Posts Tagged ‘Richard Davidson’

Nurture: This Is Your Brain on Attention

August 14, 2019

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in an important book by Winifred Gallagher titled “Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. There have been many healthy memory posts on the research of neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin (Enter “Davidson” into the search box at or go to his website

He uses EEG and fMRI in showing how experience in general and attention in particular affect your brain and behavior. He says this physiological as well as psychological shift sounds dramatic, but shouldn’t be so surprising because your nervous system is built to respond to your experience. He writes, “That’s what learning is. Anything that changes behavior changes the brain.” The mental-fitness regimens that he and colleagues in a half-dozen labs around the world are working with are based on meditation. Various Eastern and Western religions have used it over the past 2,500 years to enhance spiritual practice, but meditation is easily stripped of sectarian overtones to its behavioral essence of deliberate, targeted concentration that invited a calm steady psychophysiological state.

The point of a secular attentional workout is the enhancement of the ability to focus, emotional balance, or both. The author writes in the mindfulness meditation that’s the most widely used form, you sit silently for forty-five minutes and attend to your breath: inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. When thoughts arise, as they inevitably do, you just shift your awareness back to breathing, right here and now, without distraction from the tape loops usually running in your head. Davidson says, “A complete atheist can use these procedures and derive as much benefit from them as an ardent believer.”

The healthy memory blog has many posts on meditation. Enter “relaxation response” in the search block. Benefits can be attained with as little at ten minutes a day meditating. Moreover, epigenetic benefits have been found . You might also want to try entering “loving kindness” into the search block.

Another area of Davidson’s interests is the way in which temperamental features, such as an inclination toward positive or negative emotionality, affect and even drive attention—an interaction that is vitally important to the quality of your experience. Davidson says, “One of life’s challenges is to maintain your focus despite the continual distracting emotional stimuli that can capture it.” Certain lucky individuals are born with an affective temperament that naturally inclines them toward an upbeat proactive focus, but research increasingly shows that others can move in that direction through attentional training.

Davidson says that although many other regions of the brain are also involved, “people who have greater activation in very specific prefrontal regions—not the whole hemisphere—report and display more of a certain positive emotion—not simply ‘happiness’—that’s associated with moving toward you goals and taking an active approach to life. Average subjects who had completed an eight-week meditation course showed significantly increased activity in the left prefrontal regions that are linked to this optimistic, goal-oriented orientation.

Not only how you focus, but also what you focus on can have important neurophysiological and behavioral consequences. Just as one-pointed concentration on a neutral target, such as your breath, particularly strengthens certain of the brain’s attentional systems, meditation on a specific emotion—unconditional love—seems to tune up certain of its affective networks.When monks who are focusing on this feeling of pure compassion are exposed to emotional sounds, brain activity increases in the insula, a region involved in visceral perception and empathy, and in the right temporo-parietal junction, an area implicated in inferring and empathizing with others’s mental states. These data complement research done by Barbara Fredrickson and others showing that concentration on positive emotions improves your affect and expands your focus. Davidson thinks that deliberately focusing on feelings such as compassion, joy, and gratitude may strengthen neurons in the left prefrontal cortex and inhibit disturbing messages from the fear-oriented amygdala.

Training your brain to pay more attention to compassion for others and less to the self’s narcissistic preoccupations would be a giant step toward a better, more enjoyable life. When you aren’t doing anything in particular but are just “at rest” our brain’s default mode kicks in. This baseline mental state often leads to inward-looking, negative rumination that tend to be, as Davidson says, “all about my, me, and mine,” Before long, you find yourself thinking, “I actually don’t feel so great,” or “Maybe the boss doesn’t really like me.” Davidson is investigating whether the brain areas associated with this “self-referencing processing” may be much less active in the monks, whether they’re meditating or not: indeed, he speculates that super advanced practitioners may perceive little of no difference between the two states.

His research increasingly shows that just as regular physical exercise can transform the proverbial 110-pound weakling into an athlete, focusing workouts can make you more focused, engaged with life, and perhaps even kinder. Davidson says “My strong intuition is that attentional training is very like the sports or musical kinds. It’s not something you can just do for a couple of weeks or years, then enjoy lifelong benefits. To maintain an optimum level of any complex skill takes work, and like great athletes and virtuosos, great meditators continue to drill intensively.”


