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Book Review: The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley

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University of Wisconsin professor of psychology Richard J. Davidson’s latest entry in the mind/body health industrial complex, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live — and How You Can Change Them, written along with scientific journalist Sharon Begley, is a nicely documented discussion of the brain as the seat of what he calls “emotional style.” Each individual, he tells us, is characterized by his own “emotional style,” a “consistent way of responding to the experiences of our lives.” And luckily, whatever your emotional style, if you’re not happy with it, you’re not stuck with it. Read the book and you can change it.

Davidson identifies six dimensions that, taken together, define the individual’s emotional style based on his and others’ neuroscientific research. These six dimensions — Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention — are functions of different parts of the brain, and are present in different degrees in all people. Each is a continuum, and we all fall into place on that continuum based on brain function. So, for example, at one end of Resilience there are those who recover from adversity quickly, at the other those who are slow to recover. All of us fall somewhere between the two, some closer to one end, some closer to the other. The combination of where we stand on each dimension is our emotional style.

He doesn’t make absolute value judgments about the extremes of each dimension, but recognizes that almost any place on the continuum can be healthy or unhealthy depending on the individual’s specific situation. However, if you should find that any one of these elements is a problem, research has demonstrated that it can be changed. The brain is plastic and its functions can be reworked. To this end, he provides readers with a scale upon which to measure their own emotional style and then after explaining a variety of experiments illustrating how changes have been made, offers a series of do-it-yourself exercises. This is not one of those “don’t try this at home” advice books. You want to become more self aware, Davidson tells you how to go about it. Less self aware, he tells you that too.

Not a brain scientist myself, I can’t vouch for the authority of what Davidson says, but from a layman’s point of view, he makes a convincing case and he certainly has the academic credentials to back up his ideas. The Emotional Life of Your Brain is filled with descriptions of supporting experimental research, both with animals and human subjects. Most importantly this research is explained with a lucidity that makes it almost possible to follow, even for the scientifically challenged. True, there is a good bit of brain science jargon, but again not so much that all but those who fall on the low end of the attention spectrum will have any significant problem dealing with (although I must admit to some trepidation when faced with “dorsolateral prefrontal cortex”).

Davidson supplements his theories with something of a personal narrative of his interest in the brain as a seat of emotions and its effects on his academic career. He doesn’t have much good to say about the behavioral school of psychology which dominated the field when he began his studies. He tends to paint himself as a rebel against the establishment as he pursued his ideas, despite a lack of early encouragement and again in his embrace of Eastern meditation. The personal information and snarky remarks about the establishment add some welcome narrative spice to the book.

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About Jack Goodstein