Has Your Emotional Brain Hijacked your Leadership?

Great ministry leaders keep their emotions in check. Unfortunately, when we don’t keep them in check, our emotional brain can hijack clear thinking and good leadership. Yet, when we understand how our brain and emotions work, such insight can help us manage them in God honoring ways. Below I give a quick summary about the part of our brain that affects emotions.

Many parts of the brain influence our emotions, but the part I call the Panic Alarm (the limbic system, especially the amygdala) contributes the most. The word limbic means ‘edge’ and it got its name because it lies on the edge between the outer part of the brain and other important internal structures. Its primary structures include the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus. The Panic Alarm strongly influences our emotional system, sometimes called the X-system.

The amygdalae (I use the singular form amygdala) are two almond shaped structures that play a critical role in our emotions for several reasons. It’s constantly on the lookout for problems and receives sensory input from many other parts of the brain. It stores and catalogs emotional memories. And both the hippocampus and the amygdala are involved in memory, the former primarily for facts and the latter for emotions.

For example, your hippocampus helps you remember the names of your elder or deacon board members. The amygdala tells you which ones you like. Because the amygdala is so highly connected to other parts of the brain, when it gets overly activated (the Panic Alarm goes off) it can diminish clear thinking and diminish thoughtful leadership.

An external real or perceived threat (an angry board member), a memory (when we were called to appear before an emergency board meeting), imagining ourselves in a threatening situation, or ever anticipating a threat can incite our Panic Alarm. The flight-flight-freeze-appease response originates from here. It’s also vital in helping us form healthy emotional attachments, especially at an early age.

Another component of the limbic system, the hypothalamus, acts as a controller to the master hormone gland, the pituitary gland. When we’re under stress it releases the stress hormone cortisol into our blood stream and neurotransmitters into our brain. Our body reacts very quickly to the neurotransmitter release but slower to the hormonal release. And chronic stress can damage our body and even kill brain cells (neurons) in the hippocampus. However, since the hippocampus is one of the few structures that can grow neurons, called neurogenesis, when stress decreases and cortisol levels out, the brain can regrow neurons here.

Another significant part of the brain, the insula, also influences emotions, and informs the amygdala. It maps our body’s internal feelings by receiving continuous input from over 100 million neurons (Armour, 2004) that line our hollow organs like our heart and intestines. It takes this information and represents how we feel in relation to our outside environment. Intuition is affected by this so called ‘second brain’ (Hadhazy, 2010). It can give us a ‘gut’ feel, butterflies in our stomach, or a ‘heartfelt sense’ we sometimes feel about something or someone. It’s also finely tuned to feel disgust and to sense unfairness.

I believe God used my insula to help me make a difficult decision years ago. I had been leading a poorly performing staff member that I had hoped I could reform to fit our culture. I kept telling myself that I could change him. But nothing seemed to work. I thought I needed to release him but I just couldn’t seem to pull the trigger. However, one morning I woke up in the middle of the night and knew in my gut I had to release him. I believe the Holy Spirit used my insula to help me make that decision.

Although the Bible never uses the word brain, it often uses the word for bowels to refer to the deep interior of our heart, soul, and mind. Although the Biblical writers didn’t explicitly understand the inner workings of the brain, God gave them keen insight into how our bodies and brains actually worked in real life.

Has your emotional brain every hijacked your leadership? What has helped you keep your emotions in check?


“I just learned how my emotional brain can sometimes hijack my leadership.” (tweet this quote by clicking here).


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References:

Armour, J.A. (2004) Cardiac neuronal hierarchy in health and disease. American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 287 (2), pp.R262-R271.

Hadhazy, A. (2010) Think Twice: How the Gut’s ‘Second Brain’ Influences Mood and Well-Being: Scientific American [Internet]. Available from: <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=gut-second-brain> [Accessed 28 February 2013].

Are you a Sleep Deprived Pastor? Take this quiz and find out.

Ministry demands never seem to end. There’s always one more person to serve and reach. If you’re a pastor or work in a church in any capacity, our days often don’t end at 5 pm. Meetings and emergencies can take us into the late hours. Even if nothing specific demands our attention, in our off hours our minds often ruminate about the church. Unfortunately, this causes many pastors to be sleep deprived. In fact 1/3 of all Americans are sleep deprived. I imagine pastors exceed that percentage. Take this quiz and discover if you’re sleep deprived. Mentally check below the statements that apply to you.

