Peek-a-Boo Porn in a Pastor’s Life

In my studies on the brain, I was intrigued to read this quote from one of today’s most well-known neuroscientists, V. S. Ramachandran, in his book The Tell-Tale Brain. (Kindle e-book location 4219) He writes, “A picture of a nude woman seen behind a shower curtain or wearing diaphanous, skimpy clothes-an image that men would say approvingly, ‘leaves something to the imagination’ can be much more alluring than a pinup of the same nude woman.” Similarly he writes, “many women will find images of hot and sexy but partially clad men to be more attractive than fully naked men.” (i.e., the Chippendales) He bases this belief on this neuroscience fact: our brains find pleasure in searching for solutions to problems or puzzles. The puzzle to be solved in the case of a partially clothed woman is to ‘fill in the visual blanks’ with our imagination. It adds an extra dimension of appeal. Many well-known artists have even used this principle when drawing images of the partially clothed. In this post I broach a topic about pornography that often we don’t classify as porn.

Much has been written about the dangers of porn. Most pastors today agree about such dangers. And we’re cautioned to never click to porn sites nor to look at pornographic magazines. I totally agree with those cautions.

Yet, I wonder if peek-a-boo porn might be just as damaging to a pastor’s thought life and ministry as that which most would agree meets the criteria of porn? And since peek-a-boo porn doesn’t meet the traditional porn definition, I wonder if we pastors might too easily convince ourselves there’s nothing wrong with it.

What might qualify as peek-a-boo porn?

  • A well-known sport’s magazine swimsuit edition.
  • Images to the right of some web pages of beautiful women that scream for us to click the image.
  • Some women’s magazines that show skimpily clad women (i.e., those magazines that visually yell at us at the grocery store check-out).
  • Commercials from a well-known women’s lingerie company.
  • Movies or TV shows that prominently shown scantily clothed women.

I wonder if Jesus had something like peek-a-boo porn in mind when he said these words.

But don’t think you’ve preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices—they also corrupt. Matt. 5.28 (The MESSAGE)

So if peek-a-book porn can be as destructive as traditional porn, how can we protect ourselves from it?

Here are a few suggestions.

  1. If your wife subscribes to women’s magazines that feature scantily clothed women, ask her to keep them out of plain site.
  2. Decide beforehand that you will physically look away when a lingerie commercial on TV pops up or when the camera zooms in on a cheerleader during a pro football game.
  3. Pre-screen a movie before you go see it. I highly recommend www.screenit.com. It’s a helpful site that gives a detailed analysis of the language, sex, and violence in almost every movie.
  4. Teach your church about Biblical virtues and the benefits of modesty. Explain how the brain works. I know this could be touchy, but if you are a male pastor, consider involving your wife in that teaching.
  5. Get the book Wired for Intimacy: How Pornography Hijacks the Male Brain by Dr. William M. Struthers into the hands of your men.

Do you agree that peek-a-boo porn can be as destructive as the other kind? Or do you think I’m simply being too Puritan? How have you protected yourself from peek-a-boo porn?


“I just learned about the dangers of peek-a-boo porn.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


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How a Leader’s Brain Works, Part 2

In my previous post I explained how two basic systems operate in a leader’s brain. In today’s post I give an example to illustrate how this process might work in real life. Here’s an excerpt, however, to bring you up to speed.

“The brain’s overall operational process incorporates two sub-processes: the X-system, from the ‘x’ in the word reflexive and the C-system, from the ‘c’ in the word reflective (Lieberman, 2006). The X-system engages the parts of the brain that act spontaneously and impulsively (our emotional centers, the low road). The C-system engages parts of the brain that act with intention and think before acting, our thinking center (the prefrontal cortex, the high road route). This system also helps regulate emotional reactivity.”

Let’s say I’m hiking in the woods and I see what I think is a snake I’m about to step on. My short route response, called the low road (Foley, 2003) quickly shuttles information to my emotional center (limbic system) and then to my peripheral nervous system. Among many body responses, the peripheral nervous system increases blood flow and respiration and instantaneously directs the muscles in my foot to avoid stepping on the snake. It helps me quickly respond to the perceived danger.

At the same time the long route process (the high road) sends that signal to my sensory cortex and then to my thinking center. It then recruits the brain’s memory center, to check for any data about snakes already stored in the brain’s memory. It then sends its assessment back to the emotional center. Because my emotional center processed this as a snake, my body has already instantaneously reacted to direct me to plant my foot in a different place, any place but on the snake.

However, as my thinking center assesses the situation it compares it to maps already in the brain about a snake’s color, size, movement, and so on. In relative terms it’s slower than the low road, but only a fraction of a second slower. It may determine that the rattlesnake was simply a coiled vine that my emotional center interpreted as a snake. As a result, it begins to down-regulate my emotions and my body’s response. I now don’t have to worry because vines don’t bite. Although my body is still tensed and my heart rate has jumped, my thinking center now tells my body it can calm down and not be alarmed. In diagram form it looks like this.

How a leader's brain works, part 2. Dr. Charles Stone

This same process can happen in a meeting with your board. Someone may say something that immediately feels like a threat (the low road, the X-system). But as your thinking center assesses what he says it helps you realize that his words don’t truly present a threat. So instead of internally stiffening up in fear or verbally reacting in defense, your brain can help you calm down (the high road, the C-system) so that you can stay fully engaged in the conversation. The key is to pay attention to these internal signals. The low road provides the quick response, needed at times, and the high road response, although slower, more accurately assesses the situation.

