Do You Have a Healthy Leader’s Brain? Take this Quiz and Find Out

God gave us an amazing three pound part of our body called the brain. And today, the brain is big. Books about the brain are flying off the shelves. Neuroscientists are studying the brain like never before. And millions of dollars are being spend on research. So how can we keep a healthy leader’s brain? Dr. David Rock and Dr. Daniel Siegal combed years of research to assimilate what they call the “Healthy Mind Platter,” seven activities that help people, including leaders, maximize that three-pound wonder. I’ve put my own spin on their findings and listed those seven activities below that when practiced, can help leaders maximize their effectiveness.

Leaders will keep their brains healthy when they make time for these activities. Both the Bible and brain science help us see their importance. Mentally check the ones you practice consistently.

  1. I take time to focus.
    • Brain science tells us that when we deeply focus (like when we plan or prepare a sermon), the brain makes deep connections.
    • Jesus challenged the crowds to think deeply about the cost of discipleship (Luke 14,25-33).
  2. I take time for fun.
    • Having fun allows for novelty and spontaneity which helps the brain make new connections.
    • Children were attracted to Jesus. Although we don’t have any direct Biblical references, I believe children saw Jesus as someone both approachable and fun to be with.
  3. I take time for family and friends.
    • Neuroscientists are learning that the brain is a social organ and when we build relationships it deepens our relational brain circuitry.
    • One of the hallmarks of Christianity is true community, spending time with others in deep relationships (Acts 4).
  4. I take time to exercise.
    • Brain research abounds about how exercise improves brain functioning.
    • The Scriptures tell us that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit which implies we should take care of them. Exercise is one way to do that (1 Cor. 6.18-19).
  5. I take time for stillness.
    • Researchers have found that when we quiet our inner world through meditation, we are able to regulate our emotions better and think more clearly.
    • Often Scripture tells us to be still before the Lord. When we reflect and meditate on Him and His Word, we not only draw close to him, but it keeps our brain healthy as well (Is 46.10).
  6. I take time to simply chill (down time).
    • When we allow our brains to be non-focused (mind wander or daydream) our creativity increases.
    • I doubt that Jesus held a non-stop theology class with His disciples. I imagine that at times he simple chilled out with His disciples with no specific goal in mind, except to enjoy each other and enjoy God’s creation.
  7. I take time for adequate sleep.
    • When we sleep our memories deepen and our brain recovers from the day’s stress.
    • I’m encouraged that when Jesus got tired, he slept, even in a storm (Mk 4.38).

How many of these practices do you consistently practice? Which one is toughest for you?

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The Addiction Many Pastors are Hooked on

Addiction. Usually the word connotes a physical compulsion to drink or eat too heavily, use illicit drugs, or satisfy our sexual passions in sinful ways. Although some may, most pastors don’t get sucked into such destructive behavior. We are called to serve God with our whole hearts and we mostly stay clear of these issues. But, there is one thing that I’d guess many pastors are addicted to, yet don’t realize it. We can blame our brain on it.

The addiction? Dopamine. Dopamine is one of the main neurotransmitters in our brain. It’s what we feel when we put the final touches on a sermon. It’s what we feel when we see an uptick in our blog followers on google analytics. It’s what we feel when we accomplish a goal or drink an energy drink.

Dopamine gives us a nice feel good kick. It’s involved in developing the more destructive addictions I mentioned above  causing us to want a greater and greater ‘hit’ to feel good. The chemical is involved in reward, motivation, and pleasure prompting us to seek out experiences that invoke it. We not only want it (the motivation) but we like it (the reward it brings).

All the above and more behaviors elicit dopamine which is released in the pleasure center of our brains called the nucleus accumbens. This structure lies just behind the front part of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex.

It simply feels good to get things done. And when we feel good, our brains want to repeat the process so in turn, dopamine helps us form habits, whether good or bad.

So how do I know if I’m addicted to dopamine?  Consider these possible indicators.

  1. I constantly check email. I might get a nice email from someone and when I do, it gives me a tiny shot of dopamine.
  2. I constantly need something new and novel to feel ‘right.’
  3. I constantly check Facebook to see if I got more ‘likes.’
  4. I feel jittery if I can’t look at email for a day or so.
  5. I have become compulsive about some things, like having to pick up every call that comes to my cell phone or home phone.
  6. I find that I’m more easily distracted than I once was.
  7. I can’t get through a day without caffeine or sugar (caffeine and sugar also gives us a nice dopamine fix).
  8. I’m often mentally exhausted even though I’ve not done mentally taxing tasks.

Fundamentally, when we get addicted to dopamine, we are seeking shots of it while often not doing anything truly productive (like constantly checking email).

So, what can we do if we think we are addicted to dopamine. Consider these ideas.

  1. Acknowledge that you have a problem.
  2. Turn off automatic email and social media notifications on your cell phone or computer.
  3. Take a day off each week when you don’t interact with email or social media.
  4. Make sure you spend time each day alone with God.
  5. Check out this entire website dedicate to dopamine addiction.
  6. Purposely don’t pick up a call when you hear the buzz on your cell phone. Do this for several days to convince yourself that you don’t have to.

What has helped you keep from being addicted to this subtle addiction?

