The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live--and How You Ca n Change Them Hardcover – Mar 1 2012
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"Whether he is measuring neural activity in the laboratory or climbing the Himalayas to meet the Dalai Lama, Davidson is an inveterate explorer who has spent a lifetime probing the deep mystery of human feeling. Don't miss this smart and lively book by the world's foremost expert on emotion and the brain." -Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., author of Stumbling on Happiness
"The Emotional Life of Your Brain is an eye-opener, replete with breakthrough research that will change the way you see yourself and everyone you know. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley make a star team: cutting-edge findings formulated in a delightful, can't-put-it-down read. I loved this book." -Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., author of Emotional Intelligence
"What a gift from the world's leading neuroscientist who works on what makes life worth living. This is a must-read for everyone who is interested in positive psychology." -Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., author of Learned Optimism — Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., author of Learned Optimism
About the Author
Richard J. Davidson, PhD, is the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and director of the W. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.
Sharon Begley has been the science editor and science columnist at Newsweek as well as science columnist at The Wall Street Journal.
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To begin with, the book tells the story of Davidson's career as it is punctuated by highlights of research. It does not follow chronological order though. Rather, it follows the main themes that Davidson researchers. Most importantly are the six dimensions of emotion. Davidson makes the rather dramatic claim that these supersede both temperament and personality. The latter is certain to be hotly debated by personality researchers, but Davidson argues that his constructs have a firm(er) neurological bases, unlike say the Big Five. The six emotional dimensions underlie personality and temperament, which are simply reflections of one's underlying emotional states. The six states are:
Resilience: how quickly one emotionally recovers from negative life events.
Outlook: how optimistic/positive one generally is.
Social Intuition: how well one can read emotions in social situations.
Self-Awareness: how well one is aware of one's own feelings and emotions.
Sensitivity to Context: how one's emotions are influenced by contextual factors, and how aware one is of these external influences.
Attention: how well one can maintain one's focus, in particular emotional focus.
The first half of the book describes the scientific evidence for these dimensions, which is in my opinion the strongest part of the book. Davidson does present enough evidence to make it likely that there is significant validity behind his categories. There are some missing details.Read more ›
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The 6 categories of Emotional Style are:
- 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.
- Attention: How sharp and clear your focus is.
At first I was wary of this approach, as there are numerous classification systems for emotions that strike me as somewhat arbitrary. After a while though, it sunk in and I realized how fundamentally these functions affect the contours (ups and downs) and contexts of our emotional states, and how we perceive and react to our social world. It is also extremely interesting to understand the basis for these characteristics in terms of brain function, something which is rarely tackled in a satisfactory way. Sometimes he seems to paint with too broad of a brush, probably a reflection of how much has yet to be learned, but overall it is very illuminating stuff.
In addition to helping readers understand the workings of the brain, readers are encouraged by the author to evaluate their own particular Emotional Style and consider how they might change it. He discusses many ways that the extreme ends of certain emotional style categories give rise to serious difficulties in life for some people (depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, social ineptitude, etc). The plasticity of the brain is emphasized, and the author gives very specific suggestions of ways to change if the reader so desires. I don't want to give the impression that this is merely a "self-help" type of book, as that would seriously underestimate the content here.
A very significant contribution the author makes is his evaluation of the effects of meditation on the brain. Richard Davidson is perhaps the foremost researcher in the world investigating the connection between meditation and brain function, and has worked closely with the Dalai Lama to recruit experienced monk meditators for brain scans (fMRI & EEG), in addition to studying how novice meditators' brains change over shorter periods of time. I have read other books on meditation and the brain (Buddha's Brain, The Blissful Brain) and this book has the strongest scientific basis by far.
In the course of the book, the author describes numerous experiments throughout his career that gave rise to these findings. It was interesting to learn how these discoveries came about, and to consider the efficacy of his methods. In fact, a good deal of time is spent on the narrative of the author's career and research methods. This might be off-putting for some people, but I found it to be a good framework to understand the methods used for this research, and to learn of the author's personal trajectory towards studying positive emotion, the brain, and meditation, though sometimes the author seems to take a tad too much credit (or perhaps he really is that important).
I have no doubt there is a great deal more we don't know about emotion regulation, but the neural circuits described here will inevitably play a foundational role for what is discovered in the future.
This book traces the author's history in psychological and neuroscience research. At first that bugged me as it seemed to be all about him. Most of the research in this book is his own and/or that of his students. However, in the end I think that turned out to be a good thing both because he quite obviously is a preeminent expert in the field and he goes pretty deep into the implications of his own findings. In other words he knows what he is talking about and not just speculating about the meaning of someone else's work. In any case you see the history and the evidence in favor of the author's ideas build over time and he does an excellent job putting it all together. He definitely believes you can alter to some degree your emotional profile and he ends the book with suggestions for exercises on how do to that for any of the six dimensions he describes.
