The Emotional Life of Your Brain

Emotions are such messy things.  Like subterranean springs, they can thwart the best-laid plans of our rational minds, sap our motivation, send us off into paroxysms of rage and fuel many an “over-served” evening of excess bonhomie.

Until fairly recently, psychologists (behaviorists in particular) considered emotions to be mere interruptions in the brain’s more sophisticated functions of judgment, planning and reason.  Seated in our ancient, reptile and mammalian brains, emotions served merely to interfere with the exalted cognitive prowess of the pre-frontal cortex.

That was then.  More recently we have learned that the emotional brain is inextricably linked with the rational, thinking brain, as Richard Davidson, PhD has illustrated in his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them At their best, emotions serve to energize us, improve our concentration, broaden our thinking, and sustain our interest so we can persevere in our endeavours.  Rather than running on separate and distinct circuitry, it turns out that virtually all brain regions are involved with or affected by emotion.

Dr. Davidson’s career has spanned over 35 years of research in this arena, and he proposes that each of us is characterized by an Emotional Style, a consistent way in which we respond to experiences in our lives across six dimension, each of which is grounded in a particular pattern of brain activity that can be seen with brain imaging.

Emotional Style has six dimensions:

  • Resilience – how quickly or slowly we recover from adversity
  • Outlook – how long we are able to sustain a positive emotion
  • Social Intuition – how adept we are at picking up social signals from the people around us
  • Self-Awareness – how well we perceive bodily feelings that reflect emotions
  • Sensitivity to Context – how good we are at regulating our emotional responses to take into account the context in which we find yourselves
  • Attention – how sharp and clear our focus is

Contrast this with long-held views of personality, a much more familiar way of describing people.  Not grounded in identifiable neurological mechanisms, personality traits are high-level qualities that comprise combinations of Emotional Styles.  Consider individuals described as:

  • Impulsive – unfocussed Attention and low Self-Awareness
  • Anxious – Slow to Recover (Resilience), negative Outlook, high levels of Self-Awareness and Unfocused (low Attention)
  • Optimistic – Fast to Recover (Resilience) and Positive Outlook
  • Chronically unhappy – Slow to Recover (Resilience), Negative Outlook, which results in being unable to sustain positive emotions and being mired in negative ones after a setback.

How does our Emotional Style develop?  It’s a combination of predisposition, or genetics, and the environment – good old Nature and Nurture.  But the truly exciting part is marrying our knowledge that the brain is plastic (neuroplasticity) with understanding that Emotional Style is a product of discrete and identifiable brain functions, makes changing our Emotional Style possible.  Through meditation, cognitive behavior therapy and specific other exercises, we can develop a broader awareness of social signals, gain a deeper sensitivity to our own feelings and bodily sensations and achieve a more consistent positive outlook.   Adjusting how we think can literally change how we feel.

You might well ask why would I want to change my Emotional Style?  Aren’t I just fine as I am?  Dr. Davidson points out that while there is no ideal position on any of the six dimensions, not every position is equally desirable. Some Emotional Styles make it harder to be a productive member of society, to have meaningful relationships and to achieve an overall sense of well-being.  Complete lack of resilience, for example, can make someone so slow to recover that they’re at risk for depression.

Over the coming weeks, we will be doing a series of blogs on the different dimensions of Emotional Style and what we can do to change them, or to adjust our environments to help us manage them.  Stay tuned!

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