The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think

The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think
  • Author: Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley
    Publisher: Avery
    Genres: Health and Fitness
    Publish Date: December 24, 2012
    ISBN-10: 0452298881
    Pages: 304
    File Type: EPub
    Language: English


Book Preface

This book describes a personal and professional journey to understand why and how people differ in their emotional responses to what life throws at them, motivated by my desire to help people lead healthier, more fulfilling lives. The “professional” thread in this tapestry describes the development of the hybrid discipline called affective neuroscience, the study of the brain mechanisms that underlie our emotions and the search for ways to enhance people’s sense of well-­being and promote positive qualities of mind. The “personal” thread is my own story. Spurred by the conviction that, as Hamlet said to Horatio, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of” in the standard account of the mind provided by mainstream psychology and neuroscience, I have ventured outside the boundaries enclosing these disciplines, sometimes getting struck down, but in the end, I hope, achieving at least some of what I set out to do: to show through rigorous research that emotions, far from being the neurological fluff that mainstream science once believed them to be, are central to the functions of the brain and to the life of the mind.

My thirty years of research in affective neuroscience has produced hundreds of findings, from the brain mechanisms that underlie empathy and the differences between the autistic brain and the normally developing brain to how the brain’s seat of rationality can plunge us into the roiling emotional depths of depression. I hope that these results have contributed to our understanding of what it means to be human, of what it means to have an emotional life. But as these findings accumulated, I found myself stepping back from the day-­to-­day life of my laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which has grown over the years to something resembling a small company: As I write this in the spring of 2011, I have eleven graduate students, ten postdoctoral fellows, four computer programmers, twenty-­one additional research and administrative staff members, and some twenty million dollars in research grants from the National Institutes of Health and other funders.

Since May 2010, I have also served as director of the university’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, a research complex dedicated to learning how the qualities of mind that humankind has valued since before the dawn of civilization—­compassion, well-­being, charity, altruism, kindness, love, and other noble aspects of the human condition—­arise in the brain and how they can be nurtured. One of the great virtues of the center is that we do not confine our work to research alone. We very much want to get the results of that research out into the world, where it can make a real difference in the lives of real people. To that end, we have developed a preschool and elementary school curriculum designed to cultivate kindness and mindfulness, and we are evaluating the impact of this training on academic achievement as well as on attention, empathy, and cooperation. Another project investigates whether training in breathing and meditation can help veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq cope with stress and anxiety.

I love all of this, both the basic science and the extension of our findings into the real world. But it is way too easy to get consumed by it. (I often joke that I have several full-­time jobs, from overseeing grant applications to negotiating with the university bioethics committees for permission to do research on human volunteers.) I did not want that to happen.

About ten years ago, I therefore began to take stock of my research and that of other labs pursuing affective neuroscience—­not the interesting individual findings but the larger picture. And I saw that our decades of work had revealed something fundamental about the emotional life of the brain: that each of us is characterized by what I have come to call Emotional Style.

Before I briefly describe the components of Emotional Style, let me quickly explain how it relates to other classification systems that try to illuminate the vast diversity of ways to be human: emotional states, emotional traits, personality, and temperament.

The smallest, most fleeting unit of emotion is an emotional state. Typically lasting only a few seconds, it tends to be triggered by an experience—­the spike of joy you feel at the macaroni collage your child made you for Mother’s Day, the sense of accomplishment you feel upon finishing a big project at work, the anger you feel over having to work all three days of a holiday weekend, the sadness you feel when your child is the only one in her class not invited to a party. Emotional states can also arise from purely mental activity, such as daydreaming, or introspection, or anticipating the future. But whether they are triggered by real-­world experiences or mental ones, emotional states tend to dissipate, each giving way to the next.

A feeling that does persist, and that remains consistent over minutes or hours or even days, is a mood, of the “he’s in a bad mood” variety. And a feeling that characterizes you not for days but for years is an emotional trait. We think of someone who seems perpetually annoyed as grumpy, and someone who always seems to be mad at the world as angry. An emotional trait (chronic, just-­about-­to-­boil-­over anger) increases the likelihood that you will experience a particular emotional state (fury) because it lowers the threshold needed to feel such an emotional state.

Emotional Style is a consistent way of responding to the experiences of our lives. It is governed by specific, identifiable brain circuits and can be measured using objective laboratory methods. Emotional Style influences the likelihood of feeling particular emotional states, traits, and moods. Because Emotional Styles are much closer to underlying brain systems than emotional states or traits, they can be considered the atoms of our emotional lives—­their fundamental building blocks.

