Posts Tagged ‘Davidson’

Sensitivity to Context

April 1, 2020

Prof. Davidson notes that failing to correctly discern social context can lead to emotional responses that are appropriate in one setting but not in another. It’s appropriate to feel extreme anxiety in dangerous situations but not in other situations; if you can’t tell the difference, you are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Prof. Davidson continues, Based on the success of exposure, we can surmise that a general strategy to enhance Sensitivity to Context is to gradually insure yourself to cues that make you anxious or angry:

To help you relax, start with a simple breathing technique from hatha yoga. With your eyes closes, attend to your breathing as you would in mindfulness meditation, counting the duration of each inhalation and exhalation.
Once you have counted for several breaths, lengthen your breathing cycle so it takes you one more second. Keep increasing the lengths as long as you feel comfortable. then maintain these longer breaths for five minutes.
Notice if the inhalation and exhalation are the same length. If one is longer, try to lengthen the other so that they take equal amounts of time. Do this for five minutes and then open your eyes.

Once you feel comfortable with this breathing exercise, move on to context training. Prof. Davidson uses the example of a boss who makes you so anxious that you start sweating just thinking about him, with this anxiety spilling over into your family life. The same principle would work with any source of anxiety or dread:

Make a list of the specific cues and behaviors of your boss that upset you. Maybe he looms over your desk during the workday. Maybes loiters outside your work space at 4:55, watching to see if you leave even a minute early. Maybe he excoriates the reports or other work you turn in. Be specific and vivid and detailed as possible.
Then, in a safe context such as at home on a weekend, gently and gradually bring to mind images associated with your boss. Conjure up exactly how he looks watching you at day’s end. Imagine his face as he reads your work.
Simultaneously, perform the breathing exercise. Continue to do this until you feel comfortable and relaxed imagining your boss’s glowering visage and his habit of hovering over you desk. Spend about fifteen minutes on this exercise.

Prof. Davidson writes, you can expect to experience some benefit after doing this for four sessions, and the hour you invest will be well worth it. By improving your ability to distinguish between the context of your work and home, this exercise should help you distinguish among other contexts, too, and thus display context-appropriate emotional responses. Although there have not been any studies comparing brain activity before and after such training the fact that exposure therapy helps PTSD patients suggest that it works by strengthening connections from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the neocortex.
Prof. Davidson continues, there has been no research explicitly focused on moving people to the Tuned Out end of the Sensitivity to Context continuum, or on ways to weaken connections from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex and neocortex. But if you feel that shifting your set point away from the Tuned In extreme would help you stop tailoring you behavior to each context in a way that feels excessively contrive, I recommend the exercises that cultivate Self-Awareness.

Much more extensive guidance is provided in The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style
How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.

Social Intuition

March 31, 2020

The brain of someone who falls at the Puzzled end of the Social Intuition dimension is characterized by low activity in the fusiform gyrus plus high activity in the amygdala. At the opposite extreme, being Socially Intuitive reflects high levels of fusiform activation and low to moderate amygdala activity, giving you the ability to pick up even subtle social signals. While improving Social Intuition requires pumping up fusiform activity and quieting amygdala activity, reducing hyper intuition requires dialing down fusiform activity and ramping up that in your amygdala.

To increase fusiform activity in order to improve Social Intuition, the first step is to pay attention. To detect social cues, particularly subtle one, you need to focus on what is going on around you: tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, This is basically a matter of practice.

Start with strangers. When you are out in public, pick a couple or a small group of friends and discreetly watch them. Pay particular attention to their faces, which communicate so much social information. Remind yourself to look at other people’s faces when you watch them, and particularly, when you interact with them.
See if you can predict how they will touch each other (or not), how close they will walk together, whether they will look into each other’s eyes while speaking.
Get close enough to overhear them (assuming you can manage this unobtrusively; Prof. Davidson recommends giving it a try in a crowded public place such as a party, a packed department store, or a jammed movie-theater lobby). See if their tone of voice seems to match their body language and facial expression.
If not, then you are probably misunderstanding something. Take note of that, and apply this lesson to the next people you observe.
Once you feel confident that you are able to tell what people are feeling, try it with friends or colleagues.

Now practice paying attention to people’s eyes, which provide the truest signals about emotional state. At http://www.paulekman.com, Paul Ekman offers online training in micro expressions, the fleeting facial expressions that punctuate social interaction.

Voice, posture, and body language also convey social and emotional cues. Specific exercises can increase your sensitivity to these other channels of communication.

1. To enhance your sensitivity to vocal cues of emotion, when you are in a public place such as a subway, a coffee shop, a store where friends are chattering away, or an airport terminal, close you eyes and pay attention to the voices around you. Tune in to specific voices; focus not on the content but on the tone of voice.

2. Describe to yourself what that tone conveys—serenity, joy, anticipation, anxiety, stress, whatever. Test yourself by opening your eyes and observing what comes next. An encounter that ends with one party stalking away was more likely characterized by negative emotions than positive ones.

3. Now try that with posture and body language. As you observe a conversation, note how the speakers orient themselves toward one another, how they sit or stand, what gestures they make.

4. Designate one channel—tone of voice, body language—to be your focus of attention for a full day. As you commute, work, and observe family or friends or colleagues, look for opportunities to remove yourself a bit from the situation, even if only for a minute, so that you can be an observer and not a participant. Practice either steps 1 and 2, or 3, depending on which channel you are focusing on.

5. The following day, switch to the other channel and repeat the exercise.

Much more extensive guidance is provided in The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style
How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Love—And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.

Resilience

March 30, 2020

If setbacks leave you unable to function for long periods of time, it can prevent you from achieving what you want and can make relationships difficult. Trapped in your own emotional morass, you may neglect family, friends, and work. The brain signature of being Slow to Recover from setbacks is fewer or weaker signals traveling from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, as a result of either low activity in the prefrontal cortex itself or too few or less-functional connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Patients with depression who are Slow to Recover have very weak connectivity there.

