Archive for April, 2012

Improving Your Outlook

April 29, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Outlook,” it is recommended that you read it prior to reading the current post. You should remember that you can be too optimistic or too pessimistic, so you should first assess where you are on this outlook dimension before deciding how it might be improved. Dr. Davidson provides suggestions1 to make yourself more optimistic or less optimistic.

To increase your level of optimism, Dr. Davidson suggests the following:

Every day for a week, do these three exercises:

      1. Write down one positive characteristic of yourself and one positive characteristic of someone with whom you regularly interact. Do this three times a day. Ideally write down a different trait each time.

      2. Express gratitude regularly. Pay attention to times you say thank you and look directly into the eyes of the person you are thanking and display genuine gratitude. Keep a journal and note the specific times you felt a genuine, however brief, connection with this person to whom you expressed gratitude.

      3. Complement others regularly for such things as a job well done, a well kept yard, or something they are wearing, even if they are a stranger. Again, look directly into the eyes of the person you are complementing and record your feelings in your journal.

At the end of the week reassess your level of optimism. If you are where you think you should be, continue to monitor your optimism and repeat the above exercises if you feel you have regressed. If you think you have become too optimistic, you can try some of the suggestions for people who feel they are too optimistic.

Envision negative outcomes. Try to imagine how things could go wrong. If you are considering a purchase, be sure to consider all the negative consequences that do or could result from the purchase. To build your negativity, work at it until you think you are at the right dimension along the optimistic pessimistic outlook dimension. I would also recommend making a practice of regularly watching and reading the news.

You can also adjust your environment. To move to the positive end of the dimension fill your workspace and home with upbeat, optimistic gratifying times, and people who bring meaning to your life. Try to change pictures often so that you do not become habituated to them.

To move to the negative end of the dimension, fill your home and workspace with reminders of threats to your well being, such a pictures of disasters, and newspapers, magazines, and books dealing with all the problems facing the world.

If you feel you have moved too far in either direction, rearrange your environment accordingly.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Attentional Style

April 25, 2012

Attentional Style is the last of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1 to be discussed. But it is certainly not the least important dimension. It is the most important dimension as regular readers of this blog should have anticipated. With respect to a healthy memory, it is the most important dimensions as memory failures are typically due to a failure to pay attention. It is also a key building block for other dimensions as it is difficult to be self-aware or to be tuned in to social cues or sensitive to social context if one is not paying attention.

Davidson notes that there are two types of attention. One is the ability to selectively attend to stimuli that are of interest and to tune out extraneous stimulus. The other type of attention is nonjudgmental awareness. These two types of attention complement each other. Without the ability to selectively attend, the amount of stimulation and information is overwhelming. However, excessive selective attention can cause you to miss important cues or information.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in selective attention. Davidson describes an experiment in which the participants were to push a button when a sound of a certain pitch (high or low) was presented to a particular ear (left or right). EEGs were taken while the participants performed this task. Analyses of the recorded brain waves indicated that participants who performed this task better (where better able to selectively attend) had electrical signals from the prefrontal cortext that exhibited “Phase locking.” That is, the signals from the prefrontal lobes became synchronized precisely with the arrival of the tones.

Specific patterns of brain activation were also found during a study of open, nonjudgmental awareness that Davidson conducted. In this study strings of digits and letter were presented and the task was to to respond whenever a digit occurred. There is a phenomenon termed the attentional blink (or psychological refractory period) in which the response to the second occurrence of a digit is either missed or delayed. EEG recordings were taken of the participants while they performed this task. The EEG data recorded an event related potential known as the P300. It refers to a positive electrical response that occurs about 300 milliseconds after the presentation of a stimulus. Too strong a P300 response indicated that too much attention was expended on the first occurrence of the target stimulus, so that second presentation was missed. Too weak a P300 response typically indicated that both target stimuli were missed. So balanced, nonjudgmental awareness is characterized by a “Goldilocks” P300, not too much and not too little, but just right.

Here is where the emotional brain and the rational, thinking overlap. Clearly the emotional brain affects rational thinking, and is important to a healthy memory.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.


April 22, 2012

To this point, the dimensions of the Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1 that have received more detailed consideration, Outlook, Resilience, Social Intuition, and Context Sensitivity are fairly obvious dimensions of emotional style. However, some might be confused by Self-Awareness. How could someone not be aware of their emotions? There is a condition, alexithymia, in which people have difficulty identifying and describing their feelings. In fact, there is a scale to assess the severity of this problem. Understand that these people have feelings, the problem lies in identifying and describing these feelings. And it should be apparent what kinds of difficulties one could have if they do not understand what they are feeling.

