The Creative Science Behind the Emotional Brain

Emotional Styles” and Why Different People Respond to Different Therapies and Interventions

Q&A with Dr. Richard J. Davidson

Do you recover quickly from setbacks, or are you prone to wallow in despair? Do your friends think you’re psychic because you always know how they’re feeling, or are you often accused of not “getting it”? Why are some people always “up,” while others are in a perpetual state of gloom and doom? Best-selling author and pioneering neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson addresses these questions by offering a new model of our emotions in his latest book, coauthored with former Newsweek science editor Sharon Begley, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live—and How You Can Change Them (Hudson Street Press).

Davidson believes that since anything about human behavior, feelings and ways of thinking comes from the brain, to classify these we must also look to the brain. The six basic “emotional styles”—resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context, and attention—are continuums, and where we fall on each style’s continuum makes up our emotional fingerprint. Davidson provides detailed descriptions of the experiments which explain the patterns of brain activity that underlie each style, giving us a new model of the emotional brain which can affect how we treat conditions like autism and depression. A longtime and ardent proponent of well-being and the values of compassion and kindness, Davidson offers strategies to enlist the neuroplasticity of our brain. Through neurally inspired therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training, which he explains in a fresh and engaging fashion, we can change, for example, a negative outlook or scatterbrained focus.

Whether tracking down monks in the Himalayas to study brain activity or using Botox to prove that communication between the brain and the body is bidirectional, Davidson has spent a career in research bridging the gap between cognitive psychology and affective neuroscience. Recently we caught up with the University of Wisconsin professor of psychology and psychiatry for a conversation about his new book.

BRAIN WORLD: Speak to us about how your concept of “emotional styles” relates to emotional states, traits, personality and temperament.
DR. RICHARD J. DAVIDSON: The emotional styles that I feature in the book are continuua that directly come from neurological research. They reflect dimensions along which individuals vary in response to emotional challenges—life’s “slings and arrows.” We begin with the premise that the most salient characteristic in humans is how they respond to emotional challenges. Each person will respond in his or her own unique way.

BW: What was the initial breakthrough that led to the development of these?
RD: The initial breakthrough came about in the early part of my career, when I was investigating the role of the prefrontal cortex and emotion. This research was derived from insights gleaned initially from patients with brain damage—where patients with damage to their left hemisphere, particularly the left frontal region, were more likely to experience depression, whereas people with damage to the corresponding region in the right hemisphere often exhibited indifference to their neurological condition and exhibited inappropriate positive emotion.
We did a number of different experiments in which we elicited positive and negative emotion in people and measured changes in prefrontal cortical activity. What was unexpected and very striking was that the variation across people in their level of activation in the left and the right prefrontal cortex was much greater than the variation within a person between positive and negative emotions. It suggested to us that there were large differences across people in brain activity having to do with emotion that were not being captured in experiments where we were comparing one emotion to another. We needed to compare one person to another person—or, in the framework of modern psychology and neuroscience, to look at individual differences.
That was a key insight, and from that point on in my career virtually every experiment we did was oriented to the investigation of variation across people in how they respond and in brain mechanisms, rather than focusing on treating every person as if he or she is going to show roughly the same kind of response to a particular emotional stimulus. So it’s really a 90- or 180-degree reorientation from the way experiments were conducted.