Prof. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation to cultivate greater Resilience. Because it produces emotional balance, mindfulness helps you recover, but not too quickly. Mindfulness weakens the chain of associations that keep us obsessing about and even wallowing in a setback. For example, losing a job might cause your thoughts to tumble from “unemployment” to “no health insurance” to “lose home” to “I can’t go on.” Mindfulness strengthens connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, promoting an equanimity that will help keep you from spiraling down this way. As soon as your thoughts begin to leap from one catastrophe to the next in this chain of grief, you have the mental wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind does this, note that it is an interesting mental process, and resist getting drawn into the abyss. Prof. Davidson recommends starting with a simple form of mindfulness meditation such as the mindfulness of breathing, previously described.

Prof. Davidson writes that if mindfulness practice does not move you as close to the Fast to Recover end of the Resilience dimension as you would like, cognitive reappraisal training may help. This technique is a form of cognitive therapy. It teaches people to reframe adversity in such a way as to believe that it is not as extreme or enduring as it could be. So, if you made a mistake at work and were barraged by distressing thoughts about it, you might think that you are not very smart, that you are likely to make the same kind of mistake again, and the the mistake is career ending. These errors in thinking are what cognitive reappraisal aims to correct. Instead of viewing the mistake as representative of your work, you are trained to realize that it was an anomaly and could have happened to anyone. Instead of thinking the mistake reflects something consistent and fundamental about you, you consider the possibility that you made the mistake because you were having a bad day, or didn’t get enough sleep the night before, or because everyone is fallible. By challenging the accuracy of your thoughts, cognitive reappraisal can help you reframe the causes of your behavior and the distress. This type of cognitive training directly engages the prefrontal cortex, resulting in increased prefrontal inhibition of the amygdala, the pattern that exemplifies resilience.

Should you wish to move toward the Slow to Recover end of the Resilience dimension, perhaps to strengthen you capacity for empathy, then you need to weaken connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. There is very little research on how to do this, but one strategy is to focus intently on whatever negative or pain you are feeling as a result of a setback. This can help sustain the emotion, at least for a time, and increase activation of your amygdala. You can also focus on the pain of someone who is suffering, perhaps describing it in writing: Nothing goes right for Aaron. HIs ex-girlfriend is using his credit card, his security job is in jeopardy because he got caught in an Internet sting, and his landlord is threatening. Use these descriptions to focus on the particular pain or suffering that you might feel in response. This exercise is likely to result in more sustained activation of the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and amygdala, the circuitry that is involved in pain and distress.

Prof. Davidson also offers meditation from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition called tonglen, which means “taking and receiving.” Designed to cultivate compassion, it involves visualizing another person who might be suffering, taking in her suffering, and transforming it into compassion, and it is very effective at increasing empathy. To get started, try this exercise for five to ten minutes, four or five times a week.

Visualize as vividly as you can someone who is suffering. It can be a friend or a relative who is ill, a colleague who is struggling at work, a neighbor whose marriage is ending. The closer the person is to you, the stronger and clearer the visualization will be. (If you re so fortunate as not to know someone who is suffering, try to visualize a generic person, such as a garbage kicker in Delhi, a starving child in Sudan, a cancer patient in a hospice).
On each inhalation, imagine that you take in this person’ suffering. Feel it viscerally: As you breathe in, imagine her pain and anguish passing through your nostrils, up your nose, and down into your lungs. If it is too difficult to imagine physically taking in her suffering, then imagine the suffering leaving her each time you inhale. As you breathe in, conjure an image of pain and anguish leaving her body like fog dissipating under a bright sun.
On each exhalation, imagine that her suffering is transformed into compassion. Direct this compassion toward her: As you exhale, imagine the breath flowing toward her, a gift of empathy and love that will envelop and enter her, assuaging her pain.

Much more extensive guidance is provided in The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style:
How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.

Self Awareness

March 28, 2020

Prof Davidson writes, individuals with high levels of Self-Awareness (emotional or physical) have greater activation in their insula while those with little Self-Awareness have decreased activation. Ultrahigh levels of insula activity seem to be associated with the hyperawareness of every little change in heart rate or respiration that sometimes occurs in panic disorder. To move toward the Self-Aware end of this dimension you need to increase insula activation; to dial it back, you need to decrease it.

As a result of research on panic disorder we know something about how to decrease insula activity that makes us too Self-Aware. The best-validated treatment for panic disorder is cognitive-behavioral therapy. Here patients learn to reframe or reappraise the significance of internal bodily cues. So if you experience chest pain or another sensation that you interpret as a danger signal, tell yourself you have many sensations that are perfectly innocuous, and in all likelihood this one is, too. This kind of cognitive reframing, by reducing insula activity, often reduces panic symptoms substantially.

An alternative is to decrease the rest of the brain’s reactivity to the insula’s signals. The idea is to alter your relationship to your thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations so that you do not become entangled into an endless, self-reinforcing loop (heart skips a beat; I’m having a heart attack; heart rate spikes, repeat) and leap to the conclusion that some aspect of what you are feeling foretells doom. The trick is to keep your mind from ruminating in response to these internal cues. Rather than target the excessive Self-Awareness that comes from the insula, the idea is to reduce activity in the amygdala and the orbital frontal cortex, which form a circuit that assigns emotional value to thoughts and sensations. By reducing this circuit’s activity, the brain can start perceiving thoughts, emotions, and sensations less judgmentally and less hysterically, so that we are not hijacked by our internal chatter. You’re still very Self-Aware, but it’s not debilitating.

One of the most effective ways of reducing activation in the amygdala and orbital frontal cortex is through mindfulness meditation. In this form of mental training, you practice observing your thoughts, feelings, and sensations moment by moment and nonjudgmentally, viewing them simply as what they are: thoughts, feelings, sensations; nothing more and nothing less.

Prof. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction he knows comes in a course of mindfulness-based stress reduction. You can find courses by checking out the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness Web site at
http://www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx”id=4152.

Should you want to give mindfulness meditation a try before taking a formal course, you can begin on your own with awareness of breathing.

