Have you ever had a hard time staying focused while reading the scriptures? Does your mind wander away into unrelated topics? Do you ever reach the bottom of a page and then realize that you can’t remember anything you have read?
Chances are that if you answered no to all of these questions, then you have never tried to read the scriptures.
Why is it so hard to stay on task mentally when studying the scriptures? And what can we do to make it easier for us? In this post I will answer these questions from a neurologic perspective.
That Awful Surgery Textbook
This phenomenon is not unique to scripture study. My surgery rotation in medical school had an awful textbook, and I just could not stay awake while reading it. I remember our clerkship director talking about the book, and why he had chosen it. “It’s fairly comprehensive,” he said, “and covers pretty much everything a student should know about.” Then he hesitated, and said the next sentence as if weighing his words carefully. “And it’s not poorly written.”
“Um, yes it is,” I thought to myself.
Of course, part of my problem with reading that month was the terrible sleep deprivation that is incident to living life on a surgeon’s schedule. All I had to do was sit quietly with nothing to do for 5 minutes, and I was out like a light. Put that awful textbook in front of me and it was more like 2 minutes. I doubt if I ever read two pages in one sitting. (There are some benefits to the schedule, though; I never got stuck in rush hour traffic on my surgery rotations!)
But most of the problem was that I didn’t really like the subject. I decided within the first week of the rotation that surgery was not my specialty, so reading the book felt like eating my vegetables. My heart wasn’t really in it.
What is it About Scripture?
There are several things about the scriptures that can make them hard to study. The first is their language, as they tend to use words, phrases, and sentence structures which are unfamiliar to modern readers. Familiarity with scriptural language comes with time and repetition, and in the Bible there are often footnotes providing clarification, alternate translations, etc. The Book of Mormon has a simpler vocabulary than the Bible, and is generally easier to understand. If you are struggling with the Bible, try reading the Book of Mormon.
Another challenge with reading scripture is the same problem I had with my surgery textbook: it is often done more from duty than desire. A person who wants to be obedient and good will know that they are expected to study the scriptures as a vital aspect of their discipleship, and will make attempts to do so even on days when they are not really “feeling it.” But it is hard for your mind to be more engaged than your heart.
The medium can also make a difference. Scriptures these days are more likely to be read on electronic devices than on paper, and this can pose a unique challenge to the reader’s attention when notifications pop up at random times and tempt you to visit distractoland. I was born before electrons were invented, and am a bit of a Luddite, so I prefer the “dead tree” interface. It is so easy when reading paper to scan back across the page or to quickly flip back a page or two to make connections between verses. And annotating with a pencil opens up so many options for writing in margins, drawing arrows, etc. But there are some nice things about electronic scriptures, with portability and searchability being their best features.
Parley P. Pratt Falls in Love
There have been times in my life when I have felt exceptional delight in the scriptures, when I have felt drawn to read them. One of those times was in the months leading up to my missionary service, as I described in a previous post.
I love the story of Parley P. Pratt discovering the Book of Mormon during his travels through New York in 1830, just months after the book had been published. He described his experience in his autobiography:
“I opened it with eagerness, and read its title page. I then read the testimony of several witnesses in relation to the manner of its being found and translated. After this I commenced its contents by course. I read all day; eating was a burden, I had no desire for food; sleep was a burden when the night came, for I preferred reading to sleep.
“As I read, the spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended that the book was true, as plainly and manifestly as a man comprehends and knows that he exists. My joy was now full, as it were, and I rejoiced sufficiently to more than pay me for all the sorrows, sacrifices and toils of my life.
“I esteemed the Book, or the information contained in it, more than all the riches of the world. Yes; I verily believe that I would not at that time have exchanged the knowledge I then possessed, for a legal title to all the beautiful farms, houses, villages and property which passed in review before me, on my journey through one of the most flourishing settlements of western New York” (From The Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, chapter 5)
This feeling of falling in love with the word of God is absolutely wonderful, but unfortunately it is fleeting. As much as we may feel it one day, or for several days, it will eventually fade into complacency and even boredom. This fading does not mean that you don’t care any more, or that you have necessarily done anything wrong. It is just the way your brain works.
The Need for Novelty
The human brain likes novelty. In a room full of people wearing dark suits, your attention is drawn to the guy wearing bright yellow. In a quiet room with nothing moving it is almost impossible to completely ignore the television, with its constant motion, changing scenes every second or two, and its blaring sound. If you travel the same path every day you will often find your mind wandering during your commute, but insert something new, like a detour or some flashing lights from a police car or EMS vehicle, and suddenly you are on high alert.
