The Neuroscience of Patience
Being patient involves maintaining self-control despite our circumstances. It involves maintaining love and forgiveness even under challenging situations. Patience has much to do with not letting ourselves be overcome by anger or fear. Patience is how we maintain our faith in the face of adversity. When we have the impulse to respond in anger and judgment, and instead refrain, this is patience at work. Being patient in adversity helps us break the cycle of revenge.
When we think of patience, we also generally think of being patient in relationship to a specific result or desire. We can wait patiently for a loved one to return. We can be patient in the fulfillment of a goal. Being patient is a way of life, but it ought not to be completely separated from our goals and desires. To be patient without any ultimate goals in mind is to be idle. Remaining tranquil and unmoved even amid our hopes and dreams being dashed can be submission and capitulation. Letting others act in evil ways without challenging them is enabling. Patience calls us to respond in love rather than retaliation. Laziness or sloth are generally considered sinful. It is with purpose that our hopes and longsuffering become powerful. Waiting is part and parcel with hope. Scripture reminds us to wait on the Lord. Our hopes, dreams, and prayers will be challenged in many ways, but we can retain hope. We can respond in love rather than continue the cycle of revenge. Challenges may cause us to modify what we hope for and how we respond, but our hope and response of love can remain else we fall into despair or hatred.
The Neuroscience of Patience
The engineering definition of resilience is quite helpful in clarifying its meaning. Resilience is the ability to absorb or release tension without fracture or distortion. When we crack, we can become irritable or even hateful rather than keep our composure and steadfastness. We can also fall into complete hopelessness. Richard Davidson’s research has shown that increased neuronal connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala help us bounce back from adversity.[i] This is because the prefrontal cortex can help dampen fear or anger being processed in the amygdala. The stronger conception of self and executive function you have, the more you can overcome fear, and anger-inducing distraction. Also, the more goal-oriented mindset you have the stronger your resilience.
When we are able to feel safe and calm, the autonomic system operates through integration of the ventral vagus branch of the vagus nerve. We have relaxed muscles, we’re able to be social and engage others, blood flows to the skin, and we are capable of pleasurable emotions. We have access to our prefrontal cortex when we feel safe and calm.
The prefrontal cortex has distinct areas with distinct roles. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is an area involved in planning and goal setting. Additionally, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) helps inhibit impulsive and emotional reaction in coordination with the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). There is much research available that demonstrates that what we pay attention to will determine how our brain structures and restructures. Remember Hebb’s Law: neurons that fire together wire together. The prefrontal cortex, where executive function largely resides helps override the emotional centers of the brain such as the amygdala. Visualizing our goals, taking time to breathe, filtering out distractions, and controlling our anxiety are all ways that our brain will wire to watch and wait for our goals and desires. The more practice we make at enduring the longsuffering of waiting and watching for our goals, the stronger our neural connections of patience will become. It might seem strange to attach goal setting with patience. But neurologically speaking, what we wait and watch for is what helps us focus to overcome the amygdala’s perception of threats, dangers, and worries that might derail our prefrontal cortex. If we are unable to watch and wait, we will instead act on impulse and anxiety.
Responding in love rather than retaliation also strengthens the anterior cingulate cortex. Responding with hate or worry will diminish the strength of our circuitry that draws us toward love. Because we are wired for love, we are wired to respond without revenge. When we look at history, we can easily see that revenge never ultimately is the best option.
[i]Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2010),72.