You will come away from reading this book with a much deeper understanding of the dimensions of your emotional style and their underlying neural correlates. This book is definitely for the general reader and while it is densely packed with information it is not overly technical or academic.
I highly recommend this to readers who are curious about the brain in general or emotions in particular.
I'm disappointed that this book does not have Amazon's "Search Inside" feature so I will include the contents below and hope that helps you get a better feel for its contents:
Introduction: A Scientific Quest
Chapter 1: One Brain Does Not Fit All
Chapter 2: The Discovery of Emotional Style
Chapter 3: Assessing Your Emotional Style
Chapter 4: The Brain Basis of Emotional Style
Chapter 5: How Emotional Style Develops
Chapter 6: The Mind-Brain-Body Connection, or How Emotional Style Influences Health
Chapter 7: Normal and Abnormal, and When "Different" Becomes Pathological
Chapter 8: The Plastic Brain
Chapter 9: Coming Out of the Closet
Chapter 10: The Monk in the Machine
Chapter 11: Rewired, or Neurally Inspired Exercises to Change Your Emotional Style
Maybe looking for "ahas" is a lot to ask of any book--and certainly I don't expect that of everything I read--but there wasn't enough payback in the overall reading pleasure of The Emotional Life of Your Brain to overcome some awkwardness and unrewarding parts to call this "must reading"--at least not for a general audience (for those interested in research on our emotions and the brain, you will definitely find it worthwhile).
I think the heart of my issues with this book were with the research of the six emotional styles. It's not that doubted the validity of what Davidson discovered, but the discoveries didn't feel that exactly translated into actionable behaviors. In small part, my problem was I didn't truly get the distinction of the difference between some of the styles. That is, we're told there are six emotional components that are crucial (or at least measurable) to how we react emotionally: Resilience, Outlook, Self-Awareness, Social Intuition, Context Sensitivity, and Attention. The differences between Resilience and Outlook seem pretty subtle and especially so for Social Intuition and Context Sensitivity (which is about relating to people in an appropriate way given the context). Yes, Davidson shows us the brain mechanisms for each of these are different--and one of the book's strengths is the clear way they explain what happens in the brain--but the effect and "remedies" to correct for emotional style deficiency weren't that different from one another.
The overall effect of the self-help sections of this book relating to emotional styles felt a bit lame. It was almost as if they didn't feel confident enough in the reader to trust the inherent interest in what Davidson's emotional research and felt compelled to try and add a self-help elements as a marketing tool.
The strongest parts of the book were the science writing and discoveries explained. Some of it I'd heard before, but Davidson's been a pioneer in the area of grounding the study of emotions in hard science and there are lots of good information on that account. Most important are the way he's proven emotions are critical to our brain's proper functioning and how he establishes a continuum of functioning to bring greater nuance and remedies to disorders such as autism, depression, and ADHD. This is where the book shines and is worthy of being considered important.
Call me nitpicky, but for a decent amount of the book I didn't enjoy the writing so much. I wonder if part of the problem is that it was a team effort and the ghost writer wasn't clearly in charge. Richard Davidson has written a number of books and is a clear writer, but he's doesn't have the je-ne-c'est-quoi of a top-notch magazine-quality writer that knows how to really draw you in. I presume Sharon Begley does (I haven't read her other work). And there are sections of the book that read really smoothly and are totally absorbing. But especially toward the beginning, the book is a bit clunky and in several places Davidson reveals a pride in his accomplishments that I found slightly embarrassing. For example on page 68 Davidson writes: "Wisconsin has a winning strategy for recruiting faculty, recruiting those whose star is still rising rather than going after full blown supernovas as a place like Harvard typically does." Davidson was recruited and taught at Wisconsin and a bit earlier had told us he was later recruited by Harvard; in other words, he let us know he is a supernova professor. It's not that he isn't a superstar professor/researcher and I truly believe humanity is better off for the valuable research he's done, but combined with some other horn-touting sprinkled through out the book, it was a bit distracting from the content. This was a minor issue and more toward the beginning. In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, it sounds like Davidson struggled to get this book done and his agent got Begley onboard, making me wonder (after I finished it) if that might have accounted for the unevenness. Perhaps I'm just spoiled by the plethora of exquisitely written science books I've read in recent years.
Please don't take the criticism above as discouragement from reading The Emotional Life of the Brain; it does have value and if I hadn't read a lot on the topic, including other books that have cited Davidson's work elsewhere, I probably would have enjoyed it even more. Maybe my expectations were too high. My main discouragement would be around expectations for the self-help aspect of the book which didn't work for me, but if you're happy to read it for the science, then I think you'll be rewarded.
If you were to read this and combine it with a book on "Emotional IQ" such as [[asin:05538049 Emotional Intelligence]], it could be a breakthrough in living your life and accomplishing what you want to do more effectively.
So, what are some of the aspects of the "emotional life" of the brain, or let's say, the characteristics of a healthy emotional life? They are Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self-Awareness, Sensitivity to Context and Attention.
