6 Ways Leaders can Keep their Brains Sharp

This December I will hit the big “6-0.” Yep, that’s 60 years old. And I’ve been a pastor over half of those years. Some restaurants now even offer senior discounts since they consider me a “senior.” I can’t take them. I still pay full price. I’m not yet ready to be called a “senior.” Getting a “senior discount” on coffee at McDonalds is one thing. Keeping your brain mentally sharp is another. As our bodies age, so do our brains. Are we doomed to irreplaceable cognitive decline? Or, can we make some choices to keep mentally sharp? Fortunately, we don’t have to let our brains atrophy as we age. Here are some choices we can make to help keep them sharp.

Brain Aging

First, a few facts about the brain and aging.

  1. After age forty we lose about 5% of our brain mass each decade.
  2. The insulation around the axon or tail of a neuron (a brain cell) is called myelin and as we age it gets thinner. The thicker the myelin, the faster we process things. And the opposite also holds true. The thinner the myelin, the slower we process things.
  3. Dendrites, the little tentacles at the ends of our neurons that allow cells to talk to each other decline as we age. Think of a rose bush that gets pruned for winter. Although not as severe as a pruned rose bush, aging thins those tentacles.

Given these facts, how can we keep our brains sharp? Neuroscientists are now learning that we can stay cognitively healthy well into our later years. The term for our mind’s protecting our brains from decline is called cognitive reserve. The more we practice these habits now, the more cognitive reserve we take into our later years.

  1. Exercise. 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day has proven to slow cognitive decline.
  2. Learn something new. Mentally stimulate your brain. Stay curious. When we stimulate our brains and learn new things, we increase blood flow which helps keep our brains healthy.
  3. Keep healthy relationships. God created us to be in community with each other. Close, healthy relationships are not only good for the soul, but for the brain as well.
  4. Maintain a strong devotional life. At the end of our chromosomes lie protective caps called telomeres that are linked to longevity. Apparently the longer your telomeres, all else being equal, the longer you live. Long-term stress shortens them and devotional practices such as meditation apparently helps lengthen them.
  5. Don’t veg in front of the TV. Scientists are now learning that too much TV watching can accelerate our mental decline. So, go easy on the TV.
  6.  Eat your spinach. Studies show that older people who eat lots of fruits and veggies, especially the dark green leafy kinds keep their brains healthy. Omega-3 fatty acids (i.e., fish oil) also helps.

I’m encouraged by Peter Drucker, the father of modern day management. He wrote 39 books during his lifetime. He wrote 29 of them after he turned 60. He kept his brain sharp and it paid off.

What do you do to keep your brain healthy?

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The Moody Leader: 4 Reasons NOT to be One

Churches, non-profits, and businesses require emotionally healthy and aware leaders. While competency, good management skills, and vision casting ability certainly matter, research now shows that emotional intelligence (EQ) profoundly impacts leadership effectiveness as well. One aspect of EQ, knowing our emotions, reinforces the idea that leaders must never be moody ones. Neuroscience gives us four reasons why.

Range of Emotions - Mad to Happy

Before I list the reasons why leaders should never be moody, here’s how I describe a moody leader.

  • Employes and followers aren’t sure what kind of mood he will bring to work.
  • When he feels anxious, which is often, he’s short with others and demanding.
  • He thrives on drama in the workplace.
  • He lacks self-awareness of how he comes across when he’s emotional.

So, here’s how neuroscience informs us about the downsides of moody leaders.

