Posts Tagged ‘The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style’

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, 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.


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.


March 29, 2020

The focused extreme of the Attention dimension is the result of enhanced activation in brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex and the parietal cortex, that constitute a circuit for selective attention. The prefrontal cortex is critical for maintaining attention, while the parietal cortex acts as the brain’s steering wheel, pointing attention to particular places and thereby focusing attention on a specific target. At the unfocused extreme, the prefrontal cortex is underachieving and attention is stimulus driven: Whatever occurs around you draws your attention. You veer from one stimulus to the next with no internal rudder to guide your attention. Improving focus requires increasing activity in the prefrontal and parietal cortices.

To improve focus he recommends mindfulness meditation. Follow the instructions in the Self-Awareness section for mindful breathing. Once you feel comfortable you can move on to focused-attention meditation, which is also known as one-pointed concentration.

In a quiet room free of distractions, sit (or recline with your 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 the object of attention be visual, rather than your breath, your body image, or other mental objects.
Focus all your attention upon this one object. Keep your eyes trained on it.
If your attention wanders, calmly try to bring it back to that object.

Do this daily, initially for about ten minutes. If you find that you are able to maintain your focus most of that time, increase your practice about ten minutes per month, until you reach one hour.

If you feel your attention is excessively focused and wish to broaden it in order to take in more of the world, then open-monitoring or open-presence meditation can nudge you toward that end of the Attention dimension. In open-monitoring meditation, your attention is not fixed on any particular object. Instead, you cultivate an awareness itself. He recommends beginning with a focused-attention meditation practice such as breath meditation, which will give you a basic level of attentional stability and make open-monitoring meditation easier. The basics are:

Sit in a quiet room on a comfortable chair, with your back straight but the rest of your body relaxed. Keep you eyes open or closed whichever you find more comfortable. If your eyes are open, gaze downward and keep your eyes somewhat unfocused.
Maintain a clear awareness of and openness to your surroundings. Keep your mind calm and relaxed, not focused on anything specific, yet totally present, clear, vivid, and transparent.
Lightly attend to whatever object happens to rise 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 the the first thing I am thinking of as I sit down to meditate is…
Give your full attention to the most salient current object of consciousness focusing on it to the exclusion of everything 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. Think of an object of attention as if if were an image in a frame in a museum, or in a movie, with no strong relevance to you.
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 in 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 you mind.
If you notice your mind moving toward another thought or feeling, let it do so, allowing the newcomer to slip into consciousness. Unlike 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 from the breath-focused meditation described previously is the in open-monitoring meditation were 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 any moment.
Turn to this new object of attention as you did the first.
Do this of five to ten minutes.

In a study done by Prof. Richardson’s group using EEG found that when people practice open-monitoring meditation it modulates their brain waves in a way that makes them more receptive to outside stimuli—that is, they experience phase-locking, a signature of Focused Attention

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.