The Sleepy Leader’s Brain

God created sleep not only to cure sleepiness, but to serve our bodies and brains in many beneficial ways. Unfortunately, many leaders, especially pastors, try to lead without getting  adequate sleep and live with a sleepy leader’s brain. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brains don’t work as well. Thus, we don’t lead at our best.

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So what happens when we don’t get enough sleep, besides feeling sleepy? Here’s what the experts tell us happens to our brains when we don’t get adequate sleep.

4 Ways to Stop REACTING!

One of the greatest strengths a leader can posses is his (or her) ability keep his emotions in check, to stop reacting. However, when we feel rejected, hurt, or fearful, we often react, get visibly angry, or becoming defensive. Those responses can hinder God’s work in our lives and hurt our leadership. So what can we do?

Word on the button

Scripture consistently speaks against allowing anger (or any other negative emotion) to control us.

  • “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,… (Eph. 4.26)
  • Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. (Eph. 4.31)
  • But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. (Col. 3.8)
  • My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. (James 1.19-20)

But, how do we control these feelings that sometimes spring upon us without our even thinking about them? Often when we feel angry or fearful, we believe that suppressing those feelings will reduce their power. On the contrary, it does the opposite. Neuroscientists have discovered that when we try to suppress an emotion it negatively affects us in two ways.

  1. It diminishes our memory and the ability to see and remember details of an event.
  2. Most importantly, suppressing the emotion actually does the opposite. Rather than helping us control it, it actually diminishes the internal resources available for us to respond to the situation in a biblical way. Scientists are now discovering what the Bible said long ago: So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (Gal. 5.16)

The next time one of these emotions begins to control your thinking and behavior, consider apply the steps behind the acronym CART, a simple way to control an unhealthy expression of an emotion.

  • C” stands for change the situation. If you can appropriately change or avoid your situation so that you can avoid what could cause the emotion, do so. This is the easiest way to ‘nip it in the bud’ before it becomes full blown. Recently I became very angry about what someone did. I was not able to remove myself from the situation because the act was done at a distance. So, the issue was in my head rather than in physical close proximity. I had to move to the next step.
  • A” stands for attend to a distraction. If some event prompts one of these emotions, distract yourself. Look for something else to think about or focus on. In the above situation my anger was rising to a boiling point. I then tried to distract myself by listening to an mp3 talk on neuroleadership which somewhat moderated the emotion. However, I kept tuning out the talk and tuning into my internal self-talk that kept the emotion active. I then applied the next step.
  • R” stands for reappraise the situation. After I realized that my mp3 distraction could not consistently lessen my emotion, I sat back in my chair, closed my eyes, and for a few moments thought about what I was thinking about. This is called mindfulness. I then intentionally began to look at the situation differently. I reminded myself that my love for this person should trump my anger toward her. I told myself that my anger would not change her, much less facilitate a reasonable conversation with her about her actions. As I began to mentally prioritize my relationship with her over her action, the emotion’s intensity began to complete this process of regulating this emotion.
  • T” stands for temper my visible response. At first I tried to suppress my emotion, which only increased it (as I mentioned above). However, after I admitted my anger and reappraised the situation (R), the Lord helped me avoid a potentially unhealthy and damaging reaction toward this person.

So, the next time an emotion begins to get the best of you, toss it into a CART.

What has worked for you to control your emotions in a healthy way?


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3 Morning Habits Guaranteed to Boost Brain Power

I have a passion for the brain and how applying newly discovered brain science can impact leadership and spiritual growth. I even wrote a book about it. Now into my sixth decade of life, I want to maximize my brain power as I (and everybody else) faces inevitable cognitive decline. In this post I share the bad news about what aging does to our brain (starting in the 20’s) and then share 3 morning habits you can build into your routine to boost your brain power and stay mentally sharp.

human brain with arms and legs on a running machine, 3d illustration

The bad news about aging and the brain

Unfortunately, just as we can’t avoid death and taxes, we can’t avoid how aging affects our brains. Here’s what happens to our brains as we grow older.

  • Our brains literally shrink. We lose about 5% of our brain matter per decade beginning in our 40’s. In fact, our frontal lobes, where executive functions like short-term memory, abstract thinking, and emotional control lie, reach their peak in our early 20’s.
  • Our brains slow down. Brain cells (neurons) work primarily through a chemical-to-electrical process. When the neuron ‘fires’ it sends an electrical impulse down a fiber called an axon. Like a wire with insulation, material called myelin also wraps around an axon providing insulation. As we age myelin thins which slows firing which in turn slows mental speed.
  • Our brains don’t remember as well. Over time memory fades due to loss of neurons, especially in the hippocampus, an area crucial to memory. And our ability to temporarily hold information in our minds, called working memory, degrades as well.
  • Command of our vocabulary shrinks. A typical 30-year-old has command of an average of 30,000 words whereas an 80-year-old has command of only about 10,000.
  • Peripheral vision diminishes, hearing degrades, yada, yada. Enough of the bad news.

