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The Emotional Life of Your Brain
The Emotional Life of Your Brain
by Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley
Eastern philosophies strike again! Sort of.
Usually I think neuroscience, anthropology, personality and psychology studies and topics are very interesting and by reading books on those subjects I discovered this one. It was published March 1st 2012 and it was one of my favourites for the year.
The premise is that the brain is plastic and you can model it in some ways by using methods that were scientifically proven to work.
Richard Davidson talks about the “emotional style”, which, in his words 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.
The 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.”
He then talks about the existence of 6 dimensions of the emotional style, according to his experience and observations. Namely:
- 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”) and
- attention (“how sharp and clear your focus is”).
He also touches on how combinations of high, medium and low ”scores” on these dimensions are found in personality traits like those of the Big Five (openness to new experience, neuroticism, extraversion, etc), how certain dimensions tend to look in people with strong accounting, computer programming or painting skills (and more) and on how high or low scores on all dimensions can be valuable, but can also have drawbacks in their ways.
The point, in his opinion, is that you should let your happiness or the happiness of someone you care about and for whom you would find it reasonable to modify something be your guide for change.
There are some tests and also tips for changing these dimensions in your brain, like meditation and cognitive reappraisal. I would have liked to see more practical applications in this sense, but I think in the future even more will be discovered and developed.
As an example, “a Positive Outlook reflects high activity in the ventral striatum (specifically, the nucleus accumbens, within the ventral striatum, which processes the sense of reward), the ventral pallidum (also interconnected with the ventral striatum, it is exquisitely sensitive to hedonic pleasure), and the prefrontal cortex, which through its planning function helps to sustain activity in the nucleus accumbens.
A Negative Outlook reflects low activity in these regions and weaker connections between them.
(…) I’m betting more people want to increase their ability to sustain positive emotion than to let the blues linger. That means raising activity in the ventral striatum or the prefrontal cortex, or both, and increasing the strength of the connections between them.
A chief function of the prefrontal cortex is planning. You can therefore strengthen it much as you would strengthen your biceps: Exercise it. When you find yourself in a situation in which you are tempted by an immediate reward but you know the smarter, safer, healthier, or otherwise better choice is to wait for a future reward of higher value, pause and focus on the more valuable future reward.
(…)This strategy strengthens the planning function of the prefrontal cortex by requiring it to envision a positive future outcome.
(…)The point is that by exercising your capacity for forethought and planning, you strengthen your prefrontal cortex and its connection to the ventral striatum.
(…)Try practicing this exercise daily for one week and see if it makes a difference. Although you won’t be able to look inside your brain to see whether connections between the prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum have been strengthened, if you find that you can more easily reevaluate the relative benefits of an immediate versus a longer-term reward and reject the former, then in all likelihood that’s what has happened. And here’s the payoff: a greater ability to sustain positive emotions.”
I think that sounds a bit science fiction and pretty fun and cool! And all of this has the potential of helping people.
I wasn’t crazy about the writing style in some parts of this book, but I liked the positive, yes-change-can-happen tone of it, that it was rooted in scientific research and that the scientific, proof-based attitude was promoted by including and describing the studies and methods - I love experiments.
Plus, it has applications in the improvement of people’s lives, from what it seems and according to the author. Even better!
Overall, I liked this book and thought it was very interesting and worth reading, even if only for the MRI studies linking emotions with brain patterns. I think, though, that the whole idea and applications look promising.
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