Posts Tagged ‘Davidson’

The Brain and Mindfulness Meditation

April 2, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Bruce Lieberman in the Health & Science section of the 27 March 2018 issue of the Washington Post. His article was based on a recent article in the APS journal Perspectives on Psychological Science (Jan 2018) titled “Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research and Mindfulness and Meditation.” The title should tip off the reader that this article has a bias and it does. Healthymemory blog readers should be aware that there have been many posts on this topic.

The references include only three citations of Davidson, the most prolific and qualified researcher in the area, and only one for Goleman, who provided the incentive for research in this area. There is no reference to Dr. Benson, a physician and researcher at Harvard medical school who documented the benefits of the relaxation response. He also provided guidance and benefits of the relaxation response on Angina Pectoris, Anxiety, Depression, Hypertension, Stress-related infertility, insomnia, Menopausal, Perimenopausal, and Breast Cancer Hot Flashes, Nausea, Pain-General, Pain-Variations, Parkinson’s Disease, Phobias, Premature Aging, Premature Ventricular Contractions and Palpitations, and premenstrual syndrome. He does advise for treatment with a physician, but if the physician is hostile to meditation, then to look for a more accommodating physician. He also documents epigenetic effects in which meditation fosters healthy readouts from one’s genes. These effects are described in the healthy memory blog post “The Genetic Breakthrough—Your Ultimate Mind-Body Connection.”

HM was amazed by the kind and generous response by Dr. Davidson to the “Mind the Hype” article in his following paper in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, (Jan 2018) “Outstanding Challenges in Scientific Research on Mindfulness and Meditation.” Dr. Davidson is one of the most conscientious and demanding scientists HM knows.

The “Mind the Hype” article does not cite the book by Goleman and Davidson titled, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.”
This is the most exhaustive review of the literature currently available, and it does indicate how much is known about each topic. Dr. Davidson is his own most severe critic. So the best way to learn about the benefits and current limitations of mindfulness and meditation is to read this book. Short of that, read the numerous healthymemory posts that have been based on this book, along with the other healthy memory blog posts on this topic. Just use the search block for this blog. You can also go to Dr. Davidson’s website, https://centerhealthyminds.org/about/founder-richard-davidson

HM’s concern is that this article in the Washington Post based on this “Mind the Hype” review in the Washington Post will discourage people from meditating, in general, and from trying the relaxation response, in particular. There is much to be gained here and it is difficult imaging any risk.

Go to the healthy memory blog “An Update of the Relaxation Response Update” for guidance on how to do the relaxation response.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2018. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Analytical Meditation

December 9, 2017

This is the advanced deep path meditation. Usually stabilizing meditation (see previous post) is preliminary to analytic meditation. This type of meditation is for the purpose of developing insight or correct understanding of the way things are, and eventually to attain special insight (Sanskrit: vipashyana) into the ultimate nature of all things. Analytical meditation brings into play creative intellectual thought and is crucial to our development: the first step in gaining any real insight is to understand conceptually how things are. This conceptual clarity develops into firm conviction which, when combined with stabilizing meditation, brings direct and intuitive knowledge.

It is doubtful that most readers will want to get into this level of meditation, and fortunately, there are many benefits to just using the relaxation response. However, others might want to try this and see if it is for them. This can lead to retreats and a high level of involvement.

Should you be interested in exploring analytical meditation a good book is “How to Meditate by Kathleen McDonald. In addition to covering the basics, here is what she covers:

Meditations on the Mind which include meditation on the breath, meditation on the clarity of the mind, and meditation on the continuity of the mind.

Analytical Meditations which include Meditation on Emptiness, Appreciating our Human Life, Meditation on Impermanence, Death Awareness Meditation, Meditation on Karma, Purifying Negative Karma, Meditation on Suffering, Equanimity Meditation, Meditation on Love, Meditation on Compassion and Giving and Taking, Dealing with Negative Energy.

Visualization Meditations which include Body of Light Meditation, Simple Purification Meditation, Meditation on Tara, the Buddha of Enlightened Activity, Meditation on Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, Inner Heat Meditation.

And should you be interested in Prayers and Other Devotional Practices
Prayers, Explanation of the Prayers, A Short meditation on the Graduated Path of Enlightenment, Meditation on the Buddha, Meditation on the Healing Buddha, Meditation on the Eight Verses of Thought Transformation, Prayer to Tara, Vajrsattva Purification, The Eight Mahayana Precepts, Prostations to the Thirty-five Buddhas.

