Monday, October 27, 2014


What if I told you there was one thing you could do that would:
Improve your ability to focus
Increase your memory
Keep  you from losing mental abilities as you age
Make you more compassionate
Balance out your emotions and reduce anxiety

And what if I said that this would require almost no change to your current lifestyle?  Intrigued?  I am not kidding—and I’ll tell you why shortly, but first, here is a dialogue I have had with numerous people over the years:

Friend:  I wish I could spend time with God in the mornings, but I just can’t wake up that early, and then my day gets away from me and…
Me:  Have you thought about going to bed earlier?
Friend:  Sure—I’ve tried that too, but then I just lay there at night wide-eyed and I’m even more tired in the morning.
Me:  Okay, how about this.  Try setting your alarm for 5:30am and getting up at that time every single morning for one month, no matter how you feel, and before long you'll be ready for bed earlier.
Friend:  Ugh...I don't know.
Me: Okay, do you realize that you do this successfully once every year?
Friend: Huh?
Me:  When Spring comes and you have to set your clock forward for daylight savings time, you start getting up one hour earlier every single day, right?  And at first you have trouble going to sleep at the right time, but soon your body adjusts and you are on a new rhythm!
Friend: Hmmm… 

The point I am trying to make is that being able to get up earlier each day is a simple matter of  doing it long enough for your body to adjust.  The good news is that since this is Fall instead of Spring you can do absolutely nothing—just keep getting up at the same time as you have been, even after you set your clock back--and you will be able to embrace that wonderful quiet hour of stillness with God before you face the day.   There is no easier time than this week to establish this discipline.

I’ve been reading a fascinating book by a neuroscientist named Andrew Neuberg who studies prayer and meditation through brain imaging, called How God Changes Your Brain.  It details incredible scientific studies that confirm the power of prayerful meditation.   However, Dr. Newberg does offer the caveat that prayer that is conducted for only a few minutes at a time doesn’t have these powerful effects, because it is the “intense, ongoing focus on a specific object, goal, or idea that stimulates the cognitive circuits in the brain.”  

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t offer brief prayers, but rather that we need far more than this—not only to deepen our relationship with God, but to have healthy minds and emotions.  Perhaps this is why we read this about Jesus: 

I've always sort of felt that if Jesus saw the need to get away with his father in the early morning hours, it's a good bet I need it too, right?   

So here is your chance!  If you’ve always wanted to get up early and never felt like you could, this is your week!! When you think about it, what have you got to lose?  Or perhaps more to the point, imagine all that you might gain!  

Need some help with how to engage in an intense ongoing focus on God that can change your brain through prayerful meditation?  Click here for a seven day journey through Psalm 145 to get you started.

For more exercises, consider my book Sacred Chaos: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life You Have --find it by  clicking here.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Blame it on the Brain Books

This morning I headed to the library to return a couple books on technology and the brain, and pick up four more that I’d had out sent from the Central Library.  I really couldn’t tell you what I was thinking about as I meandered up the walkway, but it clearly wasn’t those books, because I realized right after I dropped them into the slot that it wasn’t actually the slot, but the opening in a trash can by the front door. Mind you this was no ordinary trash can but a concrete and steel contraption requiring some kind of tool to open, which meant I had to go inside and sheepishly trouble a very kind maintenance man to help me retrieve them. 

Blame it on the brain books. In truth, my mental lapse may well have stemmed from digiphrenia, a term coined by media theorist Douglas Rushkoff to describe the kind of disordered mental activity that most of us experience daily as a result of living in a digital universe. 

We used to call these ‘senior moments’ but scientists now tell us that these have almost nothing to do with age, but instead, everything to do with how our brains process information in a world where media multitasking has become the holy grail of a virtual existence.

I was talking to a twelve-year-old yesterday who described her afternoon ritual of heading to her room after school and watching Once Upon a Time on Netflix while doing her homework, assuring me, “I actually get some done!”

How about you?  Are you a multitasker?  Do you check emails while talking on the phone?  Do paperwork while watching television? Read or answer texts while nursing your baby? Talk to your spouse while listening to the football game on the TV or radio? If so, you’re in good company, because 95% of the population says they engage in media multitasking.  In fact there is a phone app that lets you use your camera to see where you are going so you can email while walking!  Don’t worry—I’m not planning on downloading that one. 

There is some really intriguing research on multitasking, but before I share it—test your own knowledge with the quiz below.  Simply determine whether the statements are true or false and then read what science has discovered (for you multitaskers who need to move on quickly—the answers are also found at the end of the blog!). 

Here’s what we know:
Having more ways to exert our mental energy increases our ability to focus. False.  Research shows that because our brains can only pay so much attention, the more demands for mental energy, the less focused we will be.
Our brains are quite capable of carrying out more than one process at a time.  False.   We don’t actually ever carry out two cognitive processes at the same time—we actually just switch between them, and the delay between the two tasks means we perform poorer on both.

There is such a thing as a multitasking “high” that makes us want to take in even more stimuli.  True.  It seems that engaging in multiple activities releases neurochemicals into our system, making us feel that we are especially productive and creating an addiction to media multitasking. 

Multitasking may lead to inefficiency in the long run. True.  While we may feel more productive by multitasking, the truth is that the brain works less efficiently when it is interrupted during one task to complete another.  Studies on the American workforce suggest that not only do employees change tasks every 12 minutes, but during that time they are interrupted at least three times, creating an estimate of $650 billion a year in lost productivity.

Multitasking improves our memory.  False.  In fact, when we divide our attention through multitasking the part of the brain that is used for learning is put on a shelf, and in the end, this negatively affects our long-term memory and retention.

Digital natives (those who have grown up on video games, smart phones and e-readers) are better able to focus on several things at once than others. False.  A well-document Stanford study has actually shown that heavy media multitaskers are less able to make mental shifts between tasks and seem to be the worst at it.

Based on brain imaging, the amount of brain activity when someone is doing two things at once is greater than when they are only doing one thing. False.   Brain imaging studies show the brain firing less when someone tries to do two things at once than a single task.   The depletion of brain activity during simultaneous tasks is accompanied by decreases in short-term learning and task accuracy.

When it comes to the brain, there is no such thing as multitasking. True.   You’ve probably figured out by now that mental multitasking is a myth—we never really do two things at once if they depend on cognition, but instead jump from one to the other, which in the end, is harmful to our mental growth and well-being.

The thing about media multitasking is that, as I noted in last week’s post, it actually restructures our brain, and as a result, we just keep on doing it, even though we sense that it isn’t really good for us.  But, as I said, we can do something about it—we can rewire our brains through some diligence and discipline.  And nowhere is this more important than in our relationship with God.  This is perhaps the perfect place to start some new habits that will begin to move us in the right direction.  I offer a few here on a printable to put on your refrigerator or computer screen, and in the coming weeks will continue to share more. 

My suggestion is to choose one thing and stick with it for at least three weeks before trying to add something new—it will take this long for your brain to rewire itself!  You can also adjust any of these to make them family exercises.