Recent Reads: The Emotional Life of Your Brain – Richard J. Davidson & Sharon Begley

As leaders and professionals, often our toughest job is in expressing our needs, concerns and ideas, and understanding those of others. It is often a mystery why we find communication to be so difficult, and it has not been until we acknowledged the role of our emotions in our thinking, deciding and communicating that we have started to really master our understanding of how to improve our communications. Certainly there have always been those who seemed to know this stuff intuitively or perhaps figured it out, but while we have seen the anecdotal evidence, the data to support it was elusive, or denied. As a result, models to help us understand our own emotions and those of the people we work with have been helpful management tools. In The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Richard Davidson & Sharon Begley offer a compelling new model that is both familiar and profound.
For about a century we have supported the myth that the brain and the body are separate, and that the emotions we experience are a weakness that we need to overcome to be successful. OK, that’s not an absolute – doctors have long understood that there are psychosomatic illnesses and a placebo effect, but really, that’s because some people are overly dramatic or just have some other needs that their psychologists could tell you more about. When Richard Davidson selected Affective Psychology as his area of study his advisors tried to steer him clear, fearing that nobody would take such work seriously and it would jeopardize his career, probably earning him a label as a quack. If that wasn’t bad enough, he practiced meditation and studied with teachers from the East. Not an auspicious resume if you want to be taken seriously in the world of Neuroscience 30 years ago. Davidson continued to apply scientific testing methods to his work, and to maintain his meditation practice in his personal life, and ended up making some very interesting discoveries.
Davidson describes the model he developed to classify the neural bases of emotion, and examines questions raised by the concept of emotional style – when does it emerge? What is its connection with physical health? Is one’s emotional style hard-wired or can it be changed? It contains six dimensions that seem to be topics many other studies of psychology, self-help and leadership have addressed, perhaps adding some scientific research to ideas that have been observed and discussed as elements of happiness, success, communication and more. The six styles are represented on scales, the scores for which can be calculated using a questionnaire. They include Resilience (fast to recover – slow to recover), Outlook (positive – negative), Social Intuition (puzzled – socially intuitive), Self-Awareness (self-opaque – self-aware), Sensitivity to Context (Tuned-out – Tuned-in), and Attention (unfocused-focused ).
Your Resilience style describes how slowly or quickly you recover from adversity. It examines how well you can shake off setbacks, persevere in the face of difficulties, or the length of time you are affected by emotional encounters such as an argument with your significant other.
Your Outlook style looks at how your mood is affected by negative events, your ability to maintain your energy and tendency toward cynicism and pessimism. People at the extremes of this style are characterized as optimists or positive types and pessimists or negative types.
Your Social Intuition style characterizes your ability to read the body language and intonation of others, and to be attuned to their reactions, moods and needs.
Your Self-Awareness style describes awareness of your own thoughts, feelings and messages from your body. This scale looks at one’s ability to identify his own emotional state and recognize trigger points or the cause of emotional shifts.
Your Sensitivity to Context style reflects how able you are to pick up on social conventions in different situations – to understand what is appropriate.
Your Attention style addresses your ability to screen out distractions or even ignore important signs around you. It is the ability to focus on a specific topic as opposed to having “monkey mind” – thoughts jumping from topic to topic almost without pattern.
Interestingly, the extremes of each of these scales are, in some cases, a liability. Resilience sounds like something you’d like to have as much of as you can, but an extremely resilient person may not have the motivation to overcome challenges as they shrug off every setback. Similarly, while the study of positive psychology has identified that positive people are physically and mentally healthier and happier, the inability to see the downside of anything may preclude a person from identifying danger and risk. Overall, though, highly positive people are able to maintain positive emotions, which enables them to keep the feeling of joy alive, even while identifying and experiencing sadness, fear and anger.
The extreme negative side of the Social Intuition style is characteristic of people on the autism spectrum – unable to read facial expressions and other social cues. People with extremely high Social Intuition have an almost sixth sense about the feelings of others. In deeply caring people such as the Dalai Lama this intuition can create a strong affective bond and be a wonderful asset; in a con artist, not so much. Davidson’s research showed that people who scored high on this style look at the eye region of others, while people with less of this style tend to look at another person’s mouth, or not look at the face at all (which is typical with Autistic people.)