Even with this bad news, science is now showing us ways that we can slow cognitive decline well into our later years. Everybody is not doomed to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

3 Morning Habits that can Boost your Brain Power

  1. Brain training
    • I just added this to my morning routine. Several companies provide software for your smart phone or computer to help train your brain. Several peer-reviewed studies now show that these brain games don’t simply help you get better at playing the games. Rather, scientists are discovering a clear crossover effect beneficial to cognitive health. I use brainHQ from Posit Science. I’m now doing about 20 minutes of brain training 5-6 days a week. For brain training to work, it must tax your brain and you must keep doing it. Doing a game here and there probably won’t make much difference.
  2. Exercise
    • For years research has shown that exercise benefits our body. But recent research has discovered that it benefits our brains as well. When we exercise it causes our brains to release a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been called the Miracle-Gro for the brain. It encourages new neuronal growth and protects brain cells from stress. To maximize BDNF, the experts recommend that you exercise at 60-75% of your maximum heart rate for 30 minutes 3-5 times each week.
  3. Mindfulness
    • Mindfulness is a spiritual discipline akin to biblical meditation that I practice as part of my daily devotional time. It’s setting aside a time to be still before God to be in His presence in the present moment. It’s not emptying our mind, but filling our mind with thoughts of Him and His Word. It helps us disengage from automatic thoughts, feelings, memories and reactions and simply be in God’s presence. Last year over 400 studies were published that showed multiple body and brain benefits to mindfulness including increased brain volume in the memory and in the self regulatory areas and decreased volume in the brain’s fight and flight centers. I also use an app that reminds me to take short one minute mindfulness breaks throughout the day.

So, even though aging naturally diminishes brain function, a disciplined approach to brain healthy habits can keep your brain sharp for God, for others, and for you.

How do you keep your brain in shape?

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When Pastors Lead from their Lizard Brains

The brain fascinates me and what happens in it profoundly impacts life and leadership. I even wrote a book about it, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry and earned an executive master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership. In this post I briefly explain how God organized our brain and how leaders and pastors sometimes lead from their lizard brains.

Closeup view of a wild iguana in a sunnay day

Imagine a tootsie roll pop with two centers. Pretend the inner center is a sweet tart surrounded by the gooey tootsie roll that in turn is surrounded by the hard outer candy. Our brains include three parts, like our imaginary tootsie roll pop.

The inner core, called the reptilian brain regulates such functions as circulation and respiration. It’s on automatic pilot. Let’s say you’re sensitive to criticism about your preaching and in a conversation one of your leaders makes this comment. “I sure wish you’d go deeper with your Bible teaching. I’ve talked to a lot of people who are thinking about leaving because they aren’t getting fed.” I don’t think I’ve ever met a pastor who hasn’t heard a comment like that. If you’ve allowed chronic anxiety to build up inside, you might immediately react without thinking by sarcastically blurting, “I’m doing my best and if they want to leave, I’d be happy for them and me.” Such a comment threatens you and you adapt to this threat from the automatic process of the reptilian part of your brain.

The second part of our brains (the gooey tootsie roll part), the mammalian brain, regulates other functions such as bonding, playing, nurturing and expressions like shock, sorrow, and rejoicing. It also plays a role between pleasure and pain, flight and fight, and tension and relaxation. It serves as the seat of emotion. However, instead of maintaining balance between our reptilian brain and the third layer (the seat of rational thought), sometimes this part of the brain goes haywire. A pastor who enjoys preaching and has seen fruit from it, after enough critical comments, might face a depressive funk that his ministry is fruitless and that he should quit.

Both the reptilian and the mammalian parts of our brain compose about 15%, operate on automatic pilot, and have many connecting brain cells called neurons. However, our cerebral cortex, the outer brain, encompasses 85% of our brain. At this level God has given us the ability to think, process, gain insight, and choose. It is the seat of intentionality whereas the other two parts are the seats of instinct.

In summary, these three brain parts compose our Brain.

  • Lizard brain (reptilian): on automatic pilot that acts without thinking. Lizards eat their young. and some churches eat their pastors.
  • ‘Puppy’ brain (mammilian): the seat of emotions, also somewhat on automatic pilot.
  • Main brain (neocortex): the place where we think, analyze, choose, create, symbolize, and observe.