This same process occurs with any intense emotion. Your brain will act the same way if you unexpectedly bump into Tom Cruise or Gwyneth Paltrow at the grocery store or even meeting someone you don’t know someone at a party. As with seeing a snake, your heartbeat will jump, your respiration will increase, and your blood pressure will rise. You brain’s emotional center will initiate the stress response even if our ‘survival’ is not threatened, although not looking dumb in front of Tom might qualify as a survival situation.

In my 33 plus years in ministry leadership I’ve sometimes taken the low road and reacted in anger to a staff person, become defensive at someone’s critical comment, or acted like a jerk in the heat of the moment. In those cases, my brain’s X-system overrode its C-system and I gave in to my emotions. I didn’t wait long enough for my thinking brain to inform my actions so that I could respond in a Spirit-directed way.

When the X-system gets overloaded, two processes occur that can suppress the C-system: hormones enter our blood stream and neurotransmitters flood our brain. When that happens we can respond in these ways.

  • Emotional accelerators can diminish our impulse control.
  • The reactive parts of our brain can take over and we can become defensive.
  • Objectivity can diminish.
  • We don’t listen well to others because our brains can’t concentrate on other’s viewpoints without prematurely framing our own responses.

And the writer of Proverb speaks to what happens when we act impulsively rather than respond thoughtfully. (NIV)

  • It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way. (19.2)
  • It is a trap for a man to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider his vows. (20.25)
  • There is more hope for a fool than for someone who speaks without thinking. (29.20)

What indicators in people you’ve been around evidence that their X-system overruled their C-system? What does the X-system look like in leaders?


“I just learned how two systems in our brain affect how we act and lead.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


Related post:


References:

Foley, D. (2003) Emotions and the Brain: Fear. Science. Available from: [Accessed 7 March 2013].

Lieberman, M.D. (2006) Social Cognitive Neuroscience: A Review of Core Processes. Annu. Rev. Psychol., (58), pp.259-89.

How a Leader’s Brain Works, Part 1

In this two-part post on how a leader’s brain works (part 2 follows Sunday), I describe how two fundamental brain processes that affect leadership.

First, we can view the brain functioning with an overarching organizational principle and a fundamental operational process. Dr. Evian Gordon, a neuroscientist, developed what he calls the Integrate Model (Gordon et al., 2008). This model describes the brain functioning around a basic organizing principle, Minimize Danger/threat-Maximize Reward. The terms, toward and away, correspond to danger/threat and reward. The image that comes to mind for a person experiencing an away response would be his fists clenched as if to fight, his arms crossed, or his arm stretched out with his palm facing you as if to say, “Stop!” An image for a toward response might be someone with her arms extended to you as if to say, “Welcome!”

In other words, our brains tend to operate in a conscious and an unconscious mode that either seeks out reward (a toward response that is open, energized, and willing) or tries to avoid danger/threat (an away response which is defensive, fearful, or closed). I think the apostle Paul practiced this concept as he focused on the future. 13 Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3.13-14, NIV)

The brain’s overall operational process incorporates two sub-processes: the X-system, from the ‘x’ in the word reflexive and the C-system, from the ‘c’ in the word reflective (Lieberman, 2006). The X-system engages the parts of the brain that act spontaneously and impulsively (our emotional centers). The C-system engages parts of the brain that act with intention and think before acting, our thinking center (the prefrontal cortex). This system also helps regulate emotional reactivity. This chart briefly summarizes the fundamental differences between the two.

When we combine the organizational principle with the operational processes, here’s how our brain works, simply described.

When we face danger (a threat), the brain processes information in two directions: the short route, sometimes called the low road, and the long route, sometimes called the high road. The thalamus plays a critical role as a master information relay, or middleman, because all information from and external stimulus (or an internal self generated one) flows through it. It shuttles the information about this stimulus to other parts of the brain. Here’s what happens, all in a split second.

  • Information about the threat first enters our brain through our sense organs and travels to the thalamus, the master relay, which shuttles information in two directions, toward the emotional center (short route) and toward the sensory cortex and then to the higher thinking centers (long route). The information gets to the emotional center slightly quicker than it makes it to the thinking centers.
  • As the thalamus relays the emotional content to the emotional center it sends the non-emotional content through the memory center (the hippocampus) to the brain’s thinking center (the prefrontal cortex) where it assesses and compares the new information to previously stored knowledge.
  • If it finds any prior knowledge, it sends it back to the memory center to incorporate this new information.
  • New mental maps then get combined with old ones and are then sent to memory storage.
  • By this time, the emotional center may have already directed the body to respond. Even so, the thinking center will weigh in at some point to either dampen the emotional center, confirm the emotional center’s response, or direct the body to do something in response to the stimulus.

In my next post, I’ll give an example of how this works in real life.


“I just learned how the leader’s brain works.” (Tweet this quote by clicking here).


Related post: When Pastors Lead from their Lizard Brain


References:

Gordon, E., Barnett, K.J., Cooper, N.J., Tran, N. & Williams, L.M. (2008) An ‘Integrative Neuroscience’ Platform: Application to Profiles of Negativity and Positivity Bias. Journal of Integrative Neuroscience, 7 (3), pp.354-366.

Lieberman, M.D. (2006) Social Cognitive Neuroscience: A Review of Core Processes. Annu. Rev. Psychol., (58), pp.259-89.

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).


Related posts:


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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