There is a brain structure, the insula, which receives signals from the viscera and the somatosensory cortex, that is at the root of this problem. High levels of activity in the insula support high degrees of self-awareness, and low levels of activity in the insula result in low levels of self-awareness. Researchers have found through neuroimaging techniques that people who are more accurate in estimating their heart rate have larger insula. The larger the insula, the more accurate the estimate. Now people who have devoted a large portion of their lives to meditation, Buddhist monks for example, not only are aware of their heart rate, but are actually able to slow their heart rates to what some of us might regard as alarming.

This deficiency in understanding ones physiological responding goes beyond emotions. Some people suffer from chronic dehydration because they are unaware that they are thirsty. They have to be reminded to follow a strict schedule of hydration, even when they don’t feel like it, to avoid dehydration.

It should be noted that self-awareness is another “Goldilocks” variable. It is possible to have “too much” self-awareness. Ultrahigh levels of insula activity can produce excessive degress of body awareness that sometimes result in panic disorder and hypochondria. People with these disorder are hypersensitive to pulse, respiration rate, temperature, and other estimates of anxiety. The tend to overestimate and over interpret.. They might feel a slight uptick in heart rate and fear an impending heart attack.

There is one more emotional dimensions that needs to be discussed in more detail, attention. The next blog post will deal with attention. After that, techniques for modifying emotional states that Dr. Goldman has developed will be discussed.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Social Intuition and Social Context

April 18, 2012

Social intuition is one of the dimensions of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1 (See the Healthymemory Blog post “The Six Dimensons of Emotional Style”). The two immediately preceding blog posts have discussed the Outlook and Reslience dimensions. Social intuition refers to how attuned individuals are to social signals and to their ability to pick up social cues. People with autism are at the pathological end of this dimension. Others are deficient in their social interactions being mildly puzzled by the behaviors of others. People high in social intuition can read others like a book.

The brain structures most relevant to social intuition are the fusiform gyrus and the amygdala. High levels of activity in the fusiform gyrus and low to moderate levels in the amygdala are typical of people who are moderate to highly socially intuitive. Low levels of activity in the fusiform gyrus and high levels of activity in the amygdala characterize people who are puzzled by social interactions. Studies of the autistic brain have confirmed this heightened level of activity.

Social context is similar to social intuition with these two differences. Social context refers to how one responds to the what is present and happening in the environment in general. It also involves a different brain structure. The brain structure central to social context is the hippocampus. The hippocampus should be familiar to readers of the Healthymemory blog due to its importance in memory (try entering “hippocampus” into the search box and see how many hits you get). Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be regarded as a disorder of disrupted context. Studies have shown PTSD is associated with losses in the volume of the hippocampus. This diminished hippocampus has difficulty forming memories of the context in which something occurred thus conflating the dangers of a war zone with the relatively safety of home. Davidson has concluded that unusually low levels of activity in the hippocampus underlies the “tuned out” end of the sensitivity to context dimension. At the tuned in extreme high levels of activity in the hippocampus can lead to too much focus on context can make one overly self-conscious and socially inhibited. It can also lead to an obsessive need to please other people. At the other end of the continuum, too little activation of the hippocampus can lead to a lack of focus on context that might cause one to overlook something that is important or even dangerous. So Sensitivity to Social Context is another “Goldilocks” variable. Too much or too little can be bad. It needs to be “Just Right.”

Connections between the hippocampus and other brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex are also important. The hippocampus needs to communicate with the executive functions in the prefrontal cortex and well as memories held in long term storage. Stronger connections increase sensitivity to context. Weaker connections decrease sensitivity to social context.

Later posts will indicate how you change where you are on these social dimensions.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.


April 15, 2012

Resilience is one of the dimensions of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style.1 It refers to how quickly you bounce back from adversity. Do you bounce back quickly or do you let something bad keep you down for a prolonged length of time? Resilience is another “Goldilocks” variable in that you can have either too much or too little of it. Moreover, what is “just right” regarding resilience depends on the situation. If you just failed an examination, it might be worthwhile ruminating about it for a reasonable amount of time, not too excessive, trying to understand why you failed and how you might avoid similar failures in the future. However, you often see athletes compound an initial error by stewing over it, rather than quickly getting over it and attending to the immediate needs of the game or performance.