Developing Emotional Intelligence

March 10, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” Every day the brain generates 10,000 stem cells that split into two. One becomes a daughter line that continues making stem cells, and the other migrates to wherever it’s needed in the brain and becomes that kind of cell. That destination is often where the cell is needed for new learning. Over the next four months, that new cell forms about 10,000 to created new neural circuitry.

The state of the art in mapping this neural circuitry coming out of labs like Richard Davidson’s have massive computing power. Innovative software tools for brain imaging can track and show this new connectivity at the single-cell level. Neurogenesis adds power to our understanding of neuroplasticity, that the brain continually reshapes itself according to the experiences we have. If we are changing a habit like trying to get better at listening, then that circuitry grows accordingly. However, when we are trying to overcome a bad habit, we’re up against the thickness of the circuitry for something we’ve practiced and repeated thousands of times. Goleman asks, “So what are the brain lessons for coaching or for working on our own to enhance an emotional intelligence skill?”

Number one, is to get committed. Mobilize the motivating power in the left prefrontal areas. If you’re a coach, you’ve got to engage the person, get them enthused about achieving the goal of change. Here it helps to draw on their dreams, their vision for themselves, where they want to be in the future. Then work from where they are to what they might improve to help them get where they want to go in life. Change this section from the third person to the second person for self instruction.

Be very practical. Don’t take on trying to learn too much all at once. Operationalize your goal at the level of a specific behavior. Make it practical, so you can know exactly what to do and when. For example, say someone has a bad habit of multi-tasking and essentially ignoring others, which undermines the full attention that can lead to rapport and good chemistry. You have to break the habit of multitasking. So the person might make up an intentional learning plan that says something like: at every naturally occurring opportunity-when a person walks into your office, stand, or you come up to a person—you turn off your cell phone and your beeper, turn away from your computer, turn off your daydream or your preoccupation and pay full attention. That gives you a precise piece of behavior to try to change. Goleman continues, “So what will help you with that? Noticing when a moment like that is about to come and doing the right thing. Doing the wrong thing is a bit that you have become an Olympic level master at—your neural working has made it a default option, what you do automatically. The neural connectivity for that is strong. When you start to form the new better habit, you’re essentially creating new circuitry that competes with your old habit in a kind of neural Darwinism. To make the new habit strong enough, you’ve got to use the power of neuroplasticity—you have to do it over and over again.

If you persist in the better habit, that new circuitry will connect and become more and more powerful, until one day you’ll do the right thing in the right way without a second thought. That means the circuitry has become so connected and thick that this is the brain’s new default option. With that change in the brain, the better habit will become your automatic choice.

For how long and how many times does an action have to be repeated until it’s hard-wired? A habit begins to be hard-wired the first time you practice it. How often you have to repeat so that it becomes the new default of the brain depends in part on how strong the old habit is that it will replace. It usually takes three to six months of using all naturally occurring practice opportunities before the new habit becomes more natural than the old.”

Mental rehearsal is another practice opportunity that can occur whenever you have a little free time. Mental rehearsal activates the same neural circuitry as does the real activity. Olympic athletes spend off-season running through the moves in their brain. This counts as practice time. It increase their ability to perform when the real time comes.

Goleman writes that Richard Boyatwzis has used this method with his MBA students at the Weatherhead School of management at Case Western University. He’s followed these students into their jobs as much as seven years later and found the competencies they had enhanced in his class were still rated as strong by their co-workers.

Managing Stress

March 1, 2019

This title of this post is the same as the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights.” The stress manager can be found in the prefrontal cortex, which holds circuitry that can inhibit amygdala-driven impulses that help us maintain emotional balance. The left prefrontal area also contains circuits active during positive states like enthusiasm, energy, and engagement.

Richard Davidson, the director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin has done research on the left versus right prefrontal areas. His research group has found that when we’re in the grip of a hijack or under the sway of distressing emotions, there are relatively high levels of activity in the right prefrontal cortex. When we’re feeling great the left prefrontal area lights up. People who have more activity on the left than right are more lively to have more positive emotions. Those with more activity on the right are prone to having more negative emotions.

