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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Your Conscience: Are you Neglecting It?

Recently I taught a Sunday morning message on the human conscience. Afterwards a seasoned Christian told me that in all his years he had never heard anybody talk about the conscience. As I reflected over my 45 years of following Christ, I, too, have never heard anyone speak about it. So, in this post I make the case for paying attention to our conscience, developing a healthy one, and if you are a pastor or teacher, teaching on it.

What is the conscience? We intuitively understand it as that part of us that reminds us when we do wrong. We use conscience in our vocabulary: he has no conscience, I had a guilty conscience, she has a clear conscience. The word conscience (suneidesis in Greek, a combination of two words: together + know) was one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite words. He used it over 20 times. Scripture records one of his most famous uses in Acts 24.16 when he stood in his own defense at a trial and said, “I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.”

Conscience is akin to a moral compass. A conscience controlled by the Holy Spirit points the way that pleases God, although not perfectly for we are fallen creatures. I believe conscience works to our benefit in these three ways.

  1. Convict us when we have sinned. That is, the Holy Spirit uses it to cause the unpleasant sensations in our bodies when we feel guilt or remorse over sin.
  2. Commend us when do right. Again, the Holy Spirit uses it to give us an emotional sense of peace and joy when we do the right thing.
  3. Serve as a moral GPS to warn us when we are about to cross a moral or ethical line.

In summary, our conscience is a silent but deeply felt witness to spiritual and moral truth, behavior, and the satisfaction of choosing right over wrong. It is a God given capacity of our minds and souls that we exercise through our bodies when we make both good and bad choices. It monitors our beliefs and attitudes against our behavior and signals our bodies and souls when we are aligned with or out of alignment with biblical values. We can strengthen our conscience, desensitize it, or destroy it.

Five inputs that fashion and form our conscience.

  1. Nature: our genes. Some people are simply born more sensitive to right and wrong (the rule keepers).
  2. Nurture: our parent’s influence. How our parents raised us impacts the health and accuracy of our conscience, especially as it relates to whether or not we experienced a stable and consistent attachment to them.
  3. Daily experiences of life.
  4. Our spiritual maturity.
  5. Our body’s physical state: if we are tired or sick

Why does conscience matter?

  1. Because without it we would have no moral guide.
  2. Because a clear conscience gives us confidence before God (2 Cor. 1.12).
  3. Because a clear conscience gives us confidence in our relationships. Without we have to hide.
  4. Because a clear conscience gives us personal peace.
  5. Because a clear conscience promotes real love. With a clear conscience we are most free to truly love someone else (1 Tim 1.5)

The 7 kinds of consciences:

  1. Natural. Every person is born with a conscience. A natural conscience would be one of a person who is not a follower of Jesus. To a degree our conscience is hard-wired. Most people intuitively know the difference between right and wrong. It’s called natural or general revelation. (Rom 2.14-15). When a person comes to faith, however, the Holy Spirit makes his or her conscience come alive to the things of God.
  2. Weak. A weak conscience is an underdeveloped and uninformed one. Paul speaks of this kind of conscience in 1 Corinthians 8 in his discussion about new Christians who struggled with more mature Christians who ate meat offered to idols. At the point in their spiritual growth, they still hadn’t separated meat from idol worship when meat was eaten after those pagan ceremonies.
  3. Tired. When we resist temptation, our willpower to resist it soon thereafter is drained a bit. It’s called ego depletion (and a related term decision fatigue) Read more about decision fatigue here. Our conscience gets tired and less able to function when we don’t rest and sleep properly.
  4. Seared. Repeatedly refusing to listen to the voice of our conscience degrades and desensitizes our conscience to the things of God (1 Tim 4.2, Eph 4.19).
  5. Shipwrecked. The inevitable result of a seared conscience is what the Apostle Paul described as a conscience that shipwrecks faith (1 Tim 1.19). Such a person, because he continually refused to heed the Spirit’s promptings through his conscience, destroys his faith, now approving of what at one time he readily admitted was sin.
  6. Hypersensitive. This person lives with a perpetual vague or even an acute sense of guilt, even though he or she is not guilty. They constantly second guess themselves, ruminating over experiences and wondering if they offended someone or did something wrong.
  7. Clear. This is what we all desire, what Paul said he strived to keep. A clear conscience gives us a lightness to our soul, freedom with others, and confidence to be ourselves since we have nothing to hide or conceal. Peter wrote about having a good conscience toward God. (1 Pet 3.21)

When we understand more about our conscience and apply such truth, I believe we can most please God, bless others, and experience personal peace.