Sleep deprived quiz:

  • After I get up I feel tired most of the day.
  • I often hit the snooze button in the morning.
  • I wake up a lot at night.
  • I often feel mentally sluggish during the day.
  • On weekends and vacations I sleep a lot longer than I normally do to “catch up.”
  • I tend to load up on caffeine through coffee, energy drinks, or sodas to “keep me going.”
  • Within a couple of hours before I go to bed I exercise or spend a lot of time in front of my computer monitor or my iPad.

If you checked at least three, there’s a good chance you’re not getting enough sleep.

And when you don’t, your brain doesn’t work at its peak…you increase the stress hormone cortisol in your body which damages it…and you’re more likely to react and be less self controlled when under stress.

Sleep deprivation does NOT help us become more productive pastors, even though we may think that extra hour of work that we get each day from sleeping an hour less helps. This Harvard Business Review article paints a compelling tie between decreased job performance and sleep deprivation.

So why is it such a problem for pastors? I have a few hunches.

  • Perhaps we’ve over emphasized productivity. What pastor hasn’t read or memorized Proverbs 6.10.A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest — 11 and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man. (NIV)
  • Perhaps we’ve too often compared ourselves with uber-successful pastors or famous leaders and have heard how they got by on little sleep.
  • Perhaps we’ve gotten used to being sleep deprived and don’t know what it’s like to get adequate sleep.

What can we do about it?

  1. If you are sleep deprived, admit it. Admitting a problem is the first step toward victory.
  2. Realize that sleep and rest is biblical. We see this in the creation account and God’s establishing Sabbath rest as a principle. We see this in Jesus telling His disciples to pull away from ministry and rest (Matt. 6.31). And we see Jesus sleeping, even in a storm (Matt 4.38).
  3. Re-adjust your schedule to get more sleep. Get an accountability partner to hold you accountable. It may not be easy.
  4. Go to bed earlier. This is a very effective way to regain that sleep.
  5. Ask your leadership to limit evening meetings.
  6. Give yourself some grace if you are in a season with a new baby. Most babies don’t respect your need for sleep. Give it time and this will pass.

What has helped you get adequate sleep?


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How to Keep Your Brain Sharp

Weighing a mere 2-3% of our body weight, yet requiring 20% of our body’s energy, the brain is a masterpiece of God’s creation. It grows rapidly from birth until the mid-twenties. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there. Even though you can’t avoid getting older, you can take some simple steps to keep your brain sharp. In this post I suggest 6 simple ways to stay mentally sharp well past your twenties.

Neuroscientists have coined a phrase, cognitive reserve, to explain our brain’s resistance to its normal decline. It’s the way the brain builds resilience against the natural loss of cognitive abilities due to aging.

When one neighborhood of our brain slows down, cognitive reserve helps another neighborhood take over to compensate for the loss.

As we age, though, certain brain process inevitably occur.

  1. Our brain’s overall volume decrease 5% per decade after the age of 40.
  2. Dendrites at the end of our brain cells (think of the roots of a tree) begin to decline starting in our twenties. The more ‘bushy’ our dendrites, the better and more efficient our brain processes information.
  3. Gray matter (brain cells called neurons) begin to decline starting in our mid-20’s.
  4. The insulation (called myelin) that wraps around the tail of a neuron (called an axon) thins as we age. The thicker the myelin the faster the electrical impulses travel along the axon. And, faster is better.
  5. The receptors for the neurotransmitter chemical called dopamine decreases. This chemical plays a major role in attention, learning, and reward.

So, what can we do to build our cognitive reserve and minimize cognitive loss, especially since you will probably live longer than your parents will or did?

These five “use it our lose it” brain hygiene steps have been scientifically shown to build cognitive reserve.