Let's look at each:
We all take blows from life, I can attest to that. And lately, there has been a lot of natural adversity, look around, how many of your friends have lost jobs or even their homes in the economic turmoil we've seen? I'll bet you can point all around you, even to yourself. Overcoming what happens to us takes resilience or the ability to function despite taking hits. The better your brain is at handling screaming messages of "OH NO! ...or worse) while you attempt to extricate yourself, the better. And the better for your family. The author characterizes people on a spectrum. At one end, FAST to RECOVER (bouncing back, working with energy to overcome adversity.) On the other end, SLOW to RECOVER, those who sadly are crippled by a downturn in their lives. If you are at the less advantageous end, what can you do to bulk up the resilience? The author suggests a number of activities, from meditation (because we become what we think--mere thinking can sometimes even bulk up a muscle, why not the emotional strength of the brain) to cognitive therapy if you need help to escape thought patterns. I can heartily recommend good cognitive therapy for escaping those patterns formed in childhood that we all can't seem to overcome and which in some cases, we aren't even aware that we have.
Springing off the idea from the first chapters, that we are what we think, that the now almost-cliche "power of positive thinking" is truly powerful, your outlook is how long you can keep up a positive attitude. Again, we fit on a spectrum, those who have a naturally sunny outlook (the proverbial Optimist) and those who naturally sink into pessimism by nature. If you are naturally a pessimist, what can you do to shift to more consistent positive outlook? It seems stupid--hey, the world stinks, why should I try to think otherwise, but again, your MINDSET actually determines what you see. If you have a cloudy outlook, you will literally miss opportunities you may be seeking, and if you are depressed, you telegraph a sense of sadness, anger and failure to those around you. Again the suggestions to improve outlook are mental training to re-route your thought to a more positive tenor.
I would add here, and something that is missing from the book, possibly due to its scientific bent, is PRAYER. I imagine that prayer is not mentioned often in this book due to the fact the author takes a scientific tack, but prayer helps outlook, and though there is no way to use science to prove or disprove belief, for those who do believe in God, this is a way to support a healthful outlook.
Again, a spectrum, from those who are almost able to read minds from silent and obliquely verbal social signals to those who are oblivious (and sometimes, this is an aspect of conditions such as autism, where a person can be born literally blind to the subtle signs we learn to pick up.) One interesting and powerful suggestion to improve on social intuition is to listen with non-critical awareness. Simply OBSERVE and do not edit the social conversation around you with an internal commentary about the relative merits of the conversation's content or the person commenting. You'll miss things. So if someone is giving you an opinion that is probably something you disagree with, it may be challenging but try simply turning off the part of the brain that is judging and watch and listen. The exercise will wake up parts of the brain that see other things happening in the social milieu.
This again, a spectrum. I had a conversation with a licensed clinical social worker some years ago who told me that there are people who feel things but are UNABLE to connect those feeling to something that had happened in their life. This astonished me, but sad to say, not everyone is hard-wired to make those connections. When people eat out of emotion, for example, they may not recognize that an upsetting phone call led to an uneasy feeling in the pit of their stomach, that propelled them to raid the fridge. The spectrum runs from highly Self Aware to Puzzled. If you listen to any of the radio or television pop therapy programs, try cataloging the person who is working on their issue. Are they aware or are they deep in puzzlement and need to have someone connect the dots for them? It's an interesting exercise. And where do we fit on that spectrum? If you are more Puzzled than Aware, that's fine--it's how you are at the moment, but what can you do to move you along the spectrum to a more helpful place? This is another area where cognitive therapy (the thought, the feeling, the actions all get connected, then new ways to think and react are worked on.)
How well do you focus on what is around you and what is happening? This is similar to the "being in the moment. It is one of the reasons that it is a problem to see your kids texting during a family gathering or dinner. They are not paying attention to what's happening. They are missing social cues. (See social intuition.) They are not in the moment. They are not really there. If you have the same issue, or simply find you drift in and out of the moment due to many distractions, what can you do to improve focus?
Now, despite the spectrum of these five characteristics, the author warns us not to judge ourselves and others and say "you need to be more socially intuitive", "You need a better outlook." The book is designed to have you measure where you fit on this map, and then to see if there is an area you would like to alter in order to move past something that is hindering you. In other words, if your style is to one end of each of the spectra, you are not "bad" but you might choose to play with an aspect of your Emotional Style to see if you can get new results that make you feel better. This is the take-home message; we all have an emotional style, we cannot judge it as "good" or "bad"--it's up to each of us to know ourselves and then, if we desire, to find a way to adapt our style to make our lives better. Fascinating reading, and I could almost recommend that if you read one "self-help" style book this year, this ought to be the one. It is very enlightening and combines a lot of the information that is circulating on helping ourselves live a better emotional life, but in a way that makes a system that can illuminate your interior landscape.