The scientific argument for being emotional

New research shows that our feelings are more important to our health than we ever thought. An expert explains

Topics: Neuroscience, Medicine, Health, Editor's Picks,

The scientific argument for being emotional (Credit: Salon/DG Strong)

At the end of his second year of Harvard graduate school, neuroscientist and bestselling author Richard Davidson did something his colleagues suspected would mark the end of his academic career: He skipped town and went to India and Sri Lanka for three months to “study meditation.” In the ’70s, just as today, people tended to lump meditation into the new-age category, along with things like astrology, crystals, tantra and herbal “remedies.” But contrary to what his skeptics presumed, not only did Davidson return to resume his studies at Harvard, his trip also marked the beginning of Davidson’s most spectacular body of work: neuroscientific research indicating that meditation (and other strictly mental activity) changes the neuroplasticity of the brain.

Thirty years later, Davidson is still researching and writing about the intersection of neuroscience and emotion — he currently teaches psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his new book, written with Sharon Begley, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live, and How You Can Change Them,” Davidson lays out a fascinating theory that parses out emotional style into six dimensions, giving readers a better understanding of where they stand on this emotional plane and how emotional styles affect the qualities of their everyday lives.

Last week Salon spoke over the phone with Davidson about how Botox injections disrupt our ability to emote, the connection between happiness and health, and why emotion has been unfairly and historically underappreciated.

There’s been stigma around the study of emotion in the past. Some people still frame emotion as pointless metaphysical leftovers that result from physiological processes. I think that your work has really come to show that that’s not true. In your view, what are the evolutionary and practical purposes of emotion and does it have intrinsic value?

I think that emotions are such an important part of our experience and behavior.. They came about over the course of evolution for a reason; to promote survival — to facilitate the adaptation of organisms to their environment. Emotions evolved to solve specific kinds of problems that arose over the course of our history. They wouldn’t be such a robust part of our experience if they didn’t have this deep evolutionary origin. Having said that, it’s also the case that we now live in an environment that is vastly different from our evolutionary origins. So some of the emotions that played a very important role in our past can be maladaptive when they are triggered in response to stimuli in our current environment. This is why developing strategies to better regulate our emotions may be particularly important for us now.

In the book you talk about some really fascinating research suggesting that emotional outlook, happiness or depression, can have a direct influence on our health.

There is an intuition in the popular culture that our emotions have something to do with our physical health, but we are just beginning to explore this connection. In our own research, we examined both the brain activity and peripheral biology of a group of individuals by giving them flu shots. It turns out that people who have a more resilient brain profile are the ones who actually have a bigger boost in their immune response when they get a flu vaccine. What it suggests is that more resilient individuals, when exposed to the flu virus, are conferred much greater immunity than a person with a vulnerable emotional style. It suggests that these brain circuits directly communicate with peripheral biological processes, in this case certain features of the immune system, and directly regulate them in ways that are consequential for our health.

In the beginning of the book, you talk about a discovery that set the course of your career in motion — this distinction between people with more right prefrontal cortical activity and those with more activity in their left prefrontal cortex.

We had been doing research looking at the neural correlates of particular short-lived emotions. We were specifically looking at neural changes during different fleeting facial expressions. The idea that we could actually identify brain mechanisms that underlie different emotional styles was not in the lexicon of science in the past. At that time the neuroscientific study of emotion was conducted mostly in rats and focused on subcortical brain regions, regions below the cortex.

What we noticed was that this right versus left activation patterns of the prefrontal cortex varied more across people than it did within one person during different emotions. So we did further studies to demonstrate that these individual variations were actually consistent for a person over time and directly related to important features of their mood and emotional styles. That’s what really launched us into thinking about emotional style and its brain bases.

Was it surprising that the prefrontal cortex was involved in emotion?

Well many psychologists and neuroscientists at that time regarded the prefrontal cortex as exclusively involved in higher cognitive function because the prefrontal cortex is among the most recent to develop over the course of evolution. In many ways it was regarded as the seat of the highest form of reason in humans. This assumption that the prefrontal cortex could not possibly be involved in emotion is, I think, part of a historical anachronism that regarded thought and feeling as two completely separate realms.

In the beginning of the book you lay out a theory that each of us has a certain unique Emotional Style, split up into six components. What are these six emotional dimensions?

One is Resilience, which refers to how quickly or slowly you recover from adversity. The second is Outlook; the duration that a person’s positive emotion persists. Then there is Context, and that is the extent to which we modulate our emotional responses in a context-appropriate way. So for example, when we are with our boss we know that it’s not permissible to discuss the same topics we might discuss with our spouse. That’s called context modulation. The fourth is Social Intuition, the sensitivity to social cues, the extent to which a person is sensitive to facial expressions or vocal expressions. The fifth is Self Awareness, the extent to which a person is aware of signals within their own body, which are important to emotion. Finally, Attention, how focused or scattered you are. Attention isn’t often thought of as part of emotional style, yet our work indicates that it significantly contributes to a person’s emotional makeup. Is your attention easily pulled by stimuli in the environment or are you able to more skillfully focus your attention on what it is you wish to attend to.