Davidson has also done research on what he calls emotional styles, which are really brain styles One motional style tracks how readily we become upset: where we are on the spectrum for a hair-trigger amygdala—people who easily become upset, frustrated, or angered—versus people who are unflappable.

A second style looks at how quickly we move from our distress. Some people recover quickly once they get upset, while others are very slow. At the extreme of slowness to recover are people who continually ruminate or worry about things. They are suffering, in effect, from ongoing, low-grade amygdala hijacks. Chronic worry keeps the amygdala primed, so you remain in a distress state as long as you ruminate. To learn more about emotional styles, and there are six of them enter “emotional style” into the search block of the healthy memory blog. There is also information on how emotional styles can be changed.

Goleman offers a few strategies to cultivate greater strength of activity in the left prefrontal areas that generate positive emotions. One is to take regular time off from a hectic, hassled routine to rest and restore. Schedule time to do nothing: walk your dog, take a long shower, whatever allows you to let go of leaning forward into the next thing in your on-the-go state.

Daniel Siegel has an elegant analysis of the brain area involved in mindfulness. In the most popular form of mindfulness you can cultivate an ever-hovering presence in you experience and in the moment, and awareness that is non-judgmental and non-reactive to whatever thoughts or feelings arise in the mind. It’s a very effective method for decompressing and getting into a relaxed and balanced state. To learn more about Daniel Siegel and his work, enter Daniel Siegel into the search block of the healthy memory blog.

Mindfulness-Based Stress /reduction has been developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Enter Jon Kabat-Zinn or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction into the search block of the healthy memory blog to learn more about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Davidson has done brain studies before and after the mindfulness program. Before, most people’s emotional set point was tipped to the right, indicating they were hassled. After eight weeks of mindfulness, they had begun to tip back to the left. Their own reports made clear that with this shift toward the more positive zone of emotions their enthusiasm, energy, and joy in their work surfaced. Davidson concluded that mindfulness seems a good choice for strengthening the dominance of critical zones in the prefrontal cortex, and the biggest bang for the buck from mindfulness in terms of shifting the brain’s emotional set point comes at the beginning of the practice. Although you don’t have to wait for years to feel the improvement, you probably need to continue practicing daily to maintain the shift.

Traditionally ,people end their daily mindfulness session with a period of loving thoughts toward other people. This is the practice of lovingkindness. This intentional generation of a positive mood enhances vagal nerve tone, the body’s ability to mobilize to met a challenge and then to recover quickly. The vagus nerve regulates the heartbeat and other organ functions, and plays a major role in calming down the body when we get distressed. Better vagal tone enhances our ability to arouse ourselves to meet a challenge and then to cool down rather than staying in high gear. To learn more about loving kindness meditation go to and enter “loving kindness” into the search block.

Having good vagal tone helps us not just to recover from stress, but also to sleep better and guard against the negative health impacts of chronic stress in life. The key to building better vagal tone is to find a method we enjoy, and practice it daily like a workout for the vagus nerve. The methods include everything from simply remembering to count slowly to ten when you are starting to get ticked off at some, to systematic muscle relaxation, to meditation.

It should also be mentioned here that there is an upside to stress. In fact that is the title of a book by Dr. Mcgonigal, who is a health psychologist at Stanford University. The subtitle of the book is “Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.” (Enter “Mcgonigal” in the search block of the healthy memory blog (

Goleman writes, “There are many kids of meditation each using a different mental strategy: concentration, mindfulness, and visualization to name a few. Each meditation method has specific impacts on our mental states. For example, visualization activates centers in the spatial visual cortex, while concentration involves the attention circuitry in the prefrontal cortes but not the visual area. A new scientific field, contemplative neuroscience, has begun mapping exactly how meditation A versus meditation B engages the brain, which brain center it activates, and what the specific benefits might be. An early book in this area is Goleman and Davidson’s “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” There are many healthy memory blog posts on this book.

Temperament Is Not Destiny

March 22, 2018

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Goleman writes, “The clearest answer to this question comes from the work of Jerome Kagan, the eminent psychologist at Harvard University.” For those who do not want to continue reading this post, the answer is that temperament is most definitely not destiny. For those who want to understand why this is the case, please continue reading.

