Posts Tagged ‘Self-awareness’

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 Six Dimensions of Emotional Style

March 16, 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. It is important to understand that there is no average emotional style. Nor should one say that there is a preferred emotional style. Different emotional styles exist for different people. Of course, it is possible that someone might not like their emotional style, in which case they can change them, and this book will tell you how. In this post the different styles will be discussed so you can identify your emotional styles.

Your Resilience style: When you suffer a setback, do you usually shake it off easily, or do you suffer a meltdown? When faced with an emotional or other challenge, can you muster the determination to continue on, or do you feel helpless and simply surrender. Should you have an argument with your significant other, does it cast a pall over the remainder of the day, or are you able to recover quickly and put it behind you? Do respond to setbacks with energy and determination, or do you give up? People at one extreme of this dimension are Fast to Recover from adversity; those at the other extreme are slow to recover, crippled by adversity.

Your Outlook style: Do you seldom let emotional clouds darken your sunny outlook on life? Do you maintain a high level of energy and engagement even when things don’t go your way? Or do you tend toward cynicism and pessimism, struggling to see anything positive? People at one extreme of the Outlook spectrum can be described as Positive types; those on the other as Negative.

Your Social Intuition style: Can you read people’s body language and tone of voice like a book, inferring whether they want to talk or be alone, whether they are stressed o the breaking point or feeling mellow? Or are you puzzled by or blind to the outward indications of people’s mental and emotional states? Those at one extreme on this spectrum are Socially Intuitive types; those at the other end, Puzzled.

Your Self-Awareness style: Are you aware of your own thoughts and feelings and attuned to the messages your body sends you? Or do you act and react without knowing whey you do what you do, because you ask why you eve engage in introspection and wonder why you seem oblivious to the fact that you are anxious, jealous, impatient, or threatened? At one extreme of this spectrum are people who are Self-Aware; at the other, people who are Self-Opaque.

Your Sensitivity to Context style: Are you able to pick up the conventional rules of social interaction so that you do not tell your boss the same dirty joke you told your husband or try to pick up a date at a funeral? Or are you baffled when people tell you that your behavior is inappropriate? If you are at one extreme of the Sensitivity to Context style, you are Tuned In; at the other end, Tuned Out.

Your Attention style: Can you screen out emotional or other distractions and stay focused? Are you so caught up in your video game that you don’t notice the dog crying to go out, until he makes a mess on the floor? Or do your thoughts flit from the task at hand to the fight you had with your spouse this morning or the anxiety you feel about an upcoming presentation for work? At one extreme on the Attention spectrum are people with a Focused style; at the other, those who are Unfocused.

Professor Richardson writes, “Everyone has elements of each of these dimensions of Emotional Style. Because there are so many ways to combine these six dimensions, there’re countless Emotional Styles; everyone is unique.” People differ by a factor of thirty in the level of their prefrontal cortex activity associated with happiness and approach or with fear, disgust, anxiety, and withdrawal.

Know Thyself

March 12, 2018

Know Thyself is the title of a chapter in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” Since that chapter was written, there have been significant advances in the study of the emotions, some of which have been reported in this blog. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book “How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain” was revolutionary. Relevant blog posts can be found by entering “Lisa Feldman Barrett” into the search box of the healthy memory blog. The following is taken directly from the post “How Emotions Are Made”:

Dr. Barrett calls this view the theory of constructed emotions.  These emotions are constructed on the basis of our interoceptive environments.  She presents a convincing argument that our emotions are built upon our interpretation of our internal environments, that is analogous to the manner in which we develop an understanding of the external world.

Readers of the healthy memory blog should be aware that we do not experience the external world directly.  Rather we develop concepts and models on the basis of what our senses receive from the external world.  In other words, emotions are based on what we feel, that is how we interpret what we receive from our interoceptive environment.  Emotions are interpretations of our interoceptive conditions.  In other words we learn our emotional concepts in an analogous manner to how we learn about the external world.  We have an energy budget and this budget affects feelings of hunger and other bodily conditions.

Dr. Barrett provides a personal anecdote to illustrate how constructed emotions work.  When she was a graduate student a fellow male graduate student asked her out at the end of the day.  Although she had no feelings for this guy, she was tired and thought it would be a good way to kill the evening.  While they were dining, she thought she was beginning to fall for him.  Nothing further happened and she went home and fell asleep exhausted.  The next morning she woke up with the flu and remained in bed for several more days.  Apparently she had misinterpreted her interoceptive environment.  What she had originally interpreted as incipient feelings of love, were really incipient feelings of the flue virus.

After that relevant digression, we return to Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence.”

Metamood is a term psychologists use to refer to awareness of one’s emotions, and metacognition refers refers to an awareness of thought process. Self-awareness is not an attention that gets carried away by emotions, overreacting and amplifying what is perceived. Instead, it is a neutral mode that maintains self-reflectiveness even amidst turbulent emotions. The awareness of emotions is the fundamental emotional competence on which others, such as emotional self-control. build. Self-awareness means being “aware of both our mood and our thoughts about the mood.” Self-awareness can be nonjudgmental or judgmental to include, “I shouldn’t feel this way,” “I’m thinking good things to cheer up,” or “Don’t think about it.”

The psychologist John Mayer describes three distinctive styles for attending to and dealing with their emotions.

*Self-aware. Aware of their moods as they are having them, these people understandably have some sophistication about their emotional lives. Their clarity about emotions may undergird other personality traits: they are autonomous and sure of their own boundaries, are in good psychological health, and tend to have a positive outlook on life. When they get into a bad mood, they don’t ruminate and obsess about it, and are able to get out of it sooner. In short, their mindfulness helps them manage their emotions.

*Engulfed. These are people who often feel swamped by their emotions and helpless to escape them, as though their moods have taken charge. They are mercurial and not very aware of their feelings, so that they are lost in them rather than having some perspective. As a result, they do little to try to escape bad moods, feeling that they have no control over their emotional life. They feel overwhelmed and emotionally out of control. Such people definitely need to practice mindfulness and meditation, and perhaps consider seeking professional help.

*Accepting. While these people are often clear about what they are feeling, they also tend to be accepting of their moods, and so don’t try to change them. There seem to be two branches of the accepting type: those who are usually in good moods and so have little motivation to change them, and people who, despite the clarity about their moods, are susceptible to bad ones but accept them with a laissez-faire attitude, doing nothing to change them despite their distress—a pattern found among, say, depressed people who are resigned to despair. This latter group should be aware that there are techniques for changing and controlling their moods, should they want to.

It is possible not to have feelings. Psychiatrists call it alexithymia. These people lack words for their feelings. They seem to lack feelings altogether, although this may actually be because of they inability to express emotion rather than from an absence of emotion altogether.

Although no one can as yet say for sure what causes alexithymia, Dr. Sifneos, who coined the term, proposes a disconnection between the limbic system and the neocortex, particularly its verbal centers, which fits well with what we are learning about the emotional brain.

© 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.

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

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.


April 22, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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