1.Choose a time of day when you are the most awake and alert. Sit upright on the floor or a chair, keeping the spine straight and maintaining a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy (HM has found that the reason for this erect posture is to keep you from getting drowsy. HM has had many hundreds, if not thousands of hours of meditation in a reclining position in which he did not fall asleep.)

2. Now focus on your breathing, on the sensations it triggers throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves with each inhalation and exhalation.

3. Focus on the tip of the nose, noticing the different sensations that arise with each breath.

4. When you notice that you have been distracted by unrelated thoughts or feelings that have arisen, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Much more extensive guidance is provided in The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style
How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.

Outlook

March 27, 2020

One way to strengthen connections between the prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum is the technique developed by Giovanni Fava, of the University of Bologna in Italy. It is called well-being therapy and is designed to enhance the components of well-being—autonomy, environmental mastery, positive interpersonal relationships, personal growth, purpose in life, and self-acceptance—well being therapy has been shown to move people toward the Positive end of the Outlook dimension, enabling them to sustain positive emotions. Although before-and-after brain scans have not been done, from everything we know about the brain circuitry underlying these components it’s a good bet that well-being therapy strengthens the prefrontal cortex and its connections with the ventral striatum.

Every day for a week, do these three exercises:

Write down one positive characteristic of your self and one positive characteristic of someone you regularly interact with. Do this three times a day. Ideally, you’ll write down a different trait each time, but if you’re stuck on how “helpful” your office colleague is, that’s okay.
Express gratitude regularly. Pay attention to times you say “thank you.” When you do, look directly into the eyes of the person you are thanking and muster as much genuine gratitude as you can. Keep a journal; at the end of the day, note the specific times you felt a genuine, even if brief, connection with another person during the act of expressing gratitude.
Complement others regularly. Keep an eye out for opportunities to do so, such as a job well done at work, a beautiful garden a neighbor created, or even a stranger’s gorgeous coat. Look directly into the eyes of the person you are complementing. In your journal, note the specific times you felt a genuine connection with someone you complemented.

After a week of this, spend a little time reflecting on what changes you noticed in your Outlook style. In all likelihood, you will find that positive emotions stick around a little longer and that your sense of optimism and possibility swells. Just as with physical exercise, you’ll probably need to find a practical maintenance routine. Once your Outlook has become as Positive or Negative as you wanted, it is important to sustain a level of exercise that is sufficient to maintain your set point in an optimal zone for you.

If your goal is to shift toward the Negative end of the dimension, then your goal is to lower activity in the nucleus accumbens or ventral striatum, or both, or weaken connections between them. If you feel that you are too Pollyanish, carrying a Positive Outlook to unrealistic extremes, then you should envision potential negative outcomes. If considering an expensive purchase, spend time reflecting on the possible negative outcomes of that choice. If you are tempted to buy a new car even though your current one runs fine, write down all the things that might go wrong with it or detract from its allure: the fact that its value drops by thousands of dollars as soon as you drive it off the dealer’s lot: how much more careful you will feel you need to be while driving or parking so you do not get even a tiny scratch on it (something you have stopped worry about with your current car); how the monthly payments will force you to curtail spending on other things you enjoy.

These are just some suggestions as to the kind of negative thoughts you need to generate.

Much more extensive guidance is provided in The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style
How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley.

Changing Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind

March 27, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The title of this post is similar to the title of the last section of the book, How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

We can change where we sit on each of the dimensions of emotional style. Fortunately, emotional styles vary across individuals or the world would be a very boring place indeed. However, should you want to change your current location on one or more of the dimensions of emotional style you can do so. Moreover, you can adapt your emotional style for different occasions, say work or home. The next posts will address techniques for modifying each of the dimensions:
Outlook
Self-Awareness
Attention
Resilience
Social Intuition
Sensitivity to Context

You will also see how you are actually changing your brain by transforming your mind.
There will be a separate post for each dimension. Understand that there is no requirement to do these techniques. But the option is provided so you have the avenue to explore.

Also understand that the guidance and instructions provided in Davidson and Begley is much more extensive.

Compassion Meditation

March 26, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

In 2007 Prof. Richardson’s group recruited forty-one volunteers for a study that would teach a technique to improve well-being. Volunteers were randomly divided into two groups: a compassion meditation group and a cognitive reappraisal group. The compassion meditation group was told to begin by visualizing a loved one—specifically, a loved one at a time in her life when she was suffering. With this image clearly in mind, they next concentrated on the wish that her suffering end, silently repeating a phrase such as “May you be free from suffering; may you experience joy and ease” to help them focus on the task. They were to try to feel the compassion emotionally and not to simply think about it cognitively. After doing this for a loved one, to expand the circle of compassion little by little, to yourself, then to someone you recognize but do not really know, then perhaps a neighbor or a person who works in the same building as you but whose life you know little or nothing about, then to a difficult person (someone who pushes your buttons and makes you angry), and finally to all of humankind. Using an online instructional program, this group practiced compassion meditation thirty minutes a day for two weeks.

Participants in the cognitive reappraisal group also began by visualizing the suffering of someone they love but were told to “reframe” the suffering. Reframing is a technique in which you adopt different beliefs about the causes of your behavior or of the circumstances of your life. In this case, you see that suffering might not be as extreme as other forms of suffering and that it could end up okay, or you focus on the fact that there are huge differences in the magnitude and severity of adversity. They were further taught to not attribute negative things to stable qualities in themselves but to see that suffering can occur as a result of external circumstances. For instance, the reason someone might be unable to find a life partner is not because of anything inherent in himself, but because his work keeps him from getting out and meeting people—the latter being something we can control and that we can change. The cognitive reappraisal group also received their instruction online, also for thirty minutes a day for two weeks.

Before the training began brain scans were performed of all participants. While a participant was lying in the MRI tube, pictures of human suffering were presented, such as a child who had been badly burned or a family in a horrific car crash. The researchers focused on the amygdala, which is known to be involved in feelings of distress. Perhaps counterintuitively, they predicted that after compassion training, this region would not be as active in response to images of suffering. The reason is that activity in the amygdala is associated with distress. Feeling distress interferes with the desire to help—the hallmark of compassion—because if you are in pain yourself, you have little reserve for others’ pain. In addition, they predicted that the prefrontal cortex would become more activated because, as the site of higher-order cognitive functions, it holds within its intricate circuitry the neuronal representation of the goals of compassion training—to alleviate suffering in others.