Kagan posits that there are at least four temperamental types—timid, bold, upbeat, and melancholy—and that each is due to a different pattern of brain activity. There are likely innumerable differences in patterns of brain activity, each based on innate differences in temperamental endowment, each based on innate differences in emotional circuitry; for any given emotion people can differ in how easily it triggers, how long it lasts, and how intense it becomes. Kagan’s work concentrates on the dimension of temperament that runs from boldness to timidity.

Mothers have been bringing their infants and toddlers to Kagan’s Laboratory for Child Development for decades. Kagan and his coresearchers noticed early signs of shyness in a group of twenty-one-month old toddlers brought in for experimental observations. In free play with other toddlers, some were bubbly and spontaneous, playing with other babies without the least hesitation. However, others were uncertain and hesitant, hanging back, clinging to their mothers, quietly watching the others at play. Almost four years later, when these same children were in kindergarten, Kagan’s group observed them again. Over the intervening years none of the outgoing children had become timid, while two thirds of the timid ones were still reticent.

Kagan believes that the difference between the timid and the bold lies in the excitability of a neural circuit centered in the amygdala. Kagan proposes that people who are prone to fearfulness are born with a neurochemistry that makes this circuit easily aroused, so they avoid the unfamiliar, shy away from uncertainty, and suffer anxiety. Those who have a nervous system calibrated with a much higher threshold for amygdala arousal, are less easily frightened, more naturally outgoing, and eager to explore new places and meet new people.

When young men and women who were quite shy in childhood are measured in a laboratory while exposed to stresses such as harsh smells, their heart rate stays elevated much longer than for their outgoing peers. This is a sign that surging norepinephrine is keeping their amygdala excited and, through connected neural circuits, their sympathetic nervous system aroused. Kagan found that timid children levels of reactivity across the range of sympathetic nervous system indices, from higher resting blood pressure and greater dilation of the pupils, to higher levels of norepinephrine markers in their urine.

Moving to the upbeat-melancholy continuum, some people’s emotions seem to gravitate toward the positive pole. These people are naturally upbeat and easygoing, while others are dour and melancholy. This dimension of temperament—ebullience at one end, melancholy at the other—seems linked to the relative activity of the right and left prefrontal areas. Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, someone who has appeared in many previous healthymemory blog posts, discovered that people who have greater activity in the left frontal lobe compared to the right, are by temperament cheerful; they typically take delight in people and in what life presents them with.

The encouraging news from Kagan’s studies is that not all fearful infants grow up hanging back from life—temperament is not destiny, Kagan’s research team found that some of the mothers held to the philosophy that they should protect their timid toddlers from whatever was upsetting; others felt it was more important to help their children learn how to cope with these upsetting moments, and so adapt to life’s small struggles. The protective belief seems to have abetted fearfulness, probably by depriving the youngsters of opportunities for learning how to overcome their fears: The “learn to adapt” philosophy of childrearing seems to have helped fearful children become braver.

Kagan’s conclusion: “It appears that mothers who protect their highly reactive infants from frustration and anxiety in the hope of effecting a benevolent outcome seem to exacerbate the infant’s uncertainty and produce the opposite effect.

Some children, though shy by temperament, who were more emotionally competent, spontaneously outgrew their timidity. Being more socially skilled, they were far more likely to have a succession of positive experiences with other children. For example, even if they were tentative about speaking to a new playmate, once the ice was broken they were able to shine socially.

Even innate emotional patterns can change to some degree. A child who comes into the world easily frightened can learn to be calmer, or even outgoing, in the face of the familiar. Fearfulness—or any other temperament—may be part of the biological givens of our emotional lives, but we are not necessarily limited to a specific emotional menu by our inherited traits. Our emotional capacities are not a given; with the right learning, they can be improved. The reasons for this lie in how the human brain matures.

