Book Review (Part 1) – The Emotional Life of Your Brain

(This is Part I for Part II please click here)

Some texts are perfect for particular needs of our time.  For me The Emotional Life of Your Brain is one such book. It’s written by a pioneer in neuroscience Professor Richard Davidson and an award winning health & science correspondent Sharon Begley – who has a deft skill at making such books light on the eye and easy to digest. I must admit to Davidson being a bit of a hero of mine, both because of this pioneering work (in 2006, he was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine ) but also because of his humanity which really shines throughout this read.  The book is both a summation of 35 years neuroscience research as well as a tantalising glimpse into how such research, as it becomes more broadly known, will have a profound impact across a huge range of disciplines and into society and our working lives. To say we are at the cusp of some fundamental societal changes is, I feel, a bit of an understatement.

Even with breakthrough books on emotional intelligence by Daniel Goleman, emotions are still very much peripheral in organisations.  Workplace culture (with rare exceptions) seems to be stuck in a time warp that mirrors an old 1970s cognitive psychologists perspective– that they offer no value in themselves, the best they do is  just interrupt us so that we can direct our attention to what is really important.  Its a bit absurd really and yet…. when’s the last time emotions were spoken about in your workplace for instance?  The emotional tapestry at work seems almost binary, dissolving down to just whether we feel stressed or not, nothing more – relegated to a point of insignificance, viewed as getting in the way of the real business and doing what is important, if they are mentioned at work at all.

Emotions at work?  Get real.

But this will and must change.  As Professor Davidson notes “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”.  Feeling permeates everything – even to the level of affecting how we see.  Davidson who pioneered affective neuroscience (emotions and the brain) has shown there is no clear dividing line between emotions and cognition.

And if you still think emotions don’t matter at work then I’d ask you to consider this study. Gallup asked 10 million employees around the world if they could agree or disagree with the following statement: “my supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person,” those who agreed with this statement were more productive, contributed more to profits, and were significantly more likely to stay with the company long-term. If we don’t acknowledge emotions at work and its impact, its equivalent to making critical business decisions whilst knowing we have an incomplete picture. How many poor leadership decisions are made whilst minds are being distorted by negative emotions, unable to see the situation clearly? Or the team meetings we’ve all seen disintegrate as destructive emotions captivate the mood of the workspace and sap the energy of the room?

For many of us this will be common sense, yet common sense isn’t necessarily common action.  A glance at the average business plan would show this gap.

The core of Davidson’s book crystallises research how we ourselves uniquely react and respond to ‘life’s slings and arrows’.  Individual response is a unique mix across six dimensions — Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention.  The key difference between these defined domains and some kind of self help manual is that they are related to underlying identifiable brain systems.  So there is a particular brain signature for a resilient brain compared to one that finds it difficult to shake off an argument with a co-worker or to recover from a loss for instance. These insights into specific brain patterns provide a blueprint of what areas we can target to improve or alter our own unique emotional style.

This transformation is possible because our brain changes its structure and function in relationship to experience – called neuroplasticity, with the mechanisms of neuroplasticity the most important idea in neuroscience in the last decade. A crucial point to note here is that the brain changes both in relationship to external events, the environment and the inner landscape of our minds – our thoughts and emotions.  For instance, the same brain changes occur in individuals who learn to play a 4 key tune on a piano, compared to those who just imagine they learn to play this same tune – a purely mental event.

This is worth repeating.

Mentally rehearsing an activity or positive qualities of mind also changes the brain.  Directing our attention, or cultivating qualities of the mind acts back on the brain itself.  Sometimes this is referred to as self directed neuroplasticity. We can exercise choice with our mind to work and transform unhelpful habits that are thrown up by the brain.  Through this process, just like we can slowly increase what we can bench press as we exercise, mental workouts can alter our own unique mix of emotional styles.  Aspects we therefore considered as fixed traits, things like resilience, positive outlook, empathy or even happiness are consequently skills that can be developed, learnt and improved.   This is why mental or contemplative practises play such a pivotal role in being able to change our emotional style.

My next blog post will continue this book review by exploring these domains in more depth and highlighting  the techniques shown to  change our emotional style in beneficial ways.

(This is Part I for Part II please click here)

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