physiology, spirituality

Rejoicing in Monotony

My nephew Sweet Pea is in his terrible twos. He’s truly not all that terrible. He’s a smiley child who sleeps through the nights and whines if he’s not allowed to help with the dishes.  The “terrible” things he does like testing limits (and throwing a tantrum if he doesn’t get his way) is perfectly developmentally normal.

No, the real terrible thing about Sweet Pea being two is that he’s now old enough where he does not want to snuggle or be held like he did when he was a baby. I love seeing my nephew grow, explore, discover, walk, run, and drive my sister a little bananas, but I dearly miss holding him. I try to cuddle, and Sweet Pea runs away. It breaks my heart.

Thankfully, he’ll snuggle up to read with me. Those are my favorite moments, but even those little precious moments can become wearisome. I am satisfied at the end of a book and look forward to another. Sweet Pea wants the same books over and over and over again until I’m about ready to throw the thing out the window.

Some children’s books are clever. Some rhyme. Others have funny endings. Others have things that pop out. Those I can read a half a dozen times and hold my peace. But some are just awful. Honestly, one of his books is just an obnoxious baby named David saying words like “ball” and “dog” and random onomatopoeias as he terrorizes his family. Yet, we’ll reached the end of this 10-word book with bad illustrations, and my nephew will say, “more.”

Really?! This boring book about this horrible child? “More.” Really?! “Sheep in the Jeep” for the 12th time? “More.” Really?! You can’t recite “Dinosaur Roar” by heart now and need me to recite it yet again for you? “More.” *Sigh* OK, Sweet Pea. We’ll read it again.

How is it that a child to whom everything in the world is fascinating  wants the same book repeatedly? Doesn’t it bore him? Doesn’t he get tired of it? Why is it that small children love monotony when I tire so easily of the same things?

Requesting the same monotonous book is actually good for a small child like my nephew. Psychologist Dr Jessica Horst and her team at the University of Sussex designed a study where two groups of 3-year-olds were exposed to two new words in one story or in three stories for a week. The group exposed to the new words in one story had better comprehension than those exposed to the new words in three stories. A synthesis of early childhood literacy literature also found that repeated reading enhances a young child’s understanding of the story and vocabulary.

But as adults, repetition bores us. Neuroscientist Irving Biederman at the University of Southern California has discovered novel visual and auditory stimuli activates the opioid receptors in the brain, which are associated with pleasure and reward. The first time seeing and hearing something new is literal neurologic opium for your brain (and uses the same neuropathways as drugs like heroin).

After seeing, hearing, and experiencing the same thing repeatedly, different neurons take over.  As something becomes familiar, we use less brain power and less neurons to process the information. We can come to crave that new-stimulation opium release once our brain has processed something.

When a child is learning a language, he or she needs repetition. When’s the last time you thought about how your tongue, lips, and mouth are formed when you say “mama?” Probably not until just now.  A young child’s brain, however, is processing all of that relentlessly.

Language learning is uncomfortably overwhelming. Trying to associate words with pictures with sounds with how to shape your tongue, lips, and mouth to create the same thing? It’s incredibly difficult…until it’s a habit.

Charles Duhigg likens the habit-learning process to learning how to drive a car in the opening chapters of The Power of Habit. At first, driving a car is absolutely overwhelming. There’s the rearview mirrors, the brakes, the gas pedal, keeping track of everything and everyone around you. It’s exhausting!

But now can you tell me everything that happened on your commute to the grocery store? I know I cannot.

As adults,  we crave that opioid-like release from something new because so much of the world is familiar to us. We have to look much harder to find something new.

Neuroscientist James Danckert at the University of Waterloo studies people who have had a traumatic brain injury (TBI). People with TBIs tend to exhibit risk-taking behaviors such as using recreational drugs. Danckert’s theory is that the large release of endorphins (and subsequent pain medications used in recovery from whatever accident caused their traumatic brain injury) means their brain now requires more stimulation to experience pleasure and reward on opioid receptors.

“Now instead of a coffee doing it for you, you need a triple espresso. Anything that used to give you pleasure now has to be ramped up in order to succeed.”

