Emotional Styles of the Brain – Part 4

In the last three weeks, we defined the first two emotional styles of the brain. The first being resilience to adversity. The adversity can be a wide range of so-called setbacks – from the most trivial things such as someone cutting you off in traffic to the more significant setbacks such as the passing of a loved one. The second being outlook – meaning whether you have a positive or negative view on life. This week, we will continue our theme of emotional styles of the brain by going over how the brain patterns persist or change.

With brain patterns, these questions may come to mind: How long have they been there? It is a brain pattern that existed (or that was established) during childhood as the brain develops? Was it present at birth? Can it be changed?

When Dr. Davidson did research on day-old infants, in the experiments he found that even at birth, there were clear individual differences and left/right asymmetry in terms of activation. Everyone’s genetic makeup is different, but the big question is do these differences persist? Dr. Davidson helped discover that what you are born with is not necessarily what you are dealt with as the brain and behavior can change.

Neuroplasticity is the idea that the brain can change – either for better or worse. The brain has the ability to change in both structure and function. Consider learning and memory – these are constant examples of how our brains are able to change form. When you learn something new and also when a new experience enters your memory, this is the brain changing – expanding and retaining.

Brain structure and function can change in response to two forces:
1. The life you lead
and
2. Thinking yourself into a different brain.

The life you lead, meaning the experiences you have – physical as well as emotional or mental – are signals from the outside world. This is similar to your brain collecting memories and learning new information. The other way the brain can change structure and function is in response to purely mental activity. This is similar to the second brain emotional style of outlook. Higher left activity is associated with a more positive outlook; higher right activity is associated with more negative outlook.  To change the brain grooves, you can think yourself into a different brain by working on a more positive outlook (or negative, as the door does swing both ways).

Next week, we will continue our five part series of the emotional styles of the brain with more on outlook and self-awareness.

Emotional Styles of the Brain – Part 3

In the last two weeks, we have defined the first two emotional styles of the brain. The first being resilience to adversity. The adversity can be a wide range of so-called setbacks – from the most trivial things such as someone cutting you off in traffic to the more significant setbacks such as the passing of a loved one. The second being outlook – meaning whether you have a positive or negative view on life. 

Let’s look closely at the second style, outlook, which can be broken down to be defined as either positive outlook or negative outlook. The left prefrontal cortex in a resilient person can be 30 times that of someone who is not as resilient – this means that there is a a pretty big difference in brain activity within people who are clinically depressed and those who are not clinically depressed. For people who suffer from depression, activity in the right prefrontal is much higher. For people who are healthier and have an overall positive outlook on life, activity is the left prefrontal is greater. In other words, left side activity equals positive and right side equals negative.

The thing to remember about these specific findings is that everyone has ups and downs in their lives, so the left and/or right asymmetry can change. This relates back to the first style – adversity – under certain difficult periods of people’s lives, they may behave and/or react differently during these times. This is simply just part of the ebb and flow of life as a human.

Dr. Richard Davidson has been doing research on the emotional styles of the brain for over twenty years. Dr. Davidson’s research has been on all kinds of walks of life, including everyday hard-working Americans, undergraduate volunteers, children and infants, and also a Tibetan monk community. These monks lent their time and brains to science by having Dr. Davidson run MRI’s and EEG’s on them. In his findings, Dr. Davidson has found that these monk’s left prefrontals were off the chart compared to his other findings making this evidence for the stark difference in the brain activity that underlie emotional and personality differences. The monks are constantly smiling, people of good will and constantly help one another. And their brains can prove it.

Next week, we will continue the emotional styles of the brain, digging more into how brain patterns persist or change.

Emotional Styles of the Brain – Part 2

Last week we defined the first two emotional styles of the brain. The first being resilience to adversity. The adversity can be a wide range of so-called setbacks – from the most trivial things such as someone cutting you off in traffic to the more significant setbacks such as the passing of a loved one. The second being outlook – meaning whether you have a positive or negative view on life.

Let’s look at resilience more closely. It would be nearly impossible for any of us to get through our human lives without some sort of setback. What really distinguishes people in terms of their success is whether or not they are knocked back on their heels by these setbacks. Resilience is a product of two specific regions of the brain: one is the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) and it sends signals to the amygdala, (the fear center of the brain).

The thinking part of the brain is front and center in our emotions. Prior to our technologically advanced society, say ten to twenty years ago, neuroscience thought that the emotional brain and the cognitive brain hardly ever met. However, research has found that not only do they meet, they are great friends and collaborators. With resilience, it turns out that the ability to send signals from the prefrontal cortex, which is the region just behind your forehead, to the amygdala, which is more in the center of your brain, means that the strength of those signals and the frequency of those connections determine how resilient you are.

The amygdala is the region that sends out signals that you may interpret as be afraid, be depressed, or be aware of potential danger. When these kinds of signals are going full blast, it is very hard to be resilient. The prefrontal cortex basically says to the amygdala “shhh!” When it is able to be quiet, people are able to be resilient. The prefrontal cortex is basically modulating the amygadala and vice versa.

The amygdala also sends signals to the prefrontal cortex (which has been known for many years). It perceives the information, sends the information to the prefrontal cortex – which again is the more thinking, planning, executive function part of the brain – and the prefrontal cortex then takes the right evasive action or figures out the situation to keep you out of danger. What is new here within the last ten to twenty years is the idea of the prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) communicating with the amygdala (the emotional part of the brain).

Next week, we will continue the series of the emotional styles of the brain and get further into the four styles.