  1. Learn, learn, learn. Researchers have discovered a relationship between years of education and greater cognitive reserve. You don’t need to go back to school for a PhD, though. Just be curious. Challenge your brain. Learn new things. Read challenging books, magazines, and blog posts. Although I’m 62 and have 4 degrees, I’m planning on getting another degree for the sheer pleasure of learning (and to keep my brain sharp). Check out adult education courses community colleges offer, usually at a good price. Also, many colleges (even Harvard) offer free courses online, the same ones you’d pay for.
  2. Prioritize friendships. The Bible often speaks to the value of healthy community with others. Building healthy relationships helps us deepen our walk with God, but also provides a brain benefit. Friendships keep your brain sharp, partly because when we interact with others we learn new things and see different perspectives which stretches our thinking. So, don’t be a hermit.
  3. Exercise your brain with brain games. Although a recent lawsuit against one of the brain game companies has given brain games a black eye, a recent metastudy (a study of studies) has shown significant cross-over value in some of these games. That is, playing them doesn’t just make you better at playing them, but playing them actually boosts brain power and cognitive reserve. I use BrainHQ (I don’t work for them) five days a week and these games challenge my brain in a way that nothing else does. This company was rated highest from the study I cited above.
  4. Get adequate sleep. Lots of good stuff happens when you sleep. Scientists are discovering more and more benefits from getting a good night’s sleep. So, don’t skimp on your sleep. In this post I explain three important brain benefits from sleep. One important function of sleep is that it clears out a deposit called beta amyloid that accumulates in the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease.
  5. Learn a foreign language. Learning a new language helps make more efficient use of our brains and encourages something called neuroplasticity, the ability the brain has to change itself. At one time scientists believed the brain was more like porcelain – once we reached a certain age we were stuck with what we had. However, they’ve discovered that the brain is malleable, like putty. What we do with our lives and what we put into our minds can change our brain. I’m now learning Spanish. I use a free, nifty iPhone app called Duolingo. It’s easy and lots of fun. I try to practice on our Spanish language pastor at church. I think he gets lots of laughs.
  6. Keep you devotional life strong. At the end of our chromosomes lie tiny end caps called telemeres, much like the plastic sleeves at the end of our shoe laces. Scientists have discovered a positive correlation to the length of these end caps and longevity. In studies of those who regularly mediate, their chromosomes consistently have longer telemeres. So, a daily quiet time can help keep your brain sharp.

If we take care of our brain, it will serve us well. Since the brain is part of the body, we should heed the words of the Apostle Paul.

1Cor. 6.19 Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;  20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (NIV)

If you are interested in how brain insight can help improve leadership, check out my most recent book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: the Science of Significant Ministry. 

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Five Neuroscience Techniques that Improve Brainstorming

Several years ago I started a small side business to create ‘white board’ animations for companies that wanted to communicate difficult concepts, train employees, or market their products. I managed the process, created the script, and did the voiceover for the animation (done by an animator). With client I spent a half-day with four members of the company that had hired us to create a three-minute animation to explain a very complicated proprietary brokerage service they offered. I used several neuroscience techniques in that meeting that you might try the next time you lead a brainstorming session. I unpack what I did using those techniques below.

Neuroscience techniques to improve brainstorming.

  • To help set up the day I created a clear agenda and emailed it several days prior to the meeting. This is called pre-encoding. Encoding is the process of learning when our brain lays down new networks of neuronal connections. Pre-encoding, as the word implies, sets up the brain to receive that learning (the actual encoding). The agenda clearly articulated the meeting’s objectives and set us up for greater productivity. When we met, we knew exactly what we wanted the brainstorming session to accomplish. Here’s what it included.
    • Who: Clarify the target audience for the animation and the audience’s felt needs
    • What: Clarify the call to action the animation should evoke
    • How: Create a rough draft of the script and brainstorm potential visual concepts that could illustrate the message
  • I began the session by sharing a bit about my life to create a relational connection (two in the group were total strangers). When people feel they relate to you, they will follow your leadership and more readily learn from you. The early church understood this when they met house to house and built strong relational bonds through Biblical community (Acts 2.42).
  • I gave everybody a chocolate bar and explained that chocolate can aid focus and creativity by causing helpful neurotransmitters in our brains to release (Roizman, n.d.). Not only did I provide brain fuel with the candy, but I also heightened expectations that the session would result in lots of ideas. The brain needs both oxygen and glucose (energy) to function well. While too much sugar can certainly cause a brain lag later on, providing chocolate, coffee, or healthy snacks can help the brain function optimally.
  • During the meeting we needed to generate personality traits to describe the target audience (the broker), list potential metaphors to use in the animation, and create a basic script. Instead of using the traditional brainstorming technique where everybody shares their ideas out loud, I asked each person to first privately write down their ideas. Then they shared them out loud and I recorded them on the white board after which we eliminated the ones that didn’t fit. Traditional brainstorming, where everybody verbalizes their ideas at the beginning, has been shown to not generate as many ideas as when people are asked to generate them privately (Lehrer, 2012). So, the simple act of having then jot down their ideas privately encouraged more idea generation.
  • During our discussion time I subtly encouraged dissent and disagreement about the ideas, contrary to traditional brainstorming (get all the ideas out without criticizing any of them). Neuroscientists have found that dissent, when done in a “non-threatening to status” way, actually increases creativity (Nemeth et al., 2004).