  1. Emotional contagion. Emotional contagion is the term that describes how others catch our emotions. If a leader is often moody, sour, or negative, that attitude will permeate that organization or church. I was once treated very rudely when I ordered a hamburger and fries at a hamburger joint. A few minutes later the cook yelled at the person who waited on me. At that point I realized who actually waited on me, the owner of the restaurant. His employees had ‘caught’ his bad attitude. I never returned.
  2. Uncertainty. Our brains don’t like uncertainty. When we sense it (“I wonder what kind of mood the boss will be in today?”), it sets up an avoidance response in us. Or flight-fight-freeze-appease center (the limbic system) ratchets up which results in fear, less team cooperation, and less creativity in the workplace. Moody leaders infuse uncertainty into the workplace. (My blog here describes our brain’s 3 leadership systems we should be aware of.)
  3. Mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a specialized group of brain cells that cause us to mimic goal directed behavior. For example, when we see someone yawn or smile, we tend to subconsciously yawn or smile. But such behavior is not limited to yawns and smiles. If a leader constantly frowns or furrows his brow in a disapproving way, it sets a negative tone in the workplace or the church. Yet, genuine smiles can do the opposite by encouraging a positive, productive work setting.
  4. Theory of mind. Theory of mind is a concept that says our minds can somewhat intuit what others are thinking and feeling. Although not mind reading, the process called mentalizing, helps us understand another’s mental states. Mentalizing helps us imagine and interpret their needs, desires, feelings, and goals. When a leader brings moodiness into relationships, he inadvertently leads others to intuit negative intents, purposes, or desires which that leader probably does not want his followers or employees to think or believe.

So you can see that moody leadership does not contribute to healthy teams, trust, creativity, leadership effectiveness, or cooperation.

If you think you may be a moody leader, ask someone who truly cares about you to gently remind you when you start acting moody.

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7 Ways Multitasking Dumbs Down Leadership

Most leaders face the challenge to get more done with less time. Our so called time-saving technologies like smart phones, texting, and faster internet have actually done the opposite. They have created more work for us because they often make us accessible 24/7. This availability and rapid speed of communication has created the expectation from others that we should get more things done, and get them done faster. This reality tempts us to think that multitasking can actually save us time to meet the demands of life and leadership. However, multitasking as a way to increase productivity is a myth. Neuroscientists are now learning that multitasking negatively affects leadership in several ways.

Busy Businessman

Wise leaders understand that a key to productivity lies in their ability to focus their attention on what’s most important at the moment. And as neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin writes in his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload“Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system.” (The Organized Mind, p. 16)

Before I give the 7 ways multitasking dumbs down your leadership, a quick explanation of multitasking will help.

When I say multitasking, I don’t mean that we can’t do two things at once. We can drive and talk to our spouse at the same time. We can jog and listen to a podcast on our iPods at the same time. And we can wash dishes and talk to our kids at the same time. We can multitask when one of the tasks is imbedded in the habit center of our brain (the basal ganglia), like driving. We drive without thinking about driving.

But multitasking that I’m writing about is attempting to do two things simultaneously that requires the focused attention of the executive center of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex), like listening to a podcast and answering email at the same time.

With that concept in mind, here are 7 ways multitasking will dumb down your leadership. Daniel Levitin expands on these concepts in his book. I highly recommend it.

  1. Reduced efficiency: Multitasking is not really multitasking. It’s simply switching rapidly from one task to the other and that switching carries a cost. It’s called task switching cost. We actually are less efficient with our time when we try to simultaneously do two attentional tasks versus doing them consecutively.
  2. Foggy thinking: Multitasking increased the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. When this happens we get anxious, our brains get overstimulated, and our thinking gets scrambled. This results in foggy thinking.
  3. Dopamine addiction: Multitasking can cause the feel good, reward neurotransmitter dopamine to increase by rewarding our task switching. The brain loves novelty and when we switch tasks and find something novel in that switch, we get a tiny feel good boost. An example is that while you’re preparing a sermon or talk, you tell yourself, “I’ll just quickly check Facebook to see if I see something interesting.” If you do see something interesting it reinforces this pattern of distraction because it feels good. And then when you get back to your sermon prep, you again experience the cost of that task switch. It’s the, “Hmmm, now where was I?” As Dr. Levitin writes, “Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused attention, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugarcoated tasks.” (p. 97)
  4. Reduced problem solving ability: Multitasking can actually reduce your problem solving performance by the equivalent of 10 IQ points. People who regularly multitask have poorer short term memories which diminishes problem solving ability.
  5. Important information goes to the wrong part of your brain: One neuroscientist studied students who tried to do homework while watching TV. He found that information from their schoolwork did not go into the part of the brain responsible for memory (the hippocampus) where it should have.
  6. Depletion of brain nutrients: The brain gets its fuel from two sources: sugars (glucose) and oxygen. When we multitask, we actually burn up the brain’s fuel which leaves less fuel for the more important mental tasks required of leaders. Yet when we stay focused on an important task, we actually reduce the brain’s need for glucose.
  7. Impaired decision making: When we constantly switch tasks, we’re faced with more and more decisions we must make. Do I answer this email now? Should I file it somewhere for later? Do I answer that text message now or later? As a result we lose impulse control because our brains tire from constant decision making. As a result we lack sufficient mental energy to wisely make decisions for more important issues.

