Book Review – This is Your Brain on Joy

Everyone wants to be joyful, to be happy. What if there was a way to “rewire” your brain to experience all the joy you could possibly handle? What if you learned doctors could, by taking a picture of your brain, tell you exactly what was wrong and how to fix it? Sounds like something you might find in Star Trek, doesn’t it?

According to Dr. Earl Henslin, this is not science fiction, but a medical reality. In his book, This Is Your Brain on Joy, Dr. Henslin discusses the diagnoses that are made possible through a brain imaging technique called SPECT imaging as introduced to him by his friend, Dr. Daniel Amen. Dr. Henslin gives a brief overview of the five main areas of the brain (“Mood Centers”) that control a person’s emotions. With the help of SPECT imaging, he also shows what each area looks like both in a well-balanced brain and in a brain that is not so well-balanced. He provides helpful tips in recognizing problematic symptoms of each Mood Center and gives a list of aids to assist in regaining the proper balance. These aids include eating a proper diet, getting lots of exercise, reading books, listening to music and even watching movies.

On a medical level, this book is rather fascinating in its descriptions of the varying “Mood Centers” of the brain. Using simple terms and nicknames for the more complex medical names, Dr. Henslin describes how each area controls certain moods. He also shows what the brain and subsequent mood would be if each area were damaged or out of balance. The aids at the end of each chapter are very helpful in learning to control or adjust each of the mood centers. Beyond the medical aspects, I found the book lacking in depth. Much of the book comes across as an infomercial for Dr. Amen’s products such as his research, his SPECT scanning technology or the medicinal supplements available through Dr. Amen’s web site and clinic.

For a book supposedly written from a Christian perspective, there seemed very little solid Biblical application in the underlying overall philosophy. One of the points that jumped out at me was found in the following statement: “Only God knows, see, and can judge how many of our errors are due to our free wills and how many are due to our faulty hardwiring. Let me repeat this: only God knows how much of our wrongdoing is the result of pure rebellion or evil intent and how much is cause by brain imbalances” (p.8). The author seems to be suggesting that some of our wrongdoing is simply not our fault, but rather the fault of a scientific imbalance. In other words, it’s out of our control. If we can figure out how to “re-wire” our brains, we will naturally choose good things instead of evil. This theme of using self-medicating remedies to fix our sorrow is repeated throughout the book.

A second concern, and perhaps the most important, is that the pursuit of happiness is seen as the ultimate end, that is, pursuit of happiness for the sake of happiness itself. For instance, on p. 45, Dr. Henslin, in noting that happiness is most often gained in a community setting, quips “It really does take a village to make us happy….It’s no wonder that many consider AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] the world’s largest church. More real church is probably happening in many of these meetings of honest people in rented office spaces than in some of our greatest and most beautiful cathedrals.” If we define “church” as a gathering of people to have a good time and feel happy about ourselves for happiness’ sake or even for community’s sake, than perhaps this might be true. But if church is defined as the visible gathering of the invisible church to worship God and to feed our spiritual bodies with the meat of God’s Word while at the same time fellowshipping with one another, then AA couldn’t be further from any resemblance of real church.

In the last chapter, Henslin attempts to bring Scripture back into the picture, but once again misses the mark. Henslin says, “Toward the end of this heartfelt thank-you [Paul’s epistle to the Philippians], the aging apostle wrote, ‘I have learned the secret…’ The secret to what? Inquiring minds want to know. ‘The secret,’ Paul writes, ‘of being content’ (4:12).” From this point, Henslin launches into his arguments for why being content helps us to be happier and he almost gets it right. Unfortunately, he takes Paul’s letter and almost completely ignores the gospel presented there, focusing only on how we can make ourselves be happier. Instead of the gospel being the foundation for our joy, it is viewed simply as a tool to help us along in achieving personal joy.

This is Your Brain on Joy is a good book for discovering a small part of the medical side of the brain’s operations and how we can influence our own moods. But aside from this and the suggestions for improving your mood (which, quite honestly, can probably be found in almost any self-help book of every sort), the book misses the mark of where our true and lasting joy can be found – in the person and work of Jesus Christ for the sake of the glory of God. 3/5 stars

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