Davidson and his colleagues have performed some interesting research regarding the brain structures underlying resilience2. They did a study in which EEGs were recorded from the research participants scalps. Recordings of brain activity were done while 51 pictures were presented on a video monitor. However, before the pictures were presented the baseline level of brain activity was assessed for eight minutes. One-third of the pictures depicted upsetting images, another third pleasant images, and the other third neutral images. Sometime during or after a picture a short burst of white noise sounding like a click was presented. This was a startle probe that tends to make people blink involuntarily. Sensors were placed under one eye to determine when the eye blinked. When people are in a negative emotional state these startle-induced blinks are stronger than in a neutral state. When in a positive emotional state these startle-induced blinks become weaker still. This allowed the researchers to gauge how quickly a research participant recovered from a negative emotional state.

People who had greater activation in the left side of the prefrontal cortex recovered more quickly than the others. The amygdala is a subcortical structure (you have one in each hemisphere of your brain) that responds to negative or unpleasant stimuli. There is communication between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Activity in the left prefrontal cortex shortens the period of amygdala activation allowing the brain to bounce back from an upsetting situation.

MRI brain imaging research has shown that the more white matter (axons that connect one neuron to another) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient you are. The less white matter lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the less resilient you are.

Do not conclude from this that you are stuck with a fixed level of reslience due to the amoung of white matter you have between your prefrontal cortex and your amygdala. Research has indicated that this can be changed. In a later post, I will present techniques offered by Dr. Davidson as to how to change your level of resilience.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.



April 11, 2012

Outlook is one of the dimensions of Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style.1 Outlook refers to how one characteristically views life, typically along an optimism/pessimism dimension. There have already been a host of healthymemory blog posts on optimism (enter “optimism” into the search box). One can be too optimistic, or one can be too pessimistic. However, it is interesting to note that mental health tends toward the optimistic end. People who are clinically depressed tend to be more accurate making predictions where norms exist (for example, life expectation, or the likelihood of suffering from different diseases). This condition is known as depressive realism. Being more optimistic increases the likelihood of persevering and eventually achieving success. Optimism is a “Goldilocks” variable. You can have either too much or too little optimism. Somewhere in the middle is “just right.”

Davidson and his colleagues did a study2 in which the compared the brain activity of two groups: Healthy vs. Clinically Depressed. fMRI was used while they viewed pictures of people doing something joyous or, at least mildly pleasurable (children playing and enjoying themselves, adults dancing, people eating food that they were clearly enjoying. When the picture went off, they were asked to try to prolong the emotion (think of themselves in the same situation, imagine that the joy they felt would last and last). Seventy-two such images were projected to each participant over a forty-five minute session.

The brain imaging revealed activity in the reward circuit of the brain. This circuit involves the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum. Both groups showed activation in this reward circuit while the pictures were presented. However, it was only the Healthy participants who were able to maintain this activity once the pictures were turned off. The clinically depressed participants exhibited low activity in the ventral striatum due to decreased input from the prefrontal cortex.

I find these results to be both interesting and useful. It provides added context for interpreting my feelings. When my mood turns pessimistic, I can appreciate that my outlook, even though it might be more accurate, is less adaptive and less likely to lead to future success and happiness. I am also aware that my mood is likely due to decreased input from my prefrontal cortex to my ventral striatum, and if I can increase that input, via either internal or external means, I should become more optimistic.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.


© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Personality Theory and Emotional Style

April 8, 2012

This post is taken largely from The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Dr. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley. The personality theory in current vogue is by Lewis Goldberg.1 It is a five dimension model of personality in which the five dimensions are:

Openness to Experience





(If you have not already read the preceding blog post, “The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style,” now would be a good time). Here is how Goldman relates his six dimensions of emotional style to the five dimensions of personality.

Someone who is high in openness to new experience has strong social intuition, is highly self-aware, and tends to be focused with respect to attentional style.

Someone who is conscientious has well developed social intuition, an acute sensitivity to context, and a focused style of attention.

Extraverted people are at the fast to recover end of the resilience spectrum and maintain a positive outlook.

Agreeable people are highly attuned to social context, have strong resilience, and tend to maintain a positive outlook.

Highly neurotic people have low resilience, a gloomy negative outlook, are relatively insensitive to context, and are unfocused in their attentional style.

Davidson would argue that his Six Dimensions of Emotional Style provide a better explanation of personality types. In later posts we shall see that his Six Dimensions of Emotional Style are also grounded in brain structures, and can provide a better account of pathological cases. He also offers remedies both for pathological cases and for non pathological individuals who would like to make alterations in their emotional style.

1Goldberg, L. (1993). The Structure of Phenotypic Personality Traits. American Psychologist, 48, 26-34.

The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style

April 4, 2012

These six dimensions are taken from The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley.

Resilience style. When you’re knocked down, do you bounce back quickly and get back into the ring of life, or do you fall into a puddle of depression and resignation? Do you respond to setbacks with determination and energy, or do you give up? If you have an argument with your significant other, is the remainder of your day ruined, or do you recover quickly and put it behind you? These are examples of the two poles of the resilience dimension A person can be at either pole of the dimension or somewhere in between.