– James Danckert, quoted in Scientific American, article found here

The same novel-stimulation theory does not just apply to those of us who’ve undergone trauma to our brains. It applies to all of us in all areas of our lives. When our brain compares a new, novel thing to the familiar, expected thing, the familiar thing is just neurologically boring. Less neurons fire. Less neurochemicals are released. Less receptors are activated.

Yet, we need to be able to cope with boredom to cope with life in a healthy manner. Individuals who bore easily do not lack stimulation. They tend to lack self-awareness and an ability to entertain themselves

An ability to entertain yourself is a highly underrated skill. It’s so underrated I think a poll of 100 people would show maybe 1-2% consider it a skill. But entertaining oneself, finding pleasure in the familiar, becoming neurologically content is necessary. How we cope in life is very dependent on how we deal with repetition and boredom.

Social researcher McWelling Todman at the New School for Social Research cites an unpublished study of 156 drug addicts ages 24 to 68 who were receiving treatment at a methadone clinic. The clients’ who reported a lower level of boredom were more likely to succeed in the recovery program. In fact, levels of boredom were the only reliable factor predicting whether or not the clients would relapse into drug use.

Drugs flood the reward centers of the brain, releasing 2-10x the amount of neurotransmitter than normal pleasurable activities like eating and sex. After the euphoric effects wear off, normal pleasurable activities are not as enjoyable comparatively. Yet, the body builds a tolerance to drug, so an increasing amount is needed to experience pleasure. Life is going to be increasingly neurologically boring to these individuals as their drug use continues. But if they can manage their boredom, they’re less likely to resort to drug use compared to those who cannot  manage their boredom.

When we cannot handle our void of boredom, we’re going to be tempted to fill that gap with something pleasurable. When we do, that thing that gives you pleasure is going to eventually become neurologically boring, and we’re going to be tempted to fill that gap with something new. It’s a never-ending cycle of entertainment to boredom!

Constantly craving new neurological stimuli has its limits and inherent dangers. If we constantly seek something new instead of exploring the familiar in greater depth, we run the risk of destroying something healthy.

Neuroscientists have been studying the brain’s reward system to study and explain the addictive nature of pornography. Porn addicts are constantly craving more novel and typically more violent sex. A normal, healthy sex life in a loving, healthy relationship is no longer viewed as pleasurable. Compared to porn, it is neurologically boring.

Why?

Same theory about drug addicts and methadone applies to pornography and sex. Sexual arousal floods the reward centers of the brain with various hormones. After the euphoric effects wear off, we naturally want to experience the same if not a greater euphoria. Porn can fill that gap and provides a temporary euphoria from sexual arousal. However, with increased exposure, the same clip that provided euphoria becomes increasingly neurologically boring. To achieve sexual arousal, an individual who routinely watches pornography will need to watch a more novel clip.

Just as the body builds a tolerance to drug, so too the brains of porn addicts show a tolerance to porn.  Sex is going to be increasingly neurologically boring to these individuals as their porn use continues.

Yet, unlike any other time in history, we have entertainment at the push of a button. In theory, we never have to be bored. 

But that is a lie.

Neurologically, the novelty of anything and everything will wear off. So we have a choice: We can either endlessly seek new pleasures or we can find new pleasure in what we already know and have.

Losing novelty is not a bad thing! Otherwise, we’d never learn anything. We cannot jump from learning how to drive a car to building the fastest, most efficient car. We cannot jump from learning basic neurology to being a neuroscientist. Our brains would not be able to handle all the new information.

Repetition reduces anxiety. When we see or hear something again and again, the repetition reduces how much energy our brain needs to process information. Repetition is comforting to the brain. It’s familiar. The brain knows what to expect. It moves the brain from overdrive into a nice, steady gear.

For a child, learning how to read literally stresses out the brain. Children like to hear something familiar, see the same pictures with the same words, so they learn how to put it all together. Each time their brain is retaining something new, even if we don’t see the results until they are months or years older.

As an adult who knows how to drive a car and drives every day, how boring is it now to learn about the basics of driving a car? Pretty dang boring! Learning about the brakes and gas pedals sounds frankly nap-inducingly dull.

