For many years scientists and philosophers have pondered why we need sleep besides to not be sleepy. Of course we all intuitively know how important sleep is to our bodies, relationships, and walk with God. But as neuroscientists are learning more about the brain, they are discovering many positive brain benefits from sleep. This list below includes some of those benefits.
- Sleep improves mood. And people catch a leaders’s mood. It’s called emotional contagion. If we regularly don’t get enough sleep, it can make us grumpy and negative. If we carry a bad mood to church, it rubs off on others. The reverse holds true as well. A good mood rubs off on others.
- Sleep enhances memory. When we sleep our brain turns short term memory into long-term memory. It’s called memory consolidation. Without adequate sleep, consolidation suffers.
- Sleep improves decision making. When we don’t get adequate sleep we can become more rigid in our thinking and less adaptable. Rigid thinking impairs good decision making.
- Sleep improves creativity. Studies have shown that sleep facilitates insight because the brain is still active while we sleep. Among other things, it uncovers novel connections between seemingly disparate ideas. The old adage “sleep on it” really is true.
- Sleep improves our ability to pay attention. Great leaders listen well to others and have the ability to maintain attention to important tasks. Lack of sleep degrades our brain’s ability to pay attention.
- Sleep clears out the brain’s ‘trash’ to make it more effective. Neuroscientists have discovered that during waking hours toxins collect in our brains while sleep literally cleans them out.
If you regularly don’t get enough sleep, your leadership may be suffering. The writer of Ecclesiates writes, The sleep of a laborer is sweet. (Ecc 5.12, NIV)
Watch for a future post on tips to get a better night’s rest.
For years doctors have warned us that prolonged stress can hurt our bodies such as causing high blood pressure and stomach problems. But as neuroscientists learn more about our brains, they’re discovering that stress can diminish brain functioning which in turn shows up in subtle ways in our bodies. Take the quick self evaluation below and ask yourself if any of these are true of you.
- I seem a bit more forgetful. Prolonged stress actually diminishes our memory because it can shrink a key memory center called the hippocampus.
- I don’t feel as motivated as I usually do. A key brain chemical (neurotransmitter) called norepinephrine helps us stay alert and focused in the right amounts. However prolonged stress decreases it which can lessen our motivation.
- Things I once enjoyed seem less enjoyable now. Dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter, activates our pleasure centers so that things such as finishing a task and eating actually feel good. Stress dampens this important chemical which can result in less pleasure from what we normally enjoy.
- I feel more ‘blue’ than I usually do. Again, another neurotransmitter is at play here, serotonin, which regulates mood. As you might expect, stress dampens its availability in the brain. Most depression medicines aim to regulate serotonin in the brain.
So prolonged stress clearly impacts our brains which negatively affects our daily lives. It behooves us to wisely manage it. In a future post I’ll suggest some simple ways to deal with stress.
How many of these indicators were true of you?
What other indicators of stress have you seen in yourself or others?
Have have you effectively dealt with stress?
I’m reading a great book called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. In one chapter on ‘flow’ he describes the routine Michael Phelps has practiced before every race. For years he has kept the same routine… from the same time he shows up before a race… to the same number of warmup laps he swims… to the same time he removes the infamous ear buds from his ears. His routines have contributed to both his Olympic golds and his world records. Routines not only benefit Olympic athletes, but can benefit us as well. Consider these 5 brain benefits to creating routines.
- Routines help minimize uncertainty.
- Our brains don’t like uncertainty. Uncertainty engages the fight-flight-freeze-appease part of our brains (the amygdala) which can stifle clear thinking. Routines, however, help give you a greater sense of control which creates certainty, what the brain loves.
- Routines make space for clearer thinking.
- In the front part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, executive functions like planning, abstract thinking, social intuition, and emotional control occur. However, that part of our brain tires easily. The more we use it, the more it tires which can affect our ability to think clearly, make wise decisions, and relate to others well. However, when we create routines and habits, the brain stores those routines in our habit centers (basal ganglia). As a result, routines free up working space in our pre-frontal cortex so that we can think and concentrate better on new tasks and relationships.
- Routines can reduce the drain on our daily energy.
- Ego depletion refers to the concept that we all possess a limited pool of mental resources available for self-control and willpower. And it gets used up during the day. If we spend that resource on activities that could be routinized, we waste energy that we otherwise could dedicate to more important tasks and relationships. Routines help conserve our energy for what’s most important.
- Routines help us focus and maintain attention.
- The ability to pay attention to what’s important is a key to successful living, leading, and learning. When we are scattered (Where did I leave those keys?) attention gets diluted. Routines, however, can help you direct your attention where you truly need to direct it.