Psychotherapy can be systematic emotional relearning. It stands as a case in point of the way experience can both change emotional patterns and shape the brain. One of the most dramatic demonstrations of this point comes from a study of people being treated for obsessive-compulsive disorders. Hand washing is one of the more common compulsions which can be done so often, even hundreds of times a day, that the person’s skin cracks. PET scan studies show that obsessive-compulsives have greater than normal activity in their prefrontal lobes. Half of the patients in the study received the standard drug treatment, fluoxetine (better known by the brand name Prozac), and half behavior therapy. During the therapy they were systematically exposed to the object of their obsession or compulsion without performing it; patients with hand-washing compulsions were put at a sink, but not allowed to wash. At the same time they learned to question the fears and dreads that spurned them on—for example the failure to wash would mean that they would get a disease and die. Gradually, through months of such training, the compulsions faded, just as they did with the medications. A PET scan test showed that the behavior therapy patients had as significant a decrease in the activity of a key part of the emotional brain, the caudate nucleus as did the patients successfully treated with the drug fluoxetine.

Several brain areas critical for emotional life are among the slowest to mature. The sensory areas mature during early childhood, and the limbic system by puberty, the frontal lobes—seat of emotional self-control, understanding, and artful response, do not fully mature until the mid twenties.

One of the most essential emotional lessons, first learned in infancy and refined throughout childhood, is how to soothe oneself when upset. This art of soothing oneself is mastered over many years and with new means, as brain maturation offers a child progressively more sophisticated emotional tools. The frontal lobes, so important for regulating limbic pulse mature into the mid-twenties. Another key circuit that continues to shape itself through childhood centers on the vagus nerve, which at one end regulates the heart and other parts of the body, and at the other sends signals to the amygdala via other circuits, prompting to secrete the catecholamines, which is the prime fight-or-flight response. A University of Washington team that assessed the impact of childrearing discovered that emotionally adept parenting led to a change for the better in vagus-nerve function. John Gotten, the psychologist who led the research explained, “Parents modify their children’s vagal tone”—a measure of how easily triggered the vagus nerve is—“by coaching them emotionally: talking to children about their feelings and how to understand them, not being critical and judgmental, problem-solving about emotional predicaments, coaching them on what to do like alternatives to hitting, or were better able to suppress the vagal activity that keep the amygdala priming the body with fight-or-flight hormones—and so were better behaved.

© Douglas Griffith and, 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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Center for Investigating Healthy Minds

December 15, 2017

With the Dalai Lama’s encouragement Richard Davidson founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM). Part of its mission is to study the best routes to compassion. A kindness curriculum is being tested at a preschool there. Preschoolers recite together a kindness pledge: “May all I think, say, or do not hurt anyone and help everyone.”

If the children do something kind for someone, they earn a “seed of kindness” planted on a big poster of a “kindness garden.”

They have a practice they call “belly buddies.” Children put a favorite stuffed animal on their bellies, then lie down and quiet themselves by paying full attention to the buddy rising and falling as they breathe in and out. The kindness curriculum includes a variety of methods like these, all aimed at helping the preschoolers learn to be more calm and quiet. This exercise should also prepare the children for the meditations they will do when they are older.

These preschoolers, four- and five-year-olds, are at the cusp of a development phase when kids are known to become more selfish, self-focused, and egocentric. In a test of the kindness program’s effects, the preschoolers were given a challenge after a semester.

Each child received some “cool” stickers (kids at this age are passionate about stickers) and was asked to allot the stickers to several envelopes: one with their own picture on it, one with a picture of their best fiend, the third with a child they did not know, and the fourth with a sick child.

Over the semester, a comparison group of preschoolers who did not participate in the program became more selfish in their sticker allotments—but not the kids in the kindness curriculum. So this usual trend in five-year-olds toward selfishness can be offset. Moreover, this shift toward a warmer heart is not just for children.

The website for this center is provided above. It is certainly worth checking out.

Buddhism’s Concept of Self

June 7, 2016

According to Buddhism a person can be viewed as an amalgam of five elements—the physical body, feeling or sensations, ideation or mental activity, mental formations or perceptions, and consciousness.  According to the scholar and monk Wallace, these five aggregates “are in a constant state of flux, never, never static even for a moment, and the self is simply imputed  upon the basis of these psychophysical aggregates.  Gold told the group, “The environment  and our experiences change our brain, so who you are as a person changes by virtue of he environment you live in and the experiences you have.”  The psychologist Richie Davidson called that discovery “a point of intersection with Buddhism.”

