The Emotional Life of Your Brain – Book Review

Are you feeling gloomy and miserable?

Neuropsychologist Richard Davidson and science writer Sharon Begley book “The Emotional Life of Your Brain” may provide you with some insight into your emotions and even give you some inspiration about ways to challenge and change your outlook on life.

One hundred years ago, psychologists and biologists were interested in tackling emotions. But the behavioural and cognitive revolution meant that the exploration of emotions had to wait. The subject was forgotten by almost everyone, except some psychoanalysts, pharmacologists, and scientists who studied affections. Cognitive scientists and neuroscientists more or less ignored emotions. The focus was on the cognitive aspects of brain functions and emotions were disregarded. Thinking and emotions were regarded as two separate processes.

During the last couple of decades, this perception has been challenged and the connection between the brain and emotion has increasingly received attention. The book “The Emotional Life of Your Brain” explores this fascinating subject. The book is perhaps more an inspiration into how you can influence your emotions though focused and concentrated effort, than specific prescriptions that you can follow.

Our brain shapes our emotional lives, but we can also influence our emotions. Thinking and emotions run at the same brain circuit and they are not separate processes. The authors argue that we can retrain our brains and they explore different emotional styles. According to Davidson’s research, these emotional styles can be linked to specific patterns of activity in your brain.
Six dimensions of emotional styles are discussed —resilience, general outlook (positive or negative), social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context, and attention style (the ability to screen out distractions). Every one of us falls on a scale from high to low on each of these dimensions. Throughout our lives, we can change and our emotional styles may vary. The book provides you with a tool in the form of a questionnaire, which can help you identify your emotional style. Everyone has an emotional profile, just as we have a unique fingerprint. The ways we react and cope with situations in life differ in intensity.

Below are three questions that are used to help you see where you fall on the Sensitivity to Context spectrum.

Answer True or False:

  •  I have occasionally been told that I behaved in a socially inap­propriate way, which surprised me.
  •  I am almost always aware of whether I have been some place before, even if it is a highway that I  last  drove many years ago.
  • I notice when someone is acting in a way that seems out of place, such as behaving too casually at work.

There is a section with tips for how you can use different techniques to shift you emotional style. Many of the ideas involve mediation. But there are also tips about ways you can delay cutting the cake. Training your brain to look for more positive valuable future rewards may according the book help you increase the activity in the pleasure and reward centres of the brain. This may lead to a more positive outlook on life.

Not impressed by the advice?

Well, research conducted by Davidson suggests that the activity in prefrontal cortex is low when there is little pleasure. By delaying the reward, you engage the prefrontal cortex and this increases the activity in you reward centres. And this gives you a more positive view on life.
The message in this book is filled with hope, our brain is flexible, and it is possible to change. Research into brain plasticity has highlighted the flexibility of our brains. Davidson’s research into what happens to Buddhist monks brains when they meditation suggests that with conscious effort you can change neural structure.
Interesting books tend to raise many questions and this book makes several questions whizz around your head. When does the emotional style develop? Does training produce stable new circuits. And how does our emotional style influence our health? The emotional styles involve activity in regions involved in reason, cognition, and logic. And this idea alone makes me recommend this book. The value of emotions for our thinking has been ignored for too long. Emotions are not less important that cognition and they are not two separate processes.

Photo: Futuristic Human Brain Machine Interface by Victor Habbick


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