P.S. HM finds parts of this post, which were taken from Kathleen McDonald’s book disturbing. “For example, This type of meditation is for the purpose of developing insight or correct understanding of the way things are, and eventually to attain special insight (Sanskrit: vipashyana) into the ultimate nature of all things.” Readers of this blog should be know that HM advises never be 100% certain of everything. For critical thinking there always needs to be room, however small, for doubt. So to claim eventually to attain special insight into the ultimate nature of things is a bit of an overshoot. So to meditate to develop insight or correct understanding of the way things are can be an aspirational goal. It is important to understand that there are different ways of knowing, and it is a mistake to pursue only one way. Science is a way of knowing. Contemplative practices of religions are a complementary way of knowing. These are two ways of knowing that complement each other. Unfortunately too many fail to realize this. HM thinks that the Dalai Lama is the first religious leader to use science to inform religious beliefs. He sends his priests to learn about science as he thinks this is essential to effective religious leadership

Lists of Paramitas

December 7, 2017

Paramitas means completeness or perfection. Lists of paramitas are virtuous traits that mark progress in contemplative traditions. Among the paramitas of the yogi’s discussed in “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body” are generosity, the giving away of material wealth or of oneself, and ethical conduct, not harming oneself or others and following guidelines for self-discipline.

Additional traits are: patience, tolerance, and composure. These imply a serene equanimity. The Dalai Lama told an MIT audience, “Real peace is when your mind goes twenty-four hours a day with no fear, no anxiety.”

The authors note that there are intriguing dovetails between scientific data and the ancient maps to altered traits. An eighteenth-century Tibetan text advises that among the signs of spiritual progress are loving-kindness and strong compassion toward everyone, contentment, and “weak desires.” The authors note that these qualities seem to match with indicators of brain changes that have been tracked: amped-up circuitry for empathic concern and parental love, a more relaxed amygdala, and decreased volume of brain circuits associated with attachment.

A Tibetan tradition proffers a view that we all have a Buddha nature, but we simply fail to recognize it. In this view, the nub of meditative practice becomes recognizing intrinsic qualities, what’s already present rather than the development of any new inner skill. According to this perspective, the remarkable neural and biological findings among the yogis are signs not so much of skill development, but rather the quality of recognition.

This is an interesting question to ponder. The authors point to an increasingly robust corpus of scientific findings showing, for example, that if an infant watches puppets who engage in an altruistic, warmhearted encounter, or ones who are selfish and aggressive when given he choice of a puppet to reach for, almost all infants choose one of the friendly ones. They say this natural tendency continues through the toddler years.

HM wonders if these same results are found with infants who are unloved. And if it occurs through the toddler years for unloved toddlers.

The authors note that historically meditation was not meant to improve our health, relax us, or enhance work success. They note that although these are the kinds of appeal that has made meditation ubiquitous today, over the centuries such benefits were incidental, unnoticed side effects. This was unfortunate, because the benefits that have made meditation popular today are very real, and can be achieved using the relaxation technique espoused by Dr. Benton for only 20 minutes a day.

What the Yogi’s are able to accomplish require many thousands of hour of meditation in the deep mode.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2017. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Meditation as Psychotherapy

December 5, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of Chapter 10 of a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson. The subtitle is “Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. Meditation was not originally intended to treat psychological problems. However, in modern times it has shown promise in the treatment of some disorders, particularly depression and anxiety disorders. A meta-analysis of forty-seven studies on the application of meditation methods to treat patients with mental health problems found that meditation can lead to decreases in depression (especially severe depression), anxiety, and pain. They were about as effective as medications, but had no side effects. To a lesser degree, meditation can reduce the toll of psychological stress. Loving-kindness meditation may be especially beneficial to patients suffering from trauma, especially those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Mindfulness as been melded with cognitive therapy to produce Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). MBCT has become the most empirically well-validated psychological treatment with a meditation basis. This integration is having a wide impact in the clinical world. Empirical tests of applications to an ever larger range of psychological disorders are underway. Although there have been occasional reports of the negative effects of meditation, the findings to date point to the potential promise of meditation-based strategies. The enormous increase in scientific research in these areas makes for an optimistic future.

Mind, Body, & Genome

December 4, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” None of the many forms of meditation studied in this book was originally designed to treat illness. Nevertheless, today the scientific literature is replete with studies assessing whether these ancient practices might be useful for treating illnesses. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR; see the healthy memory blog post “Improving Selective Attention” for more information) and similar methods can reduce the emotional component of suffering from disease, but not cure the maladies. But mindfulness training— as short as three days—results in a short-term decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are the molecules responsible for inflammation. With extensive practice this seems to become a trait effect, with imaging studies finding in mediators at rest lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, along with an increased connectivity between regulatory circuitry and sectors of the brain’s self system, especially the posterior cingulate cortex.

For experienced meditation practitioners, a daylong period of intensive mindfulness down regulates genes involved in inflammation. The enzyme telomerase, which slows cellular aging, increases after three months of intensive practicing of mindfulness and loving-kindness (Go to the healthy memory blog post SPACE to find a description of loving-kindness meditation).

Long-term meditation may lead to beneficial structural changes in the brain. Current evidence is inconclusive as to whether such effects emerge with relative short-term practice, like MBSR, to only become apparent with longer-term practice. Taken together, the hints of neural rewiring that undergird altered traits seem scientifically credible, although further studies for specifics are needed.

