The Creative Science Behind The Emotional Brain: A 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 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.”

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.

Richard J. Davidson: The emotional styles that I feature in the book are continua 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?

RJD: 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?

RJD: 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.

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