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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

The Neuroscience of Purpose: Recharging in the Nonprofit World

Paula couldn’t figure out why things had stopped running smoothly. As the CEO of medium-sized business, she was admired for her decision-making ability, moral conscience, and close coordination of staff activities (“Paula Front-and-Center,” they called her). But recently she was overhearing aggravated remarks from staff: she wasn’t paying attention to them, she was missing appointments, and forgetting to discuss important points at meetings.

Conscientious Paula was shocked to uncover these frustrations, and only stumbled on the solution by accident. Paula’s secretary Amy directed all of the traffic in and out of Paula’s office, but Amy had recently gotten so burned out from work that she couldn’t handle the traffic anymore. She failed to pass along calls, snapped at visitors, and passed along incomplete messages that made it look like Paula was being sloppy. Paula knew that helping Amy de-stress was step one of getting things back on track.

Let’s pull back the curtain.

The story above is about how your brain works. Your brain has a part called the Prefrontal Cortex, or “PFC” (remember “Paula Front-and-Center”?). The PFC is basically what makes you act like a human and not a salamander. It directs our attention, is responsible for moral decision-making, allows us to empathize with others, and helps coordinate the thousands of signals rushing around your brain. If your PFC stops functioning, you’re in trouble. There are two ways this happens: the first is through brain damage, and the second is through stress.

When we get stressed, and most of us do every day in some way, a part of our brain called the “amygdala” starts malfunctioning (remember Amy?). The amygdala determines whether information gets passed to our PFC (Paula). As stress increases, our amygdala sends Paula into a downward spiral in one of two ways: by turning on our “fight” response (making us irritable) or more commonly, turning on our “flight” response (making us procrastinate with another pack of cookies rather than write that report). Either way, a stressed Amy effectively shuts down Paula’s ability to function, causing her to make worse decisions and miss opportunities to act.

Why this matters for those of us in the nonprofit world

If you work for a nonprofit, there’s a good chance that you’re working on a tough problem like the achievement gap, homelessness, or global hunger. These are problems with no easy answer, which can leave us feeling overwhelmed by the task ahead. Yet in the face of these challenges, we have to stay optimistic, keep our moral compass, and keep making good decisions. In short, we need to keep Paula working.

Someone has probably told you the importance of “reconnecting with your purpose” when things get tough. This is sound advice, but the question is “How?” We won’t make long-term changes in ourselves by taking a weekend at a spa. It’s relaxing, but it’s the equivalent of giving Amy a long-weekend: she’ll feel great on Monday, then go downhill from there. So how do you stay connected with the purpose of your work on a day-to-day basis?

The Brain Break

The best advice I got was from another social entrepreneur: take a “Brain Break.” He told me to sit down first thing every morning at work and just breathe. Don’t do anything else for ten minutes — just close your eyes and take nice, deep, relaxed breaths. Then keep your eyes closed and ask yourself, “What do I want to accomplish today?”

Anyone who has done a brain break knows firsthand that it washes away those distractions and little voices in your head — but it’s cool to know from a neuroscience perspective that there’s something powerful going on. When you take deep breaths, it tells our Amy-amygdala to calm down. When she calms down, she gets better at passing information to Paula-PFC. Our PFC then has the chance to shine, doing those things that make us proud to be human: empathizing with others, making good decisions, and mustering our energy to get things done. You know, purpose stuff.

On top of that, as you take more Brain Breaks, you actually change the shape of your brain, just like working out a muscle. Each time you intentionally activate your brain’s CEO, it gets a little stronger and functions a little better. That’s why we teach the brain break to kids in school — you not only get that short-term relaxing “aaah,” you’re also building the long-term strength of your brain’s CEO. For this reason consistency is more important than duration: even a two minute brain break, done every morning when you first hit your desk chair, will get your brain in shape.

So whether you’re working on a new model for sustainable development or just plugging away at Excel, start your morning with a brain break to remind yourself of why you’re here. Paula will be glad you did.

Peter is an educator and part-time social entrepreneur. His most recent project is the expansion of a national program for helping kids build the habits of mind to be successful and happy.

Further Readings

Self-Control as the secret to succes

Do you have Decision Fatigue?

Building a Brain that handles failure


ASU Lodestar Center Blog