Book Review: What Makes Your Brain Happy by David DiSavlo

It was bound to happen eventually, that I would find a psychology book that I just didn’t get on with. That my reliance on a stranger’s blog for book recommendations would turn up something that left me as bored as it did disinterested. And sadly, that book was What Makes Your Brain Happy And Why You Should Do The Opposite by David DiSalvo.

The title is quirky and fun, and the idea behind the book seems sound. Our brains’ long to be happy, that they will, where possible, swerve to the route leading, ultimately, to “their” increased pleasure and how, actually, that may not be what is best for “us” as a whole. The problem, though, is with DiSalvo. To quote him, he’s “not a psychologist or psychiatrist [or a] …neuroscientist and would not claim to possess a grasp of neural dynamics”. What DiSalvo is, as he goes to on state, is a “science writer”. And that is the fundamental flaw in the book he’s an interested amateur rather than an academic authority.

Starting Blocks - What Makes Your Brain Happy & Why You Should Do The Opposite by David DiSavlo

In his defence, the book starts off alright. It feels like a tale that is slowly gathering pace and wanting to find its stride. The opening pages, and the basic idea that it hints at presenting, seem to suggest that the book will be both interesting and entertaining. That there will be a real world humour sprinkling cognitive scientific ideas. But that never materialises. The book, instead, becomes tangled up into frustrating fragments that serve disorientate more than to educate.

To start off with, the structure revolves around individual chapters, which, are then broken up into smaller sections. The problem is that the subsections are so small and summarised in form that they have no depth or sustenance. They turn each chapter into a stop-start affair that breaks up the natural rhythm of the book. It doesn’t flow as you read it, just as you are beginning to get into an idea, to stop to see the point being made it’s over. It’s moved on and it left me looking around dazed and confused. It just needed to expand out what it was trying to say, because as is, it feels like lots of little ideas tacked together; under random headings, in the hope it’ll all come together in the end.

Author - What Makes Your Brain Happy & Why You Should Do The Opposite by David DiSavlo

This conciseness may have worked though if the points being made actually made any sense. It became quite clear early on that all of the research and studies cited by DiSalvo have been fully paraphrased by him. And then impossibly referenced. This meant that I had absolutely no trust in what he was saying because it felt like the important science had been lost in translation. Gone were the basic ideas needed to convey what the study represents and in its place came a literal interpretation, reworded into humorous lay speak, and then cut down to the minimum word count possible. The book asks you to evaluate someone else’s idea of someone else study. It just doesn’t work because it was impossible to fully solidify that my mind.

The concise way the information was presented meant the book simply ran away with itself. It tangled up far too many ideas. It really was like a DiSalvo was running away with his mind. Reconstructing every idea and point that came in his head that could potentially apply, without care or consideration, to the end product. Or to the reader. This exuberance that “more is more” rather than cementing ideas through fewer fully explained ideas simply confused the bigger picture. There is so much going on and I couldn’t keep up. In the end became completely lost.

Cliff's Notes - What Makes Your Brain Happy & Why You Should Do The Opposite by David DiSavlo

Worse still, about three-quarters of the way through the book, it turns into being a cliff’s-note review of all that went before. It’s felt like both a cheat and an insult. As though the book was saying “I know you haven’t understood a word I’ve said, so he’s an even more concise recap”. The problem is, it’s just throwing fuel on the fire. It refers to “in chapter X” or “as we saw in chapter Y”. But I don’t remember them. I couldn’t pull X from Y by then if my life depended on it, and so this unwarranted review became even more unhelpful.

It’s not all bad. The book has two “Special Sections”, essentially appendices, the second of which is actually worth reading. It is where DiSalvo included studies that he didn’t feel fitted the narrative structure of the book as a whole but that he found interesting nonetheless. And I agree, they are interesting. They are the only time the book makes sense, but this is because he’s not limiting his word count or trying to cram them into sections. They finally feel like they can breathe.

I feel sorry for What Makes Your Brain Happy And Why You Should Do The Opposite, because, what appears a fun idea for a book turned into a slow and painful collapse of incoherent and unclear ideas and overly simplified science. Thankfully, DiSalvo, as a professional writer, while unable to recount clearly, does understand pace. The book doesn’t feel tiring to read, it just fails to make sense or sink in as the base line is set too low. Ultimately, and I apologise for the flippancy of this remark, but my memory of the book will be the irony of the title, because, reading it, didn’t make my brain happy, and thus, forced me to do the opposite! Maybe I should listen to it more after all?

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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