Changing Our Brains, Changing Ourselves

How-to-control-emotions-with-the-right-brain-and-left-brainNeuroscientist Richard Davidson believes that understanding the neurobiology of emotion can help all of us develop the right ‘emotional style’ to improve our lives.

By Lea Winerman
September 2012, Vol 43, No. 8

Richard Davidson, PhD, begins every day with 45 minutes of meditation, just as he has since he first visited India and Sri Lanka as a graduate student in the mid-1970s. The practice calms him, he says, allowing him to succeed in a high-stress, high-profile research career.

Now, in his new book “The Emotional Life of Your Brain,” Davidson lays out his explanation for why meditation and other “neurally inspired behavioral interventions” can help people tweak their own emotions in search of happier, more productive lives.

Davidson, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, has spent nearly four decades studying the brain circuitry that underlies emotion. In his book, he lays out six empirically based “emotional styles” that define our emotional makeup.

Davidson spoke to the Monitor about emotional style, and how new research on brain plasticity suggests that interventions like meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy can allow people to change their emotional styles by changing the very brain circuits that govern them.

How has psychologists’ understanding of emotion changed over the nearly four decades you’ve been doing this research?

In the mid-1970s, there was hardly any research on emotion — it was hardly considered a field. What little work there was used very coarse self-report measures. The cognitive psychologists who were beginning to hold sway at that time regarded emotion as just something that interrupts cognition. The idea that emotions are adaptive — that they can play an important role in decision-making and influence behavior — emerged considerably later.

Closer to my own work, the idea that the cortex was involved in emotion was really heresy, because the focus in neuroscience — the little that there was — was exclusively on limbic and brainstem contributions to emotion. Emotion was very much regarded as a primitive kind of psychological process. I think that regarding it in that way kept it in the “basement of the brain,” so to speak.

What made you think at the time that emotion might not just be relegated to the brain’s basement?

There were really two strands of evidence. One was a series of studies that were beginning to be published on brain-damaged patients, which clearly indicated that cortical damage does lead to disruption of emotion.

The other was simply my own observations. Being a student of behavior, it seemed very clear to me that when we engage in making complex decisions — such as “Should I have this person as my partner?,” “Should I go to this graduate school?,” “Should I make this major purchase?” — we are not making them on the basis of a cold cognitive calculus. And an honest systematic observation will, I think, convince anyone that those kinds of complex decisions require that we consult our emotions.

In your book, you lay out six “emotional styles” — spectra along which we all fall. What are these six styles, and how did you develop them?

The six emotional styles emerged over the course of 30 years of neuroscientific research. They’re not obvious dimensions of emotion: They don’t conform to specific discrete emotions, and they don’t conform to traditional models of valence and arousal that have figured prominently in research on emotion.

One style I call resilience. It refers to how slowly or quickly you recover from adversity. Some people take a long time to come back to baseline — they’re thrown off kilter by some adverse event — while other people are able to recover very, very quickly.

The second emotional style I call outlook. This refers to how long positive emotion persists. It’s associated with your propensity to see the world through rosy-colored glasses — or not.

The third style I call social intuition. This refers to how accurate you are at decoding others’ nonverbal signals of emotion.

The fourth dimension I call self-awareness, which refers to the accuracy with which one decodes the internal bodily cues in oneself that are associated with emotion, such as heart rate, sweating and muscle tension. Some people are acutely sensitive to what’s going on inside themselves, while others are quite opaque about that.

The fifth dimension I call context. What I mean here is sensitivity to context. Some people modulate their emotional responses in context-appropriate ways, so that how they, for example, talk to their spouse would be very different than how they talk to their boss. Other people make less of a distinction among contexts.

The last emotional style is attention, which is not typically thought of as an emotional constituent. But attention and emotion are so intimately linked. Emotional stimuli are stimuli toward which we are naturally pulled. Someone who’s scattered is pulled by emotional stimuli in the environment, and someone who’s more focused is able to resist those attractions and focus his or her attention voluntarily.

In the book I describe the underlying brain circuits that support these styles and I also highlight some key experiments that led to the formulation of each of them.

Can you give an example?

Sure. Take resilience — all of us will at one point or another in our life be subjected to adversity. And resilience is very important in influencing vulnerability to psychopathology, particularly mood and anxiety disorders.

Being able to recover quickly is an essential element in resilience. The experiments that led us to the conceptualization of this style were experiments that started early in my career. They began with studies in which we confirmed that people differ in the extent to which the left versus the right hemisphere is differentially more activated at baseline, and those differences are relatively stable over time. It turned out that people with greater left-side activation recovered more quickly from negative affective stimuli in the laboratory. We were able to probe the rapidity of recovery using physiological measures to track on a moment-by-moment basis the pattern of activation in response, for example, to a negative picture. And then we could track after the picture went off how long it took a person to recover. And it turns out that people with more left-side activation at baseline recover more quickly.