But what about learning the exact mechanics of how to create a high-powered motor? Or the mechanics of how pushing the gas pedal stimulates the car to go faster? Or how to design a more efficient brake pedal? I’m no engineer, so my brain just started to hurt thinking about everything involved in that.

Fresh insights into an already familiar area can trigger those pleasure centers in the brain. With anything in life, from cars to neuroscience to our relationships with one another to even God, we can always dive a little deeper.

In college, I decided I was tired of reading the same old passages from the Bible that I’d hear every 3rd year in the liturgical calendar. I wanted to hear something new. I decided to read the Bible cover to cover.

Full disclosure: I had to start over once. Leviticus and Numbers lost me. I’d recommend not going chronologically. Though I did not use this website, it appears useful in coming up with a plan to read the Bible in a year.

I remember closing the Bible after reading the final passages in Revelation and being struck at something I’d learned repeatedly: God loves me.

He loves me.

God loves me.

God loves me.

God loves me.

It blows my mind.

As I slowly make my way through the Gospels (I spent two weeks on the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 alone), I find more depth, more material, more insight than I had before. I’m still learning repeatedly: God loves me. 

He loves me.

God loves me.

God loves me.

God loves me.

It blows my mind.

Years ago, I would have heard the phrase “God loves me” and never batted an eye. I knew it. It was familiar. It was neurologically boring. I was too busy seeking novel pleasures to process that “God loves me.”

Now, I am constantly blown away by the little ways I am discovering just how much God loves me.

He loves me.

God loves me.

God loves me. 

God loves me.

It blows my mind. 

Children, unlike adults, have a natural tendency to want to understand. They ask a question; we give an answer. They ask “why?” We explain. They ask “why?” We explain. They ask “why?” They ask “why?” We give up and say “BECAUSE I SAID SO!”

But this questioning, this wanting to know more, this repetition comes from an abundance of life, not out of boredom.

G.K. Chesterton explains it perfectly in Orthodoxy,

Now, to put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not abscense, of life.

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are free in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-ups are not strong enough to exult monotony.”

– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

As adults, we give up asking “why.” We give up requesting “more.” We are tired of the good gifts we’ve been given.  We assume we understand, assume we know, assume the world is how it is, decide we do not want anything in our lives to radically change, and we stop looking for new answers to old questions.

But how is our God? Does He tire of us? Does He give up on us?

God loves us.

He loves us.

God loves us.

God loves us

God loves us.

It ought to blow our minds!

When we have a child-like love of the Father, that statement blows our minds, fills our hearts, and gladdens our souls. Yet we hear that God loves us all the time.  Yet we often choose a life that is far from Him, seeking novel pleasures on earth when the greatest pleasure in life lies buried in the heart of God. In choosing other things, we miss out on the experiencing the joys from intimately knowing depth of that short yet profound statement that God loves us. 

 Jesus once said to His disciples, “Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17). We are challenged, called, commanded to become spiritual children to enter the Kingdom of God.

When we lack a child-like love of the Father, we miss out the Kingdom of God here on earth. We are tired because our hearts are deadened from sin. But our lack of vitality, our sinfulness, does not mean we cannot be restored to our spiritual childhood.

Here on earth, Our Lord Jesus Christ may have grown out of His physical childhood, but He always had the infinite spirit of a child. Jesus never tired of encountering people, healing them, teaching them, receiving them, loving them in unique, novel ways.

Our God never tires of telling us that He loves us. God loves with an a child-like abundance we cannot even imagine. This is why He can take us back repeatedly, forgive us repeatedly, show His mercy repeatedly.

As G.K. Chesterton continued in Orthodoxy,

“But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.

It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Us adults may not be strong enough to rejoice in monotony, but Our God does. God never tires us telling us that He loves us. Just reading the Bible, story after story, we see the Lord working in new, unique, novel ways to show His beloved people just how much He loves them. We, however, tire of learning.

That child-like quality of “why?” and “more” may drive us crazy, but it’s an attitude we should strive for. Only then can we really begin to discover the loving heart of the Father.