Have you ever heard a message on the human conscience? What did you learn that you could share?

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Disapproval in the Church: What a Pastor can Do

Serving as a pastor brings many joys as well as headaches and hurts. One of the biggest hurts comes when others disapprove of us. Neuroscientists have discovered that a disapproving look from a person physically hurts. A disapproving facial expression stirs up the flight-fight part of our brain and heightens anxiety, even more than an angry facial expression does. I’ve experienced those disapproving looks and have learned how to cope with disapproval.

When the emotional part of our brain (the limbic system) takes over, we lose the ability to think clearly and lead well. When that happens, these behaviors surface.

  • We react and act impulsively
  • We assume the worst
  • We get defensive
  • We lose our creative ability to solve problems
  • We grieve the Holy Spirit
  • We lose perspective
  • We can’t truly listen
  • We can’t think as clearly

These kinds of behaviors show their ugly selves when the emotional brain takes over. Constant disapproval, especially from significant people in your church, can evoke these behaviors.

In a previous church several years ago, the most influential lay leader there was once my number one supporter. His words, body language, and facial expression would almost always encourage me. I could count on him to lift my spirits when I was down. However, something happened in our relationship and his demeanor took a 180-degree shift. He now became my greatest disapprover.

His view of me carried significant weight because he held a very high status in the church. When our paths crossed at church and I saw his disapproval, my anxiety level shot up. When I saw those disapproving looks, a brain dynamic kicked in in the flight-fight part of my brain that dampened my ability to think most clearly so I could preach at my best and compassionately relate to others on Sundays. Essentially, I stifled the Holy Spirit’s work in my life. Initially I was not consciously aware of this dynamic.

However, as I began to learn how my brain worked when I saw a disapproving expression, I started to make these choices that helped me cope with disapproval, especially his.

  1. I consciously took notice when his physical presence evoked anxiety in me. Instead of stuffing the emotion, I named it. I would breath a prayer under my breath, “Lord, I feel anxious right now after I saw _________. Please help me cope with this tension in my heart.”
  2. I sought out a coach/counselor to help me reappraise the situation quicker. Taking a different perspective helps calm the fight-flight part of our brain. Often we need an objective person to help us see the situation clearly.
  3. When I would preach, I would look for approving faces instead of his. I purposefully did not lock eyes with him in a sermon because I knew the toll it might take on my focus while preaching.
  4. I finally met with him for breakfast, shared my concerns, and asked him how I could regain his confidence. Essentially, his view of me as a leader had changed and I could not change it back. At least I cleared the air with him. However, through this experience the Lord helped me more consistently moderate the painful distraction I often felt when I saw his disapproval.

As painful as this experience was, it became a great learning experience. Now that I know what happens in my brain when I see disapproval in someone’s face, I’ve become quicker to more proactively moderate its negative effects.

How have you managed those who disapprove of you?

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Source: Burklund, L., Eisenberger, N.I. & Lieberman, M.D. The face of rejection: Rejection sensitivity moderates dorsal anterior cingulate activate to disapproving facial expressions. Social Neuroscience, 2, pp.238-253.

Six Ways to Encourage your Pastor

Being a pastor is a high calling, yet pastors often face loneliness and discouragement. Surprisingly, some surveys reveal that up to 80% of pastors face regular discouragement in ministry. If that statistic even remotely reflects reality, then your pastor probably needs your encouragement. Yet, it seems so rare. The influential writer Henry Nouwen even wrote these insightful words. … there is little praise and much criticism in the church today, and who can live for long in such a climate without slipping into some type of depression?[1] If your pastors need encouragement, should you offer it to him or her or should they just suck it up? If you do want to encourage them, what’s the best way to do it? I suggest some practical ways here.