So you can see that multitasking does not really save us time or help us become better leaders or pastors. The next time you catch yourself tempted to multitask, reread this post. It just might help you become a better leader that day.

How have you seen multitasking affect your leadership?

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Arresting Anxiety when Spiritual Practices Fail, part 2

In my last blog post, Arresting Anxiety when Spiritual Practices Fail, part 1, I shared an insight that helped me deal with anxious thoughts and emotions when spiritual practices like prayer and fasting didn’t seem to work. I realized that when I prayed for God to take away my anxiety, I was often asking God to do a miracle, to suspend his created laws of nature. I came to realize that often He wanted me to respect His natural created order (i.e., my anxiety may be due to me not taking care of my body). I had to be OK if He chose to work in ways other than a miracle. In today’s post, part 2, I share a simple A-B-C process that God has used to give me greater internal peace.

anxiety cartoon

In Philippians 4, the Apostle Paul intuitively understood how our internal world works long before we knew anything about hormones or neurotransmitters that profoundly affect our emotional life.

In verse 6 he commands us do not be anxious about anything, something easier said than done. In the verses that follow, he tells how we can turn down our anxious thoughts and emotions.

Here’s the simple outline that verses 6-9 suggest.

Don’t fret.  

Instead, re-direct your…

Attention

Brain/thoughts

Conduct

Redirect your attention.

He says in verse 6 that instead of fretting and worrying, we should redirect our attention…

from the problem (do not be anxious): whatever is the source of your anxiety

by prayer (by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving present yours requests to God): to the Lord, who is the problem solver.

“Prayer consists of attention,” and “the quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.” [Laird, Martin (2011-06-29). A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation (Kindle Locations 232-233). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition]

for peace (and the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and mind)

We must do this because often we get caught in an infinite thought stream and these thoughts and feelings become our identity because we have reinforced them through rehearsing them and ruminating over them. It’s like a video constantly playing in our minds that we can’t seem to pause. These thoughts can actually become the themes in our mind… I’m ugly, fat, skinny, she hates me, life is hopeless, my church will never grow, I can’t do anything, they are talking about me, my preaching does not connect with others, etc.

When we constantly rehearse these anxious thought and emotions, our brain actually rewires itself. It’s called neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to rezone itself. Those themes become rivers of neuronal networks in our brain and form much like how a river forms. A river starts as a small stream but the more water that flows into it, the deeper the channel the water creates and the wider its banks grow until it becomes a river.

The only way to divert the river’s flow is by starting another small channel that comes off the river. Over time the new stream digs a deep channel and widens its banks until it becomes the main river and the former river becomes a stream.

Our brains work in a similar manner. When we re-direct our attention, our brain creates new networks that reflect more healthy thinking. And as we continue to redirect our attention from the problem to the Problem Solver, we create new networks that diminish the power of those anxious ones (make that river smaller). As we do that, God sets His peace like a sentry over our minds and hearts.

The key is to keep redirecting, even when the anxiety comes back. Repeatedly redirecting our attention is crucial. The re-zoning process takes time.

