Unlocking Joy through Brain Science

Church Matters, Devotion, Inspiration, Personal Development

A few years ago, I (Chris) wrote a book with neuroscience specialist Dr. Jim Wilder, addiction recovery specialist Ed Khouri, and educator Sheila Sutton called Joy Starts Here. In our book we describe joy this way.

Joy is the twinkle in someone’s eyes, the smile from deep inside, the gladness that makes lovers run toward each other, the smile of a baby, the feeling of sheer delight that grows stronger as people who love each other lock eyes, what God feels when He makes His face shine over us, and the leap in our hearts when we hear the voice of someone we have been missing for a long time.

From a neuroscience perspective, joy is always relational. This is because it is largely created by a right-hemisphere to right-hemisphere connection in the brain. When my right brain interacts with your right brain and we are happy to see each other (usually through eye contact), the result is joy. There is a bonding or attachment element to the experience of joy that cannot be reproduced simply by medication, herbs, or drugs. Such feel-good chemicals as dopamine and endorphins are involved in the experience of shared joy, but there is more to it than this.

Two Essential Brain Developments

Becoming a joy-filled person requires two primary developments in the brain. The first is the growth of a large joy center.

Your joy center is located behind your right eye. Its technical name is the right orbital (as in the right eye) prefrontal (as in the front of your brain) cortex (the outermost layer of our brain where our highest-level brain function occurs). This part of your brain is largely undeveloped at birth, but it grows to become the captain of the emotional command center in the brain. This part of the brain remembers who we are, who our people are, how it is like us to act, and contains all sorts of information we need in order to bring the best version of ourselves into any situation we face. We call the right orbital prefrontal cortex “the joy center” partly because it is easier to say, but also because it grows with the experience of relational joy.

The second area of brain development we need to experience if we are to become joy-filled people is the creation and strengthening of joy pathways.

A joy pathway is a neurological path that helps us navigate from upsetting emotions in the back of our brain to the joy center in the front of our brain.

As infants, we are not born with joy pathways in our brains. Because of this, we have no ability to act like ourselves when we get upset. Infants and small children have to learn how to act like themselves despite the way they feel. This is not something that happens overnight. It also cannot happen without a lot of help. Such skills can only be developed relationally. We need to see others do it. We need them to help us do it. And we need it to happen with every difficult emotion we face—repeatedly.

White matter allows signals to be passed through the brain at super-fast speeds. Most of the brain is comprised of gray matter, which is not slow. It processes data at rates of about six cycles per second. But white matter can process data up to two hundred times per second. The result is that white matter allows us to develop instinctive reactions that are much faster than conscious thought. Once white matter develops around the pathways of the brain that allow us to return to joy, even young children can begin to remain relational, maintain a stable identity, and quiet themselves relatively quickly without even thinking about it. This is a sign that a well-formed joy pathway has been developed and has been wrapped in white matter.

“Stuck in the Back of My Brain”

Most people have both underdeveloped joy centers and underdeveloped joy paths.

As a result, I can find myself at age sixty still unable to cope with certain emotions because my brain never developed the neural pathways needed to recover from them. Instead, I get stuck in my upsetting emotions and live out of the fear centers in the back of my brain rather than living from the command center of joy in the front of the brain.

To be clear—having a well-developed joy pathway doesn’t mean you quickly stop feeling unpleasant emotions like fear, grief, anger, or despair and suddenly feel happiness instead. It means that these emotions don’t trap you in the back of your brain without access to the command center. That is how infants act. For example, have you ever heard someone say, “You won’t like me when I’m mad?” They are essentially confessing that they have never built the maturity required to stay themselves when they get angry.

When I (Marcus) first started learning about how the brain works and the importance of the joy center, joy pathways, and living from the front of my brain, I began to realize how much of my life was spent getting stuck in the back of my brain and trying to soothe myself and avoid further upset. It became obvious that I spent a lot of time and energy trying to avoid certain emotions because I didn’t know how to deal with those emotions. This showed up first in my marriage. I began to notice that all it took was a certain tone of voice from my wife and I shut down relationally. I stopped acting like an adult and turned into a pouting little child. That wasn’t a choice I was making. It was a well-developed habit that happened automatically. I had learned at a young age to shut up and disappear when someone wasn’t happy to be with me. Here I was at age fifty, still following the same patterns.

Understanding brain science made me realize for the first time that the problem wasn’t my wife.

The problem was that my brain had gone into a cramp and I had lost access to my higher-level brain functions. In a sense, I was trapped living with only half of my brain engaged. As you can imagine, there are far different strategies involved in recovery if you think your wife is the problem than there will be if you think having half your brain offline is the problem.

An example like this can help us understand the relationship between joy and maturity. Since the joy center is also the command center of the brain, I only remain relational and act like myself when I am living with this part of my brain engaged. My ability to recover from difficult emotions and still keep the command center in charge is what marks me as a mature person. The more easily overwhelmed I am emotionally, the less mature I will be. The more weight it takes to make the system shut down, the more mature I will be.

Adapted from The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled People by Chris M. Coursey & Marcus Warner (© 2023). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.

DR. MARCUS WARNER has served as the president of Deeper Walk International since 2006. Marcus earned three degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School— M.Div., Th.M., and D.Min. He has written 16 books on topics ranging from brain science to spiritual warfare including Rare Leadership, The 4 Habits of Joy-Filled Marriages, and A Deeper Walk. Marcus is a conference speaker who works with ministry and corporate groups around the world. A Bible teacher at heart, Marcus has taught Old Testament and Theology as well as serving as a senior pastor. His passion is taking complex topics and making them practical and accessible for everyone.

CHRIS COURSEY is an ordained minister, pastoral counselor, published author, and international speaker. He and his wife, Jen, lead and design the THRIVE Training Program that uses brain-based exercises to train leaders, families, and communities in the 19 relational skills and the Immanuel Lifestyle. They are passionate about helping people acquire the skills to make relationships work. Chris and Jen have two boys, Matthew and Andrew.

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