We’ve gone on and done neuroimaging studies, and have found that the prefrontal cortex exhibits strong connectivity with the amygdala. So what likely is happening is that increased levels of prefrontal activation are modulating the activity in the amygdala and facilitating turning off the amygdala once it’s turned on.

Do you think that you’ve identified all the emotional styles, or might you find others?

I don’t regard these six as the final statement on this by any means. It’s really important to underscore that this is a best guess, based on the research we have. But one of the wonderful things about science is that it’s never static and our models are always changing. I’m confident that 10 years from now we’ll think about this differently, at least to some extent.

Let me just add one other point here, and that is that there’s no one pattern among these styles that is best. It really will vary for each person based on her or his unique environment. Some people, for example, who may be very low on the social intuition style and may not be very good at decoding nonverbal signals of emotion, are the kind of people who interact a lot with machines. They may be a computer programmer, they may have a very successful and happy life, and in fact they prefer to spend not very much time around others. And that’s great, and we need people like that in our society.

But it seems like there are some styles that will make your life harder — if your resilience is very low and it’s tough for you to recover from adversity, for example, that seems like a difficult way to live. So how do people know when their emotional style is the right one for them, and when it’s something that they need to change?

That’s a very good question, and not an easy one to answer simply. I think that in the extreme, a person will know. So if people are unable to cope with the expectations and demands of everyday life, then they will likely know that whatever emotional style they’re expressing is not optimal.

There’s probably a large range in the middle where people may not be as cognizant as they could be. And that is a major purpose in writing the book: helping people become more aware of their emotional styles, because awareness is really the first ingredient in making changes.

On that point, you emphasize that these emotional styles are not set in stone — we can change where we fall on the continuum. How does that work?

One of my key messages is that the styles are indeed based upon specific brain circuits. And since we know that the brain exhibits plasticity, our styles in fact can be changed through a concept I call neurally inspired behavioral interventions. There are actually interventions around that were developed thousands of years ago that turn out to be very good candidates for this, and they come from the meditative traditions.

I have been very influenced by these. I tell the story in the book of my first meeting with the Dalai Lama in 1992, which played a seminal role in my career, both professionally and personally. His inspiration for me is the possibility that very simple methods that can be taught in a completely secular way can be used to transform the mind and change the brain in ways which actually can affect these emotional styles.

So just to give a couple of examples: Sticking with resilience again, there is a method of meditation that is very popular called mindfulness meditation. And what mindfulness meditation does is teach people to pay attention on purpose, nonjudgmentally. The nonjudgmental piece is very important, because what happens with emotional interactions — particularly negative ones — is rather than paying attention to them nonjudgmentally, we judge, and the judgments lead to rumination and perseveration of the emotion way beyond the point where the elicitor is present.

So, for example, if we have an argument with someone close to us in the morning, some of us keep replaying it all day. And it has a deleterious effect on our mood and behavior for many hours after the original argument.

If we can learn to pay attention nonjudgmentally, it offers the possibility of having a quicker recovery. Recent research is bearing that out. We’ve done studies, and there are other studies in the literature, showing that simple forms of mindfulness meditation actually do facilitate recovery from adversity and thus promote a greater resilience style, and change the brain circuits that are associated with resilience in ways that we would predict.

How has your own meditation practice influenced your work and your emotional style?

I used to be a much more volatile person. Not that I was ever really volatile, but I definitely had more episodes of getting visibly angry. And I would say that the frequency of that kind of behavior has dramatically changed over the last 10 years in particular. So that’s one very concrete behavior.

From an external observer’s perspective, I lead what would be a very stressful life. I travel a lot, I work extremely long hours, I’m involved in competitive science: getting grants, publishing all the time, running a large laboratory, meeting ceaseless deadlines. And I think for the most part I do it pretty calmly — by no means perfectly, and there are always huge areas in need of improvement. But I do not think I could do what I do, in the way that I do it, were it not for my daily mediation practice.

emotionallifebrainI should also say one of the roots of the word “meditation” in Sanskrit comes from the word “familiarization.” And according to that definition, meditation is actually familiarizing yourself with your own mind. I would go so far as to say that I believe that for anyone who is a student of the mind, a student of psychology, doing meditation would be very useful, because it is a practice in which they can become more familiar with their own mind, and I think that it can help them become better psychologists.


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