Redirect our brain/thoughts.

Next Paul speaks directly about our thinking.

Phil. 4.8   Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.

When he writes, think about such things, he means a deliberate, prolonged contemplation. Intention is crucial… to deliberately choose to think a different way. And to do that we must be aware of what we are thinking about. This is easy to do, but hard to remember to do. Often our inner mental chatter goes on and on without our conscious awareness. Our minds are often stuck on autopilot.

Yet, as we repeatedly redirect our thoughts/brain to such things, God will create a new river of truth and joy and peace in our minds. He will transform our minds (Romans 12.2).

Martin Laird gives one of the most helpful metaphors about our anxious thoughts and emotions, weather around a mountain.

Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be shaken but endures forever. (Ps 125.1)

Mt Zion symbolizes God’s power, blessing, and protection. So, when we trust in the Lord and redirect our thinking and our attention, we are like a mountain and how it responds to weather.

A mountain has weather around it all the time. The mountain does not become the weather. It simple observes it. In Christ we are like that mountain with all kinds of external and internal weather around us. Now we may prefer certain kinds of weather, but we are not the weather.

Your anxious thoughts and emotions are not you. They are simply the weather.

The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. Weather is happening—delightful sunshine, dull sky, or destructive storm—this is undeniable. But if we think we are the weather happening on Mount Zion (and most of us do precisely this with our attention riveted to the video), then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured … When the mind is brought to stillness (what Paul calls thinking on these things) we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain. [Laird, Martin (2006-06-07). Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (Kindle Locations 287-293). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition]

So, paying attention to our thoughts is essential to spiritual and emotional well being.

Without paying attention to our thinking, we become captive to the changing weather patterns of our lives, our emotions, moods, thoughts, experiences, anything, everything that we have little awareness of, this constant chatter. These thoughts can blind us and victimize us. We can let them become us, or convince ourselves that they are us when in reality they are just the weather in our minds.

We must see our thoughts and emotions like weather and remind ourselves that we are hidden in Christ in God… our rock, our fortress, our sure foundation. We are like Mt Zion.

As Mark Twain once said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

 Re-direct our conduct.

The Apostle Paul then writes in verse 9, Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me put it into practice.

Ultimately, as we pay attention to and redirect our thinking from anxious thinking to that which is good and wholesome, we will develop Godly character and virtues which will show up in conduct.

So, the next time anxiety strikes, heed the counsel of the Apostle Paul.

Don’t fret. Instead, re-direct your…

Attention

Brain/thoughts

Conduct

What has helped you deal with anxious thoughts and emotions?

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Arresting Anxiety when Spiritual Practices Fail, Part 1

The Apostle Paul commands this in Philippians 4.6, Do not be anxious about anything. Unfortunately, that’s easier said that done. Anxiety, an inner mental and emotional state, often feels like we’re being pulled in a zillion different directions in our soul and in our mind. Anger and regret about the past and fear and uncertainty about the future breed it. An old English word for it captures its essence: strangulation. Anxious thoughts and emotions often seem like a incessant video playing its strangulating messages over and over and over in our minds with seemingly no way to press ‘Pause.’ What do we do when we can’t turn it off? I think I may have stumbled upon how.

Anxiety

For years I struggled with turning off the anxious worry video replaying in my mind. I tried every spiritual practice in the book: prayer, Bible reading, Scripture memory, fasting, confession, spiritual warfare, and even more of the same. But often the anxiety still remained. I wondered…

  • What’s wrong with me?
  • Do I have some hidden sin?
  • Is God punishing me?
  • Am I not doing the spiritual disciplines right?
  • Has anxiety hopelessly trapped me forever?

I struggled with it until I learned this insight that is slowly changing my life: I had subtly missed how God usually works.

First, I believe that all truth is God’s truth, including science and the laws of nature that He Himself created, whether those laws be gravity, electromagnetism, physics, or the biology of how our bodies and brains work.

