What the brain needs: oxygen, sugar, and relationship


If you know anything about how the brain works, you probably already know that without oxygen, your brain will die. That’s kind of the reason you go through life breathing, and why things like choking are kind of a big deal. And you probably know that your brain needs sugar (glucose), because that’s the fuel that makes it run. Have a conversation with a diabetic whose blood sugar has just taken a nose dive and you know how important sugar is to proper brain function.

Did you know that there’s a third thing the brain needs to function? Relationship.

This isn’t some clever and gimmicky idea I came up with. I don’t like to do gimmicky, and I’m not so sure I’m all that clever. This is real stuff.

When a baby’s brain is developing, it is using oxygen and glucose to feed and power the cells of gray matter that make up the brain’s structure, and it’s making neural connections from one part of the brain to another, sheathing it all in myelin, a material composed of fat. Those neural connections aren’t happening by accident, though. Every activity the baby is involved in is forming those connections, but the ones that really matter long term are the ones the baby makes in connection with other people.

These connections are absolutely vital to the long term health of the person. They affect that person’s ability to speak, to learn, to process emotions, to love, to interact with others. In other words, relationships are essential to healthy brain development. They are as important as oxygen, glucose, and fat.

Babies that don’t have a proper amount of nurture early on often end up with the “failure to thrive” diagnosis, meaning that they simply cannot live without someone showing them love.

It doesn’t stop with babies. Adult brains need relationship too. The effects of solitary confinement bear this out. When put in solitary confinement for extended periods, prisoners literally go insane. They experience hallucinations, paranoia, hypersensitivity, depression, perceptual distortion, and PTSD, among other problems. Our brains simply are not made to handle an absence of relationships.

See, it’s how God made us. He made us to need to be with other people. It’s a charming notion to say that we don’t need anything but Jesus, and from a spiritual perspective there is a truth to that. But we can’t miss the point that God chooses to work through means, and when it comes to our minds being healthy, one of the means is relationships. I think it’s because he himself, as the Triune God, is relational – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have an eternal relationship with each other. And we are created in his image.

Western science likes to quantify and qualify things by what it can measure, and we can’t really measure relationships. We can study how relationships work and how they impact people, but we can’t weigh relationship. Our tendency, then, is to look past it as something we don’t need to be intentional about. But we do.

If your kids came to you and said they were hungry, and it was after all lunch time, you wouldn’t give them half an apple and say, “Good enough!” would you? And if your child was having trouble breathing you’d probably do just about anything possible to make sure they were getting enough oxygen to their brains.

So what about relationship? Are your kids getting enough? Do they have your interaction, your conversation, your time? Do you play with them, sing songs with them, and hold them? Those things are as important for their little brains as food and oxygen.

And what about your aging parents or grandparents? Sometimes life stuck in a bed in a nursing home can feel awfully similar to solitary confinement. Sure, the staff at those places do what they can to give people social interaction. But nothing beats a visit from a family member or a close friend.

Let’s take it just a step farther. God made us for relationships, and it’s through relationships that the Gospel spreads. It’s like he wanted us to be close to one another, so we could communicate his love to one another. Almost like he planned it all along.


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