At the end of the two weeks of training, they again recorded brain activity with the fMRI while the volunteers looked at images of suffering. Those who had undergone training in compassion meditation showed striking changes in brain function, particularly in the amygdala: Participants in the compassion group tended to show less activation there in response to the images of suffering after the compassion-meditation training than they did before training. Might this be a habituation effect, a lab version of “compassion fatigue” people feel when they see one human tragedy after another? Not according to the control group, the people who underwent training in cognitive appraisal, amygdala activity in response to images of suffering was just as high as before their training.

The decrease in amygdala activation after compassion training had real-world effects, also. After their two weeks of training, each participant played an economic decision-making game designed to measure altruistic behavior. One might expect that someone who is not feeling much distress—as shown by low amygdala activity—in response to someone else’s “suffering” would not be moved to alleviate that suffering. But the opposite was the case. Participants who had undergone training in compassion meditation, and whose amygdala acuity in response to images of suffering had decreased, were more more like to fork over some money. On average, these folks forked over 38% more money that those who had undergone cognitive reappraisal training.

The conclusions regarding compassion meditation were:
it nudged practitioners toward the Positive end of the Outlook dimension
it strengthened connections between the prefrontal cortex and other brain regions important for empathy
Compassion meditation also likely facilitates Social Intuition.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

March 25, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them. There have been previous posts on mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), which can be searched for in the search block at healthymemory.wordpress.com.

MBSR was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who learned meditation from a Zen missionary. Prof. Davidson writes, “MBSR is the most widely taught secular form of meditation in academic medical centers throughout North America and Europe. Developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, the eight-week course teaches people to engage in mindfulness, the form of meditation in which you practice nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness. Let HM take the three parts of that description in reverse order. By “awareness,” I mean that while sitting in a quiet place, you focus on whatever sensations your body is experiencing or whatever thoughts and emotions you mind is generating. You might start by feeling the pressure of the chair. Or the tension in your legs. Or how your elbow feels compared with your shoulder. Then you might move on to notice that as you conduct the mental inventory of your physical sensations, a thought about what to make for lunch pops into your mind. Or you notice that your brain feels suddenly quiet. The ‘moment-to-moment’ part describe how you take each sensation or thought as it comes. Finally, the ‘nonjudgmental’ part is key. If your legs feel tense, you do not scold yourself for having difficulty relaxing; your reaction is closer to ‘Huh, tense legs; interesting.’ Similarly, for any thoughts and emotions, you do not intentionally pursue a thought as you ordinarily might (Hmmm, lunch. I need to buy more mayo. Maybe I should have just a salad. I really need to eat less. Why am I thinking about this when I should be meditating? I’ll never get this.) If those thoughts arise, you observe them disinterestedly, as if from the perspective of a dispassionate observer, but do not take them to heart. They’re just the interesting exudations of your brain’s synapses and action potentials.”

By 2011, dozens of clinical trials had shown that MBSR can relieve psychological distress in breast cancer survivors, reduce side effects in organ-transplant recipients, relieve anxiety and depression in people with social anxiety disorder, and help people cope with chronic pain.

Prof. Davidson solicited volunteers, some of whom would learn a technique of stress reduction that was derived from Buddhist meditation, and some would be placed in a ‘wait-list’ control group,which meant undergoing the same assessments as their coworkers learning stress reduction, but not actually taking the classes. Which group some wound up in would be totally random. After the study was over, people in the wait-list control group would be given the opportunity to learn MBSR. The course consisted of one two-and-a-half session each week for eight weeks.

Before the first class baseline data was gathered on all the participants. Brain electrical activity was measured with EEG, focusing on the prefrontal cortex because that’s where left-right asymmetry is associated with positive or negative emotions and greater or lesser Resilience. Questionnaires were also administered that assessed how much anxiety and stress people felt, by asking them whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I worry too much over trivial things” and “I often have disturbing thoughts.”

Anxiety symptoms fell about 12% among the people who took the MSBR class but increased slightly among the wait-list control group. The MSBR group also shows a significant shift toward greater left-side frontal activation: Compared with what it had been before the course, the level of left-side activation had tripled after four months. The control group had less left-side activation at the end of the study than they had at the start. Blood samples showed that meditators produced 5% higher levels of antibodies to a flu vaccine, an indication that their immune systems responded more effectively than those of the control group. Participants who showed a large brain response to MBSR also showed a larger response to the flu vaccine. Prof. Davidson believes that positive emotions (being Fast to Recover end of the Resilience style and he Positive end of the Outlook style) boost the immune system, among other beneficial effects on bodily health.

Prof. Davidson writes, “We all have habitual ways of responding to emotional challenges, and these habits are complicated products of genetics and experience. Mindfulness training alters these habits by making it more likely that one neuronal pathway rather than another will be used. If the habitual response to a setback had been for neuronal signals to travel from the frontal cortex, which figures out the meaning of the experience, to the limbic system, where the amygdala attached an intense negative emotional valence to that experience, then mindfulness can create a different neuronal pathway. The same experience is still processed by the frontal cortex, but the signals do not reach the amygdala (or at least fewer of them do). Instead, they peter out, like a bad mood evaporating during a day when everything seems to go right, The result is that what had been a stressful experience or setback no longer triggers a feeling of anxiety, fear, or fatalistic capitulations. The habitual path traveled by neuronal signals has changed—much as water that had always followed one path along a stream can be diverted to a different course after a sudden storm, for instance, carving a new channel. Mindfulness meditation carves new channels in the stream beds of the mind.

More specifically, mindfulness trains the brain in new forms of responding to experience and thoughts. Whereas the thought of how much you need to accomplish tomorrow (driving children to school; going to an important meeting for work, etc.,) used to trigger a panicky sense of being overwhelmed, mindfulness sends thought through a new culvert. You still think about all you have to do, but when the sense of being overwhelmed kicks in, you regard that thought with dispassion.)