What I realized, however, as I unsuccessfully dealt with my anxious thoughts and emotions through increased spiritual practices, was this:  Often I expected God to bypass his own created laws of the universe about how my body and brain works when I prayed/fasted/quoted Scripture/etc. for relief. I realized that I was asking God to suspend his created laws of nature. And what do we call it when God suspends the laws of nature? A miracle. I was often asking (or demanding) God to give me a miracle to end my incessant and distracting anxious thoughts and feelings.

I do believe God works miracles. But He more often works through His designed nature of things.

For example, I have no problem NOT praying for God to miraculously transport me to work from my home without driving, à la a Star Trek transporter. Most of us never ask God for something like that. Yet, when I asked God to relieve my body of its anxiety, I was actually asking him to bypass how He created my body and brain to work.

Consider this example.

Let’s say my annual review is coming up soon and for the next two months I incessantly worry about, rehearse all the worst case scenarios, and daily ruminate about how bad my review will be. The result is that the fight-flight part of my brain, the amygdala, sensing threat, signals my adrenal gland to release the stress hormone cortisol. For short periods of stress and danger cortisol is a good thing for our survival and response to danger. After danger passes, however, it will settle back to a healthy blood level. However, since I’m continually worrying for two months, my body has become stuck on an high level of cortisol and other blood and brain stress chemicals. And in those cases it takes days or weeks for those levels to drop to a healthy level. Only when those levels come down will the feeling of anxiety go away.

Yet, as I pray for God to make the anxiety go away and plead for Him to give me peace, will He do the following?

“Ah, Charles, I hear your prayers and see your predicament. I will answer your prayer. I choose to suspend my established laws about the biology of your body and brain and give you an instant miracle of no anxiety. I immediately eliminate all the cortisol that has built up for the past two months. I now force your amygdala to go off-line. I fill the thinking center of your brain, your pre-frontal cortex, with positive thoughts about your meeting with your boss. Additionally, I now force your mid-brain to produce an extra boost of the feel good neurotransmitter dopamine and flood your nucleus accumbens, your brain’s pleasure center, with that chemical to make you feel perfectly at peace.”

And poof! I feel great. No more worry. No more fear. No more anxiety. At perfect peace.

Were God to do that, bypass His created laws of biology by instantly lowering those chemicals to remove my anxiety, we’d call it a miracle, on the order of transporting me to work through the Star Trek transporter (well, maybe not that extreme). God could have done it that way. But most of the time He will not suspend the laws He Himself created that work in our bodies and our brains. He often works through His established natural order.

In order to get relief, I had often subconsciously prayed for a miracle. Yet, I’m learning that every answer to prayer does not have to circumvent His natural laws to make it a God thing. 

When I prayed for relief from these emotions, I was not taking into consideration that God may have simply wanted me to respect his biological laws of nature and slowly change my thought life in response to whatever was fueling my anxiety. And by doing so, He would gradually bring down those unhealthy chemical levels, thus reducing my anxiety.

I’m learning that debilitating, difficult, and even pesky emotions may not actually have spiritual roots or direct spiritual solutions (i.e. just pray more and have more faith). Rather, they may lie in a lack of understanding of, a lack of cooperation with, and a lack of respecting how God designed our bodies and brains.

God made hormones that flow through our blood stream and neurotransmitters that traffic in our brain. Both profoundly affect our emotional and mental well being. And our thought lives affect how much they flow in our bodies and brains.

So, as I began to learn this insight a few years ago I began a quest to understand how our brains impact our walk with God, life in general, and leadership. I even have a book coming out next year on this subject that shares my journey, Brain-Savvy Leadership: the Science of Significant Ministry.

When the Apostle Paul commands us to not be anxious, what he says following that statement indicates His intuitive understanding how God designed our bodies and brains, far before science had any idea.

In my next post this week I explain a simple A-B-C process that is helping me more consistently press the ‘Pause’ button on my anxious mental videos.

Do you agree that sometimes spiritual practices won’t give us emotional peace? Why or why not?

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