Lightness of Being

December 3, 2017

This post is based on a chapter in a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson titled, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” When we let our mind wander, we hash over thoughts and feelings (often unpleasant) that focus on ourselves, constructing the narrative we experience as our “self.” The default mode circuits quiet during mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation (Go to the healthy memory blog post SPACE to find a description of loving-kindness meditation). In early stages of meditation this quieting of self-esteem entails brain circuits that inhibit default zones. In later practice the connections and activity within those areas wane.

The quieting of the self-circuitry begins as a state effect seen during or immediately after meditation. However, with long-term practitioners it becomes an enduring trait, together with decreased activity in the default mode itself. This resulting decrease in stickiness means that the self-focused thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind have much les “grab” and decreasing ability to hijack attention. This is what is meant by “lightness of being.”

Altered Traits and the Deep Path

November 29, 2017

The deep path of meditation focuses on deep exploration of the mind toward a profound alteration of our being. An altered trait is a new characteristic that arises from a meditation practice that endures apart from meditation itself. Altered traits affect how we behave in our daily lives, and not just during or immediately after we meditate. The concept of altered traits has been a lifelong pursuit of Goleman and Davidson, authors of “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body,”

For Goleman and Davidson, the most compelling impacts of meditation are not better health or sharper business performance but, instead, a further reach toward our better nature. The research indicates that the deep path markedly boosts science’s models of the upper limits of our positive potential. The further reaches of the deep path cultivate enduring qualities like selflessness, equanimity, a loving presence, and impartial compassion, traits which we should all regard as positive traits.

Goleman and an Davidson wrote an article titled, “The Role of Attention in Meditation and Hypnosis: A Psychobiological Perspective on Transformations of Consciousness. Transformation of consciousness was their term for altered states, which they regarded as a psychological or neural shift. They contended that hypnosis, unlike meditation, produced primarily state effects, and not the trait effects that meditation did. At the time this article was written the fascination was not with traits but rather altered states. As Goleman and Davidson said, “after the high goes, you’re still the same schmuck you were before.”

Goleman and Davidson say that this basic confusion is still too common. Some people focus on the remarkable states attained during a meditation session, particularly during long retreats, and pay little attention to how, or even if, those states translated into a lasting change for the better in their qualities of being after they’ve gone home. Their point is that valuing just the heights misses the true point of practice: to transform ourselves in lasting ways day to day. The Dalai Lama has said, “The true mark of a meditator is that he has disciplined his mind by freeing it from negative emotions.”

Goleman and Davidson articulated the hypothesis: The after is the before for the next during. To elaborate, “after” refers to enduring changes from meditation that last long enough beyond the practice session itself. “Before” means the condition we are in before we start meditating. “During” is what happens as we meditate, temporary changes in our state that pass when we stop meditating. Repeated practice of meditation results in lasting traits—the “after.” Research in the book and in subsequent posts provide scientific support for meditation producing the “after.”

Flourishing

November 27, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in Goleman and Davidson’s “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” Aristotle posited the goal of life as a virtue-based eudaemonia, a quality of flourishing, a view that continues under many guises in modern thought. Aristotle said that virtues are attained in part by finding the “right mean” between extremes; courage lies between impulsive risk-taking and cowardice, a tempered moderation between self-indulgence and ascetic denial.

He believed that we are not by nature virtuous, but all have the potential to become so through the right effort. This effort includes what we would call today self-monitoring, the ongoing practice of noting our thoughts and acts. For the Stoics, one key was seeing that our feelings about life’s events, not those events themselves, determine our happiness. This is a fundamental insight at which Siddhartha, the Buddha, arrived. We find equanimity by distinguishing what we can control in life from what we cannot. That creed finds an echo in the popularized Twelve Step version of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Goleman and Davidson write, “The classical way to the ‘wisdom to know the difference’ lay in mental training. Greek philosophers saw philosophy as an applied art and taught contemplative exercises and self-discipline as paths to flourishing. Like their peers to the East, the Greeks saw that we can cultivate qualities of mind that foster well-being.

Goleman and Davidson write “In the Greco-Roman tradition, qualities such as integrity, kindness, patience, and humility were considered keys to enduring well-being. These Western thinkers and Asian spiritual traditions alike saw value in cultivating a virtuous being via a roughly similar transformation of being. In Buddhism, for example , the ideal of inner flourishing gets put in terms of ‘bodhi’ (in Pali and Sanskrit), a path of self-actualization that nourishes ‘the very best within oneself.’”

University of Wisconsin psychologist Carol Ryff, drawing on Aristotle among many other thinkers, posits a model of well-being with six arms:

*Self acceptance, being positive about yourself, acknowledging both your best and not-so-good qualities, and feeling fine about being just as you are. This takes a non-judgmental self-awareness.

*Personal growth, the sense you continue to change and develop toward your full potential—getting better as time goes on—adopting new ways of seeing or being and making the most of your talents. ‘Each of you is perfect the way you are,’ Zen master Suzuki Roshi told his students, adding, ‘and you can use a little improvement’—neatly reconciling acceptance with growth.