Physical and psychological benefits can be found with other types of meditation. The relaxation response provides the easiest means of getting into meditation and has significant benefits by itself. Enter “relaxation response” into the search block of the healthy memory blog. The post “An Update of the Relaxation Response” documents the many benefits of this type of meditation.

More on Neuroplasticity

March 24, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

Pascal-Leone says, “Plasticity is an intrinsic property of the human brain. The potential of the adult brain to ‘reprogram’ itself might be much greater than has previously been assumed. This is what he and his colleagues concluded in 2005. Neuroplasticity allows the brain to break the bonds of its own genome, which dictates that one region of the brain will “see” and another will “hear,” that one spot on the somatosensory cortex will feel the right thumb and another the left elbow. Although this genetically guided blueprint is fine for most people under most conditions, but not for all of us all the time like when we lose our sight or suffer a stroke, or when we dedicate ourselves to mastering the violin. Nature has endowed the human brain with a malleability and flexibility that lets it adapt to the demands of the world if finds itself in. The brain is neither immutable nor static but continuously remodeled by the lives we live.

The brain can change the function of particular structures in response to the sensory and motor demands placed on it. Intense motor training induces the brains of stroke patients to reorganize in a way that allows healthy regions to substitute for disabled ones; intense musical practice expands regions responsible for the sensitivity of fingering digits. The absence of visual signals induces the visual cortex to process sounds or touch instead. In these cases the cause has been external to the brain—sensory or motor signals arriving with greater intensity (violinists, stroke patients in rehab) or not at all (the blind and the deaf).

The next post discusses signals that come from the brain itself? That is, its own thoughts.

Emotional Style and Physical Health

March 23, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live—And How You Can Change Them. The research to be discussed is quite complex and would take many pages to describe accurately. So a top level review will be provided to understand the important relationship between emotional style and physical health. A reading of the referenced text is needed for the complete characterization.

The research involve 20 undergraduates who had participated in earlier studies who had been found to have dramatically lopsided frontal activity, either extreme left-sided prefrontal activation or extreme right-sided prefrontal activation. Blood samples were taken and analyzed for natural killer (NK) cells, a type of white blood cell that constitutes a major component of our innate immune system. They attack tumors and kill tumor killing cells that have been infected by viruses. The frontal asymmetry pattern that characterizes a more positive emotional style—left frontal activation—was associated with higher NK cell activity. Participants with high left frontal activation had upwards of 50% higher activity than those with high right frontal activation. Since twenty is a daily small number of participants, this study was repeated several years later, with essentially the same results: greater left frontal activity brings greater NK cell activity.

Another study examined whether there was an association between prefrontal activity and the immune response to a vaccine. The findings indicated that people with great left-frontal activation, associated with a more positive emotional style, had the strongest immune response. The antibody levels of the most extreme left-siders averaged four times that of the most extreme right-siders. The greater the antibody level, the less likely the chance of catching the flu.

A study on the heart-brain connection. This study employed a “threat of shock” procedure. Participants were put into a MRI tube and had simple geometric shapes projected on the ceiling. One shape meant that they might receive an electric shock, while the other meant that all would be well. A mild shock was administer for 20 milliseconds, which felt like the zap you experience if you’ve ever touched a fully charged nine-volt battery with your tongue.

There were large differences in the pattern of activation when people saw the “shock alert” symbol compared with the “don’t worry” symbol. As the heart readings came in—contractility, or the strength with which the heart beats, it could be seen that, at least for some participants, emotions reached down into the chest and wreaked havoc. Contractility is influenced by the sympathetic nervous system, which is the key constituent of the fight-or-flight response and has been implicated in stress and distress. The stronger the brain activation in three key regions—a sector of the right prefrontal cortex, the insula, and the amygdala-the stronger the cardiac contractility. In response to the threat cue, some people had little change in their contractility while others had a dramatic change. More than 40% of the person-to-person variation in cardiac contractility was accounted for by how strongly the insula and the prefrontal cortex responded to the shape that was the harbinger of threat. This heightened brain activity was racing down the highways of the sympathetic nervous system making the heart pump harder. Prof. Davidson concludes “such changes in emotional style are likely to be consequential for health when they are played out over a long period of time.”

Prof. Davidson continues, “The brain circuits that underlie Emotional Styles have extensive two-way connections with the immune system, the endocrine system, and the autonomic nervous system. Through traffic in one direction, from brain to body, the mind influences our health. This suggests that knowing someone’s Emotional Style may be as important to a health-care provider, in terms of assessing health risks, as knowing whether the patient smokes, and that altering your Emotional Style can be beneficial to physiological systems and thus overall health. Through traffic in the other direction, from body to brain, changes in our patterns of movement can affect how our mind processes emotional information. That has implications beyond warning Botox users that paralyzing some of their facial muscles runs the risk of limiting their emotional range. It also suggests that the body can become an ally in transforming emotion, meaning practices that emphasize the body, such as hatha yoga, have the potential to modulate emotion. This research is barely off the ground, but there are tantalizing hints about how this body-to-brain connection might work.”

Mind Over Matter

March 22, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The title of this post is identical to the heading in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley. The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

Brain-imaging studies show that obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by activity in two regions: the orbital frontal cortex, whose main function is to notice when something is amiss; and the striatum, which received input from the orbital frontal cortex as well as the amygdala. Together the orbital frontal cortex and striatum form what is called the worry circuit. In people with OCD it is buzzing with activity.

