Richard Davidson is an accomplished psychologist who has, in many ways, pioneered the study of emotions from a neurological perspective. This book is a mix of autobiography, science, and self-help. I found that the first two work well, the third not quite so much.
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. For example, what are the evolutionary benefits of being very high or low on these dimensions? In general, evolutionary details for these evolved dimensions is lacking, other than variability is good. Another issue is that some of these seem less likely emotional skills than cognitive ones (attention and social intuition in particular). I did find it very interesting how closely tied the prefrontal cortex was with many of these dimensions. Conventional neuroscience wisdom has been that emotions are the product of the lower, simpler, sub-cortical structures while higher thinking and reasoning was the domain of the newer (evolutionarily) pre-frontal cortices. Davidson's research rather strongly refutes that, suggesting that even the most modern and "advanced" parts of the human brain play primary roles in our emotional lives.
Davidson then goes on to make the link between emotions and health. His case is persuasive, relying on double-blind experimental studies that demonstrate that positive emotions are associated with greater longevity. Not necessarily just because emotions make you healthier (they appear to do that), but because a positive outlook allows one to ignore difficulties and persist in the face of trouble. Of course, there are limits. Good thoughts alone won't likely get rid of terminal bone cancer.
From there, Davidson discusses the link between meditation, emotions, and the brain. This is fascinating stuff, as we tests the minds of devoted Buddhist monks to see how meditation has changed their brains. He presents limited experimental evidence on the effects of even modest meditation on novice practitioners. Again, this is all good stuff.
It's really in the last part of the book that things start to unravel. Inspired in part by repeated meetings with the Dalai Lama (that are fun to read about), Davidson has advanced the agenda of using meditation to improve one's emotional health by bringing extreme scores more into the middle range (usually negative scores, but positive ones too). Several different meditation and/or cognitive behavioral techniques are suggested for each emotional dimension. These are interesting, and are based on research discussed in the book. Unfortunately though, it appears that as of this moment, they are merely speculative guesses by Davidson as to what techniques would likely work. The rigorous scientific approach that characterizes the first 1/2 to 2/3 of this book is completely absent in his final, applied chapter. Which is too bad as it not only goes against what he's been preaching for the entire book, it would also be nice to know how to improve one's emotional states.
The good news is that a scientist of Davidson's caliber is not likely to let a situation like that exist for very long. I am confident that, if he isn't already, he will soon be conducting research to determine just how effective his suggestions are at modifying the six emotional dimensions and their neurological correlates. So with that said, I can strongly recommend this book. It's a bold visions about human nature that is entertaining and well-documented. So long as one accepts that the further you go in the book the less evidence you're standing on, this is sure to be an interesting and valuable read for scientists, practitioners, and anyone interested in knowing about emotions and the brain.