Sensitivity to Context enables us to adjust our behavior in different contexts, preventing us from engaging in inappropriate behavior. Cases of inappropriate jokes, unprofessional behavior and “too much information” stories come to mind. These make great comedic scenes in movies but can be tragic in real life. The hippocampus appears to be highly active in understanding context and inhibiting inappropriate behavior.
Finally, the Attention dimension defines your ability to avoid or recover from distractions, and stay focused. This is often considered a cognitive ability, but there are both emotional and cognitive elements to the ability to focus, as the emotional tenor of the distraction may alter the effect of the distraction and recovery. Additionally, there are different forms of attention – selective attention, or the ability to filter out extraneous information, and nonjudgmental awareness, or the ability to remain receptive to inputs, whether from reading the news or a pain in your body. Some forms of meditation cultivate nonjudgmental awareness. Here again, either extreme may have a negative effect on your emotional and relational health, at least for selective attention. The method Davidson used for measuring open, nonjudgmental awareness is attentional blink, which is the amount of time to recover from an unexpected item in a pattern, particularly when the data presented have an emotional component. The test for focused attention involves differentiating auditory pitches in different ears.
Interesting, as all brain research is, but how can we make use of this information? Well, the most exciting brain news of the last decade is that the brain is much more plastic or changeable than previously believed. Although the brain appears to dedicate particular regions to specific functions, it re-uses that area if the function is no longer needed, such as the optical functions for blind people or the parts of the brain that sense a limb in amputees. The brain can reprogram itself in other circumstances as well. Cognitive-behavior therapy is mental training to reprogram the messages we send ourselves in how we interpret information presented to us. Recently mindfulness practices are being used as effective and legitimate alternatives to drug therapies and other psychological methods with great results. Daniel Siegel has written about his successes with a variety of mental health conditions (I refer you to his book Mindsight) and Jeffrey Schwartz has as well (he, too co-authored with science journalist Sharon Begley in their book The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force. He also wrote You are Not Your Brain, a topic for another day.)
While this is not really a self-help book, the tests to discover your own emotional styles are both enlightening and interesting. Additionally, the last chapter offers some practices to help address areas where you may feel you could benefit from improvement. Note that the offerings are practices, which means that to be of any use you will need to do them repeatedly over a period of time. We tend to want to “learn” something through just knowing a new piece of information, but to change your brain, the programming requires you to develop new habits, which requires practice to attain mastery, just as one lesson with a pro won’t make you a tennis champion, or even immediately improve your game until you practice and master the new technique.
The book may be a bit long on the autobiographical aspects, but they provide some interesting perspective on the evolving attitudes about the brain and the mind. Few can make science into the page-turner of science fiction, but the model is a simple and straightforward tool to understand and gauge some dichotomies that have long existed in our world, and have the benefit of some scientific research to back them up.
While there is no ideal emotional style – different emotional styles enable us to have different world outlooks, focal abilities and maybe even senses of humor, it would be interesting if this work is researched in conjunction with the tools developed by the emotional intelligence experts such as the Myers-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) and the Bar-On test EQ-i to see what correlations exist and to discover the relationships among these abilities. All of these give us more information about how we can understand ourselves, other individuals and even societies and how we can continue to grow and improve ourselves in service to our own happiness, relationships, success and even perhaps someday world peace. If you are interested in the short version of the quiz, it is available on Facebook at


Enjoy the read.

Related Reading

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation – Daniel Siegel

The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental ForceJeffrey Schwartz

You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life – Jeffrey Schwartz

Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom – Rick Hanson

Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ – Daniel Goleman

Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves – Sharon Begley