Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hannah Tepper - The Scientific Argument for Being Emotional

Writing at Salon, Hannah Tepper examines some new research that suggests our emotions are more important to our health than previously recognized. Tepper speaks with neuroscientist (and Buddhist) Richard Davidson about his new book, written with 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

In our culture, men have been traditionally taught to bury or stuff down our emotions, to show no weakness, no fear, no vulnerability. Repressing emotions causes stress, and stress has been linked to nearly every form of disease we suffer.

Early in the book he lays out a new theory that our brain patterns reveal a specific emotional style for each of us, and that style has six components:
One is Resilience, which refers to how quickly or slowly you recover from adversity. The second is Outlook; the duration that a person’s positive emotion persists. Then there is Context, and that is the extent to which we modulate our emotional responses in a context-appropriate way. So for example, when we are with our boss we know that it’s not permissible to discuss the same topics we might discuss with our spouse. That’s called context modulation. The fourth is Social Intuition, the sensitivity to social cues, the extent to which a person is sensitive to facial expressions or vocal expressions. The fifth is Self Awareness, the extent to which a person is aware of signals within their own body, which are important to emotion. Finally, Attention, how focused or scattered you are. Attention isn’t often thought of as part of emotional style, yet our work indicates that it significantly contributes to a person’s emotional makeup. Is your attention easily pulled by stimuli in the environment or are you able to more skillfully focus your attention on what it is you wish to attend to.
 This is a very informative article - and it's good info for us men.


Saturday, Feb 25, 2012

The scientific argument for being emotional

New research shows that our feelings are more important to our health than we ever thought. An expert explains

Interview with the author of "The Emotional Life of your Brain"
 (Credit: Salon/DG Strong)

At the end of his second year of Harvard graduate school, neuroscientist and bestselling author Richard Davidson did something his colleagues suspected would mark the end of his academic career: He skipped town and went to India and Sri Lanka for three months to “study meditation.” In the ’70s, just as today, people tended to lump meditation into the new-age category, along with things like astrology, crystals, tantra and herbal “remedies.” But contrary to what his skeptics presumed, not only did Davidson return to resume his studies at Harvard, his trip also marked the beginning of Davidson’s most spectacular body of work: neuroscientific research indicating that meditation (and other strictly mental activity) changes the neuroplasticity of the brain.

Thirty years later, Davidson is still researching and writing about the intersection of neuroscience and emotion — he currently teaches psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his new book, written with 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 lays out a fascinating theory that parses out emotional style into six dimensions, giving readers a better understanding of where they stand on this emotional plane and how emotional styles affect the qualities of their everyday lives.

Last week Salon spoke over the phone with Davidson about how Botox injections disrupt our ability to emote, the connection between happiness and health, and why emotion has been unfairly and historically underappreciated.

There’s been stigma around the study of emotion in the past. Some people still frame emotion as pointless metaphysical leftovers that result from physiological processes. I think that your work has really come to show that that’s not true. In your view, what are the evolutionary and practical purposes of emotion and does it have intrinsic value?
I think that emotions are such an important part of our experience and behavior.. They came about over the course of evolution for a reason; to promote survival — to facilitate the adaptation of organisms to their environment. Emotions evolved to solve specific kinds of problems that arose over the course of our history. They wouldn’t be such a robust part of our experience if they didn’t have this deep evolutionary origin. Having said that, it’s also the case that we now live in an environment that is vastly different from our evolutionary origins. So some of the emotions that played a very important role in our past can be maladaptive when they are triggered in response to stimuli in our current environment. This is why developing strategies to better regulate our emotions may be particularly important for us now.

In the book you talk about some really fascinating research suggesting that emotional outlook, happiness or depression, can have a direct influence on our health.
There is an intuition in the popular culture that our emotions have something to do with our physical health, but we are just beginning to explore this connection. In our own research, we examined both the brain activity and peripheral biology of a group of individuals by giving them flu shots. It turns out that people who have a more resilient brain profile are the ones who actually have a bigger boost in their immune response when they get a flu vaccine. What it suggests is that more resilient individuals, when exposed to the flu virus, are conferred much greater immunity than a person with a vulnerable emotional style. It suggests that these brain circuits directly communicate with peripheral biological processes, in this case certain features of the immune system, and directly regulate them in ways that are consequential for our health.

In the beginning of the book, you talk about a discovery that set the course of your career in motion — this distinction between people with more right prefrontal cortical activity and those with more activity in their left prefrontal cortex.
We had been doing research looking at the neural correlates of particular short-lived emotions. We were specifically looking at neural changes during different fleeting facial expressions. The idea that we could actually identify brain mechanisms that underlie different emotional styles was not in the lexicon of science in the past. At that time the neuroscientific study of emotion was conducted mostly in rats and focused on subcortical brain regions, regions below the cortex.

What we noticed was that this right versus left activation patterns of the prefrontal cortex varied more across people than it did within one person during different emotions. So we did further studies to demonstrate that these individual variations were actually consistent for a person over time and directly related to important features of their mood and emotional styles. That’s what really launched us into thinking about emotional style and its brain bases.

Was it surprising that the prefrontal cortex was involved in emotion?
Well many psychologists and neuroscientists at that time regarded the prefrontal cortex as exclusively involved in higher cognitive function because the prefrontal cortex is among the most recent to develop over the course of evolution. In many ways it was regarded as the seat of the highest form of reason in humans. This assumption that the prefrontal cortex could not possibly be involved in emotion is, I think, part of a historical anachronism that regarded thought and feeling as two completely separate realms.
Read the whole article.

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