- Routines help quiet the tyranny of the urgent.
- The tyranny of the urgent beckons us to worry about insignificant issues that seem important at the moment. The term rumination describes the mental process of rehearsing something that happened in the past or something that might happen in the future. The tyranny of the urgent breeds such rumination. McKeown writes that routines helps us focus on the life’s essentials rather than spending precious time trying to prioritize everything. Years ago Charles Hummel wrote a classic booklet Tyranny of the Urgent! If you’ve not read it, I strongly recommend it. It’s a real gem.
So, building routines into your life offers many practical benefits.
How have routines helped you?
This year I am approaching 35 years in ministry. I’ve served as a singles pastor, discipleship pastor, teaching pastor, church planter, and as a lead pastor where I currently serve. I’ve served in the deep south (the land of grits), the southwest (the land of Mexican buffets), the far west (the land of fish tacos), the mid-west (the land of Chicago hot-dawgs), and now in Canada (the land of poutine; I wondered what that was too. Google it). Three kids, one grandchild, and four books later, each experience has made me a more rounded leader. Yet, as I look back, I think I’d have done a few things differently. Here’s a list of my do-overs.
- I wouldn’t have been so much a people pleaser.
- I would have carved out more time to think and reflect.
- I would have more consistently disconnected one day each week.
- I would have spent more time building closer friendships with other pastors.
- I would have turned off my smart phone and computer more often.
- I would have read twice as many books as I actually did.
- I would have listened more and talked less.
As I enter not my life’s ‘half-time’ but more like my life’s ‘3/5’s-time, I hope to apply some of these lessons better going forward.
What would be your biggest do-over?
I just finished the message I will bring to our church in two weeks entitled, How Porn Changes your Brain (for the worse). It’s part of a larger series on sex. With my prior interest in the brain and my recent research on the brain and porn, I’m amazed at how deadly porn can be not only to marriages and our walk with Christ, but to the brain. Consider what science is now telling us.
Until recently the research on how porn impacts the body and brain have been correlative. That is, from a scientific perspective, studies did not show that porn use directly caused these problems (although common sense told us otherwise). The correlative evidence, however, is quite damning in itself. The problem has been that researchers have had trouble finding college students (the most often chosen group for guinea pigs in research) who have not used porn. And, even if they did, it’s questionable the ethics of introducing someone to porn.
However, new research is now showing clear causal relationships of porn use to damage to the brain. In fact, the variable (use or non-use of porn) is now becoming more available as a large number (over 75,000) of former porn addicts have formed an on-line community called NoFab. Through surveys, they are posting how their lives have changed for the better after getting off porn. Also, a recent German study has shown a clear causal connection between even moderate porn use and damage to the brain.
Here is what research now indicates that porn does to our brains and bodies.
- It becomes addictive. Overstimulation of the brain system that releases the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine (which internet porn spurs in massive amounts) results in the buildup of the molecular switch protein called deltaFosB, an ingredient common in most addictions.
- It impairs memory and concentration.
- It numbs you to other pleasures of life and real sex in marriage (called desensitization). You develop a tolerance and need for greater and greater stimulation because real sex has become dull.
- Sensitization. Because your reward system has been hammered, you have an amped up attraction to porn that can tempt you to view it through even simple cues like seeing your computer monitor. Your brain goes into autopilot and your reward circuit says, “Do it now!”
- It diminishes impulse control and willpower. The fight between clear thinking and temptation is heightened and you have less willpower to say, “No!”
- It increases sensitivity to stress. Even minor stresses can lead to cravings and relapse because they activate powerful sensitized pathways.
- It literally shrinks your brain. Studies actually show that even moderate amounts of porn can shrink grey matter in areas associated with cognitive function related to our ability to focus. Porn users report pervasive brain fog.
- It causes depression and low energy because it interferes with normal dopamine production and signaling.
- You become more susceptible to risky behavior. Since porn addicts need a bigger and bigger hit they gravitate to more degrading kinds of porn and risky behavior to get that hit with diminished fears of experiencing negative consequences (i.e., getting caught).
- Erectile dysfunction. Porn users become less sensitive to real sex with their spouses and need more and more stimulation to get aroused. Ex-porn addicts report that porn created significant sexual problems, specifically ED.
That’s the bad news.
The good news, however, is that because the brain is plastic, porn users can break free from porn and change their brains back to a healthy view of sex and sexuality. With Christ’s power, men (and women) can find freedom from the devastating effects of porn.
In my Tuesday post I recommended a great site that offers help. Here’s the link again. If you struggle with porn, please check out that web site.