Rather than just drugging his patients (antidepressants including Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft), neuropsychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz got the idea of using a technique he employed in his own Buddhist meditation practice. Called mindfulness, or mindful awareness, it involves observing your own thoughts and feelings from the perspective of a nonjudgmental third party. In The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, the Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera described it as attending “just to the bare facts of a perception as presented either through the five physical senses or through the mind…without reacting to them by deep, speech or by mental comment.” In the case of his OCD patients, mindfulness meant learning to experience an OCD symptom without reacting emotionally, and learning to realize that the feeling that something is amiss is just the manifestation of overactivity in the OCD circuit. A patient would think, My OCD circuit is producing another obsessive thought. I know it is not real but just static from a faulty circuit. After mainly hours learning this technique, patients were better able to resist OCD messages, reporting that their disease no longer controlled them. Neuroimaging also showed that activity in the orbital frontal cortex, the core of the OCD circuit, had fallen dramatically compared with what it had been before mindfulness-based therapy. Thinking about their thoughts in a new way had altered patterns of brain activity.

Prof. Richardson writes, “This finding is crucial to my belief that we can similarly alter the patterns of brain activity underlying Emotional Style, so let me offer one more example of how mental training can accomplish this. Clinical depression is characterized by overactivity in specific regions of the frontal cortex, the seat of reasoning, logic, analysis, and higher thought, in particular regions associated with anticipation—perhaps the cause of the endless rumination that grips people suffering from depression. There is, in addition, often under activity in parts of the limbic system (the brain’s emotion center) associated with reward and pleasure. That would seem odd if you thought of depression as being marked primarily by an overwhelming sense of sadness, which presumably would show up as heightened activity in the limbic system. In fact, however, people with depression report that they experience what’s called flat affect—an inability to experience soaring flights of joy, certain, but also the absence of feelings such as curiosity or interest in the world.”

In the 1960s cognitive-behavior therapy use a form of mental training that focuses on teaching patients to respond to their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in a healthy way and to reappraise dysfunctional thinking.

Scientists at the University of Toronto found that cognitive-behavior therapy has a powerful effect on the brain activity underlying depression. The therapy reduced activity in the frontal cortex and raised activity in the limbic system. Patients ruminated less and no longer felt emotionally dead inside. Their depression lifted, and in most cases stayed lifted: Rates of relapse with cognitive-behavior therapy are much lower than with medication, which in any case seems to be more effective than a placebo for anything but the most severe depression.

Prof. Davidson concludes this section as follows: “In short, the revolution in neuroplasticity has shown that the brain can change as a result of two distinct inputs. It can change as a result of the experiences we have in the world—how we move and behave and what sensory signals arrive in our cortex. The brain can also change in response to purely mental activity, ranging from meditation to cognitive-behavior therapy, with the result that activity in specific circuits can increase or decrease.”

Can Emotional Style Change?

March 21, 2020

This post is based on an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them. The immediately preceding post ended “The brain signatures of each dimension of Emotional Style seem so fundamental to our being, it’s easy to assume they are innate, as characteristic of a person as his fingerprints or eye color, and equally unlikely to change.”

This assumption will be examined in the subsequent post.
Here is that examination. The nature nurture debate has a long history. The debate concerned how much of a person’s life is determined by genes versus experience. The new field of epigenetics should have ended that debate. Critical to the role of genetics is which genes are read out from the genome. If the gene is not read out, the gene cannot be expressed. So what determines whether a gene will be read out? That is determined by nurture, or the experience of the individual. So the nature nurture debate should have ended. As nothing can be ethically be done about nature, all the focus should be on nurture.

There is a wide variety of evidence showing the effects of epigenetic using both human and infra-human subjects. There is a suicide brain bank in Quebec, the Quebec Suicide Brain Bank to be specific. Samples from 36 brains were studied, one-third of which who had suffered abuse in childhood, one-third from suicides who had not been abused, and one-third from non-suicides. Analyzing the human brains the researchers found that , compared with non-suicide brains, the brains of people who had taken their own lives and had suffered child abuse contained significantly more methylation “off” switches on the gene for the glucocorticoid receptor. This was the gene that the research team had discovered was methylated in rats raised by neglectful mothers. When this gene is silenced the stress-response system is on a hair trigger, making it extremely difficult to cope with adversity. Abnormal activity in the stress-response system had long been linked to suicide.

Prof. Richardson writes, “The presence of a methyl group sitting on a piece of DNA is called an epigenetic change. It does not alter the sequence of the gene, denoted by he well-known strings of A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s, but it does alter whether the gene will be expressed. And it may explain puzzles like the low concordance for schizophrenia between identical twins. At birth, identical twins are very similar epigenetically; if a particular gene is silence in one twin, it is usually silenced in the other. But as we go through life, it turns out, we accumulate epigenetic changes. Either through random chance or because of experiences we have—something akin to being nurtured by a parent, perhaps, but almost certainly many others that reach down into our very DNA—our genes take on more and more epigenetic marks, silencing some genes that had previously spoken and lifting the gag order that others may had been under.”

Prof. Richardson cites research on the emotional development of children that reinforces this point.

The Attentive Brain

March 20, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them. Prof. Davidson writes, “It is nothing short of miraculous that we can focus attention at all, given the profusion of information that enters the brain every moment, to say nothing of the countless thoughts that pop into consciousness. Our ability to focus even some of the time is a monumental triumph of attention, allowing us to select some external or internal objects for conscious awareness and ignore the rest.”

We have two related mechanisms for focusing attention. One is to enhance the strength of signals in the attended channel: that is, we can increase the strength of the visual signals carrying the image of the characters we are reading relative to the strength of the visual signals carrying the images of , say, our hands holding this iPad. The second mechanism is to inhibit the signals in the ignored channels. We use both strategies. When trying to converse with a companion in a noisy restaurant, we turn up the internal volume of his voice while simultaneously inhibiting sounds from the surrounding tables. Infants have a capacity for selective attention, being able to focus on their mothers’s faces and ignore distractions from other sensory sources.

Prof. Davidson writes, “Two forms of attention are relevant to Emotional Style: selective attention and open, nonjudgmental awareness. Selective attention refers to the conscious decision to selectively focus on certain features of the environment and ignore others. This capacity is a key building block for other dimensions of Emotional Style, since the failure to selectively attend can make it impossible to be Self-Aware or Tuned In. Open, nonjudgmental awareness reflects the ability to take in signals from the external environment as well as the thoughts and feelings popping up within our brain, to broaden our attention and sensitively pick up on the often subtle cues that continuously impinge upon us—but to do so without getting stuck on any one stimulus to the detriment of others.”

