Preaching Articles

If Jesus Gave a TED Talk Principle 4—Free Up Working Memory (Capacity)

This article continues a series a series of articles on 8 neuroscience-based principles that Jesus modeled for us that can profoundly improve our preaching and teaching. They are based on my latest book, If Jesus Gave a TED Talk: 8 neuroscience principles the Master Teacher used to persuade His audience. Today’s principle is Principle 4—Free Up Working Memory (Capacity).


Covid profoundly impacted churches and has ongoing impact. Just prior to when it hit, my wife and I had just returned from vacation on a Thursday and on Friday had driven from Toronto to London, Ontario where we lived. That Friday afternoon the Canadian government shut everything down, including churches. As lead pastor I called an emergency staff meeting to set in motion our plans to deliver ministry online for the unforeseeable future.

For everyone the pandemic radically changed life. I’m resilient and goal oriented, so I quickly switched into my leadership mode and helped the church navigate this unprecedented change. I initially worked twenty-five straight days with only one day off (not my regular practice, but necessary in a crisis). 

After the initial adrenaline rush and I settled into a routine, I began to realize that I couldn’t concentrate as well as I once had. My mind wandered more easily. I couldn’t seem to focus when I sat down at my computer to write a sermon or send an email. I forget things more easily. I couldn’t learn or remember as quickly as I once had. Our church staff began to share with me that they too faced similar symptoms and I read many on-line posts that other pastors experienced the same. Was this a symptom of covid? Did I have it? 

No. I didn’t have covid.

 I, my team, and most everybody else I knew experienced similar cognitive challenges, decreased focus, increased mind-wandering, and more forgetfulness. As I dug deeper, I learned a brain basis behind these symptoms related to working memory. The generalized anxiety that we all felt had temporarily compromised working memory. And when working memory gets compromised for whatever reason, our ability to learn also gets compromised.

Your learners’ working memory, covid or not, profoundly affects their ability to learn from your sermons. Yet, by applying working memory insights, you’ll be able to give your learners a working memory boost which will help them learn better because durable learning doesn’t happen without an engaged working memory. 


We have three kinds of memory, sensory memory (which lasts a few seconds), working memory (which lasts 30 seconds or so), and long-term memory (lasts much longer). 

Working memory holds new information, reaches back to long-term memory to retrieve related information, combines that existing knowledge with the new information, and then sends it back to long-term memory for storage and later retrieval. It’s like a bridge between what we perceive and our future actions.

Working memory also involves both a visual and verbal component. Most of our sermons should combine both the visual and the verbal. This relates to the concept dual coding. That is, when we combine the visual with the verbal we deepen learning because we process those two kinds of information two through different channels which maximizes working memory. This works much like a two-lane road that allows more traffic than a one-lane road. And both channels operate somewhat simultaneously. We simply learn things more deeply from words and pictures than we do from words alone. With two routes to retrieval, if one is lost the other one may survive to allow recall.  

In one study to determine how to help elementary students remember and follow oral instructions, the group that received both verbal and visual instruction remembered the instructions better after several months. In another study researchers asked participants to try to remember up to 10,000 pictures presented once each five seconds. Incredibly, they remembered more that 70% of them in a later forced-choice recognition test.

Our brain processes pictures more quickly and more easily in working memory than it does words. It’s called the picture superiority effect. A picture really is worth a thousand (or more) words. Visual tools help language stand still. Perhaps that’s true because visual processing uses over 50% of our brain.

When our brain stores visual images, it frees up working memory to process verbal information. In essence, visual tools help our learners ‘hold’ the language externally. They functionally expand working memory by creating external spaces where information is held. It would be like putting our salad in an external bowl so that we have room to put our steak and potato on the limited space on our main plate. And the more vivid the visual, the better we remember it (probably like the food visual I just gave you) because vividness arouses our emotions.  Our learners can manipulate new information on that main plate while the external visual ‘bowl’ holds the main concepts. 

Overall, we could visualize working memory as small a small chalk board with limited space. This size limitation often becomes a cognitive bottleneck that limits durable learning. Preachers often overload working memory which limits durable learning and spiritual transformation.

Although we preachers can’t technically increase the capacity of the working memory of those who listen to our sermons, we can functionally improve it with techniques that free up what’s there, thus avoiding the bottleneck so they can best learn. 

Jesus masterfully blended the visual and the verbal for his learners. He often used object lessons by referring to or pointing to common, everyday items that the people immediately knew: light, eyes, grain, flowers, birds, bread, gates, fruit, wolves, a yoke, fishing, doctors, crosses, a plow, vines, etc. When he made reference to them, he engaged His listeners visual working memory. He then engaged their verbal working memory when He explained how that item related to the spiritual. As Warren Wiersbe wrote, “He turned His listeners’ ears into eyes so they could see the truth and respond to it.”

Jesus not only used object lessons as visual teaching tools, but He performed many miracles to reinforce His teaching. They became the ultimate object lesson. He instructed people through them as they evidenced His divine mission. They also showed His compassionate heart to relieve their suffering. The miracles made people take notice. After all, it would be hard to ignore a blind person who could now see or a lame person who could not walk.

Jesus also maximized working memory with visual metaphors. In a conversation with Nicodemus He talked about being born again (Jn 3.1-21). He talked with His disciples about the temple being raised in three days, referring to His resurrection (Jn 2.18-22). And He pointed to the urgency of evangelism when he pointed to grain fields ready for harvest (Jn 4.35). Martin Luther noted, “The common people were captivated more readily by comparisons and examples than by difficult and subtle disputations. They would rather see a well-drawn picture than a well-written book.” 

So as you prepare and deliver your sermons, consider how to free up working memory. I hope you’ll check out each article in this series. Next week we’ll unpack Principle 5: Stimulate Long-term Memory (Durability).

And, if you’d like a free chart that captures all the principles and key components, you can get a free one by clicking here.

This article was adapted by permission and comes from Charles Stone’s 7th book titled If Jesus Gave a TED Talk: Eight NEUROSCIENCE principles the Master Teacher used to persuade His audience (Freiling Publishing, 2021).

For a free chapter, go here.

You can follow Charles at

As a pastor for over 43 years, Charles served as a lead pastor, associate pastor, and church planter in churches from 50 to over 1,000. He now coaches and equips pastors and teams to effectively navigate the unique challenges ministry brings. By blending biblical principles with cutting-edge brain-based practices he helps them enhance their leadership abilities, elevate their preaching/ teaching skills, and prioritize self-care. He has written 7 books, earned 5 degrees (including two doctorates) has been married for 43 years, and has 3 adult children and 4 grandchildren. For more information and to follow his blogs, visit
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