God gave us our entire brain, including the two lower brain levels. Those parts aren’t inferior, but limited. The neocortex can’t ignore them or else life would be rather dull. However, the neocortex allows us to “reflect on what is happening (insight) and plan for what might happen (foresight).”[1]

When anxiety overwhelms us (we lead from our lizard brains), we often react and these processes take over.

  • Impulse overwhelms intention.
  • Instinct sweeps aside imagination.
  • Reflexive behavior closes off reflective thought.
  • Defensive postures block out defined positions.
  • Emotional reactivity limits clearly determined direction.[2]

Here’s a personal example when I lead from my lizard brain.

Several years ago in an elder’s meeting at a former church one of the elders made a statement that implied I lacked a certain competency in my role, indicated by something he said I did. I didn’t even remember the specific issue, but I clearly remember my reaction. When he made that statement, I impulsively blurted, “I do not do that (whatever it was)!” He retorted, “You do it all the time.” I immediately jumped out of my chair, stomped over to the sink area behind me, and in anger said, “I never can please you. Everything I do is just not enough for you, is it?”

For the next ten minutes we went back and forth with great emotion and it took the finesse of another elder to cool us down.

What happened? I had experienced chronic anxiety toward this elder for some time. And, our elder meetings had not gone that well. When I felt attacked, my lizard brain often took over. My emotional reactivity came out as impulsive defensiveness. It happened without me even thinking.

In retrospect, I should have paused and allowed the thinking side of my brain to rule instead of my emotional side. My emotions acted faster than my thinking and I didn’t handle my feelings responsibly. I lost objectivity and civility. My unhealthy drivenness to please this leader caused an unnecessary conflict. In reality, his comment probably carried at least a grain of truth in it. Had I been more thoughtful, self-aware, and less anxiety filled that I had disappointed this leader, the conversation could have turned in a constructive direction. Fortunately, we both cooled down later and I apologized for my reacting.

When you are under stress, how does your lizard brain show up?

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[1] Peter I. Steinke, How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute), Kindle e-book, locations 313-325.

[2] Ibid, locations 325-334.

How Going to Church Benefits Brain and Body

As a committed follower of Jesus, I’ve gone to church literally my whole life. My parents took me when I was a kid. I wanted to go as an adult. And in another sense, I’d better go now. After all, I am a pastor. Most believers understand that church attendance does (or should) help us grow spiritually. But did you know that God wired our bodies and brains to benefit from both attending church and developing a healthy spiritual life? Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg notes that since the year 2000 over 400 papers have been published each year on this topic. Consider these ways science shows us that church attendance benefits both brain and body.

brain working out

How Going to Church Benefits Brain and Body

First, two caveats.

  • I’m assuming your church is a Bible-based, grace-filled place. If your church atmosphere is legalistic, harsh, and overall condemning, it can actually harm your body and brain.
  • These studies don’t necessarily show a causal relationship (attending church causes such benefits). Rather, most of the studies show a correlation. That is, attending church and these benefits are closely related. Nevertheless, science continues to discover more body and brain benefits from walking with Christ and being with His people

1. It decreases stress. The stress hormone cortisol is released by the adrenal glands that lie on top of our kidneys. Good stress (eustress) keeps us keep motivated and alert. So cortisol is not all bad. But prolonged stress that keeps unhealthy high cortisol levels in our body damages both it and our brains. Heart problems, a dampened immune system, and diminished memory result from prolonged stress. However, church attendance can decrease the stress response thus decreasing the amount of cortisol in your body.

2. It increases the trust hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin is one of the ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters). If the church you attend is filled with kind and caring people, your brain will release this chemical helping you bond with others. Biblical community is really good for you.

3. It may thicken your brain. One brain study discovered that those who place a high value on spirituality (though not necessarily tied to church attendance) showed thickening in some brain areas. Many other studies now show that reflective and contemplative spiritual practices grow several parts of your brain.

4. It can help lessen depression. A group of Canadian researchers discovered that those who attended church more regularly experienced less depression. They surmised that social support made the difference resulting in people being more resilient. (see number 2 above)

5. It may help you live longer. One study showed that attending church increased the lifespan for whites by an average of 7 years and potentially 14 years for African Americans. The more people go to church, the less likely they are to die sooner than those who don’t go to church.

6. Finally, church attenders commit suicide less often, deal with pain better, have less cardiovascular problems, and recover quicker from surgery.

A final word.

We follow Christ, not because of the pragmatic benefits, like taking aspirin for a headache. We follow Him because he created us with a soul thirst that can only be quenched in Him. However, when we do turn to Jesus and His Body, He gives us some nice brain and body benefits as well.

So the next time you are in church, thank God for these brain and body benefits.

What other practical benefits have you experienced from attending church?

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