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The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, but an MRI expert, Chris Chambers, points out how this would be a waste of an intensively used resource, given it's very difficult to pin down 'happiness' in any quantitative fashion and MRI does not produce the simplistic 'this bit of the brain does that' outcomes that you might think from some popular science.

This doesn't stop Burnett from repeatedly bringing in what bits of the brain (and neurotransmitters) are involved in various situations which makes for a weaker aspect of the book as (if you're not a biologist) the repeated naming of assorted brain parts which mostly produce no mental image doesn't do a lot for the reader. 

Burnett's matey style also seems to bump up a little against some of the physical and mathematical aspects of the science. At one point he says 'Chemicals are made of atoms, which are in turn made of electrons, protons and neutrons, which are in turn made of gluons.' Unfortunately electrons have nothing to do with gluons, while to say protons and neutrons are made of gluons is like saying houses are made of mortar. The mathematical aspect that was most worrying was the statement 'There's compelling evidence to suggest that happier employees are up to 37 per cent more productive... Conversely, unhappy employees can be 10 per cent less productive.' Leaving aside whether compelling evidence should do more than just suggest, one has to ask '37 per cent more productive than what?' Clearly not than unhappy employees, or the second part doesn't make sense.

At the start of the book, Burnett makes in plain that this isn't going to be a self-help happiness book. And it might seem that there's not much left to do scientifically when everything seems so uncertain about exactly what does what in the brain. However, in practice the book is an enjoyable read, giving plenty of intriguing information. I particularly enjoyed the interviews, and, oddly enough, the chapter on 'The Dark Side of Happiness' - why we sometimes enjoy making other people unhappy. This was truly fascinating. Despite the limitations of our knowledge of the brain's functions, there's a lot of science lurking in here as well as well-informed speculation and I'm happy to say that it makes for a very enjoyable whole.

Paperback (US is hardback):  


Review by Brian Clegg


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