*Autonomy, independence in thought and deed, freedom from social pressure, and using your own standards to measure yourself. This, by the way, applies most strongly in individualistic cultures like Australia and the United States, as compared with cultures like Japan, where harmony with one’s group looms larger.

*Mastery, feeling competent to handle life’s complexities, seizing opportunities as they come your way, and creating situations that suit your needs and values.

*Satisfying relationships, with warmth, empathy, and trust, along with mutual concern for each other and a healthy give-and-take,

*Life purpose, goals and beliefs that give you a sense of meaning and direction, Some philosophers argue that true happiness comes as a by-product of meaning and purpose in life.

Ryff sees the qualities as a modern version of eudamonia—Aristotle’s “highest of all human good,” the realization of you unique potential. Goleman and Davidson write,”…different varieties of meditation seem to cultivate one or more of these capacities. More immediately, several studies have looked at how meditation boosted people’s ratings on Ryffs own measure of well-being.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fewer than half of Americans report feeling a strong purpose in life beyond their jobs and family. Healthy memory blog readers should remember that ikigai is the Japanese term for having a purpose in life. Many healthy memory blogs have emphasized its importance.

It was found that after a three-month meditation retreat (540 hours total), those participants who had strengthened a sense of purpose in life during that time also showed a simultaneous increase in the activity of telomerase in their immune cells, even five months later. Telomerase protects the length of telomeres, the caps at the ends of DNA strands that reflect how long a cell will live.

Another study found that eight weeks of a variety of mindfulness practices seemed to enlarge a region in the brain stem that correlated with a person’s well-being on Ryff’s test. But Goleman and Davidson caution that only fourteen people were involved in the study, so it needs to be replicated with a larger group before becoming more than tentative conclusion.

In yet another study, people practicing a popular form of mindfulness reported higher levels of well-being and other such benefits for up to a year. The more everyday mindfulness, the greater the subjective boost in well-being. Again the authors caveat this study by saying that not only was the sample size small, but also a brain measure rather than self-evaluations would have been more convincing.

Goleman and Davidson write, “Studies such as these are often cited as “proving” the merits of meditation, particularly these days, when mindfulness has become the flavor du jour. But meditation research varies enormously when it comes to scientific soundness—though when used to promote some brand of meditation, app, or other contemplative “product,” this inconvenient truth goes missing.”

The authors promise that they have used rigorous standards to sort out fluff from fact. They want to determine what science actually does tell us about the impacts of meditation.

Altered Traits and Neuroplasticity

November 26, 2017

There have been many healthy memory blog posts on neuroplasticity, which is a topic of continuing attention. The first evidence of neuroplasticity was of a negative effect. Bruce McEwen produced evidence of how stressful events produce lingering neural scars. The research used a tree shrew, a small creature, but the research had a gigantic effect. The thinking, or rather dogma of the day, was that the neural system was fixed and could not change. It was research by Marian Diamond and her psychologist colleagues that documented that enriched environments increase the size of rats’ brains. Previous research had focused on the nature vs nurture issue. Genes defined nature and the environment defined nurture. Arguments abounded about whether intelligence and many other topics of interest were affected more by nature or more by nurture. The truth is that there is an interaction between nature and nurture. Traits altered by meditation are further examples of neuroplasticity at the positive end and post-traumatic stress disorder at the negative end.

Goleman and Davidson’s interests go beyond the merely healthy spectrum to an even more beneficial range of wholesome traits of being. Extremely positive altered traits, like equanimity and compassion, are a goal of mind training in contemplative traditions. They use the term altered trait as shorthand for this highly positive range.

Neuroplasticity provides a scientific basis for how repeated training can create those lasting qualities of being they encountered in a handful of exceptional yogis, swamis, monks, and lamas, Their altered traits fit ancient descriptions of lasting transformation at these higher levels.

Goleman and Davidson write, “A mind free from disturbance has value in lessening human suffering, a goal shared by science and meditative paths alike. But apart from lofty heights of being, there’s a more practical potential within reach of every one of us: a life best described as flourishing.

This post is taken from Goleman and Davidson’s “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.”

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

June 30, 2016

When people learn that Healthymemory (HM) is a psychologist, they frequently tell me they know about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) to indicate to me that they, also, know about psychology.  What they do not realize is that they are indicating to me that they have a profound ignorance of psychology.  First of all, the developers of the MBTI, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, were not psychologists, nor did they have any psychological training.  Moreover, they developed their theory from Carl Jung’s writings in his book “Psychological Types.”  Carl Jung was psychotherapist in the early days of psychiatry.   Today, he is mainly of historical interest and his impact on current psychiatry or personality theory is small.  Psychometric tools have metrics for assessing utility.  Two standards for assessing psychometric tools are validity (does it measure what it purports to measure ) and reliability (are the measurements consistent).  The MBTI fails on both metrics having poor validity and poor reliability (It will sometimes give different results for the same person on different occasions).

Nevertheless, the MBTI is quite popular in the business sector and in government, including the intelligence agencies.  Moreover, if HM informs a client that the MBTI is garbage, they are still likely to insist on its use.  So, so-called hard nose business people would rather use something that is known and is worthless that they know about, rather than some other tool with measurable value.