A little introspective thought should convince you of the truth of this proposition.  We are constantly changing.  Most of the time these changes are slow and incremental, but there are times when they can be large and life changing.  Epiphanies and insights can produce large changes in our thoughts.

Given that a we are constantly changing, it seems prudent to have the goal of changing for the better.  Continual learning through growth mindsets as well as continual improvement in our life processes through meditation and mindfulness capitalize on our ever changing selves.

This post is short to leave time for thought and contemplation.

Empathy vs. Compassion

May 25, 2016

This post is based on an article by Emma Young titled “How sharing other people’s feelings can make you sick,” in the May 14, 2016 issue of the New Scientist.  As this article notes empathy is undeniably a good thing.  The primatologist Frans de Waal has suggested that being affected by another’s emotional state was the earliest step in our evolution as a collaborative species.

The distinction between what we and others feel isn’t terribly clear to our brains.  Tania Singer and her colleagues demonstrated this in 2004 when they put 16 romantic couples into an MRI scanner.  When they gave these volunteers a painful electric shock,this elicited activity in brain regions known to respond to physical pain and also in regions tuned to emotional pain.  However, when volunteers saw their loved partners  get a shock, no activity registered in their physical pain center, but their emotion regions lit up like fireworks.  Subsequently many other studies have confirmed that this “empathy for pain” network exists, and that it does not distinguish whether the pain we’re observing is physical or psychological.

Moreover, we don’t just catch pain from those we are intimate with.  People in the care giving professions  such as hospice staff, nurses, psychotherapists, and pediatricians often see and feel the stress and pain of others, which leads to a kind empathy burnout.  This empathy burnout has be given names such as “secondary traumatic stress” and vicarious  traumatization.”  Symptoms include lowered ability to feel empathy and sympathy, increased anger and anxiety, and more absenteeism.  Studies have linked these symptoms with an indifferent attitude to patients, depersonalization and poorer care.  Apparently anyone can catch stress any time they understand someone else’s pain and share in it.  This activate empathy for the individual’s pain network.  Singer’s research ha shown that for some people the physical effects of emotional contagion apply even when they observe a person they don’t know suffering distress.  Experiments have shown that people who watched a 15-minute newscast reported increased anxiety afterwards, with their anxiety decreasing only after an extended relaxation exercise.

Other research has shown that empathy can be regulated, just as emotions can be regulated.  Christian Keysers and his colleagues have looked at how people diagnosed with psychopathy, who are commonly thought to lack all capacity for empathy, react when the see images of people in pain.  Initially the team presented images without any instructions as to what to feel.  Predictably, the psychopaths showed less activity in areas association with areas associated with empathy for sensations, and in the insult, than the brains of healthy people.  When Keysers asked these psychopaths to consciously empathize, something very different happened;  their brain responses were identical to healthy people.

Research has shown that the training Buddhist monks undergo give them a heightened ability to manipulate their neural circuitry for empathy.  Richard Davidson  asked these monks to engage in a form of compassion meditation known as loving kindness meditation, in which one is encouraged to gradually extend warmth and care from your self and others.  Davidson found that this process changed the firing of the monks’ neural circuitry.  It suppressed activity  in the anterior insult and in the amygdala a regions involved in threat detection but recruited during empathic responses.  But when one monk was asked to empathize with suffering instead of engaging in compassion, his empathy for pain network lit up, and almost immediately, he begged the proctor to stop the experiment, calling the feeling unbearable.  The subtle distinction is that compassion is feeling for and not with the other.

Research is being done on training people this distinction between compassion and empathy.  The initial results are promising. Let us hope that such training will be readily available to caretakers and others in need of this training.


May 17, 2016

The penultimate cryptomind discussed in “The Mind Club” is “God.” The authors’ begin with Pascal’s Wager, which is a compelling argument for believing in God.  It is presented in terms of Cost Benefit analysis.  The authors’ argue that people do not form their belief in God in terms of cost/benefit analysis and continue the chapter with explanations as to why people believe in God, but that these beliefs do not constitute a proof of God’s existence.  After all these years of philosophical debate, it should be conceded that  proofs are not possible, and that belief is basically a matter of faith.