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Are you a Thinking Leader? Take this Quiz to Find Out

One of the greatest leaders who ever lived was the Old Testament character Nehemiah. God gave him a burden to rebuild the walls surrounding Jerusalem in around 400 B.C. Even though he faced incredible odds, criticism, discouragement within the people, the haves exploiting the have nots, hunger among the people, and threats of violence from his enemies, he prevailed. A deciding factor, apart from his faith in God, was his ability to think clearly in the midst of crisis and difficulty. I believe a deciding factor in a leader’s ability to lead is clear thinking as well. Nehemiah’s responses point to 6 statements every leader should consider about about how his or her thinking affects leadership.

From a brain standpoint, two parts of our brain often vie for attention and energy: our thinking part (the pre-frontal cortex, located right behind our forehead) and our emotional center (the limbic system, located deep in then brain). When our emotional centers control, clear thinking degrades. When our thinking centers control, we can dampen the emotional center’s power and lead more effectively. Here’s what we learn about Nehemiah’s thinking.

  • Before he left for Jerusalem, four months passed (Neh. 2.1). During that time he was thinking about the problem (Jerusalem was in shambles) and waiting for the right time to approach the king.
  • When he finally arrived, he waited three days before he surveyed the situation (Neh. 2.11). He was probably thinking about how to fine tune his immediate plan before he inspected the walls.
  • When his critics criticized him, he refused to get drawn into arguments with them. Rather, he immediately prayed and then kept moving forward with the task at hand, rebuilding the wall (Neh. 4.4)
  • When he discovered that some wealthy Jews were exploiting the poor Jews, he didn’t emotionally react although he was very angry. Rather, Nehemiah 5.7 said he, “pondered.”

Nehemiah had learned to submit the thinking part of his brain to God which helped him lead most effectively.

Answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to these statement in the THINKING LEADERS QUIZ.

  1. I often shoot from the hip without thinking, especially when I feel threatened by another’s actions or comments.
  2. I easily let my emotions control my response (internal or verbal) when someone criticizes me.
  3. Sometimes I can’t concentrate because I’m so angry about something that happened.
  4. I tend to be a fire-aim rather than a ready-aim-fire leader.
  5. I seldom pause long enough to think about what I am thinking about.
  6. I seldom carve out time simply to think.

How did you do? If you answered yes to two or more statements, you’re probably not thinking as effectively as you should. As a result, you may not be leading at your best.

So, how can we become better thinkers? Consider this post on how to handle reactivity and this one on how our hormones can sometimes hijack our leadership.

What has helped you lead more effectively from your thinking?

Have you Overlooked this Brain-based Insight that Improves Public Speaking and Teaching?

My teaching has included 1,500 talks, sermons, speeches, and Bible studies during my 37 years in ministry. Sometimes when I’ve spoken I’ve felt like I was in the zone. At other times I didn’t. Only in the last few years have I discovered perhaps the single greatest key that has helped keep my mind sharp during a talk and improve its effectiveness. What was it? Exercise. Specifically, exercise within two to three hours of my talk. Here’s what I’ve learned about the brain and exercise that has improved my speaking.

Scientists increasingly see exercise as a powerful way to keep your brain healthy. Neuroscientist Dr. John Ratey wrote an entire book on the subject called SPARK, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He explains that exercise increases a key protein necessary for a healthy brain, BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor). Brain derived means that the brain makes it and neurotrophic implies that it helps make neurons (brain cells) strong. It’s considered the master molecule of learning (Ratey, p. 38) that he calls ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain.’

This brain fertilizer benefits the brain in many ways.

  • It protects neurons from premature death.
  • It improves their function.
  • It enhances communication between them.
  • It stimulates their growth (neurogenesis).
  • It provides a key link between emotions and thoughts (Ratey, 2013, p 40).

In one study Dr. Ratey writes about neuroscientist Arthur Kramer who divided fifty-nine sedentary senior adults into two groups (p. 226). One group simply did stretching exercises for six months while the other group exercised for six months three times a week on a treadmill. MRI scans showed that their frontal and temporal lobes actually increased in volume, a surprising finding. And, their brains looked two to three years younger than the brains of the stretch only group.

Another study showed that even one 35-minute workout on a treadmill at 60-70% of maximum heart rate can improve our brain’s processing speed and cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is a term that describes your brain’s ability to shift its thinking and to create new ideas.

Dr. Ratey also studied students in a school system in the Chicago suburbs. The school began a before hours exercise program called Zero Hour P.E. Students who participated in the program improved their mood and their reading comprehension compared to students who didn’t participate. He directly attributed this improvement to exercise.

Although for years I’ve regularly exercised during the week, I usually didn’t do so on Sundays since I had to arrive at church early. However, when I learned about this insight, I began to exercise 20-30 minutes early each Sunday morning. I now ride a stationary recumbent bike to get my heart rate to 60-70% of its maximum. When I began my Sunday morning exercise routine, I quickly realized these benefits.

  • I was less anxious about my message.
  • My memory improved and I more easily recalled the sermon’s points as I spoke.
  • I felt more physically energized than when I didn’t exercise.
  • I was more relaxed around others.
  • My overall mood was much better.

So, if you regularly preach or teach, consider exercising 20-30 minutes 2-3 hours prior to your teaching. I believe you’ll experience some of the same benefits I did.

What has helped improve your preaching/teaching?

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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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