There is a test to assess Emotional Style with respect to selective attention and open, nonjudgmental awareness called the Tellegen questionnaire. At the Focused extreme of the Attention dimension, the prefrontal cortex exhibits strong phase-locking in response to external stimuli. At the unfocused extreme the prefrontal cortex shows little phase locking.

Prof. Davidson writes, “Emotion works with cognition in an integrated and seamless way to enable us to navigate the world of relationships, work, and spiritual growth. When positive emotion energizes us, we are better able to concentrate, to figure out the social networks of a new job or new school, to broaden out thinking so we can creatively integrate diverse information and to sustain our interest in a task so we can persevere. In these cases cases emotion is neither interrupting nor disrupting us; it is facilitating. A feeling permeates virtually everything we do. No wonder, then, that circuits in the brain that control and regulate emotions overlap with those involved injunctions we think of as purely cognitive. There is no clear, distinct dividing line between emotion and other mental processes; they blur into each other. As a result, virtually all brain regions play a role in or are affected by emotion, even down to the visual and auditory cortices.

These facts about the neural organization of emotion have important implications for understanding why our perceptions and thoughts are altered when we experience emotions. They also help to explain how we can use our cognitive machinery to intentionally regulate and transform our emotions as we shall soon see. But they raised a question. The brain signatures of each dimension of Emotional Style seem so fundamental to our being, it’s easy to assume they are innate, as characteristic of a person as his fingerprints or eye color, and equally unlikely to change.”

This assumption will be examined in the subsequent post.

The Outlook Brain

March 19, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a section in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.

It was discovered in 1982 that greater activity in the left prefrontal cortex underlies positive emotions, while greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex is associated with negative emotions. Early research was spent trying to identify the specific aspects of positive emotion that are lacking in people suffering from depression. Depressed people have little drive to accomplish goals. Sometimes they do not even notice, let alone perk up, when they encounter something novel, the way other people notice a new batch of flowers in a neighbor’s yard or a new coffee bar that just opened down the street. They also lack persistence. Many depressed people are aware that they have plans and to-do lists, but they lack the tenacity required to carry them out.

Depressed people do respond positively to humorous film clips. They report as much positive emotion in response to these clips as non depressed participants, so they are able to experience joy. They key difference between depressed and healthy people is how well they can sustain positive emotion, as opposed to how much they feel. So they feel the positive emotion but do not sustain it.

Prof Richardson and his staff conducted a study with twenty-seven people suffering from clinical depression and nineteen healthy volunteers. The goal was to measure brain activity while people looked at emotionally evocative pictures projected onto the ceiling of an MRI tube. All the pictures depicted something joyous, or at least something designed to bring a faint smile to the lips—children playing and clearly enjoying themselves, adults dancing, people eating food that looked good enough to make a mere observer salivate.

For each image the volunteers got one of two instructions: either to simply view the pictures as they normally would, with no attempt to modify their emotional response, or to try to enhance and sustain the positive emotion the picture induced for as long as possible (or up to 20 seconds) after the image vanished from the screen.

A clear pattern emerged from the data on all volunteers, depressed and healthy. When the volunteers first saw the pictures depicting happy situations, activation in what we think of as the brain’s reward circuit shot up. This circuit is centered on a region in the ventral striatum, which is located below the cortical surface in the middle of the brain and has been shown in other studies to become active when people anticipate receiving rewarding or pleasurable stimuli. What becomes active during such experiences is a cluster of neurons within the ventral striatum called the nucleus accumbens, a region critical for motivation and generating a sense of reward. It also happens to be packed with neurons that either release or capture the neurotransmitter dopamine, which plays a role in positive emotion, motivation, and desire; and endogenous opiates, which provide the famous runner’s high. Levels of activity in the nucleus accumbens were similar in depressed and non depressed volunteers looking at the smile-inducing pictures. Everyone was able to feel an initial uptick of sympathetic joy, but this did not last. Although healthy people were able to maintain an emotional high for the entire session, in depressed patients the positive feeling evaporated within minutes.

Prof. Davidson concludes, “These findings indicate that activity in the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex underly the ability to sustain positive emotion. The greater the activity in the nucleus accumbens—activity sustained by signals from the prefrontal cortex—the further toward the Positive end of the Outlook dimension on which someone falls. Lower activity in this region underlies a Negative outlook.

The Brain Basis of Emotional Style

March 18, 2020

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) has revealed that the more white matter (axons that connect one neuron to another) lying between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the more resilient that person is. Signals from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala, and from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex determine how quickly the brain will recover from upsetting evidence. But we know that the brain is fully able to increase connections between regions. In later posts it will be explained what you can do for these particular prefrontal-to-amygdala connections. It is eminently possible to raise one’s baseline activity in the left prefrontal cortex. How to do so will be explained in subsequent posts. Along the two extremes of the Resilience continuum people who are slow to recover, and are having great difficult bouncing back from adversity, have fewer signals traveling from the prefrontal cortex to the amygdala. Those who are fast to recover from adversity and are extremely resilient show strong activation of the left prefrontal cortex in response to setbacks and have strong connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. By damping down the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex is able to quiet signals associated with negative emotions, enabling the brain to plan and active effectively without being distracted by negative emotion, in another words a high degree of resilience.

Timothy was a high-functioning autistic boy. His extremes of being puzzled and having low social intuition reflected clear differences in brain activity and connectivity. Although he was very intelligent and able to understand language and speak, his speech was quite monotonous and lacked the modulations called intonation contours—the stresses and changes in pitch, tone, and pacing that convey emotion. For example, when volume and pitch both increase, you can be pretty sure that your interlocutor is angry. When pace slows, volume decreases, and pitch flattens, the speaker is likely sad. Timothy’s voice sounded like a robot’s. From studies of children, adolescents like Timothy, Prof. Davidson concludes that the lack of social intuition and the resulting failure to grasp what is socially appropriate comes with low levels of activation in the fusiform and high levels of activation in the amygdala.

