The emotional life of your brain -

The emotional life of your brain


As Professor Davidson notes in this book “Emotions, far from being the neurological fluff that mainstream science once believed them to be, are central to the functions of the brain and to the life of the mind”. Feeling permeates everything – even to the level of affecting how we see.

And if you think emotions aren't central to the workplace, consider this study. Gallup asked 10 million employees around the world if they could agree or disagree with the following statement: “my supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person,” those who agreed with this statement were more productive, contributed more to profits, and were significantly more likely to stay with the organisation long-term.


Davidson who pioneered affective neuroscience (emotions and the brain) has shown there is no clear dividing line between emotions and cognition.

The core of Davidson’s book crystallises research about how we uniquely react and respond to ‘life’s slings and arrows’. Individual response is a unique mix across six dimensions — Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention. The key difference between these defined domains and some kind of self help manual is that they are related to underlying identifiable brain systems. So there is, for instance, a particular brain signature for a resilient brain compared to one that finds it difficult to shake off an argument with a co-worker or to recover from a loss.

These specific brain patterns provide a blueprint of targetable areas to improve or alter our own unique emotional style. This transformation is possible because our brain changes its structure and function in relationship to experience – called neuroplasticity. A crucial point is that the brain changes both in relationship to external events, the environment and the inner landscape of our minds – our thoughts and emotions. For instance, the same brain changes occur in individuals who learn to play a 4 key tune on a piano, compared to those who just imagine they learn to play this same tune – a purely mental event.

Mentally rehearsing an activity or positive quality of mind also changes the brain. Directing our attention, or cultivating qualities of the mind, acts back on the brain itself. We can exercise choice with our mind to work and transform unhelpful habits that are thrown up by the brain, knowing that this process rewires the brain itself. Through this process, just like we can slowly increase what we bench press as we exercise, mental workouts alter our own unique mix of emotional styles. Aspects we once considered as fixed traits, like resilience, positive outlook, empathy or even happiness are consequently skills that can be developed, learnt and improved. This is why mental or contemplative practises play such a pivotal role in being able to change our emotional style.

Individually we have a mix styles which means we could easily bounce back from a setback (resilience domain) but not very good at reading the body language of others (social intuition domain).

Resilience is how slowly or quickly we recover from adversity, stressful change, setbacks or emotional challenges. The speed of recovery is related to the number and strength of connections between an area above the left eye (called the left prefrontal cortex) and a part of the brain called the amygdala. Too few connections between these two areas and amygdala activation, which provides a negative valence to the experience, isn’t dampened down – we then find it difficult to turn off the provoked negative emotion. Healthy, resilient people exhibit a higher left to right ratio in brain activity above the eyes. Techniques shown to improve resilience include mindfulness meditation as it boosts activation of the area above this left eye, the wellbeing side, which consequently causes fewer signals to reach the amygdala. It also reduces activity in the emotionally negative area above the right eye. Conversely we can also rebound too quickly, especially in relation to the emotions of others – therefore exhibiting a lack empathy. This was the first time I had heard the connection between too much resilience and being ‘walled off’ from others emotions, it’s an interesting connection isn’t it? Equally there are practises you can do here if you find yourself too resilient and hence walled off. You can practise a technique called Tonglen (taking on and transforming the suffering of others based on the movement of the breath), cultivating loving kindness or reframing the situation.

Outlook. Until very recently the focus of medical science has been on our problems, using this as a prompt to treat disease for instance. This approach then spilled over into emotions with a focus on anxiety and depression. Positive emotions like, happiness, contentment, eagerness and virtuous qualities of mind – love and kindness for instance have, until recently, been largely ignored because they weren’t classified as problems – which is understandable but also a little crazy. This bias is fortunately shifting and rightly so. Cultivating positive qualities in the workplace is critical, as rigorous studies find that they broaden the mind, enhance creativity, focus and increase perseverance – key skills necessary to create adaptive organisations able to meet challenges of today’s modern working environment. If we feel unable to sustain positive feelings then Davidson shows how we can help move this outlook dimension. This is possible because positive feeling arises in one part of the brain (nucleas accumbens) but is then captured and encouraged again by the area above the left eye. Without this activity the joy evaporates quickly, like dew at dawn. Journaling positive experiences, expressing gratitude regularly, delaying gratification, mindfulness or compassion meditation all lead to increases in positive outlook. Try it and see for yourself if it helps. Conversely too much positivity or activation on the left side of the pre-frontal cortext (front part of the brain on the left), can lead to individuals finding it hard to delay gratification or neglecting genuine threats. To counter balance this we can place our attention on threats on the environment – increasing the negative valence of experience.