The next time you lead a staff brainstorming session include a few of these five ingredients in your meeting and see what happens.

  1. Healthy dissent to prompt creative thinking.
  2. Private idea generation before public discussion.
  3. Food such as chocolate or coffee to get the brain focused and alert.
  4. Relationship building to engender likeability among the team.
  5. A clear agenda to pre-encode what you want to accomplish.

What have you found that has helped make brainstorming more productive?


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Sources:

Lehrer, J. (2012) Groupthink. The New Yorker. Available from: <http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/01/30/120130fa_fact_lehrer> [Accessed 25 February 2013].

Nemeth, C.J., Personnaz, B., Personnaz, M. & Goncalo, J.A. (2004) The liberating role of conflict in group creativity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 34, pp.365-374.

Roizman, T. Chocolate & Dopamine [Internet]. Available from: <http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/chocolate-dopamine-3660.html> [Accessed 23 February 2013].

Are your sermons hard or easy to listen to?

While earning my executive master’s degree in the neuroscience of leadership, I learned some fascinating insights about the brain that can help us pastors lead, speak, and live more effectively. To prep you for today’s post, answer this question? How would people describe my sermons: hard to listen to or easy to listen to? Take a moment and stop reading and honestly answer that question for yourself. Whatever your answer, we can all improve our preaching. In this post I share some interesting insight about the brain that can make your sermons easier to listen to.

I’ve included below a short checklist based on neuroscience insight that might give you a clue and help you improve.

But before that checklist, I’ve listed a few important brain facts to set the stage.

  1. The executive brain functions like concentration, abstract reasoning, problem solving, and attention occur primarily in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the area roughly behind your forehead. This is the part of the brain you hope your sermons engage. If your listeners don’t engage this part of the brain, your sermon “went in one ear and out the other.”
  2. The PFC processes information in a serial fashion (one thing at a time). Think of a conveyer belt with an item on it followed by another followed by another, etc. You may recall Lucille Ball’s famous candy conveyor belt episode. If something happens at the front end of that conveyer belt and all the items get clogged up, then nothing moves forward. The same thing happens in the brain. It will only process one thing at a time and if overloaded, it processes very little information. Multi-tasking is a misnomer. See my blog post on multi-tasking here.
  3. The PFC tires easily. If a speaker does not give breaks for the listener’s brain to rest, it will take its own breaks.
  4. Five fundamental processes summarize what the PFC does: it understands, decides, recalls, memorizes, and inhibits (that is, blocks out distractions).

Many complex processes are happening inside the brains of our listeners. So, how can we maximally engage their brains so that the Holy Spirit has lots of biblical truth to work with in their hearts to ultimately bring about life transformation?

I’ve included a few ideas below based on neuroscience.

  • Start out telling the people where you’re going with your sermon. Give an outline or a metaphor that points in a specific direction. The term is called pre-encoding. Learning is the encoding part. Pre-encoding sets up the listener to learn.
  • Don’t aimlessly ramble. If you constantly chase rabbits, their brains will check out.
  • Don’t use complex terms and long sentences. When you do, the listener’s brain will tune you out to try to figure out what you just said. They essentially won’t hear what you say next.
  • A close cousin to the above: be careful about using abstract ideas. Again, the brain will try to process abstract ideas and tune out what you say next.
  • If you do present a complex idea, stop and pause a few seconds to allow people to process it and think about it. In other words, mix up the rate at which you deliver your sermons. Well placed pauses are good.
  • Simplify your power points. Use only a few words per slide. Pictures that explain your points are even better. In this post I suggest some practical ways to make your visual presentations better.
  • Don’t get long-winded. You may have the speaking ability to keep people’s attention for more than 30 or so minutes. If you do, you don’t need to read this blog. But in an age when attention spans are rapidly decreasing (the average person’s attention span is shorter than a goldfish, really), shorter sermons will stick better.

What insights have you discovered that help your listeners absorb more of your sermons?

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