In part one, we discovered that our brains are wired and designed to run on joy. We develop our capacity to experience joy through joyful interactions with our family of origin, primarily in the first three years of life. Neuroscience discoveries confirm a biblical worldview that joy grows in relationship, both with others and with God. So, what brain pathways and processes are involved? How do we build joy capacity when key centers of our brain were not formed properly to experience a fullness of joy, maybe due to trauma or issues with our parents? Is there hope for you to become more joyful? Yes! Read on…
First, a little brain science:
Simplistically, the brain is divided into left and right hemispheres, each holding different functions. Whilst the left-hand side is the source of language, objectivity, logic, planning and organisation, the right-hand side of the brain dominates our core identity, and is built and thrives on joyful relationships. The right-hand side is the master system and largely non-verbal. It is this system that impacts our emotions and relationships – and does so quicker than conscious thought! It operates from the bottom to the top (in sequence) rather like a lift/elevator moving between floors.
**Information in our brain starts at:
Level 1 – the attachment centre which is the deepest part of the brain (the thalamus and nucleus accumbens), our bonding centre. Its greatest pleasure is joyful attachment, and its greatest pain is relational loss. It is unconscious and out of our awareness.
Level 2 – the amygdala – it’s unconscious and below our awareness. It contains our flight, fight or freeze response. The amygdala does not reason or change its mind but consults what has gone before (memories). If this processing pathway gets stuck here, you will have a hard time experiencing joy or creating joy in your environment. (This can happen if you are experiencing fear or trauma for example.)
Level 3 – our attunement centre (cingulate cortex) where we are able to synchronise with others and with their feelings. It is here that we have connections to others – including God. This area can become conscious, and we can observe contents directly. When this area is well developed, we feel at peace and can synchronise our thoughts with God’s thoughts.
The top-level, 4 – is the right orbital pre-frontal cortex – our conscious identity centre. It is this part of the brain that thinks of itself ‘as me’. Its purpose is a joyful identity, both individually and in relationship with ‘my people’ and represents the highest level of brain function. When this level is well developed, it has the ability to maintain flexibly organised behaviour in the face of high levels of arousal or tension, being a central aspect of a stable individual.
We are born without a completed level three. At birth, level four is not yet developed at all! The attunement centre (level 3) is built in the first six months of life, and the right orbital pre-frontal cortex (level 4) in the first 18 months of life. If we have experienced repeated joyful interactions from our primary care givers during this time, then we will have built a good foundation of joy. However, if we have not experienced this, then our joy strength or capacity will be low, or even non-existent. This is the reason why it is too simplistic to say ‘choose joy’. If we have under-developed (or non-developed) levels 3 and 4, choosing joy will not make us joyful. What is of vital importance is that we can bring repair to this part of the brain (because of neuro-plasticity) and develop joy capacity and strength throughout our lives.
What are things that stop this heathy, God-designed development? Not having joyful interactions in the first three years of life which develop and build our cingulate and right orbital pre-frontal cortex. Trauma and suffering also play their part.
Although we live in a fallen world, where we experience bad things happening to us, and the absence of good things we were designed to experience, the fact that the brain has plasticity and undergoes neurogenesis is a redemptive process for those of us who have pain in our stories and fractures in our soul. Let me give you a personal example:
As I started researching joy five years ago, I discovered that I was struggling to see moments of joy in my own life experience. Knowing my story and history, I began to wonder whether the emotional absence of my mother in the first six months of my life (I was quite ill) and then my father (a ship’s Captain) went deep sea when I was 14 months old). My right brain was not as developed completely in the way it was designed. I started engaging with different spiritual practices that have been shown to increase our joy capacity (the subject of part 3 of this series). The first I introduced into my daily rhythm were the practices of appreciation & gratitude – both with others and God. Not only do they increase joy but our capacity for recognising and embracing joyful moments during the day. I discovered, for me, this required habitual intentionality as I did not grow up in an environment of high appreciation or gratitude.
I started slowly and would write out each day things I was grateful for and speaking out appreciation to others. I then took the practice to a deeper level in my prayer time. Instead of thanking God daily for a myriad of different things, I would pause, and ask God to speak to me about what He thought of my gratitude to Him. This can be very moving, and I was so surprised at not only how God responded to me, but the deeper level of relationship I felt I was forming with God. A new longing started rising within me and I found myself thanking God for anything, and everything, and sitting quietly in His presence waiting for Him to respond to me. I knew that our relationship was deepening.
What has been happening, in neuroscientific terms, is that I am deepening my attachment bonds to God, and this is enabling my capacity to engage with joy. Very often I take this practice into my times of walking, and I find myself smiling widely and feeling ‘on top of the world’. I feel joyful, and it affects my life.
Be encouraged, there is hope! We can move from not having solid, healthy, joyful attachments to a place of developing healthy and strong attachments, both with significant people in our life and with God.
What we need moving forward is to be part of a community where we belong and are known, accepted, and celebrated. We need to be with people who are glad to be together and can withstand adversity together. Then our joy-strength grows and our emotional capacity to be joyful becomes greater. This is the picture that we see running through the themes of how we experience joy in the Bible (as outlined in part 1), celebrating life’s events together, eating and feasting together, celebrating the joy in our salvation and testimonies of what God is doing in our lives and communities, and standing with each other in suffering with the possibility that joy can be found in our trials and suffering. (In part 3, I will outline another two practices that are key to increasing our joy capacity and strength).
Right at the beginning, in Genesis 1, God says ‘it is not good for man to be alone’, and 21st century brain science is now able to prove why. We are made for joyful, healthy relationships where we are known and belong and are celebrated, and where “we are the sparkle in someone’s eyes when they see us and their face lights up and we like it” (Dr. Jim Wilder).
We are not prisoners of our history but servants of our destiny. We can position ourselves and become part of a church or community of others. We can engage with spiritual practices that are tools to draw us closer to God. We can practice listening to His voice, attuning with Him, the one who always ‘has a sparkle in His eye when He sees us, whose face lights up’ – and I don’t know about you, but I certainly ‘like it’.
** The information on the 4 levels of the right-hand side of the brain is taken from Rare Leadership by Marcus Warner & Jim Wilder
- Living from the Heart Jesus Gave You by James G. Friesen, et al.
- Joy Starts Here by Jim Wilder, et al.
- Anatomy of the Soul by Curt Thompson
- Rare Leadership by Marcus Warner & Jim Wilder