A Review of “Brain Lock” by Jeffrey Schwartz

brain lockDebates about the relationship between faith and science abound. The two are diametrically opposed, we are often told, and never shall they meet. Accept occasionally they do meet, even if unintentionally. Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz’s book Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive-Compulsive Behavior is evidence. Though the book is written from the perspective of clinical psychology, its claims and recommendations support the perspective of Biblical counseling. It is a book whose science supports the testimony of Scripture.

Schwartz is psychiatrist and a researcher in neuroplasticity. He has dedicated himself particularly to helping those who are in bondage to obsessive compulsive behavior. He and his team at UCLA School of Medicine have been studying the subject for over well over a decade. In Brain Lock, published back in 1996, he not only reveals their research, but also the four step “self-directed cognitive-behavioral therapy” that has helped countless people fight-off the urges of their compulsion. Their method focuses primarily on recognizing false messages, refusing to indulge them, and reorienting the mind towards truth. Dr. Schwartz does not use medication to treat OCD in his patients, though he may use it to temporarily aid people – sort of like a set of training wheels or floaties. The cognitive emphasis has, according to Schwartz, produced the most effective results. In fact, he states it more confidently than even that. He writes:

For the first time ever for any psychiatric condition or any psychotherapy technique, we have scientific evidence that cognitive behavioral therapy alone actually causes chemical changes in the brains of people with OCD. We have demonstrated that by changing your behavior, you can free yourself from Brain Lock, change your brain chemistry, and get relief from OCD’s terrible symptoms. (xix)

It’s a bold statement, but he has the PET scans to prove it. The scans reveal that in patients with OCD the orbital cortex is actually overacting, the energy level is unusually higher than is normal in the orbital cortex. The brain is actually overheating, he says. As patients learn to master the four steps, though, we see the brain activity in the frontal regions actually decrease. Their brain chemistry actually changed through renewed thinking.

Schwartz’s work is fascinating and insightful. Full of case studies and images of the actual PET scans he gives full support the claims of his book that cognitive-behavioral therapy can produce tremendous results in helping people to fight against obsessive-compulsive behavior. He makes a few assumptions, namely that biochemical deficiencies are the cause of OCD. His PET scans do clearly reveal that the basal ganglia is overheating, but it’s not entirely sure what the cause of this “overheating” is. He assumes the biochemistry is the cause, but it is just as likely that there may be an external cause. As Dr. Steve Viars has written elsewhere:

Observable changes in the brain could easily be explained as the result of mental-behavioral choices, just as they could be the cause of those same thoughts and actions. (Counseling Hard Cases, 65)

Schwartz is too quick to tell people, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD!” He assumes more than he can prove. Nonetheless, the book is extremely worthy of a counselor’s time. Many of its claims are echoed within the Biblical counseling community.

It is the belief of the Biblical counselor that renewing the mind is precisely how we begin to work towards change. Romans 12:2 states that we are “transformed by the renewal of [the] mind.” Identifying false beliefs, refusing to listen to them, reorienting our minds towards truth, and responding in positive action are all patterns of Biblical counseling. What Schwartz has done in his work is to lend scientific support to these claims. He augments what we already know about the possibility for change. This is a fascinating and helpful tool for counselors. The Scriptures have always been true, sometimes science catches up with them.

I highly recommend Brain Lock to counselors. It can be a bit technical but it is not difficult to read. We should read it with discernment, but much of its content will be useful to Biblical counselors.


  1. The first chapter in Brainlock is excellent as an explanation of OCD. However, as an OCD sufferer myself (once in the severe category), I found Freedom From Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by Jonathan Grayson, to be much more helpful. Though, as a Christian, the chapter on Scrupulosity wasn’t my favorite.

    Also, though I’m not crazy about medication, I find that while on it, the obsessive (frightening) thoughts just don’t come as often, nor as strongly. Also, my thinking is more rational and my emotions are much more evened out (I don’t cry every single day anymore) and the worst of my depressive symptoms have subsided. In fact, I’m much more “me” now, with normal range highs and lows. But it can take time to find the right medication. I was previously on other medication and I was over medicated, constantly exhausted, and had very flat, non-emotional responses. I’m certainly not trying to advocate for medication, but I can’t deny the very real help I’ve received from it. However, by and large, the best treatment I received was Cognitive Behavioral Therapy using Exposure and Response Prevention. It is the gold standard treatment for OCD, and after having done it, I understand why.

    Thanks for letting me share some thoughts!

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