You did a really interesting study looking at how the genes that code for our temperament can actually be modified by life events and environment. What did you find?

We have learned over the last decade, and more specifically really the last five years, that the genome itself is not changed over the course of a life, but the extent to which genes are expressed can be influenced by our environment or the behavior in which we engage. This is referred to as epigenetics, the regulation of gene expression. We know that there are sites on genes that code the extent to which another gene is actually turned on or turned off. And it can be turned on and turned off in a graded fashion.

And the study looked at how kids reacted to a toy robot that approached them …

It was a longitudinal study that followed kids from age 3 to their early teens. It tracked their brain development in conjunction with the development of certain temperamental features, one in particular called behavioral inhibition, which refers to shyness. What we found is that kids can significantly change in their expression of this temperamental characteristic over time. What we also showed is that to the extent to which temperament changes, the brain also changes. So brain activity during these early years in life is not fixed and can be changed by environmental factors and activities. This is really just an example of what we refer to as neuroplasticity; that the brain can change in response to experience and training.

Another study that I found really interesting and amusing involved women who had recently had cosmetic Botox injections. How did the results speak to this mind-body connection?

That’s a great example. Beginning with Darwin’s book in 1892, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals” we have known that facial expressions are very important for emotion, and recent theories suggest that facial expressions provide feedback to the brain and influence the emotional state of a person through that feedback. It suggests that if we eliminate feedback, as Botox does, we deprive the brain of certain signals that it uses to determine one’s own emotional state. The women in our study were getting Botox in the muscle just above the eyebrow, temporarily paralyzing it. That particular muscle is used in frowning and several different negative emotions. What we found is that Botox injections actually impaired their capacity to perceive negative emotion when they read negative sentences, and this suggests that we use our bodies to help decode the emotions of others by subtly simulating their emotions and mirroring their emotional state with mini-facial expressions of our own. If we can’t make those facial expressions because our face is paralyzed, then our ability to understand their emotional state is impaired.

Neuroscience has shown certain kinds of activities can influence changes in the brain, but one of the major points you make in the book is that purely mental exercises can too. How did meditation become part of your research?

I’ve had a longstanding interest in meditation personally, but it wasn’t until 1992 when I first met the Dalai Lama that that interest was catalyzed into a major component of my own scientific research. The Dalai Lama pointed out that if I could use the tools of modern neuroscience to investigate emotions like fear, anxiety and depression, then I should also be investigating kindness and compassion. So I made a commitment to put these positive qualities like kindness and compassion on the scientific map. Meditation practices are said to enhance and nourish these qualities, so we began to investigate the extent to which these kinds of meditation can lead to changes in the brain and can promote behavior associated with positive qualities of mind.

You give examples of exercises at the end of the book to help people take advantage of their own neuroplasticity. For example you say that by delaying gratification, which is associated with planning, you can strengthen the connection between your prefrontal cortex and a brain region called the ventral striatum, which increases one’s sense of well-being.

I think that we’ve learned a lot about what can induce these plastic changes in the brain. It’s quite similar to engaging in physical exercise or learning to play a musical instrument or chess. All of these require regular practice in order to become more fluent in them, and it’s the same for happiness. Well-being can be thought of as a skill; you learn it better when you practice it over time. Many of my suggestions in that last chapter of the book come from different strands of research, but they all point to the idea that we can take responsibility for our own brain. Often, we leave our emotional patterns to happenstance and we don’t intentionally cultivate them. But we shouldn’t think of emotional style as any different than cognitive skills, or activities with a tradition of intentional training. Eastern contemplative tradition, and particularly meditation, is exactly this technology of mental exercise. It fosters better habits of mind, and our neuroscientific research has shown this.

You are also sensitive to the fact that some people might not be able to change their emotional styles, especially if they are on an extreme. What are some coping mechanisms for those of us who might have a harder time changing our emotional styles?

We are all different, and for some people, certain styles may be easier to change than other styles. One of the things that I suggest at the end of the book is that instead of changing your style, you can alter your environment to make it more compatible with that style. If you are the kind of person who is terrible at picking up on social cues and who doesn’t really get a lot of enjoyment from social interaction, you can try to arrange your work life so that you don’t interact with a lot with other people and picking up on social cues is not something that you need to rely on for success. I think that the hope with this book is that people learn more about their own emotional style so they can figure out what makes the best sense for them.

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