Healthymemory’s argument is that a cost/benefit analysis of the belief provides a rational basis for believing in God.  Pascal was arguing in terms of the century in which hie lived.  Healthy memory is taking the liberty of phrasing his analysis in contemporary terms.

Suppose that God does not exist and that you do not believe in God.  Although you might be proud of your hard-nosed belief, you cannot know that you are correct.  The only prospect is a possibly unpleasant surprise awaiting you after you die.

Suppose that you do believe in God and that God exists.  if you believe and you have lived in accordance with your beliefs, then death should have a pleasant outcome.  However, suppose that God does not exist.  Well you will never know because you will not exist after death to learn that you belief was incorrect.  However, during your life you will have lived with all the comforts your belief affords you.

Healthy memory is strongly of the belief that one should never be certain about anything.  All beliefs and models of the external world are probabilistic.  But even if one thinks that the probability of God existing is infinitesimally small.  You should still believe because you will enjoy the comforts of believing and will never learn that you were wrong (dead men tell no tales—even to themselves).

You might argue that this argument is specious, and that one is only fooling oneself.
Healthy memory would argue that when we are living we are constantly fooling ourselves.  There is an enormous amount of research indicating that we are more optimistic than justified by objective reality.  But this optimism is adaptive.  It causes us to persevere and to keep on trying.

Healthymemory has found that many of the difficulties people have with God are really difficulties they have with religions.   Religions are created and operated by humans.  If all religious people behaved according to the dictates of their faiths, the world would be a much better place.  But religions have been and continue to be the basis of innumerable wars.  It is quite possible, and perhaps even desirable, to believe in God and not to affiliate with any religious faith.

Healthy memory extols science and accords science for being responsible for the advancement of humankind.  Yet science provides one kind of knowledge.  There are other domains of knowledge and one is deficient if one is restricted to scientific knowledge.  That individual, in effect, becomes an intellectual runt.

The Dalai Lama has literally had a lifelong interest in science as this interest began in childhood.  He has said that were it not for his responsibilities as a religious leader, he would have been an engineer.  He has worked with a wide variety of scientists and has established a Mind and Life Institute.  Psychologist Richard Davidson has worked closely with the Dali Lama, who has provided Buddhist monks and priests in Davidson’s research on meditation.  This research has revealed notable changes in the brain during and after meditation.  Both basic and applied research  will show large advances from this research.  The emphasis is on the mind and how it can enhance lives.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Achieving Mindfulness

April 3, 2013

Mindfulness has become a hot topic. There is a new monthly magazine, Mindful,, the the March/April edition of Scientific American Mind features articles on mindfulness. Most approaches to mindfulness involve meditation. The healthymemory blog has many posts on meditation. The psychologist Richard Davidson has identified six dimensions of emotional style (See the healthymemory blog post, “The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style): resilience, outlook, self awareness, social intuition, sensitivity to context, and attention. He has techniques, which can be found in the healthymemory blog (use the blogs search box), for cultivating each of these dimensions.

Meditation techniques range from exercises designed to train concentrative focus, a narrowing of attention, to exercises designed to train open monitoring, a broad awareness of sensations and surroundings. Both skills are necessary. There are times when we need to focus on a particular problem or idea and there are types where we need to allow new thoughts into our consciousness without rejecting them out of hand as a result of selection biases. In the March/April edition of Scientific American Mind there is a piece on Capturing Attention on page 33. This is an exercise by Scott Rogers, the Director of Programs and Training, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative at the University of Miami, that incorporates both types of training into a single meditation session. Here is the technique:

“Sit in an upright, stable position, hands resting on your thighs or cradled together.

Lower or close your eyes, whichever is more comfortable.

Attend to your breath, following its movement throughout your body.

Notice the sensations around your belly as air flows into and out of your nose and mouth. You have been breathing all day—all of your life—and in this moment, you are simply noticing your breath.

Select one area of your body affected by your breathing and focus your attention there. Control your focus, not the breathing itself.

When you notice your mind wandering – and it will – bring your attention back to your breath.

After five to ten minutes, switch from focusing to monitoring. Think of your mind as a vast open sky and your thoughts, feelings and sensations as passing clouds.

