Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley. The Emotional Life of your Brain.

Leadership Emerging / March 2013

cover Emotional Life of Your BrainRichard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley. The Emotional Life of your Brain. New York, New York: Hudson Street Press, 2012.

Mark Harman

Mark Harman

Mark Harman, M.D.

Current Psychology defines and explains one’s reactions and behaviors to their environment through statistical derivation of observed behavioral patterns. While predictable 70% of the time, these models fall short of an encompassing explanation.  Drawing on his years of extensive research and knowledge in the field of Affective Neuroscience, Dr. Davidson outlines in his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, a new model of personality. Dissatisfied with current concepts measuring and explaining someone’s predictable response, Davidson sets out to find a model explaining behavior rooted in neurophysiology. Basing his categorization on activated neural circuitry observed in research, Davidson defines six Emotional Styles that make up an individual’s personality: Resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context, and attention.

Resilience is the ability to emotionally equilibrate following a challenge or disaster. For example, does one linger in depression following a failure or death, or do they quickly bounce back and carry on. Someone on the slow to recover end has marked difficulty moving forward following upsetting events. Davidson points out that both poles have limitations. Someone falling on the extremely resilience end of the spectrum likely lacks motivation to overcome adversity.

Outlook is the capacity to remain upbeat and to sustain positive emotion over time. While resilience is a measure of how quickly you recover, outlook is a measure of how long you maintain positive emotions following something good and how long it takes to regain a balance following adversity.

Social intuition is the ability to intuitively read a social context. To help explain the idea, Davidson uses several examples of his meetings with the Dali Lama. Another easier idea is to think about the individuals in our own lives that seem to have a natural ability to perceive the emotional states of others. In contrast, consider the social intuition of someone with autism. These individuals lack the ability to understand facial expression, nonverbal cues or how to respond to them. A modern example may be the character Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.

Self-awareness is self-explanatory (no pun intended). Everyone knows those few individuals to whom the concept of self-awareness is as foreign as the weather patterns on Venus. We also encounter those whom seem to possess and even innately courage people around them to observe themselves. Rooting the definition in more concrete terms, Davidson, defines self-awareness as perceiving physical, visceral sensations that reflect emotional states. For example, experiencing a tightening of the chest when anxious.

Lexically, sensitivity to context appears similar to social intuition. Where social intuition is the perception of social signals, however, sensitivity to context is the ability to regulate your responses after considering the environment and context you are in. An extreme example of low sensitivity to context would be the guest playing games on their phone at a funeral. This individual would fall in the tuned out end of the spectrum as he or she is oblivious to the social rules governing the context. On the opposite end is the tuned in individual who is never socially awkward and seems to always know the exact emotional undertone to use in any situation.

Attention is simply how sharp or clear your focus is. To be clear, Davidson is not speaking about the ability to tune out the sirens roaring down the street while you’re trying to read this article. No. Davidson is referring to the ability to ignore emotional states that interfere with your ability to focus on the present moment or task. Internal and external emotional cues bombard us constantly: The shouting match that erupts three tables down in a restaurant or the hysterical crying and pleading of a lover not to leave. Attention is the ability to screen, ignore, and limit the effects of emotional cues on ones focus.

Davidson is quick to point out two aspects of his Emotional Styles model. First he states that the Emotional Styles are not single categories individuals fall into, but spectrums each of us fall upon. For example, someone who is nervous, easily upset, dwells heavily on mistakes, pessimistic and often awkward, would fall on the low-end of the Resilience spectrum. They would also have a negative outlook, low social intuition, low self-awareness, and low sensitivity to context. We all fall somewhere on the spectra. Ideally, to find the most reading of your spectra Davidson recommends a controlled lab and Functional MRI (fMRI) scan, but freely admits this is not realistic. As a substitute, Davidson devised ten true or false questions for each style to help one determine where on the spectrum they will likely fall.

Second, Davidson explicitly states in the beginning chapter:

There is no ideal Emotional Style, no optimal position on any continua that describe the six Emotional Styles, let alone all of them. Civilization couldn’t flourish without different emotional types, including the extremes…some of the world’s greatest works of art and most monumental achievements in mathematics and science sprang from the minds of social misfits…Don’t let anyone tell you need to be more socially intuitive or you need to alter your attention from unfocused to focused… Only if your Emotional Style interferes with your daily life and constrains your happiness, only if it prevents you from reaching your goals or causes you distress, should you consider making an effort to change it. (p13, italics added)

With this admonition and the explanation of each style firmly established, Davidson, continues the book with his own personal journey leading to the discovery of his model and the neuroscience underlying it. Using the concept of neuroplasticity as the logical basis to explain his experiential successes with Buddhist techniques, Davidson offers practical exercises to help modify each of the styles. For example, deploying cognitive behavioral techniques of positive self-talk for three weeks will move one’s outlook towards the positive end of the spectrum. For attention and self-awareness, practicing mindfulness breathing exercises improve your abilities in each.

A refreshing change from normative statistics-based personality models, Richard Davidson, Ph.D.’s book, The Emotional Side of Your Brain, begins to apply the much needed findings of neurophysiology and neuropsychology to understanding how behaviors and personalities. It also provides and encouraging perspective by reminding us that our brains are not static, but rather constantly changed by our thought patterns, habits, and behaviors. Hence, we are not genetic foregone conclusions, but entities that can change and improve. Perhaps his book and model provide us a new means of evaluating and improving ourselves; a modern eudaimonia, if you will.

About the Author

Mark Harman, MD, MSc, a physician scientist-executive,is currently entering into the consulting field. His educational background is a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, a Masters of Counselling from Mercer University, two years of study at McAfee-Mercer School of Theology, a Medical Degree from St. George’s University, and he is currently completing an MBA in International Health Systems.

He has taught in university-level classes in over six different countries. He recently wrote a manual that was instrumental in the creation an outpatient group substance abuse treatment program in Norfolk County, United Kingdom. He has published research in the fields of Sleep Medicine, Autism, Counselling, and Addiction Medicine.