Book Review (Part 2) – The Emotional Life of Your Brain

(This is Part II for Part I please click here, book available from Amazon here)

The core of Davidson’s book crystallises research as to how we uniquely react and respond to ‘life’s slings and arrows’.  Individual response is unique mix across six dimensions — Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention.  We have a mix of these styles which means we could easily bounce back from a setback (resilience domain) but not very good at reading the body language of others (social intuition domain).

These domains are not fixed but are able to be altered through particular methods.

The key difference between these defined domains and some kind of self help manual is that they are related to underlying identifiable brain systems and can be altered through mental and environmental changes.

Resilience is how slowly or quickly we recover from adversity, stressful change, setbacks or emotional challenges. The speed of recovery is related to the number and strength of connections between an area above the left eye (called the left prefrontal cortex) and a part of the brain called the amgdala.  Too few connections between these two areas and amygdala activation, which provides a negative valence to the experience, isn’t dampened down – we then find it difficult to turn off the provoked negative emotion.   Healthy, resilient people also exhibit a higher left to right ratio in brain activity above the eyes.  Techniques shown to improve resilience include mindfulness meditation as it boosts activation of the area above the left eye, the wellbeing side, which consequently causes fewer signals to reach the amygdala.  It also reduces activity in the emotionally negative area above the right side.  Conversely we can also rebound too quickly, especially in relation to the emotions of others – and can therefore lack empathy.  This was the first time I had heard the connection between too much resilience and being ‘walled off’ from others emotions, it’s an interesting connection isn’t it? Equally there are practises you can do here if you find yourself too resilient and hence walled off.  Here, for example, you can practise a technique called Tonglen (taking on and transforming the suffering of others based on the movement of the breath), cultivating loving kindness or reframing the situation.

Outlook: Until very recently the focus of medical science has been on our problems, using this as a prompt to treat disease for instance.  This approach then spilled over into emotions with a focus on anxiety and depression. Positive emotions like, happiness, contentment, eagerness and virtuous qualities of mind – love and kindness for instance have, until recently, been largely ignored because they weren’t classified as problems – which is understandable but also a little crazy. This bias is fortunately shifting and rightly so. Cultivating positive qualities in the workplace is critical, as rigorous studies find that they broaden the mind, enhance creativity, focus and increase perseverance – key skills necessary to create adaptive organisations able to meet challenges of today’s modern working environment.    If we feel unable to sustain positive feelings then Davidson shows how we can help move our outlook dimension.  This is possible because positive feeling arises in one part of the brain (nucleas accumbens) but is then captured and encouraged again by the area above the left eye.  Without this activity the joy evaporates quickly.  Journaling positive experiences, expressing gratitude regularly, delaying gratification, mindfulness or compassion meditation all lead to increases in positive outlook.  Try it and see for yourself.  Conversely too much positivity or LPFC activation, can lead to individuals finding it hard to delay gratification or neglecting genuine threats.  Here we can place our attention on threats on the environment – increasing the negative valence of experience.

Social intuition is how good we are at picking up social cues, facial expressions and body language.  The fusiform gyrus activates when people perceive an object they are expert in – so a car lover looking at a Rolls Royce for instance.  As humans beings are social creatures this means it is highly active when we see the faces of others.  This is especially true when we look into other people’s eyes which convey important social cues like boredom, trust or surprise etc. Social intuition obviously has a key role to play in communication and team work.  It is also improved through mindfulness meditation, including mindfully placing your attention on social signals during interactions or with direct training via compassion meditation. If we are hypersensitive to social intuition hence start to lose our own sense of healthy self, we can intentionally move our awareness away from social cues.

Self awareness is how well we perceive our own thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.  These provide important signals of our own internal emotions and state of mind.  It is also crucial for empathy as our body maps the feelings and intentions of others onto our own internal body representation through a brain region called the insula.  If there is a lack of self awareness – we could be easily suffering from excessive stress or even an amygdala hijack (using Daniel Golemans term) and the rational thinking part of the brain shut downs and we don’t even notice it. Self awareness can be improved again through mindfulness or compassion exercises.  Hyperfocused self awareness can be improved also through mindfulness but also reframing or CBT.

Sensitivity to context: Is how good we are at both noticing social cues and context we find ourselves in, and how well we can align appropriate emotional responses and behaviours to this context. The hippocampus is crucial for this.  If in the safe environment of home we are still overcome with anxiety or behave in a way that is suitable for our social life but not in a meeting – this may be an indication of the ‘tuned out’ end of this spectrum of this ‘sensitivity to context’.   Conversely we may find we alter our behaviour to fit every different context to a point where we lose our genuine self and this would mean we are at the too ‘Tuned in’ end of the spectrum. Though there is limited research in this area, Davidson suggest that we can work this is domain by bringing anxiety provoking situations onto the mindfulness of the breath.

Attention underlies all the other emotional styles and provides the ability to work and transform them. It is how clear and undistracted our focus is, how well we are able to tune in and selectively notice details and tune out situational, environmental, cognitive and emotional distracters. When we are unfocused or hyper-focused we can make careless mistakes, have trouble organising activities, or it can even be expressed as cutting into conversations or fidgeting.  A lack of attention also leads to an inability to stop impulses, like talking excessively or not being able to prevent stimuli distracting and captivating you attention.  When we have good selective attention a clear pattern of electrical activity occurs. Brain waves ‘phase lock’ and become synchronised with the external stimulus – a signature of focused attention.  This synchronisation is easily registerable against other background oscillations, but only when the mind is calm and not constantly distracted – phase locking is much poorer in people with ADHD for example. Not missing information and social cues is an important benefit of attention but we can also invest too much of our attentional resources in detecting certain items which causes us to miss the appearance of a target piece of information a moment later – this is called attentional blink, our attention drops out for a moment.  This blink is larger if the target of our attention has an emotional charge to it.  Strengthening connections between the area above our eyes and other brain regions improves selective attention and reduces attentional blink.

We can train the mind and retrain our attention to gather it in a calm abiding manner without too much excitement. We become present, aware and spacious to tasks and each other. This relates to the top of the PFC/catecholamine performance curve – the best application in applying our attention (see previous post here).  This is possible through again through the mental technology of mindfulness meditation. Richard Davison sums this up “Mindfulness meditation transforms the neural underpinnings of attention ….. it helps reduce background chatter and focus on selected information”.

As you can see many of the exercises that are helpful in working with the domains are contemplative in nature.  This is because, as stated in the previous post, we can use our mind to rewire our brain (sometimes called self directed neuroplasticity) – and some of the most effective methods for this is by intentionally transforming the mind.  What is held in attention ‘Turbo Charges’ neuroplasticity – to borrow a phrase from Rick Hanson.

This is a rich vein of research – forging a new scientific discipline called contemplative neuroscience – which I am sure will grow exponentially over the next few years.

You can easily see the impact of the Mind and Life conferences influencing Davidson’s work and this book – with the practical helpful outcomes it provides and will continue to provide into the future.  Mind and life conference is a dialogue between economists, philosophers, neuroscientists and the Dalai Lama with the aim of mutually developing a deeper understanding of reality and how such exchange can benefit humanity and the world.

An indication of your emotional style is available here.

I found this book really inspiring and I highly recommend it.

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