26 July 2013

PlayBook: This is Your Brain on Joy

Here’s a book that can help folks live playfully. It’s called This is Your Brain on Joy and it’s written by Dr. Earl Henslin.

Dr. Henslin is a licensed therapist with a counseling practice in Brea, California. His book has a unique answer to the big question, “Why is Joy so elusive?”

Some counselors look for answers in one’s family dynamics. Still others pursue therapies that take the patient back to their earliest memories. Ministerial counselors tend to look at “spiritual” aspects.

Dr. Henslin looks at the brain. Literally.

A group of scientists have developed a technology called single photon emission computerized tomography (also known as a SPECT scan). These scans give therapists a picture of emotion through observing how the different zones of one’s brain activate under varied circumstances. For example, if one’s temporal lobes are unusually active, Dr. Henslin can tell this person probably struggles with anger issues. If markers in a SPECT scan point to issues with the basal ganglia region of the brain, Dr. Henslin can tell the individual is prone to fear. Conversely, Dr. Henslin can tell you’re pretty happy when a SPECT scan reveals a healthy left prefrontal cortex.

Some people find the experience of joy elusive because their brain literally prevents them from feeling happy. How tragic!

I enjoyed this book and found it helpful for several reasons:

First, it reminded me to be more compassionate. That person who has hurt me because of anger may want to control their anger but they may find it extremely difficult to overcome. Knowing there are physiological issues to consider makes me less prone to judge them.

I have always known that folks who struggle with depression often do so because of bio-chemical factors. I appreciated this book because it talked about clinical depression in a way that the average person could understand but also with some depth.

Second, I found Dr. Henslin’s insights on the impact of diet and exercise to be helpful. He even includes dosage guidelines for dietary supplements, should that be needed.

Third, I appreciated this book because it did not simply boil down the experience of happiness to physiological factors. Dr. Henslin also cites prayer, meditation, listening to uplifting music, and looking at beautiful works of art as factors that contribute to an overall sense of well-being.

In chapter three, he writes: “One of the most fascinating outcomes of clinical studies on happiness, joy, and well-being is that scientists are now able to observe brains in a state of relaxed joy. A couple of the most interesting studies involved Tibetan monks and Franciscan nuns, both during their time of meditation and prayer, and also when they went about their normal, daily routines. Since the nuns used mental words to form a prayer (a technique called centering or contemplative prayer), a part of their brain (the part that forms verbal thought) lit up that didn’t light up in the monks, who try to empty their minds of all conscious thought.

“However, both groups showed familiar brain imaging patterns: the area of the brain that was most lit up was an area at the front, mostly on the left side—the region associated with clarity and happiness. Areas that were subdued were in the lower back part of the brain—an area that is involved in fear memory, often called the reptilian brain, which activates an automatic fight-or-flight response. It is also an area that helps us orient ourselves in space, showing that while in prayer or deep meditation, we are able to let go of our need to control and simply relax and go with the flow.

“What was most interesting was that both groups of daily supplicants experienced a deep sense of well-being, peace, and joy during meditation and—most interestingly—this feeling of serenity followed them throughout the routines of their days, even through their lives.”*

If you are looking for some practical, doable counsel on how to live life more playfully, joyfully, happily…I recommend this book.


Our PlayBook posts feature brief and light book reviews designed to draw your attention to books that can help people live more playfully. If you have read the book in question, leave a comment and add your thoughts to the review!

*Citation from Henslin, Earl.  This is Your Brain on Joy. pp. 19-20. Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2008.

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