BW: In your book, you describe many experiments. Your methodology must be very precise to track emotions which are fluid and sometimes ambiguous. Could you give us an example of how you set up one of these experiments to prove a hypothesis while keeping the integrity?
RD: Science is like a detective story. One example I can give relates to the social intuition style, the variation across people in their capacity to detect nonverbal cues of emotion. A person who is high in social intuition is able to pick up accurately and quickly on the nonverbal behavior of another person and to regulate their own emotions in response to that. We became interested in the possibility that children with autism may suffer from an inability or disfunction in the capacity of picking up on these cues, but we didn’t know what mechanisms were driving that. We observed from earlier studies with these children that when they were placed in an MRI scanner and exposed to photographs of faces, the area in the brain that is important in detecting faces was underactivated. This area is called the fusiform. It’s a region in the back of the brain that is part of the visual cortex. We began to question whether maybe these children with autism were not looking at the face in the same way, and that other parts of their brain that are particularly involved in certain aspects of emotion, negative emotion or detecting threat signals, were overactivated and overwhelming these children.
In order to investigate these questions, we needed to understand where the children were looking when they were looking at a face. Until that point, scientists placed children with autism in an MRI scanner—which we know is like being in a tube—and they had no idea where the children were actually looking when they were looking at a face. We devised a precise way of using infrared eye-tracking. We would present a face to them and track their scan path, the path your eyes make when viewing a stimulus. We could then look at the very precise relation between where they were looking and what was happening in the brain.
We found that children with autism vary tremendously in the extent to which they look at the eye region of the face. The more they look at the eye region of the face, the more accurate they are in detecting what facial expression is actually being portrayed. That’s because the eyes convey a lot of emotional information. We observed a striking association between how long the children looked at the eye region and how accurate they were in detecting the emotions of the face. We also observed that the less they were looking at the eye region of the face, the greater the activation in an area of the brain that is particularly concerned with the detection of threat signals called the amygdala. Those children with autism that were showing extremely high activation of the amygdala were the ones who were showing less focusing on the eye region of the face and who were the least accurate in detecting the emotions of the face. The conclusion we drew is that those are the kids who find these kinds of relatively innocuous faces to be threatening, so they actually avert their gaze, and by averting their gaze they fail to detect important information that is conveyed in the face.

BW: You write, “Genes load the gun but only the environment can pull the trigger.” So nature and nurture work together?
RD: Yes, and I would say that our modern understanding of the way genes and environment interact indicates that they’re irrevocably enmeshed. You cannot talk about one without the other. I introduce the field of epigenetics in the book, which pertains to how genes are actually regulated. One of the most important findings is that the extent to which genes are actually turned on or turned off is a continuum, and that is at least in part determined by the environment, by our experience, by our training. The idea that you can actually segregate genes and environment is just a convenient myth, but it’s not really the way biology works. One of the conclusions from this view is that we can all take more responsibility for the shaping of our brains.

BW: Explain what you mean by the statement, “The embodied mind is bidirectional.”
RD: There’s a continuous two-way dialogue between the brain and the body. Bidirectional means that there are signals going from the brain to the body, to help regulate the body, while there are also signals going from the body that provide upstream information to the brain and modulate its activity. So the state of our body will influence the state of our brain, and the state of our brain will influence our body. One of the important implications here is that diseases which we previously thought of as only physical, like asthma, are actually also diseases of the brain, and it gives us a new window of opportunity in terms of therapeutic intervention. I think it’s important, however, to understand that the brain doesn’t cause asthma; it simply influences asthma, which provides a very important window of opportunity.

BW: “Neurally inspired behavioral therapy” is the way forward, and you talk about cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness training. You have practiced meditation for many years and have studied the brain activity of monks in the Himalayas through your connection with the Dalai Lama. Can you speak about the differences between the two interventions and what situations might call for either?
RD: It’s important to put this in the framework of emotional styles and the very central idea of the book. Because of emotional styles, it is very unlikely that one size will fit all with respect to any kind of treatment. Because people are different in how they respond to life’s slings and arrows, the idea that one kind of treatment is going to be good for everyone is empirically disconfirmed by thousands of studies. With any kind of treatment, there’s always a group of people who don’t show a good response to that treatment. Emotional styles provides an opportunity to better understand why certain people may be benefitted by certain kinds of neurally inspired behavioral therapies while others may be benefitted by other kinds of interventions. >>SUBSCRIBE TO READ CONCLUSION<<

1 Comment

  1. Dr. Davidson,

    Great article. I too have extensively traced an Emotional Fingerprint and after seven years and thousands of participants I have been able to identify the seven characteristic that form an emotional fingerprint. If it helps you in your research I would be happy to walk you through what I have discovered.

    Woody Woodward
    Founder of Emotional Fingerprint

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