Outlook style. Do you tend towards optimism or pessimism? Even when things don’t go your way, do you maintain a high level of energy and engagement? Or are you cynical and pessimistic struggling to see anything positive? Again, these statements are intended to represent to poles of the Outlook dimension. You can fall at either extreme or anywhere in between.

Self Awareness style. Are you aware of the messages your body sends you? Are you aware of your own thoughts and feelings? Is your inner self opaque to your conscious mind such that you act or react without knowing why you do what you do? Do people who know you ask you why you never engage in introspection and wonder why you seem oblivious to your being anxious, jealous, impatient or threatened? Again, these statements are meant to represent the poles of the Self Awareness dimension. You can be at either extreme or fall anywhere in between.

Social Intuition style. Can you determine whether people want to talk or be alone, or whether they are extremely stressed or feeling mellow? Or are you puzzled by or blind to the outward indications of people’s physical or emotional states? So at one end of the dimension are the socially intuitive types and at the other end are those who are puzzled. Again, you can fall at either end or anywhere in between.

Sensitivity to Context style. Are you able to pick up the roles of social interaction so that you do not embarrass yourself, or are you baffled when people tell you that your behavior is inappropriate? If you are at one end of the Sensitivity to Context dimension you are tuned in. If you are at the other end you are tuned out. Of course, you can fall anywhere between these two poles, The Sensitivity to Context dimension might seem to be be very similar to the Social Intuition dimension, but there are reasons for distinguishing between them. Different brain structures are involved, and there are other reasons for this distinction that will become apparent in subsequent posts.

Attention style. Are you able to tune our distracting information and focus on the important information to which you are trying to attend? It is this dimension that is most relevant to a healthy memory. If you have read the Healthymemory Blog extensively, you should be well aware of the importance of attention to memory. Most memory failures are a failure to attend. So difficulties in your attention style will affect the importance of your memory.

Subsequent posts will relate these dimensions to personality theory and to pathological conditions. Each dimension will be considered in more detail and discuss the underlying brain structures that are involved. And methods for altering you emotional style will be discussed. However, at this point you should realize that there is not one ideal emotional style. Emotional styles can and should vary among individuals. It is when your emotional style is hindering your happiness and the health of your memory that they need to be addressed.

Emotions and a Healthy Memory

April 1, 2012

When I was a graduate student in the seventies studying cognition, emotions were of little interest. We needed to research cognition, the important stuff. Emotions were something of concern to clinicians and those dealing with mental illness, not something with which we hard-nosed scientists needed to be concerned. Richard Davidson was a graduate student the same time that I was, but he immediately saw the folly in this view. He completed his requirements for a doctoral degree and has done research which has developed a coherent view of emotion, the brain structures and processes underlying emotion, and methods for modifying our emotions. The last point is most important because he has shown that, regardless of any innate predispositions, we can control and change our emotions.

I did not have the prescience of Davidson. I held the contempt for the study of emotion that was prevalent at that time. In retrospect I can see how foolish I was. It is our emotional states that determine not only our happiness and satisfaction, but also the effectiveness of our interactions with the environment. Emotions are a key factor in a healthy memory. Emotional problems promote an unhealthy and ineffective memory.

Davidson is a most remarkable fellow. He is a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Time magazine named him one of the hundred most influential people in the world in 2006. Much of Davidson’s work has been published in his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

He has identified six dimensions of emotional style: Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self Awareness, Social Context, and Attention. Each of these dimensions is characterized by different interactions of structures in the brain, the activities of which can be observed and measured. He relates these dimensions to personality and explains how they develop. He relates them to normal and abnormal patterns and explains when “different” becomes pathological. What is most important is his elucidation of the plasticity of the brain and how emotional styles can be changed. He provides a questionnaire test to self-assess one’s position on the six dimensions. He also provides exercises one can use to modify one’s emotional style. External resources are also identified.

This book is highly readable. It is a joy to read. He added a co-author, Sharon Begley, to assure its readability and accessibility. Many personal stories are included. His experiences as a research assistant in a sleep laboratory when he was in high school, his undergraduate studies, his graduate studies including his meetings with fellow graduate student Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence), his professional career including his trips to Central Asia, and his relationship with the Dali Lama are entertainingly presented.

This is an important book. Accordingly, I plan to devote a substantial number of Healthymemory Blog posts to it. But there is no way I can even come close to giving this book its just due. I strongly encourage you to get and read the book. It should not only be interesting, but also personally rewarding.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.