Is your emotional style getting you down? Research finds the neural basis of your responses to life-and how you can change them.If you believe most pop psychology, you probably assume that most of us react to life events in just about the same way—there is a grieving process, a sequence of events when we fall in love, a standard response to being jilted.
But these one-size-fits-all assumptions are not true. In decades of research into the neurobiology of emotion, I’ve seen thousands of people who share similar backgrounds respond in dramatically different ways to the same experience. Why does one person recover quickly from divorce while another remains mired in self-recrimination or despair? Why does one sibling bounce back from a job loss while another feels worthless for years? And why can one father shrug off the botched call of a Little League umpire who called his daughter out while another leaps out of his seat and screams at the ump until his face turns purple? The answer that has emerged from my research is that these differences reflect what I call Emotional Style—a constellation of reactions and coping responses that differ in kind, intensity, and duration. Just as each person has a unique fingerprint and a unique face, each of us has a unique emotional profile.
That may seem as obvious as stating that everyone has a unique personality. But personality is not grounded in identifiable neurological mechanisms; it has not been traced to specific patterns of neural activity in the brain. This is where the theory of Emotional Style breaks new ground: through neuroimaging and other methodologies, I have traced Emotional Style—and, specifically, the six components that make it up—to patterns of activity throughout the brain.
In making those discoveries, I have found that, in contrast to the longstanding scientific orthodoxy, Emotional Style arises partly from activity in regions involved in cognition, reason, and logic—functions that textbooks tell us are as unrelated to emotions as apples are to squid. That has come as a shock to defenders of the view that cognition—which many psychologists and neuroscientists consider the most exalted human capacity—and emotion (viewed as a lesser, almost animalistic trait) run on separate, mutually independent brain circuitry: the former in the “highly evolved” frontal cortex and the latter in the limbic system, which in humans is not much different from that of other animals. In showing that cognition and emotion are not so separate after all, these discoveries have rehabilitated emotion. From a behavior that was, as recently as the 1970s, studied for the most part only in rats and other lab animals, human emotion has now assumed as important a place in neuroscience as thinking.
Locating the bases of emotion at least partly in the brain’s seat of reason has several practical implications. None is more intriguing than this: it is possible to transform your Emotional Style through systematic mental practice.
It is hard to exaggerate what a break this is from the conventional wisdom in psychology and neuroscience. From the earliest days of brain mapping—determining which regions are responsible for which functions—neuroscientists traced feelings and thoughts to structures that were barely within hailing distance of each other. The limbic system deep in the brain, including the amygdala and hippocampus, seemed to be the brain’s holy terror of a 2-year-old, the site of anger, fear, and anxiety, as well as positive emotions. The frontal cortex, just behind the forehead, was the exalted thinker, where forethought and judgment, reason and volition, attention and cognition came from. As recently as the 1980s, neuroscientists focused almost exclusively on cognition and the other functions of the frontal cortex; emotions were deemed of so little interest that neuroscience left them to psychology.
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The first crack in this wall came in the 1980s. The neurobiology of emotion was still a backwater, but a few scientists were beginning to pay more attention to feelings, particularly in the context of depression.
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~ Richard J. Davidson is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center.
~ Sharon Begley is senior health and science correspondent at Reuters. She is the coauthor of the 2002 book The Mind and the Brain and the author of the 2007 book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.