When agencies are asked why they find the MBTI useful, you usually get responses such as Harry is always late responding, and now I understand why.  Or Fred does sloppy work, and now I understand why.  For some reason they think that a label implies understanding.  Frankly ,when HM worked in a group, he quickly learned who was reliable,  who was timely, and so forth, and planned his management accordingly.  HM believes that these people who think the label told them something were already aware of the idiosycrancies of their staff.

The only apparent redeeming value of the MBTI is that it has some correlation with four of the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.  These Big five traits are somewhat contentious.
One of the problems with personality traits is that individuals can exhibit different traits in different circumstances.  Moreover, these traits are not fixed, they can change.

Consequently, HM would steer you away from these Big five traits and towards Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style.  They are resilience, outlook, self awareness, social intuition, sensitivity to context, and attentional style.  HM would argue that resilience, the ability to bounce back from adversity, is clearly the most important of these attributes, bu resilience is absent from many personality characterizations.

A primary advantage of Davidson’s approach is that provides a means to grow and adapt.  That is, it employs a growth mindset as opposed to the fixed mindsets provided by previous personality type characterizations.

Enter “Davidson” into the healthy memory search block to learn more about Davidson, his dimensions of emotional style, and also to find exercises to help you change you emotional style.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Transforming the Emotional Mind

June 13, 2016

The title of this post is identical to the title of Chapter nine of Sharon Begley’s “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”  In the 1970s, Davidson and his colleagues discovered striking differences in the patterns of brain activity that characterize people at opposite ends of the “eudaemonic scale,” which provides the spectrum of baseline happiness.  There are specific brain states that correlate with happiness.

Secondly, brain-activation patterns can change as a result of therapy and mindfulness meditation, in which people learn to think differently about their thoughts.  This has been shown in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and with patients suffering from depression.  Mental training practice and effort can bring about changes in the function of the brain.

Given these two facts Davidson built the hypothesis that meditation or other forms of mental training can, by exploiting the brain’s neuroplasticity, produce changes, most likely in patterns of neuronal activation, but perhaps even in the structure of neural circuitry that underlie enduring happiness and other positive emotions.  Then therapists and even individuals by exploiting the brain’s potential to change its wiring can restore the brain and the mind to emotional health.

In 1992 Davidson and his colleagues found that activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, as detected by EEG, is a reflection of a person’s emotional state.  Asymmetric activation in this region corresponds to different “affective styles.”  When activity in the left prefrontal cortex is markedly and chronically higher than in the right, people report feeling alert, energized, enthusiastic, and joyous, enjoying life more and having a greater sense of  well-being.  In other words, they tend to be happier.  When there is greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex, people report feeling negative emotions including worry, anxiety, and sadness.  They express discontent with life and rarely feel elation or joy.  If the asymmetry is so extreme that activity in the right prefrontal cortex swamps that in the left, the person has a high risk of falling into clinical depression.

The Dalai Lama has noted that the most powerful influences on the mind come from within our own mind.  The findings that, in highly experienced  meditators, there is greater activity in the left frontal cortex “imply that happiness is something we can cultivate deliberately through mental training that affects the brain.”

Research has shown that every area of the brain that had been implicated in some aspect of emotion had also been linked to some aspect of thought:  circuitry that crackles with electrical activity  when when the mind feels an emotion and circuitry  that comes alive when the mind undergoes cognitive processing, whether it is remembering, or thinking, or planning, or calculating, are intertwined as yarn on a loom.  Neurons principally associated with thinking connect to those mostly associated with emotion, and vice versa.  This neuroanatomy is consistent with two thousand years of Buddhist thought, which holds that emotion and cognition cannot be separated.

Using fMRI Davidson measured activity in the brain’s amygdala, an area that is active during such afflictive emotions as distress, fear, anger,and anxiety.  Davidson said, “Simply by mental rehearsal of the aspiration that a person in a photo be free of suffering, people can change the strength of the signal in the amygdala.  This signal in he fear-generating amygdala can be modulated with mental training.

Eight Buddhist adepts and eight controls  with 256 electrodes glued to their scalps engaged in the form of meditation called pure compassion, in which the meditator focuses on unlimited compassion and loving-kindness toward all living beings.  This produces a state in which love and compassion permeates the whole mind, with no other considerations, reasoning, or discursive thoughts.  The brain waves that predominated were gamma waves.  Scientists  believe that brain waves of this frequency reflect the activation and recruitment of neural resources and general mental effort.  They are also a signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-found brain circuits.  In 2004 the results of this study were published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Not surprisingly the results of the monks were quite pronounced.  But it was encouraging to discover that some of the controls who received a crash crash course and only a week’s worth of compassion meditation, showed a slight but significant increase in the gamma signal.

fMRI images were also taken.  The differences between the adepts and the controls were quite interesting.  There was significantly greater activation in the right ins and caudate, a network that other research has linked to empathy and maternal love.  These differences were most pronounced in monks with more years of meditation.  Connections from the frontal regions to the brain’s emotion regions seemed to become stronger with more years practicing meditation.  It was clear that mental training that engages concentration and thought can alter connections between the thinking brain and the emotional brain.

