Your Brain Runs on Joy: How Does Christmas Relate to Neuroscience?

World of sorrow, world of hurt,

Lacking joy means senseless dirt.

Centuries of fruitless chase,

Seeking joy from wayward place,

Men horde riches, clothes, and jewels,

Nothing grants their souls renewal.

.

Love divine our true desire,

Drowned in earth’s cold, dismal mire.

Men fight wars and nations lead,

Proud, conspiring evil deeds,

They hold fear, despair, and woe,

But how to love? Not one could know.

.

Yet, heaven’s Son, in earth’s long night,

Dawned for joy to teach us right,

Spurred on by the fervent chase,

God’s pursuant, loving grace,

Face of God to us draws near,

Baby’s eyes and smiles dear.

–N.R. 12/4/2020

During Christmastime, we talk a lot about joy. I don’t know about you, but the first thing that usually pops into my head when people say this word is… absolutely nothing. Well, sometimes I picture it as a bright light, or laughter, or a general feeling of happiness, but oftentimes joy is difficult for me to visualize. Yet, this word appears everywhere throughout the holiday season, and everyone seems to be searching for it. I get the feeling that joy is so important and simultaneously so elusive to us because we intrinsically long for it, but we’re not really sure what it is or what it looks like.

What exactly is joy? Surprisingly, neuroscience can help guide us toward the answer. In their book The Other Half of Church, authors Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks describe the findings of Dr. Allan N. Schore, a leading neuroscientist who studies joy. Schore defines it as “being the sparkle in someone’s eye” or simply being happy to see someone. I believe that this definition is incomplete, but I will discuss that later. Regardless, we’ve all experienced what Dr. Schore is talking about. It’s the uplifting feeling when our favorite person walks into the room. We smile without thinking about it, gravitate toward them, and let them know how glad we are to see them. That is the effect of joy!

I would highly recommend this book if you want to learn more about neuroscience and community!

Why do our brains need and long for joy? It turns out that our brain structure was designed for it! Jim Wilder says it this way:

“From the moment we are born, joy shapes the chemistry, structure and growth of our brain. Joy lays the foundation for how well we will handle relationships, emotions, pain and pleasure throughout our lifetime.” 

As it turns out, positive relationships physically alter the right sides of our brains, which manage emotions, social skills, and character development. The more joy we experience, the more the synapses on the right side of our brains fire and wire together. This enhances a measurable quality of our brain function called coherence.

Coherence is simply the scientific term for how well the different parts of the brain cooperate. As our synapses grow more and more connected, our brains communicate more effectively with themselves, and our coherence increases. Coherence edifies our relational capacity, and contributes to our selflessness as people. It also helps left-brain activities (ex. verbalization, logic, memory, etc.) develop in tandem. So essentially, joy makes the brain operate better! Not only so, but it helps us establish relationships and form communities from which we give and receive more joy. (See the article on Leadership and Neuroscience I have linked at the end of this piece if you would like to learn more about coherence.) 

So how do we find joy in life? Dr. Schore says that “Our brains look specifically to the face of another person to find joy.” When we smile, laugh, empathize, and make eye contact with others, we love and delight in them through our faces. This builds relationships, builds community, and builds our brains. 

I was excited to discover that God, having designed our brains this way, fills Scripture with words to express His joy over us. He wants us to know that the source of all of our joy is His own face! Sometimes we don’t see it, because our English translations of the Bible change the word “face” to “presence” most of the time. The most literal translations of these two verses, however, demonstrate the link between God’s face and joy.

Psalm 16:11 “…in your face there is fullness of joy…”

Psalm 21:6 “…you make him happy with joy with your face.” 

So how does this relate to us this year? Joy seems particularly hard for us to find in 2020. Yet, as the character Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “God would like us to be joyful, even when our hearts are panting on the floor.” There are still ways to experience and share joy as we “celebrate small” in our homes.

For example, we must remember more than ever that gifts themselves are not the source of joy. Things are incapable of giving us joy, because objects don’t have faces. In light of neuroscience, it should be obvious that only people (and ultimately, Christ alone) can give us joy. So this year, we can accept gifts from friends and family knowing that what is important is who they are to us, not what they bought us. And we can give gifts within the same paradigm too, keeping in mind that the act of gift-giving is meant to flow out of our love, not to produce love through an object.

Finally, this Christmas let Christ guide you to what God’s joy is in a deeper way. The Father was so delighted in this world that He sent His son to show us the full extent of His love by living, dying, and rising again. And you are now invited to draw near to the fountain of all joy Himself to have your every longing fulfilled. 

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading!

Link to “Leadership and Neuroscience: Can We Revolutionize the Way That Inspirational Leaders Are Identified and Developed?” by David A Waldman, Pierre A. Balthazard, and Suzanne J. Peterson.

I do not own rights to any pictures above.

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