Oxytocin is a molecule that reduces activation in the amygdala. When oxytocin is spritzed into the noses of people, which allows it to go directly to the brain, it reduces activation in the amygdala. This suggests that quieting the amygdala is the mechanism by which oxytocin induces feelings of commitment and attachment, and quieting the amygdala by other means accomplishes the same ends, including laying the groundwork for the Socially Intuitive brain.

The ability to distinguish a familiar from an unfamiliar context comes from the hippocampus. The hippocampus is famous for its role in processing memories: It seems to act as a holding pen for short-term memories, getting some of them ready for transfer to long-term storage. In a recent study of rhesus monkey, it was found that the anterior hippocampus, the portion closest to the amygdala, is also involved in regulating behavioral inhibition in response to different contexts. People suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder often have abnormal hippocampal function. PTSD can be thought of as a disorder of disrupted context. The anxiety and terror that people with PTSD feel is quite appropriate in certain contexts, such as a battleground, but the problem is that they experience these feelings in non traumatic contexts.

Prof Davidson writes, “Differences in the strength of the connections between the hippocampus and other brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex, underlie difference in Sensitivity of Context. The hippocampus communicates regularly with the brain’s executive—function areas in the prefrontal cortex. Stronger connections from the hippocampus to these regions increase sensitivity to context, while weaker connections underlie insensitivity to context.

A key region of the brain for self-awareness is the insula, which is located between the temporal and frontal lobes. It contains what is called a viscerotopc map of the body. This means the visceral organs—heart, liver, colon, sexual organs, lungs, stomach, kidneys—are each mapped to a specific spot within the insula The insula serves as the brain’s monitoring station for everything below the neck and within the body. The insula also sends signals to the organs, instructing the heart to beat more quickly or for the lungs to inhale more rapidly. In addition to the insula, the somatosensory cortex is also involved in perceiving internal sensations. Higher insula activation is associated with greater awareness not only of physical sensations but also of emotions.

To summarize, individuals with high level-awareness of Self-Awareness have great activation in the insula, while those with low levels of Self-Awareness have decreased activation.

The Outlook Brain and the Attentive Brain will be discussed in subsequent posts.

The Emotional Life of Your Brain

March 17, 2020

The title of this post is identical the to the title of an important book by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.” The remainder of the title is How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and LIve—And How You Can Change Them. Through research Professor Davidson has identified the following six dimensions of emotional style:

*Resilience: how slowly or quickly you recover from adversity.
*Outlook: how long you are able to sustain positive emotion.
*Social Intuition: how adept you are at picking up social signals from the people around you.
*Self-Awareness: how well you perceive bodily feelings that reflect emotions.
*Sensitivity to Context: how good you are at regulating your emotional responses to take into account the context you find yourself in.
*Attention: how sharp and clear your focus is.

One of the standard classification systems in psychology is the “big five” personality traits: openness to new experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Professor Davidson asserts.

*Someone high in openness to new experience has strong Social Intuition. She is also very self-aware and tends to be focused in her attention style.
*A conscientious person has well- developed Social Intuition, a focused style of Attention, and acute Sensitivity to Context.
*An extraverted person bounces back rapidly from adversity and thus is at the Fast to Recover end of the Resilience spectrum. She maintains a positive Outlook.
*An agreeable person has a highly attuned Sensitivity to Context and strong Resilience; he also tends to maintain a positive Outlook.
*Someone high in neuroticism is slow to recover from adversity. He has a gloomy, negative Outlook, is relatively insensitive to context and tends to be unfocused in his Attention style.

Unlike personality, Emotional Style can be traced to a specific, characteristic brain signature. To understand the brain basis of agreeableness, for example, we need to probe more deeply into the Emotional Styles comprising them.

Davidson writes, “While the combinations of Emotional Style that add up to each of the big five personality traits hold true, there will be exceptions. Not everyone with a given personality will have all the dimensions of Emotional Style that I described, but they will invariably have at least one of them.”

*Someone high in openness to new experience has strong Social Intuition. She is also very self-aware and tends to be focused in her Attention style.

*A conscientious person has well-developed Social Intuition, a focused style of Attention, and acute Sensitivity to Context.

*An extraverted person bounces back rapidly from adversity and thus is as the Fast to Recover end of the Resliience spectrum. She maintains a positive Outlook.

*An agreeable person has a highly attuned Sensitivity to Context and strong Resilience; he also tends to maintain a positive Outlook.

*Some one high in neuroticism is slow to recover from adversity. He has a gloomy, negative Outlook, is relatively insensitive to context, and tends to be unfocused in his Attention style.

We can look at traits that all of us think of when we describe ourselves or someone we know well. Each of these can be understood as a combination of different dimensions of Emotional Style.

*Impulsive: a combination of unfocused Attention and low Self-Awareness.

*Patient: a combination of high Self-Awareness and high Sensitivity to context. Knowing that when context changes, other things will change, too, helps to facilitate patience.

*Shy: a combination of being Slow to Recover on the Resilience dimension and having low Sensitivity to Context. As a result of the insensitivity to context, shyness and wariness extend beyond contexts in which they might be normal.

*Anxious: combination of being Slow to Recover, having a negative Outlook, having high levels of Self-Awareness, and being unfocused (Attention).

*Optimistic: a combination of being Fast to Recover and having a positive Outlook.

*Chronically unhappy: a combination of being Slow to Recover and having a negative Outlook, with the result that a person cannot sustain positive emotions and become mired in negative ones after setbacks.

In 1992 Davidson made two promises to the Dalai Lama: he would personally study meditation, and would try to make research on positive emotions, such as compassion and well-being, a central focus of psychology as research on negative emotions had long been.

Davidson writes, “My research on meditators has shown that mental training can alter patterns of activity in the brain to strengthen empathy, compassion, optimism, and a sense of well-being—the culmination of my promise to study meditation as well as positive emotions. And my research in the mainstream of affective neuroscience has shown that it is these sites of higher-order reasoning that hold the key to altering set patterns of brain activity.”

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.