The Emotional Life of Your Brain

The Emotional Life of Your Brain:

How to change the way you think, feel and live

by Richard Davidson with Sharon Begley

Hodder and Stoughton 2012  252pp

Richard Davidson is the Forrest Gump of psychological research. He has had a role in many significant milestones of psychological research throughout his thirty year career as he developed the field of affective neuroscience, the study of the brain mechanisms that underlie human emotion. Beginning at a time when the brain was studied mainly by autopsy and the emotions were considered 'neurological fluff', he has persisted in a field of research which has slowly become more popular and more accessible. It is fortunate that his own emotional style, by his own and his mother's report, is upbeat, eager to take on challenges and quick to recover from adversity.

From his graduate years at Harvard in the 1970s, Davidson describes measuring brain activity using sixteen electrodes attached to the scalp of his subjects – a method I was told in my post-graduate course was akin to putting a microphone on the outside of the Beehive to find out what the politicians are up to. As time went on the equipment became more sophisticated, 256 electrodes were used and computers became more accessible, but when Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) became available neuroscience took off in a way which has caused a burgeoning of information and public interest.

The study of emotion, likewise, was a slow burner. The flavour of the times is demonstrated when Davidson, a student, met the influential behaviourist BF Skinner. Flustered at meeting Skinner in a lift he chooses the wrong floor and, mumbling that he has changed his mind, presses a different button. Skinner responds, 'Son, you didn't change your mind, you changed your behaviour.'

At a time when psychological research was focussed on behaviour, Davidson's interest in emotion was out of step with the major universities and it was through advertising that he got access to a lab and equipment that could measure the reactions of human subjects to video tapes that produced emotion. He went from strength to strength as he measured students, babies and eventually experienced meditators such as Buddhist monks.

And if studying emotion was considered unusual, practising meditation was even more so. Through his mentors, David and Mary McClelland, Davidson met Daniel Goleman, who went on to publish the best-selling 'Emotional Intelligence', and he began to meditate. After a retreat in northern India in 1974 Davidson became interested in how meditation might change the brain and he returned to India, to Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama is based.

He tells, with self-deprecating humour. of trekking through the Himalayas with the bulky equipment available in the 1970s only to find that, of the secluded monks he had been given access to, one Rinpoche after the other humbly demurred that they were not such great meditators after all and refused to be measured. On returning to report to the Dalai Lama, he was advised to study monks who are used to the West. This he was eventually able to do with some success, as well as looking at how even people who are newly introduced to meditation demonstrate changes in the brain.

However, the difficulty of studying the effects of meditation redirected Davidson to his earlier interest in emotion and in particular to a paper by an Italian neurologist, Gian Gainotti, who had studied people with localised damage to the brain. Gainotti had found that those with damage to the right hemisphere showed random bursts of laughter while those with damage to the left hemisphere would cry without reason. This led Davidson to a lifelong study of the localisation of positive and negative emotions, proving conclusively that the left prefrontal cortex is key in positive emotion and the right in negative emotion such as depression.

In the course of this work Davidson discovered that although the data on average supported his theories, the differences between individuals are enormous. This led to his theory of emotional styles and the development of a brain-based personality theory using six dimensions:

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 emotions to take into account the context you find yourself in.

Attention: how sharp and clear your focus is.

Detailed questionnaires are provided in the book for self-assesssment on these dimensions.  While asserting that all emotional styles are valid, Davidson gives suggestions, mainly based on mindfulness approaches, as to how one might modify a style in a direction that is better suited to needs or circumstances.

There are several ways in which this book is more that a run-of-the-mill self-help book. For one, it does not imply that we are all lacking in some way and need help. Quite the opposite, but not in a generalised 'I'm ok, you're ok' kind of way. While all styles are valid, some extremes may be dysfunctional in some situations and modification might be desirable. This accepting approach reflects Davidson's Buddhist flavour and is refreshing.

Secondly, the emotional styles are strongly grounded in neuroscience and have particular underlying brain functions. This science is explained in an accessible way which is interesting and rewarding to read.

Third, the story of Davidson's career and his presence at so many significant moments in the history of psychological research is in itself fascinating.

Finally, as a true scientist does, Davidson looks ahead to what research might yet have to show us in this field. The role of genes in human behaviour, a neurally-based psychiatry which could replace the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders with a classification system which reflects the way the brain works, and a model of psychotherapy which draws on what is known about brain function and mindfulness are some of his suggests.

We can only hope that Richard Davidson continues to devote himself to these topics and teaches students who can take up these fascinating studies in their turn.