A surprising finding was that when the monks engaged in compassion meditation, their brains showed increased activity in regions responsible for planned movement.   It appeared that the monks’ brains were itching to go to the aid of those in distress.  Another spot of activation in the brains of the meditating monks jumped out in  an area in the left prefrontal cortex, the site of activity association with happiness.  Activity in the left prefrontal swamped activity in the right prefrontal  to a degree never before seen from purely mental activity.

Davidson concluded, “ I believe that Buddhism has something to teach us as scientists about the possibilities of human transformation and in providing a set of methods and a road map of how to achieve that.  We can have no idea how much plasticity there really is in the human brain until we see what intense mental training, not some weekly meditation session, can accomplish.  We’ve gotten the idea in Western culture, that we can change our mental status by a once-a-week, forty-five intervention, which is completely cockamamy.  Athletes and musicians train many hours every day.  As a neuroscientist, I have to believe that engaging in compassion meditation every day for an hour each day would change your brain in important ways.  To deny that without testing it, to accept the null hypothesis, is simply bad science.”

Davidson continues, “I believe that neuroplasticity will reshape psychology in the coming years.  Much of psychology had accepted the idea of a fixed program unfolding in the brain, one that strongly shapes behavior, personality, and emotional states.  That view is shattered by the discoveries of neuroplasticity.  Neuroplasticity will be the counter to the deterministic view (that genes have behavior on a short leash).  The message I take for my own work is that I have a choice in how I react, that who I am depends on the choices I make, and that who I am is therefore my responsibility.”

How Science Reveals that “Well-Being” Is a Skill

May 3, 2016

The title of this post is the title of an article by the eminent psychologist Richard Davidson that was published in the e-letter by Mindful Magazine (you can subscribe to the e-letter by going to www,mindful.org).  Dr. Davidson identifies four components of well-being.  They are resilience, outlook, attention, and generosity.

Resilience refers to how well someone recovers from adversity.  People differ on this dimension, with some recovering quickly and others taking a long time to recover.  Obviously, the ability to recover quickly is a definite plus, and it is good to rate high on this resilience dimension.  Remember that well-being is a skill, so resilience can be developed.  Research indicates that this cannot be done quickly, but with dedicated practice one can gradually progress on this dimension.

Outlook is the ability to savor  positive experience such as  enjoying a coffee break to seeing kindness in every person.  Research has shown that modest amounts of loving-kindness and compassion meditation can positively impact outlook.  Davidson cites a study  in which individuals who had never meditated before received 30 minutes of compassion training over two weeks.  Davidson said, “Not only did we see changes in the brain, but these changes in the brain actually predicted pro-social behavior.”

Attention refers the ability to control attention.  Davidson said, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” which is a paraphrase of the subtitle of an article published by a group of social psychologists at Harvard.  These researchers found that almost half the time, we’re not actually paying attention to the present moment.  Davidson asks us to envision a world where distractibility goes down a little.   He said that if we could turn down distractibility by just 5% it would positively impact productivity by being present, showing up for others, listening deeply, and so forth.

Davidson says that when individuals engage in generous and altruistic behavior, they activate circuits in the brain that are key to fostering well-being..  Moreover, these circuits get activated in a way that shows more enduring activation than other kinds of positive incentives.  Research research also suggests that compassion training can positively alter  our own response to suffering.

There have been many previous healthy memory blog posts on the research of Davidson that can be found by entering “Davidson” in the healthymemoy blog search block.  He defines six dimensions of emotional style.  He also provides exercises for improving one’s performance on each of these dimensions of emotional style.

There Will Be Another Brief Hiatus in New Posts

February 1, 2015

Nevertheless with more than 550 Healthymemory Blog posts I think there is sufficient reading material.  If I had to recommend one blog post to read it would be “The Myth of Cognitive Decline.”  This can be found by entering this title in the search box of the healthy memory blog.  This search block can be used to identify blog posts on the following topics.

Posts based on whom I regard as the most important cognitive psychologists:  Nobel Prize Winner Kahneman, plus Stanovich and Davidson.  There are posts on the important topics of attention and cognitive reserve.  Other topics of potential interest are The Flynn Effect, mindfulness, meditation, memory champs, contemplative computing, behavioral economics, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.

Of course, you are encouraged to enter any of your favorite topics into the healthymemory blog search block

Enjoy.  I shall return.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2014. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

An Antidote for Worry

April 21, 2013

First of all, worry is important. Worry is important so that you pay your taxes, save money, eat a proper diet, exercise, both physically and cognitively, and build a cognitive reserve. But uncontrolled worry leads to unhealthy rumination and unhappiness. What is the point of worrying about something that is out of your control? You are likely to suffer more anticipating the event than the event itself. Control what you can control, and try not to worry about the rest.

