort. It is like a helpful midwife, facilitating the birth of good habits. In other words, the ideal which we set before the brain can be the blue print which guides and stimulates the brain to shape itself accordingly. As Dr. Roetzer writes:

Man's appropriate organ for exercising choice is his unique brain. The brain can be regarded as the organ of man's personality. What he has experienced in his life, the considerations he has had to think over, the attitudes he has acquired - all these things accumulate in his brain. The brain must be molded and shaped in the right way if man is to use it as an organ of free will. We have already spoken of the moldable capacity, the plasticity, of the brain. We must consider the formational stages of the brain.

Take, for example, the mother-child relationship in the first years of a child's life. The child must experience mother's love in order to acquire the ability for social communication without fear or hate. You all know about the difficulties arising from disturbed people who perform acts of violence against society because - of course, that is in many cases only a part of the pertinent cause - they have not experienced the love of a mother in the formational period of the brain concerned with this attitude. The older a patient grows, the more difficult becomes therapy for any disturbed behavior, because the brain is successively losing its plasticity (Roetzer, 768-769).

The child who has both a father and a mother who love each other is fortunate indeed, for their presence is like the trunk of a tree which supports the growth of a vine toward the sun. More blessed even is the child whose parents take their children to church on Sundays and say their family prayers at home. God confirms the modeling that the parents do for their children by His grace, and He supplies supernatural virtues and gifts from heaven which crown the work of parents. Christ dwells there, where two or three are gathered in His Name. Bathed in the daily sunshine of God's grace the children progress steadily in wisdom and age and goodness before God and man, much as Jesus matured with the help of Mary and Joseph in His home in Nazareth (cf. Luke 2:52).

Father Anthony Zimmerman STD is retired professor of Moral Theology, Nanzan University, Nagoya, Japan. See his publications at: where he also writes a weekly column.