I’m convinced that we all need encouragement, even the strongest believer and most mature pastor. In fact, the Apostle Paul admitted he needed it and often referred to those who refreshed his and other people’s spirits, Philemon, Onesiphorus, and the Corinthian church. At times he even asked for it. A key character in the bible, Barnabas, was known as the son of encouragement.

Hebrews 13.17 speaks to this need and admonishes followers of Jesus to respond to their leaders in such a way as to make their work a joy. These translations bring out the meaning.

  • So don’t make them sad as they do their work. Make them happy. (CEV)
  • Let them do this with joy and not with grief … . (NASB)
  • Give them reason to do this joyfully and not with sorrow. (NLT)
  • Let them do all this with joy and not with groaning. (ESV)

In the research I did for my book, 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them, I surveyed hundreds of pastors and asked them how people in their church encouraged them. These were the top six responses.

  1. You showed me tangible appreciation (such as small gifts like a gift card to a coffee shop).
  2. You let me know that I spiritually impacted your life (such as sending an email to him or her about a recent message that helped you grow).
  3. You prayed for me (such as sending a note telling your pastor that you prayed for him).
  4. You accepted and understood me, cared for me, and were there when I needed you (such as communicating in a genuine way that you know how difficult it is being a pastor and that you truly care).
  5. You supported my leadership, defended me, and trusted me (such as going out of your way to tell your pastor that you truly believe in him and trust him).
  6. You ministered to my spouse and/or my family (such as remembering his or her kids’ birthdays).

The pastors who responded to this survey shared many touching stories and sad ones as well. One pastor even wrote that he wasn’t sure anybody in his church really cared about him. I hope your pastor doesn’t feel that way.

If you’re a pastor, would sharing this statistic with your church in an appropriate way open the door for the encouragement you desperately need in your life right now?

If you aren’t a pastor, what is God prompting you to do this week to encourage your pastor?


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[1] Henri J. M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), 32.

Should Pastors Abstain from Drinking Alcohol?

I grew up in the south and in a denomination where drinking alcohol was frowned upon for the average church attender and definitely considered taboo for pastors. I served in the central valley of California where I could drive to several wineries within five minutes and where the church didn’t frown upon social drinking. I served in another part of the country when at my first board meeting the elder host literally provided an open bar. I was offered a choice of about a half dozen alcoholic beverages that night. So, who’s right? Should pastors abstain from drinking alcohol or should pastors not even think about it?

I’ve noticed that in the past few years several leaders in the emerging church movement seem to portray through their teaching, blogs, and twitter profiles an, “I drink and that makes me really cool,” attitude. I heard one well-known teacher play off the popularity of the WWJD craze by changing ‘What Would Jesus Do’ to ‘What Would Jesus Drink.’ He then spent several minutes talking about how much he enjoyed alcohol.

On the other hand, I know a guy who won’t even go into a restaurant if it serves alcohol.

I’ve never preached a message against alcohol and I don’t believe the bible prohibits drinking in moderation. After all, Jesus turned water into wine and Paul encouraged Timothy to drink a little wine for his stomach.

I even occasionally went to a bar with my improv class friends to hang out after class. I ordered a beer of the non-alcoholic root variety.

However, I’ve chosen to refrain from even social drinking for these reasons.

  1. I want to maximize my health and keep my brain humming at maximum efficiency. A recent meta-study has shown a linkage of even moderate alcohol drinking to a heightened risk of some cancers. And, I hope to keep my ‘senior moments’ down to a minimum as I get older. Alcohol has shown to have negative effects on the brain.
  2. I don’t want to play Russian roulette. A quarter of people who drink are considered problem drinkers and almost 10% are considered alcoholics. I don’t want to risk becoming one of those statistics.
  3. I want to practice the principle of deference as best I can. Based on Paul’s admonition in Romans 14.21, I would not want a behavior such as drinking to potentially cause a weaker brother to stumble.
    • It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. (NLT)
  4. As a leader, I’ve chosen a higher standard for my leadership life. Proverbs 31.4 has influenced my thinking.
    • Kings and leaders should not get drunk or even want to drink. (CEV)

I recognize that pastors and church people hold multiple views on this subject.

  •  If you are a pastor, do you think a pastor should refrain or not?
  •  If you are not a pastor, what do you think about pastors who do drink socially?

Here’s another thoughtful post on this subject.

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