Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Picture is worth a thousand words

Written by: on April 1, 2024

“The kingdom of heaven is like . . .,” so begins Jesus in telling his parables in Matthew 13; using visuals to help his audience understand his teachings, threshold concepts.[1] David Rock in his book Your Brain At Work says that if you can, use visuals in an effort to “reduce the energy required for processing information.”[2]  Rock explains that images contain large amounts of information.[3]  For example, in Jesus’ parable about the weeds, the audience, living in an agrarian society, would have understood everything involved in the sowing seeds, tending a field and gathering the crops, he did not have to explain each step of the process to them.[4]  Rock also says that we should use visuals because they have been proven to be an effective tool for hundreds of years, helping people understand abstract principles.[5]

Rock uses visuals throughout his book to describe his threshold concepts.  He first creates the visual of a person’s brain, with the prefrontal cortex, where most of our decision making and problem solving is completed, as being like a small stage.  He then states that the actors on the stage represent the information to which we are currently trying to attend.  The audience, Rock describes as being previous information that our brain has attended.  He describes this as our “inner world,” and it contains our “thoughts, memories, and imaginings.”[6]  Regarding the actors, Rock says that sometimes they “enter the stage as a normal actor would, from the side of the stage,” the “outer world.”[7]  Other times the actors are audience members that are brought up on the stage to interact with the new actors.  Rock says that our stage is responsible for five functions, “understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing, and inhibiting.”[8] Rock completes his metaphor by stating that the stage is very small and that keeping actors on the stage, attending to information, requires a lot of the limited amount of available energy.[9]

After Rock has set the stage, he then provides information for how best to direct the daily performances for which we are tasked and how to handle various hiccups we encounter in our script.  Rock suggests that we enlist the help of the audience as often as we can.  The audience for the most part, is Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 and the actors on the stage is System 2.[10]  So it makes sense to engage in the energy efficient System 1 thinking as much as possible.

As I sit down to write this blog, I have employed some of Rock’s ideas.  I have prioritized my day.  I have avoided looking at my email this morning to not get distracted by time and energy consuming tasks that can wait until later in the day.  Because of something that happened last week, I am also avoiding my email so that I do not get “Derailed by Drama.”[11]  I have a student who appears to be caught up in what Edwin Friedman terms chronic anxiety.[12]  The student wrote an email to me that could have easily pulled me into the anxiety. I chose to differentiate, settle my limbic system down and not view it as an attack on me as a person, rather I forwarded the information on to my supervisor so that together we can appropriately respond to the student.

I enjoyed Rock’s book, I feel that is a good supplement to what Kahneman wrote in Thinking, Fast and Slow.  It provides some good strategies to use, and Rock did a nice job writing the book as a story of a married couple going through their daily routines, showing the way we tend to operate, discussing the principle, and then showing how it could have played out differently using his principles.

I would like to follow up more on Rock’s Intermission section, where we meet the director.  Rock writes “The director can watch the show that is your life, make decisions about how your brain will respond, and even sometimes alter the script.”[13]  Amy Milton gave a Ted Talk about research that is currently being done to rewrite the memories of those who suffer from PTSD.[14]  I am interested in learning more about how professionals can help victims of PTSD use various techniques including mindfulness techniques to control how their brain responds to stimuli and even rewrite the scripts.

The kingdom of heaven is like . . ., I wonder when the kingdom of heaven is firmly established, will we be able to look back and fully understand all that Jesus was trying to get us to visualize, will our stage be able to process everything at once, or will we still be like the disciples needing some help?[15]

On a side note, I was talking with my daughter the other day and companies are starting to design and implement new technology that will allow robots pulled behind a tractor to identify and zap weeds. For the next generation, the Parable of the Weeds may have absolutely no context.    Here is a link to an article about the new technology.[16]

[1] Matt. 13 (New International Version); Meyer and Land, eds.  Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[2] David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, (New York, NY: Harper Collings, 2009), 14.

[3] Rock, 14.

[4] Matt. 13:24-30.

[5] Rock 14.

[6] Rock, 5,7.

[7] Rock, 7.

[8] Rock, 8.

[9] Rock, 8, 20.

[10] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (Canada: Anchor Canada, 2013), 20-21.

[11] Rock, 102.

[12] Edwin Friedman A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York: Church Publishing, 2007), 61.

[13] Rock, 87.

[14] Amy Milton “Can we Edit Memories?”  (Ted Talk given at TedX Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK, March 2019). https://www.ted.com/talks/amy_milton_can_we_edit_memories.

[15] Matt. 13.

[16] Loukia Papadopoulos, “This new farming robot uses lasers to kill 200,000 weeds per hour,” Innovation Engineering, accessed on April 1, 2024.  https://interestingengineering.com/innovation/farming-robot-lasers-200000-weeds-per-hour.