The Bible has so much depth that I am just beginning to understand. I read it cover to cover and was blown away by God’s love. Then I supplemented what I know with A Father Who Keeps His Promises by Scott Hahn that systematically goes through God’s covenant oaths with His Beloved people, and I was blown away by God’s love even further. I’m halfway through Life of Christ by Fulton Sheen, and already I’m even more blown away by God’s love!

It’s the same message, written in numerous ways, re-encountered in countless ways:

God loves me.

He loves me.

God loves me.

God loves me

God loves me.

I pray that as I go through life, I never tire of hearing that, seeing that, learning that, knowing that profound phrase: God loves me.

He loves me.

God loves me.

God loves me

God loves me.

I hope that like my nephew (who asks for “more” when we are done with meal prayer), I never tire of praying. Too, I hope that when I sit on the lap of the Father in prayer and let myself be enclosed in His Loving Arms, I never tire of hearing all the ways He says “I love you.”

For any of you with young ones in your life, I want to share a couple techniques suggested in the synthesis on early childhood reading to help the child learn (while making reading interesting for you!):

  • Respond positively to the child’s comments, such as “Thank you, Sweet Pea, for trying to turn the page. We’re not done on this page yet. Can you show me the sheep?”
  • “Can you show me the sheep?” is an example of using open ended questions to keep the child involved.
  • Encourage the child to be involved in the reading. If you’re reading a book the child knows and loves, let him or her fill a word: “Sheep in a jeep on a hill that’s _____.” (Steep!)
  • Read the same book at least 4 times every few days over the course of a couple weeks to adequately expose your child to the words of the book and enhance language learning.

AT LEAST 4 TIMES EVERY FEW DAYS OVER THE COURSE OF A COUPLE WEEKS!? you ask, about to lose it. Never fear! I’ve come up with a comprehensive list to help you:

Books I Do Not Mind Reading Repeatedly to My  Young Nephew that He Requests to Read aka Board Books That Will Entertain Small Children and Will Not Completely Torture Adults:

  • Hug by Jez Alborough
  • Belly Button Book by Sandra Boynton
    • This book taught Sweet Pea that a Belly button is a “bee bo,” and he says what sounds like “baby,” thus he finds my bellybutton and asks, “baby?” No, Sweet Pea. Someday (God-willing), but not today.
  • Moo Baa La La La  by Sandra Boynton
    • I love reading this one! It’s my favorite of Sandra Boynton, and her books are great.
  • Pajama Time by Sandra Boynton
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
  • GossieOllie, and most of the Gossie and Friends collection by Olivia Dunrea
    • Note: Ollie can be a little bit of a brat. My sister substitutes his “I wants” with “I would likes.”
  • Llama Llama Time To Share by Anna Dewdney
  • Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault
    • My childhood favorite!
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle 
  • If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff and Felicia Bond
  • Toot by Leslie Patricelli
    • Ok, my sister hid this one for two years because she doesn’t want me teaching her son about farting, but as a nurse, I find this hilarious and medically accurate. I found it in the bathroom as a toilet training book “because that’s where farts belong.”
  • The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper
  • Bilingual Bright Baby Colors by Roger Priddy
  • Baby Beluga by Raffi 
    • This is Sweet Pea’s bedtime song.
  • Waddle!: A Scanimation Picture Book by Rufus Butler Seder
    • This one has really cool moving pictures, but it’s not a board book, so very young children might slobber on it. It’s perfect for a 2-year-old. Sweet Pea is just captivated by it.
  • Sheep in a Jeep by Nancy Shaw and and Margot Apple
  • Dinosaur Roar by Henrietta and Paul Stickland
    • This is a favorite of all the boys in my family.

And if anyone is wondering who that terrible David child is, he’s David of Oops! by David Shannon. Some people love the Diaper David series. I could have just been sleep deprived that day. 🙂

Also, a list of books to introduce children to Jesus and unconditional love:

Thank you for reading! If you love any other titles, feel free to comment! I’m always looking for gift ideas for the little ones in my life! 🙂

 

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