Social intuition is how good we are at picking up social cues, facial expressions and body language. The fusiform gyrus activates when people perceive an object they are expert in – so a car lover looking at a Rolls Royce for instance. As humans beings are social creatures this means it is highly active when we see the faces of others. This is especially true when we look into other people’s eyes which convey important social cues like boredom, trust or surprise etc. Social intuition obviously has a key role to play in communication and team work. This is also improved through mindfulness meditation, including mindfully placing your attention on social signals during interactions or with direct training via compassion meditation. If we are hypersensitive to social intuition and hence start to lose our own sense of healthy self, we can intentionally move our awareness away from social cues.

Self awareness is how well we perceive our own thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. These provide important signals of our own internal emotions and state of mind. This is also crucial for empathy as our body maps the feelings and intentions of others onto our own internal body representation through a brain region called the insula. If there is a lack of self awareness – we could be easily suffer from excessive stress or an 'amygdala hijack' (using Daniel Golemans term) where the rational thinking part of the brain shut downs. Self awareness can be improved again through mindfulness or compassion exercises. Hyperfocused self awareness can be improved through mindfulness, reframing or CBT.

Sensitivity to context. Is how good we are at both noticing social cues and context we find ourselves in, and how well we can align appropriate emotional responses and behaviours to this context. The hippocampus is crucial for this. If in the safe environment of home we are still overcome with anxiety or behave in a way that is suitable for our social life but not in a meeting – this may be an indication of the ‘tuned out’ end of this spectrum of this ‘sensitivity to context’. Conversely we may find we alter our behaviour to fit every different context to a point where we lose our genuine self and this would mean we are at the too ‘Tuned in’ end of the spectrum. Though there is limited research in this area, Davidson suggests that we can work with this domain by bringing the anxiety provoking situations onto the mindfulness of the breath.

Attention underlies all the other emotional styles and provides the ability to work and transform them. It is how clear and undistracted our focus is, how well we are able to tune in and selectively notice details and tune out situational, environmental, cognitive and emotional distracters. When we are unfocused or hyper-focused we can make careless mistakes, have trouble organising activities, inappropriately cutting into conversations or constant fidgeting. A lack of attention also leads to an inability to stop impulses, like talking excessively or not being able to prevent stimuli distracting and captivating you attention. When we have good selective attention a clear pattern of electrical activity occurs. Brain waves ‘phase lock’ and become synchronised with the external stimulus – a signature of focused attention. This synchronisation is easily registerable against other background oscillations, but only when the mind is calm and not constantly distracted – phase locking is much poorer in people with ADHD for example. Not missing information and social cues is an important benefit of attention but we can also invest too much of our attentional resources in detecting certain items which causes us to miss the appearance of a target piece of information a moment later – this is called attentional blink, our attention drops out for a moment. This blink is larger if the target of our attention has an emotional charge to it. Strengthening connections between the area above our eyes and other brain regions improves selective attention and reduces attentional blink.

As we train our mind and retrain our attention we uncover our calmness. We become present, aware and spacious to tasks and each other. This is possible again through the mindfulness meditation. Richard Davison sums this up “Mindfulness meditation transforms the neural underpinnings of attention ….. it helps reduce background chatter and focus on selected information”.

As you can see many of the exercises that are helpful in working with the domains are contemplative in nature. We can transform our mind to rewire our brain through developing mindfulness, empathy and compassion. This is a rich vein of research – forging a new scientific discipline called contemplative neuroscience – which I am sure will grow exponentially over the next few years.

You can easily see the impact of the Mind and Life conferences influencing Davidson’s work and this book. Mind and life conference are a dialogue between economists, philosophers, neuroscientists and the Dalai Lama with the aim of mutually developing a deeper understanding of reality and how such exchange can benefit humanity and the world. An indication of your emotional style is available here.

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