Of course, that is easier said that done. Here meditation can help. 1 There are two extremes of meditation. At one end of the meditation continuum you focus your attention on one thing, for example, your breath or a word or phrase. At the other end of the continuum there is open monitoring to a broad awareness of sensations and surroundings. Thoughts are allowed to freely pass through the mind without evaluation. The absence of evaluation is what is important. If what is worrying you passes through your consciousness without causing worry or discomfort, that is okay. But if you evaluate these thoughts so that they cause you to worry, then this is counterproductive.

What is recommended is to find a midpoint between these two extremes. Let your mind run free until it hits a worrying thought, in which case you redirect your thoughts to something pleasant. Perhaps it sounds too simple to say that you can be happy just by thinking happy thoughts, but it is true. Just smiling can improve your mode. But remember not to lose contact with reality completely.

Let me just add that my Ph.D. is in cognitive psychology. I am neither a clinical nor counseling psychologist.

1To find more blog posts about mediation enter “meditation,” “mindfulness,” or “Davidson” into the healthymemory search box

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2013. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Improving Nonjudgmental Awareness

May 20, 2012

If you have read the Healthymemory Blog post “Attentional Style” (and if you have not, you should read it before proceeding) you should remember that Dr. Davidson states that there are two types of attention: selective attention and nonjudgmental awareness.1 This blog post deals with nonjudgmental awareness.

Dr. Davidson recommends open-monitoring meditation, in which your attention is not focused on any particular object. Instead you cultivate an awareness of awareness itself. Before beginning this type of meditation, Dr. Davidson recommends beginning with focused-attention meditation such as breath meditation to to give you a level of basic attentional stability. This should make open-monitoring meditation.

He provides the following basics of open-minded meditation:

“1. Sit in a quiet room with a comfortable chair, with your back straight but the rest of your body relaxed. Keep your eyes open or closed whichever is more comfortable. If your eyes are open, gaze downward and keep your eyes somewhat unfocused.

      1. Maintain a clear awareness and openness to your surroundings. Keep your mind calm and relaxed, not focused on anything specific, yet totally present, clear, vivid and transparent.

      2. Lightly attend to whatever object rises to the top of your consciousness, but do not latch on to it. You want to observe the thinking process itself, perhaps saying to yourself, Oh, I notice that the first thing I think about as I sit down to meditate is…

      3. Give your full attention to the most current salient object of consciousness, focusing on it to the exclusion of anything else, but without thinking about it. That is, you are simply aware of it, observing it as disinterestedly as possible, but do not explore it intellectually.

      4. Generate a state of total openness, in which the mind is as vast as the sky, able to welcome and absorb any stray thought, feeling, or sensation like a new star that begins shining. When thoughts arise, simply let them pass through your mind without leaving any trace of it. When you perceive noises, images, tastes, or other sensations, let them be as they are without engaging with them or rejecting them. Tell yourself that they can’t affect the serene equanimity of your mind.

      5. If you notice your mind moving toward thought or feeling, let it do so, letting the newcomer slip into consciousness. Unlike in attention-strengthening forms of meditation, you do not try to shoo away the “intruding” thought, but allow your mind to turn to it. The key difference between breath-focused attention discussed previously is that in open-monitoring meditation there is no single focus to which the attention is redirected if it wanders. Rather, you simply become aware of whatever is in the center of attention at the moment.

      6. Turn to this new object of attention as you did the first.

      7. Do this for five to ten minutes.2

Dr. Davidson lists the following meditation centers that offer courses, books, and CDs on open-monitoring meditation: Insight meditation Society in Barre, MA; Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodcare, CA; and Tergar Meditation Group in Minneapolis, MN.

Dr. Davidson did a study in 2009 in which it was found that practitioner of open-monitoring meditation showed phase locking in their EEGs. That is, their brain waves were modulated to make them more receptive to outside stimuli. It is somewhat ironic to note that this phase locking is also an indication of selective attention as we noted in the “Attentional Style” Healthymemory Blog Post. But as it was noted in that blog post, these two types of attention complement each other.

You can also alter your environment to expand your attentional awareness. Put books and magazines around to tempt yourself to read something new. Keep your room or office open to the outside world. Place photos of loved ones on your desk so you can glance at them as you work. Set the alarm on your cell phone or computer to chirp every twenty to thirty minutes to cue you to think of something else.

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

2Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press. pp. 240-241.

Improving Selective Attention

May 16, 2012

If you have read the Healthymemory Blog post “Attentional Style” (and if you have not, you should read it before proceeding) you should remember that Dr. Davidson states that there are two types of attention: selective attention and nonjudgmental awareness.1 This blog post deals with improving selective attention. Selective attention involves the enhanced activation of the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex.

Dr. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation for improving selective attention. The following section, copied for your convenience from the immediately preceding Healthymemory Blog post, “Improving Self-Awareness”, is how Dr. Davidson recommends that you begin mindfulness meditation.

1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.

        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

He also recommends the Body Scan, which is also copied from the preceding Healthymemory Blog post for your convenience.

