Why it’s not enough for your brain to “know”

You know how in an earlier blog my muscles had a mind of their own, and needed no rehearsal for getting a 6 month pregnant woman on a spindly wooden folding chair to escape a mouse?

Well, other times, our muscles just don’t do what we want them to, especially when we’re stressed and haven’t practiced.

I had just finished preaching maybe my 20th sermon, and was now standing by the door to greet folk as they left worship.  It’s a good thing our brains are so good at reading the non-verbal cues and body language of others:  Does this person want a hug?  Side armed or front?  Or just a handshake, firm or soft?  Do I recognize their face, remember their name, and can I match name and face correctly, after only 18 months at a 1200 member congregation?  And how do I respond appropriately to what they are communicating – Should I be compassionate, happy, sad, or offer a cheerful “Good morning!”  All this after the mental exhaustion of preaching, an act that so early in my ministry had very little muscle memory for me, and carried enormous risks and universal fear of public speaking.  (subject for a future blog)

The simple act of greeting people we do not know well takes enormous neural firings all happening at the speed of light and below our consciousness.

As I’m greeting people at the door, along comes “Mike.”  I sure do know his name, and recognize his face, and I know he is coming in for a hug, which I do not want.  Mike is huge:  Tall, round, and has exceptionally porous boundaries.  I already know that 1. his brain isn’t good at reading social cues and non-verbals, and that 2.  His brain isn’t good at “theory of mind,” that is, that I may not want the same thing he wants.

But it’s okay – I know what to do.  Another clergywoman who wrestled with the same pheonomena at her congregation gave me pointers on how to physical handle such unwanted advances and invasions of my personal space while still being pastoral.  What was it again?  O yes, right.  It involved a double handed handshake, I remembered that, but he was coming so fast, and I was flustered, tired and stressed, and I couldn’t remember what to do and I hadn’t practiced, well, that is a recipe for disaster in the mind-body communications.  I can’t really blame my muscles that instinct for self-protection took over.

While one hand was doing the socially acceptable thing – meeting his in mid-air, joining the space between our respective thumbs and forefingers, he was coming, coming, coming, and I panicked.

What was supposed to happen was my left hand would go on top of his and my joined hands; and my left elbow would stick out at a right angle, forming an impenetrable barrier between his body and mine.  Perfect in theory; but execution left much to be desired.

For my left hand, seemingly of its own volition, formed a fist a few inches in front of my stomach, so that when he came in for a hug, my fist was enveloped in his stomach flesh.  Have you ever made bread?  Remember the “punch down” step?  Yep.  That’s what it was like.  My hand, submerged like in rising bread dough.  Yes, just like this.  Imagine what it would be like to punch down the very center of this bread:


And that is all I remember, embarrassment and shock wiping all memory of how we moved on from there.

But it has stood as a lesson that my brain needs practice when it comes to getting my body to do something new, because under stress isn’t the time to ask a brain to learn anything new.  It’s not enough for our brains to have information, our brains are like muscles themselves, and need to practice.  We get that with professional athletes, but it’s true of so much else.   Our brains are designed to help us out, if we help them.


4 thoughts on “Why it’s not enough for your brain to “know”

  1. You got my empathy neurons firing. I’ve often envied female ministers for their ability to connect with people so effectively – better than a lot of men can manage (or this one) – but there are aspects of ministry I don’t envy, in the case of women, and you just opened a door onto a whole set that I hadn’t considered. Nice piece. Keep up the good work.

    • You know, I’ve come to realize that no matter what package our ministry shows up in, it’s got it’s gifts and challenges! I know that I’m given access into pregnancy, labor, nursing, parenting issues that most male ministers aren’t. On the other hand, I watched the older men involved in property show our two male interns how the “innards” of the church work within their first week and I’ve never been offered a tour. Not that I want one, mind you!

    • Exactly! That’s why “knowing” about prayer is not the same as actually praying, and knowing that we “should” be compassionate is not the same as being compassionate – And those of us in the church are in a unique position to not only “preach the good news,” but we’ve got science showing us just why prayer makes a difference! Watch for more on this! And thanks, Vern, for following!

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