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The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live--and How You Ca n Change Them Hardcover – March 1, 2012
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"Whether he is measuring neural activity in the laboratory or climbing the Himalayas to meet the Dalai Lama, Davidson is an inveterate explorer who has spent a lifetime probing the deep mystery of human feeling. Don't miss this smart and lively book by the world's foremost expert on emotion and the brain." -Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., author of Stumbling on Happiness
"The Emotional Life of Your Brain is an eye-opener, replete with breakthrough research that will change the way you see yourself and everyone you know. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley make a star team: cutting-edge findings formulated in a delightful, can't-put-it-down read. I loved this book." -Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., author of Emotional Intelligence
"What a gift from the world's leading neuroscientist who works on what makes life worth living. This is a must-read for everyone who is interested in positive psychology." -Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., author of Learned Optimism — Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., author of Learned Optimism
About the Author
Richard J. Davidson, PhD, is the William James and Vilas Research Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry and director of the W. M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin- Madison.
Sharon Begley has been the science editor and science columnist at Newsweek as well as science columnist at The Wall Street Journal.
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The 6 categories of Emotional Style are:
- 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 emotional responses to take into account the context you find yourself in.
- Attention: How sharp and clear your focus is.
At first I was wary of this approach, as there are numerous classification systems for emotions that strike me as somewhat arbitrary. After a while though, it sunk in and I realized how fundamentally these functions affect the contours (ups and downs) and contexts of our emotional states, and how we perceive and react to our social world. It is also extremely interesting to understand the basis for these characteristics in terms of brain function, something which is rarely tackled in a satisfactory way. Sometimes he seems to paint with too broad of a brush, probably a reflection of how much has yet to be learned, but overall it is very illuminating stuff.
In addition to helping readers understand the workings of the brain, readers are encouraged by the author to evaluate their own particular Emotional Style and consider how they might change it. He discusses many ways that the extreme ends of certain emotional style categories give rise to serious difficulties in life for some people (depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, social ineptitude, etc). The plasticity of the brain is emphasized, and the author gives very specific suggestions of ways to change if the reader so desires. I don't want to give the impression that this is merely a "self-help" type of book, as that would seriously underestimate the content here.
A very significant contribution the author makes is his evaluation of the effects of meditation on the brain. Richard Davidson is perhaps the foremost researcher in the world investigating the connection between meditation and brain function, and has worked closely with the Dalai Lama to recruit experienced monk meditators for brain scans (fMRI & EEG), in addition to studying how novice meditators' brains change over shorter periods of time. I have read other books on meditation and the brain (Buddha's Brain, The Blissful Brain) and this book has the strongest scientific basis by far.
In the course of the book, the author describes numerous experiments throughout his career that gave rise to these findings. It was interesting to learn how these discoveries came about, and to consider the efficacy of his methods. In fact, a good deal of time is spent on the narrative of the author's career and research methods. This might be off-putting for some people, but I found it to be a good framework to understand the methods used for this research, and to learn of the author's personal trajectory towards studying positive emotion, the brain, and meditation, though sometimes the author seems to take a tad too much credit (or perhaps he really is that important).
I have no doubt there is a great deal more we don't know about emotion regulation, but the neural circuits described here will inevitably play a foundational role for what is discovered in the future.
I found the emotional dimensions to be generally reasonable although I could think of people who could challenge some of them. For example, I know someone whose `attention' enables him to exclude external distractions but who still has to work hard to focus on tasks such as study. This person could be either `focussed' or `unfocussed' in this important dimension. In fairness, Davidson acknowledges some ambiguity may crop up and is examining many traits and their causes in this introductory guide. His methods are therefore, in balance, helpful. Davidson then provides tools, such as forms of meditation, to help readers shift their performance in any of the six dimensions to help in their daily life.
It will take the reader some time to be certain how helpful a book like this can be. Davidson is a warm and compassionate guide in this study and is convincing in his thesis, but there will be a lingering concern as to whether there is a degree of shoe-horning emotions into his dimensions. I believe he has provided a strong and useful basis to better understand our emotions and their impact upon us, and I look forward to chasing up the resources he identifies.
This book also has biographical elements which touch on relevant points in Davidson's life and his research. These complement and enrich the topic. It makes for a warm story where, for example, some ill fated and logistically challenging experiments in the Himalayas encountered interesting obstacles and threatened to be worthless, but which then serendipitously offered a range of opportunities. Davidson's exchanges with the Dalai Lama over the years are gems, and harmonise with the neuroscience charmingly.