Sit upright on the floor or a chair maintaining a relaxed but upright posture so you do not become drowsy.

      1. Systematically move your attention to your toe, foot, ankle, leg, and knee and pay attention to the specific sensation of each such as tingling, or pressure, or temperature. Experience the sensations rather than thinking about the body parts. The goal is to cultivate awareness of your body in the context of nonjudgmental awareness.

Should you get lost in a chain of thought or feeling, reengage with your breathing to settle your mind.

Dr. Davidson also recommends the following focused attention meditation, also known as one-pointed meditation.

“1. In a quiet room free of distractions, sit with you eyes open. Find a small object such as a coin, a button on your shirt, or an eyelet on your shoe. It is important that your focus of attention be visual, rather than on your breath, your body image, or other mental objects.

      1. Focus all your attention on this one object. Keep your eyes trained on it.

      2. If your attention wanders, calmly try to bring it back to that object.”2

        He recommends that you do this daily for about ten minutes. Once you are able to maintain your focus of attention for most of that time, increase your practice about ten minutes per month until you reach one hour.

You can also modify your environment to improve your selective attention. Minimize distractions, clear out your environment eliminating as many distractions as you can. Close your door. AND DO NOT MULTITASK!

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

2 Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press. p.239.

Improving Self Awareness

May 13, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Self-Awareness”, it would be good to do so before reading this post on improving self-awareness. Self-Awareness is another “Goldilocks” variable in that there can be too much or too little of it. People with high levels of Self-Awareness have greater activation of their insula, whereas people with low levels of Self-Awareness have low activation of their insula. However, more than the insula is involved. How outputs from the insula are interpreted are also critical. For this reason mindfulness meditation provides a good method of achieving an optimal level of self-awareness. The following advice is taken from Dr. Davidson’s book.1 This advice can also be found in the “Improving Resilience” post.

Mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on breathing. Dr Davidson suggestions the following way of beginning:

1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.

        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He also recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

Dr. Davidson also recommends what he calls the “body scan”.

        1. Sit upright on the floor or a chair maintaining a relaxed but upright posture so you do not become drowsy.

        2. Systematically move your attention to your toe, foot, ankle, leg, and knee and pay attention to the specific sensation of each such as tingling, or pressure, or temperature. Experience the sensations rather than thinking about the body parts. The goal is to cultivate awareness of your body in the context of nonjudgmental awareness.

        3. Should you get lost in a chain of thought or feeling, reengage with your breathing to settle your mind.

A 2008 study found that people who had practice mindfulness meditation every day for about eight years had larger insula that people of the same age and sex who did not meditate.2 This apparent paradox of a practice that increases the size of the insula but does not produce pathological levels of self-awareness is resolved when it is realized that these meditative practices also improve and modulate the messages from the insula.

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

2Holzel, B.K., Ott, U. Gard, T. Hempel, H., Weygandt, M., Morgen, K., Vaitl, D. (2008). Investigation of Mindfulness Meditatin Practitioners with Voxel-Based Morphometry. Social Cognitive and Affeciive Neuroscience. 3, 55-61.

Improving Resilience

May 2, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Resilience,” it is suggested that you do this now. Before it can be improved you must understand what resilience is and roughly where you stand on the resilience dimension. Resilience is one of Dr. Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1. Dr. Davidson stresses that you can adjust your emotional style and provides suggestions as to how you can do so.

If you are slow to recover from emotional setbacks, Dr. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness produces emotional balance and helps you recover, but not too quickly, from emotional setbacks. Mindfulness weakens the chain of associations that keep us obsessing about and wallowing in a setback. Mindfulness strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala promoting equanimity and braking the obsessive associations.

Mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on breathing. Dr Davidson suggestions the following way of beginning:

  1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.
        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Goldman writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He also recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

If mindfulness training does not work for you, Dr. Goldman suggests cognitive reappraisal therapy.

On the other hand, if you are too close to the fast to recover end of the resilience dimension try a type of meditation from Tibetan Buddhism called tonglen,which means “taking and receiving.” This meditation is designed to foster compassion and involves visualizing another person who might be suffering, taking in that suffering and transforming it into compassion. This is very effective at fostering empathy. Dr. Goldman recommends doing the following exercise for five to ten minutes, four or five times a week.

      1. Visualize as vividly as you can someone who is suffering. The closer this person is to you , the stronger and clearer the visualization will be. You can also visualize a generic sufferer, such as someone starving in Africa, or a cancer patient in a hospice.

      2. Imagine the suffering leaving this person as you inhale. Conjure an image of the suffering leaving this person’s body like fog dissipating as the sun burns it off.

      3. On each exhalation imagine that the suffering is turned into compassion. Direct this compassion towards this person. As you exhale imaging your breath flowing towards this person with a gift of empathy and love that will assuage the pain.

You can also arrange your environment to accommodate variations in resilience style. To speed up recovery from adversity leave the situation where the adversity occurred and go to a place les emotionally charged. To slow down your recovery, do the opposite.

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

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.

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.

Resilience

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.

2Ibid.