A novelty-seeking brain produces a twofold advantage: mundane experiences can be handled on “autopilot” without the need for energetically costly brain circuits to be active, and when something unusual happens it puts your senses on overdrive, allowing you to detect and mange danger more easily. Traumatic experiences can produce vivid memories for this reason, and presumably that helps us to avoid similar situations in the future.
Boredom with routine explains why it can be helpful for married couples to introduce variety into their relationship from time to time, like visiting a new restaurant or taking a trip together. The brain gets bored with predictable things, and you don’t want to feel bored with your spouse.
This also explains, at least partly, why Parley P. Pratt was so enamored with the Book of Mormon. After studying the Bible for so many years he immediately recognized that this new book contained the Word of God, but its stories and language were unfamiliar, and thus novel. He had been searching for the Church of Jesus Christ, containing the authority of the priesthood and the gifts of the Spirit, but he had not been able to find it. When he found the Book of Mormon he quickly realized that it was exactly the thing he had been looking for.
Stir It Up
So how can we keep ourselves interested in the scriptures? Keep it novel! Your life is always changing, and so is your brain. Every time you read a passage you are a slightly different person than you were the last time you read it, so part of the novelty you can find in the scriptures depends on the life situation you bring to them. If you “liken all scriptures” unto yourself and search for answers to your questions and solutions for your problems, it will keep your brain engaged in your reading.
But you can’t be in learner mode all of the time. Throughout your life you alternate between learning, consolidating, and stagnating. If you are in a consolidating or stagnating phase then you might have to add a bit of artificial novelty to keep your scripture study interesting. Here are several ideas, all of which I have done at least once with the Book of Mormon:
- Read the stories in an alternate chronological order. (See my previous post for more details and a reading chart.)
- Read the book backwards, a chapter at a time.
- Start reading in the middle of the book instead of the beginning.
- Read the book as quickly as possible.
- Read very slowly, pondering every word and phrase.
- Choose one thing to mark or highlight as you read. Here are some ideas:
- Names for the Savior. I usually mark all of the Godhead, because then I don’t have to worry over whether the verse refers to the Father or the Son.
- Questions. (See my previous post for more details and commentary on what I learned.)
- References to a recurring theme, like the Cause of Christians or the terms of living in the Promised Land.
- Every verb. (Okay, I didn’t actually make it through the whole book because it was mentally exhausting to read it that way. But I am still working on it so I may finish yet!)
- Chiasmus structures. (I also didn’t make it to the end of the book, but I sure learned a lot!)
Each way that I have read the scriptures has taught me something different. Reading quickly helped me get the story straight, with all of the simultaneous subplots. Reading slowly helps me ponder and absorb the doctrine and the beauty of the language. Reading backwards and in a different chronological order makes me think of relationships between characters and events which I had not considered before. Focusing on a specific doctrine to highlight helps me learn about that doctrine. Scan the text like you are on a treasure hunt, with a pencil in hand.
President Nelson, Scripture Geek
President Nelson has taken a similar approach to scripture study, which he described in General Conference recently. When President Monson issued a Book of Mormon reading challenge, President Nelson realized that this was a job for Scripture Geek! He said:
“Since President Monson’s challenge six months ago, I have tried to follow his counsel. Among other things, I’ve made lists of what the Book of Mormon is, what it affirms, what it refutes, what it fulfills, what it clarifies, and what it reveals. Looking at the Book of Mormon through these lenses has been an insightful and inspiring exercise! I recommend it to each of you.”
He also recently challenged all of the women in the Church to read the Book of Mormon. “As you read,” he said, “I would encourage you to mark each verse that speaks of or refers to the Savior.” Clearly this is a man who knows how to keep his mind engaged as he studies the word of God.
If you are like the rest of us, then your interest and enthusiasm for studying the scriptures will wax and wane over time. But when the going gets tough, don’t give up — get creative! Make it different, make it fun, make it interesting. Read them in a way that gives you a new perspective, and you will find yourself more engaged with what you are reading.
In 2019 the Church is introducing a new curriculum for all of its members, with a new correlated and coordinated personal, family, and Sunday School study schedule. I predict that many people will embrace and thrive under this new program, but it is also easy to predict that over time the novelty will wear off and our attention will tend to slip away. Now that you have read this post you should understand more about why that happens, and you will be prepared with the tools you need to stir things up. It is definitely worth your effort to keep at it, especially with the Book of Mormon, because you will “get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”
Sometimes we crave a hero’s journey when all we really need is to do something simple.
An empirical approach to COVID-19 public policy, medicine, and matters of faith.
Thoughts on risk management in medicine, life, and faith.