About the Author

Jeff Styer

Jeff Styer lives in Northeast Ohio's Amish Country. He has degrees in Social Work and Psychology and currently works as a professor of social work at Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Jeff is married to his wife, Veronica, 25+ years. Together they have 4 beautiful children (to be honest, Jeff has 4 kids, Veronica says she is raising 5). Jeff loves the outdoors, including biking, hiking, camping, birding, and recently picked up disc golf.

10 responses to “A Picture is worth a thousand words”

  1. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    Hi Jeff,
    How do you think understanding the brain’s processes, as described by Rock, can enhance your approach to teaching and fostering relationships within your NPO and community?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      There is so much of what we’ve read this semester that I would love to incorporate into my courses. I just need the time to process it all and determine where it would fit the best. Some of the classes I teach are 3 hours long and a couple are from 6 – 9 in the evening. Students do not pay attention well, so over the next couple years I think we are going to try to figure out how to break them up and find better times. Knowing the brain’s limited capacity to keep actors on the stage gives me even more reason to make these changes.
      Within the context of my NPO there is a lot of brain science connected to the effects of pornography. There is at least one study that shows making people aware of this brain science actually gives them more hope in their ability to stop using pornography.
      Within my community – I think understanding more brain science will help me to be more patient with others. For example, not getting upset when someone takes longer than I want to respond to an email or making an effort to not interrupt someone from finishing important tasks. I think this will make me a better co-worker.

  2. Christy Liner says:

    Hi Jeff, thanks for the Biblical and personal examples.

    I like your practice of leaving emails until later in the day. I have found this to be a very useful practice (but not always easy to implement). I took a burnout seminar once and they taught us how to structure our day to preserve our prefrontal cortex for the things that need it, rather than wasting it on mindless activities (which can sometimes be found in emails).

    Did you find that difficult to implement, or was it relatively natural?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      It’s has been fairly easy to implement on my end, but It’s had some side effects like almost missing a meeting. I don’t even have my email app open so I don’t get distracted when new emails come in. However, that also prevents my calendar from opening and sending meeting reminders. Also, some people don’t understand. I also refuse to put my work email as an app on my phone but students almost expect me to respond to their emails immediately. I do think this is something I may have to tweak but we’ll see how it goes for now.

  3. Diane Tuttle says:

    Hi Jeff, I like that you picked up on Rock’s use of visuals. I find it difficult sometimes to include all the things in a book that have meaning and keep it short enough for a blog post so it is meaningful to read how others process the book. My writing focus was elsewhere. You mentioned wanting to do something with PTSD. Are you thinking of changing your NPO? How do you see visuals as potential help for someone suffering with it?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      I have no plans to change my NPO at this point in time. There is a lot of research being done with PTSD and some of that includes the use of virtual reality. One video my crisis intervention class watched showed how they use VR to recreate trauma situation, in this case soldiers. They wear VR googles and describe the scene, recreating everything from including being day or night, sunny or cloudy, essentially everything going on when the trauma occurred. Recreating these visuals is a form of exposure therapy used to lessen the emotional connection to the event. There is a lot to this I don’t understand but I believe creating these visuals allows the clinician to see on a separate screen what the solider is describing to gain a level of understanding, while the soldier benefits from feeling listened to, being understood, and begin to talk about and process the event.

  4. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Hey Jeff
    interesting read. I noticed the part where you said: “I am interested in learning more about how professionals can help victims of PTSD use various techniques including mindfulness techniques to control how their brain responds to stimuli and even rewrite the scripts.” If you don’t know about it already, you need to learn about EMDR. It is an amazing way to help steer the brain from past trauma’s and PTSD.

  5. Nancy Blackman says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Yes! You’re speaking my language — using visuals — LOL.

    You mentioned Amy Milton’s TED Talk and it reminded me of the EMDR Therapy I am in and how, in essence, it is reshaping the area of my brain that holds trauma. You would probably know all of this much better than myself, given your line of work.

    If you were to draw a picture of your brain on a daily basis, what would it look like and what would it tell you about how you are either over utilizing parts of your brain or under utilizing parts of your brain?

    • Jeff Styer says:

      Nancy, great question. I think the picture would show constant movement to and from the prefrontal cortex. Somedays I’m not sure that my mind ever shuts down. The last two days I’ve woken up around 3 -4 in the morning and can’t go back to sleep. My mind doesn’t seem to stop. My limbic system is also showing heavy usage. I don’t know that I have large amounts of cortisol being released, as I don’t necessarily feel stressed, but having actual scans would be so interesting to see.

  6. mm Kari says:

    HI Jeff, thank you for the parallel with parables and Rock’s work. In what ways can you implement or increase using visuals in your life?

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