In contrast, personality, a more familiar way of describing people, is neither fundamental in this sense nor grounded in identifiable neurological mechanisms. Personality consists of a set of high-­level qualities that comprise particular emotional traits and Emotional Styles. Take, for instance, the well-­studied personality trait of agreeableness. People who are extremely agreeable, as measured by standard psychological assessments (as well as their own and that of people who know them well), are empathic, considerate, friendly, generous, and helpful. But each of these emotional traits is itself the product of different aspects of Emotional Style. Unlike personality, Emotional Style can be traced to a specific, characteristic brain signature. To understand the brain basis of agreeableness, then, we need to probe more deeply into the underlying Emotional Styles that comprise it.

Psychology has been churning out classification schemes with gusto lately, asserting that there are four kinds of temperament or five components of personality or Lord-­knows-­how-­many character types. While perfectly interesting and even fun—­the popular media have had a field day describing which character types make good romantic matches, business leaders, or psychopaths—­these schemes are light on scientific validity because they are not based on any rigorous analysis of underlying brain mechanisms. Anything having to do with human behavior, feelings, and ways of thinking arises from the brain, so any valid classification scheme must also be based on the brain. Which brings me back to Emotional Style.

Emotional Style comprises six dimensions. Neither conventional aspects of personality nor simple emotional traits or moods, let alone diagnostic criteria for mental illness, these six dimensions reflect the discoveries of modern neuroscientific research:

Resilience: how slowly or quickly you recover from adversity.
Outlook: how long you are able to sustain positive emotion.
Social Intuition: how adept you are at picking up social signals from the people around you.
Self-­Awareness: how well you perceive bodily feelings that reflect emotions.
Sensitivity to Context: how good you are at regulating your emotional responses to take into account the context you find yourself in.
Attention: how sharp and clear your focus is.
These are probably not the six dimensions you would come up with if you sat down and thought about your emotions and how they might differ from those of others. By the same measure, the Bohr model of the atom is probably not the model you would come up with if you sat down and thought about the structure of matter. I don’t mean to equate my work with that of the founders of modern physics, only to make a general point: It is rare that the human mind can determine the truths of nature, or even of ourselves, by intuition or casual observation. That’s why we have science. Only by methodical, rigorous experiments, and lots of them, can we figure out how the world works—­and how we ourselves work.

These six dimensions arose from my research in affective neuroscience, complemented and strengthened by the discoveries of colleagues around the world. They reflect properties of and patterns in the brain, the sine qua non of any model of human behavior and emotion. If the six dimensions don’t resonate with your understanding of yourself or of those close to you, that is likely because several of them operate on levels that are not always immediately apparent. For example, we tend not to be consciously aware of where we fall on the Resilience dimension. With few exceptions, we do not pay attention to how quickly we recover from a stressful event. (An exception would be something extremely traumatic, such as the death of a child; in that case, you are all too aware that you have remained a basket case for months and months.) But we experience its consequences. For instance, if you have an argument with your significant other in the morning, you might feel irritable for the entire day—­yet not realize that the reason you are snappish and grouchy and churlish is that you have not regained your emotional equilibrium, which is the mark of the Slow to Recover style. I will show you in chapter 3 how you can become more aware of your Emotional Styles, which is the first and most important step in any attempt to either gracefully accept who you are or transform it.

A rule of thumb in science is that any new theory that hopes to supplant what came before must explain the same phenomena that the old theory did, as well as new ones. In order to be accepted as a more accurate and all-­encompassing theory of gravity than what Isaac Newton had proposed after he saw the apple fall from the tree (or not), Einstein’s general theory of relativity had to explain all of the gravitational phenomena that Newton’s did, such as the orbits of the planets around the sun and the rate at which objects fell to earth, and new ones, too, such as the bending of celestial light around a large star. Let me show, then, that Emotional Style has sufficient explanatory power to account for well-­established personality traits and temperament types; later, particularly in chapter 4, we will see that it has a solid foundation in the brain, something other classification schemes do not.

I believe that every individual personality and temperament reflects a different combination of the six dimensions of Emotional Style. Take the “big five” personality traits, one of the standard classification systems in psychology: openness to new experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism:

Someone high in openness to new experience has strong Social Intuition. She is also very self-­aware and tends to be focused in her Attention style.
A conscientious person has well-­developed Social Intuition, a focused style of Attention, and acute Sensitivity to Context.
An extraverted person bounces back rapidly from adversity and thus is at the Fast to Recover end of the Resilience spectrum. She maintains a positive Outlook.
An agreeable person has a highly attuned Sensitivity to Context and strong Resilience; he also tends to maintain a positive Outlook.
Someone high in neuroticism is slow to recover from adversity. He has a gloomy, negative Outlook, is relatively insensitive to context, and tends to be unfocused in his Attention style.

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