By Heidi Stevens, Tribune Newspapers
April 25, 2012
"Life's slings and arrows" is Harvard-educated neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson's phrase for the events we spend our days ducking, sometimes unsuccessfully.
Losing out on that promotion. Getting dumped. Navigating a cocktail party of boors (or bores). The stuff that conspires to keep us in a foul mood, despite our best intentions.
And Davidson argues that our response to such events — and even to full-on tragedies, such as the death of a loved one — is as much a part of our identity as our fingerprints.
"Each of us is a color-wheel combination of the resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, context and attention dimensions of emotional style," he writes in his new book, "The Emotional Life of Your Brain" (Hudson Street Press), "a unique blend that describes how you perceive the world and react to it, how you engage with others and how you navigate the obstacle course of life."
Unlike our fingerprints, though, our emotional style can be altered. "We have the power," Davidson contends, "to live our lives and train our brains in ways that will shift where we fall on each of the six dimensions of emotional style."
That may sound more like your yoga instructor than a guy who has spent the past three decades studying brain chemistry. But study brain chemistry he does, which makes his findings all the more compelling. (And he did spend three months during graduate school in India and Sri Lanka studying meditation, therefore he's entitled to sound a little like a yogi.)
So, the six dimensions. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, identifies them as such, based on activity he has identified in specific brain circuits:
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 social context you find yourself in.
Attention: How sharp and clear your focus is.
The book offers exercises to help assess your emotional style, mostly from true-or-false statements. ("When I go to a museum or attend a concert, the first few minutes are really enjoyable, but it doesn't last." "Often, when someone asks me why I am so angry or sad, I respond or think to myself, 'But I'm not!'")
Answers yield a score that places you on a spectrum for each of the six dimensions. Scoring 1 in resilience, for example, means "fast to recover"; a 10 indicates "slow to recover."
"There's no single optimal emotional style," Davidson said. "Emotional diversity is crucial for the successful operation of society. It's good, for example, that we have people who prefer to interact with machines over people.
"Neither end of the spectrum is necessarily better or worse than its opposite."
Still, he contends, certain emotional styles make it harder to lead a meaningful, productive life. Which inspires both the bad news and the good news from the book. A person who is self-opaque in the self-awareness department, puzzled in the social intuition department and unfocused in the attention department will likely struggle at dinner parties. (Bad news.) But, according to his findings, the brain is malleable enough to kick your scores up or down each spectrum a few notches, paving the way for future social success. (Good news!)
"It's best to regard your emotional well-being as a skill that can be trained," he says. "In many ways, it's no different than learning to play the violin. If you practice, you'll get better."
Essentially, Davidson argues, our brains — and therefore, our personalities — are hybrids of our genes and our environment.
"We can't do anything about our genes per se," he says. "We're all born with a complement of DNA that's just not possible to change. But our brains are constantly being shaped by the forces around us, and we can take more responsibility for the optimal shaping of our brains by engaging in certain, deliberate behaviors."
The extent to which certain genes are expressed, he notes, is largely affected by our environment — whether it's stressful or safe, perilous or nurturing.
"The decades-old neuroscience dogma that the adult brain is essentially fixed in form and function is wrong," he writes.
The final chapter is devoted to specific exercises for adjusting your emotional style — rewiring your brain, if you will.
To change your outlook: Write down one positive characteristic of yourself and one of someone you regularly interact with. Do this three times a day.
For social intuition: To enhance your sensitivity to vocal cues of emotion, when you are in a public place such as a subway, a busy coffee shop, a store or an airport terminal, close your eyes and pay attention to the voices around you. Tune into specific voices; focus not on the intent but on the tone of voice. Describe to yourself what that tone conveys: serenity, joy, anxiety, stress, etc.
"One of the central messages of the book is that different things work differently for different people," he says. "I encourage people to try things, to have an inquisitive curiosity and a playful attitude to see what works."
Different strokes for different folks, emotional diversity, we get all that. But we have to know: Is there one person who embodies a truly enviable emotional style?
"The Dalai Lama," Davidson replies, without skipping a beat. "He is someone who I believe has extraordinary resilience, who recovers very quickly from adversity. He has a very positive outlook, in that he is able to maintain very high levels of positive emotion across time. He has extraordinary social intuition — he's able to pick up on nonverbal cues of others in uncanny ways.
"Self-awareness: He is intimately in tune with what's going on inside himself. He has tremendous awareness of context so that he can behave in ways that are appropriate to any given context. He has an enormous capacity to control his attention. On every one of the six emotional styles, he is an extreme end point."
And he's probably delightful at cocktail parties.
Emotional style in relationships
How do different emotional styles play out in relationships? We asked Richard J. Davidson if mismatched emotional wiring spelled doom for a couple.
"I think that there are marriages that work with people who have very different emotional styles that complement one another — if they can find ways to work together," he says. "For example, if one member of a couple is highly socially intuitive and the other member is not, the highly social one could be the designated member of the pair who enables their social network and who makes social arrangements for the family, whereas the one who's not very socially intuitive takes care of the house, manages their finances and so forth.
"Basically what we're talking about is an optimal division of labor," he says. "In order for a successful relationship to work, it's important that each member contribute in different ways. If two people have identical emotional styles, it actually may lead them to want to take responsibility for the same things. And that may not be optimal either."
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC