This month my first book for the lay public was released —The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How its unique patterns affect the way you think, feel and live—and how you can change them (Penguin Publishing Group, 2012). This book is the product of 30+ years of an active scientific career and is very much an “emergent property” of that sustained period of exploration.
From quite early on in my career, there were two critical observations that came to form the core of my subsequent life’s work. The first observation is that the most salient characteristic of emotion in people is the fact that each person responds differently to life’s slings and arrows. Each of us is unique in our emotional make-up and this individuality determines why some people are resilient and others vulnerable, why some have high levels of well-being despite objective adversity while others decompensate rapidly in the response to the slightest setback.
The second observation came from the great fortune I had early in my career to be around some remarkable people. They were remarkable not because of their academic or professional achievements, but rather because of their demeanor, really because of their emotional style. These were extremely kind and generous people. They were very attentive and when I was in their presence, I felt as if I was the sole and complete focus of all of their attention. They were people that I found myself wishing to be around more. And I learned that one thing all of these people had in common was a regular practice of meditation. And I asked them if they were like that all of their lives and they assured me they were not, but rather that these qualities had been nurtured and cultivated by their meditative practices.
It wasn’t until many years later that I encountered neuroplasticity and recognized that the mechanisms of neuroplasticity were an organizing framework for understanding how emotional styles could be transformed. While they were quite stable over time in most adults, they could still be changed through systematic practice of specific mental exercises. In a very real and concrete sense, we could change our brains by transforming our minds. And there was no realm more important for that to occur than emotion. For it is so that our emotional styles play an incredibly important role in determining who will be vulnerable to psychopathology and who will not be. Emotional styles are also critical in our physical health. Mental and physical well-being well-being are inextricably linked.
In the book I describe 6 emotional styles are that are rooted in basic neuroscientific research. The 6 styles are:
Resilience: How rapidly or slowly do you recover from adversity?
Outlook: How long does positive emotion persist following a joyful event?
Social Intuition: How accurate are you in detecting the non-verbal social cues of others?
Context: Do you regulate your emotion in a context-sensitive fashion?
Self-Awareness: How aware are you of your own bodily signals that constitute emotion?
Attention: How focused or scattered is your attention?
I did not decide one day to figure out how many emotional styles there were or to postulate which styles would make sense for humans to have. Rather, each of these styles has arisen inductively from the large corpus of research my colleagues and I have conducted using rigorous neuroscientific methods over the past 30 years. They are not the obvious styles that correspond to well-known personality types such as introversion and extraversion. But, as I explain in my book, they can explain the constituents of commonly found personality types. The fact that they are grounded in neural systems provides important clues as to how each style affects our emotional behavior and how the styles can also impact downstream bodily systems important for physical health.
Many aspects of emotional style are not conscious. They constitute emotional habits that largely proceed in the absence of awareness. For example, most of us are rarely aware of how long negative emotion persists following a stressful event. The self-awareness style underscores the fact that there are many bodily processes that contribute to emotion of which we may be unaware. One important motivation for me in writing this book is to bring into awareness habits of mind that previously were not conscious. By describing the nature of emotional styles and their underlying brain bases, it is my fervent aspiration that it will help others to recognize emotional patterns in themselves and such awareness is the first, and often most important, step in producing change. So if there are aspects of your emotional style that you wish to change, first becoming aware of these components of your mind is a key ingredient to change. In the book, I offer simple questionnaires you can take for each of the 6 emotional styles to give you an idea of where you fall on each of the 6 dimensions. And I also offer simple strategies to change your emotional styles should you wish to do so. They strategies are derived from ancient meditation practices and modern scientific approaches. Together, they constitute what I’ve called “neurally-inspired behavioral interventions”: Interventions that are derived from some understanding of the brain and utilize simple behavioral or mental strategies that offer the prospect of transforming your mind and thereby changing your brain. In the book I show that we can all take more responsibility for our own brains and intentionally shape our brains in a more positive way.
Another topic I consider in the book is how emotional styles develop over the life course. Infancy and early childhood are important periods in shaping brain development and adolescence is a key phase of life during which critical consequential choices are often made. In my next blog installment, I will focus on youth and the hopeful possibilities of change that the younger generation might offer.