Feel you whole body move with your breath. Be receptive to your sensations, noticing what arises in the moment. Be attentive to the changing quality of experience – sounds, aromas, the caress of a breeze…thoughts.

After about five more minutes, lift your gaze and open your eyes.

Improving Your Sensitivity to Social Context

May 9, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Social Intuition and Social Context,” it is recommended that you do so before reading this current post. This post will deal with ways of diminishing or eliminating social contexts that make you feel frightened or uncomfortable. It is based on The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Dr. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a pathological condition in which a person, due to past traumatic experiences, becomes frightened inappropriately in a relatively innocuous environment. Exposure therapy has proven successful in treating this disorder just as it has with phobias of specific objects or situations. Exposure therapy involves progressively more direct exposure to cues that are associated with the trauma, but in a safe context. For example, if someone had a fear of flying you might first have them watch movies about flying. Then you might drive them to the airport. You might make several trips each involving more exposure to airplanes. Then you might arrange sitting I an airplane while its on the ground. Finally, you might arrange a series of progressively longer flights in an airplane.

Dr. Davidson recommends the following exercise for gradually inuring yourself to cues that make you anxious or angry.1

1. To help you relax, start with a breathing exercise from hatha yoga. With your eyes closed attend to your breathing as you would in mindfulness meditation, counting the duration of each inhalation and exhalation.

      1. Once, you have counted several breaths, lengthen you breathing cycle so that it takes one more second. Keep increasing their length as long as it feels comfortable.

      2. Pay attention to whether inhalation and exhalation are the same length. If one is longer, try to increase the length of the other so that they both are about the same length. Do this for five minutes and then open your eyes.

After you feel comfortable with this exercise, you can move on to context training.2

      1. Make a list of the cues or behaviors that upset you. Form images of these cues or behaviors. Be as specific and as detailed as you can.

      2. In a safe context conjure up these images in as much detail as possible.

      3. At the same time, practice the breathing exercise described just before this one. Continue to do this until you feel comfortable with the images you formed. Continue at this for about fifteen minutes.

        Dr. Davidson writes that you should experience from doing this after four sessions, and that the hour spent doing this is well worth it.

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


Improving Social Intuition

May 6, 2012

If you have not yet read the Healthymemory Blog post “Social Intuition and Social Context” it is recommended that you read about it before considering improving it. These recommendations for improving social intuition can be found in The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Dr. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley. It you have already read “Social Intuition” then you might anticipate that he would advise you to pump up your fusiform activity and quiet your amygdala activity. In practical terms he offers the following advice:

“1. 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.

  1. See how well 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 when speaking.

  2. Get close enough to overhear them (assuming you can do this unobtrusively. I recommend doing this is 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.

  3. If not, then you are probably misunderstanding something. Take note of that and apply this lesson to the next people you observe.

  4. Once you feel confident that you can tell what people are feeling, try it with friends or colleagues.”1

    I have the utmost respect for Dr Davidson, but I would strongly advise against staring into a stranger’s face or eyes. This can lead to uncomfortable situations. I also cannot understand why he recommends working with strangers rather than friends first.

    He also offers exercises for becoming proficient at interpreting specific cues.

    1. When you are in a public place where friends are chattering or at an airport terminal close you eyes and pay attention to the voices around you. Tune in to specific voices and focus on the tone rather than the content.

      1. Describe to yourself what that tone conveys. The open your eyes and see what comes next. Were you able to anticipate it based on your interpretation of the tone.

      2. Now repeat the exercise with posture and body language (without closing your eyes, of course).

      3. Designate one channel, tone of voice or body language, and concentrate on it throughout the entire day.

      4. The next day switch to the other channel and repeat the exercise.

Dr. Davidson write that you should see results after a short period of time.

Now some people might be too tuned in to social cues. For example, someone might be excessively tuned in to social cues and will always be trying to please other people. Dr. Goldman would say that such people need to give their fusiform a respite. They should try to focus on other parts of the environment and increase their amount of introspection.

The next Healthymemory Blog post will deal with improving your sensitivity to context.

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

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

Personality Theory and Emotional Style

April 8, 2012

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

Openness to Experience





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style

April 4, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotions and a Healthy Memory

April 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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