Collage created using two overlayed images, one of a cactus, the other of a real MRI of a brain, from the top of the skull

Collage created using two overlayed images, one of a cactus, the other of a real MRI of a brain, from the top of the skull

Neuropsychologist Richard Davidson and science writer Sharon Begley explain how your brain chemistry affects the way you think, feel and live – and whether you can change your emotional style. Many neuroscientists used to believe that thinking and emotions run on separate brain circuitry. But new studies using neuroimaging have challenged conventional notions about the brain’s role in emotions. Davidson has identified distinct emotional styles and their connection to patterns of activity throughout the brain. Locating the bases of emotion partly in the brain’s seat of reason implies people have a greater ability to change than was once thought. In their new book, Davidson and Begley argue that we can retrain our brains so that we can become more resilient, less negative and, possibly, happier. The science behind emotions.


  • Sharon Begley Senior health and science correspondent,Reuters; author of "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain"; and the co-author (with Jeffrey Schwartz) of "The Mind and the Brain."
  • Richard Davidson Professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Program Highlights

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson has long been fascinated by differing reactions people have to life’s up and downs. He set out to learn why some people bounce back from a traumatic event while others are devastated for years, why some have a sunny outlook and others are gloomy. Davidson and his co-author Sharon Begley have written a new book titled “The Emotional Life of Your Brain.”

Why Has Brain Research Lagged?

Diane wondered why brain research seems to have lagged so far behind other research. Begley believes that scientists interested in brain study focused on thinking, reasoning and judgment for a long time. Emotions, Begley said, were like the “riff raff” of the brain. “It really was the stepchild for neuroscience research for many, many years,” Begley said.

The Role Of Cognitive Therapy In Changing The Way We Think And Behave

Cognitive therapy primarily involves teaching people to think differently about the causes of their behavior, Davidson said. “So if something bad happens, if we’re confronted by some adverse event in the environment, rather than attributing that negative thing to ourselves – let’s say we don’t get a job promotion that we were expecting. Rather than attributing it to some flaw in ourselves and some consistent attribute of our behavior, we learn to reinterpret it and to adopt a larger perspective,” Davidson said. Changing thinking like this can be a first step to changing behavior, he said.

What Is “Emotional Style?”

Emotional style refers to how you react to what life throws at you, Begley said. Many people who’ve had a bad day at the office and come home and take it out on a spouse don’t even realize what they’re doing, she said. “That is an aspect of self-awareness, being attuned to the emotional
signals that your body sends you,” she said. The authors have also identified what they call “sensitivity to context,” which refers to modulating your emotional behavior based on the context in which you find yourself. For example, soliders who experience post-traumatic stress
disorder may find themselves having a panic attack upon hearing a siren in their residential neighborhood after they’ve returned from a war zone. Davidson said this is because they’re unable in that moment to calibrate their behavior to this different environment.


Begley and Davidson encourage people to look honestly at their own character traits to try to figure out their levels of resilience. Begley asks if you lose your dollar in the vending machine could ruin your morning, or your whole day. The book includes six questionnaires for six
different dimensions of emotional style to try to help people figure out where they are now and whether they want to move themselves along any of the dimensions.

You can read the full transcript here.

Take A Quiz From “The Emotional Life Of Your Brain:”

Depending on whom we are interacting with and in what circumstances, there are different rules and expectations—for interactions with close friends, people you know only slightly, family members, coworkers, or superiors. Noth­ing good can come of treating your boss like a child, or of treating the cop who just pulled you over like a drinking buddy, let alone treating a coworker like a lover. Sensitivity to the rules of social engagement and the capacity to regulate our emotions and behavior accordingly varies enormously among people. You can think of the Sensitivity to Context dimension of Emotional Style as the outer-directed version of the Self-Awareness style: Just as the latter reflects how attuned you are to your own physiological and emotional cues, so Sensi­tivity to Context reflects how attuned you are to the social environment.

In the lab, we measure this dimension by determining how emotional be­havior varies with social context. For example, toddlers tend to be wary in unfamiliar circumstances such as a lab but not in a familiar environment. A toddler who seems perpetually wary at home is therefore probably insensitive to context. For adults, we test Sensitivity to Context by conducting the first round of tests in one room and then a second round in a different room. By determining to what extent emotional responses vary by the environment in which testing occurs, we can infer how keenly someone perceives and feels the effects of context. We also make brain measurements: The hippocampus ap­pears to play an especially important role in apprehending context, so we measure hippocampal function and structure with MRI.

To get a sense of where you fall on the Sensitivity to Context spectrum, answer True or False to these questions:

  1. I have been told by someone close to me that I am unusually sensitive to other people’s feelings.

  2. I have occasionally been told that I behaved in a socially inap­propriate way, which surprised me.

  3. I have sometimes suffered a setback at work or had a falling-out with a friend because I was too chummy with a superior or too jovial when a good friend was distraught.

  4. When I speak with people, they sometimes move back to in­crease the distance between us.

  5. I often find myself censoring what I was about to say because I’ve sensed something in the situation that would make it inap­propriate (e.g., before I respond to, “Honey, do these jeans make me look fat?”).

  6. When I am in a public setting like a restaurant, I am especially aware of modulating how loudly I speak.

  7. I have frequently been reminded when in public to avoid men­tioning the names of people who might be around.

  8. I am almost always aware of whether I have been someplace before, even if it is a highway that I last drove many years ago.

  9. I notice when someone is acting in a way that seems out of place, such as behaving too casually at work.

  10. I’ve been told by those close to me that I show good manners with strangers and in new situations.

Give yourself one point for each True answer to questions 1, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10; score one point for each False answer to questions 2, 3, 4, and 7. Score zero for each False answer to 1, 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10, and for each True answer to 2, 3, 4, and 7. If you scored below three, you fall at the Tuned Out end of the spectrum, while a score of eight or above indicates you are very Tuned In to context.

Adapted by arrangement with Hudson Street Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., and Sharon Begley. Copyright 2012 by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., and Sharon Begley.


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson has long been fascinated by differing reactions people have to life's up and downs. He sat out to learn why some people bounce back from a traumatic event while others are devastated for years, why some have a sunny outlook and others are gloomy. Davidson and his co-author Sharon Begley have written a new book titled "The Emotional Life of Your Brain." They join me in the studio and you are welcome to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to both of you.

  • 11:07:48

    DR. RICHARD DAVIDSONGood morning. Wonderful to be here.

  • 11:07:50

    MS. SHARON BEGLEYGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:07:50

    REHMGood to have you both. Dr. Davidson, talk about how science has traditionally looked at the brain and how it functions.

  • 11:08:05

    DAVIDSONWell, with respect to the brain and emotion and how it functions, the dominate paradigm in science has been to study what the brain is displaying during different emotional states. So, for example, during fear, what are the circuits involved in fear? And so non-human animals or humans would be presented with stimuli that provoke fear and changes in the brain that would be associated with that emotion would be observed.

  • 11:08:38

    DAVIDSONAnd the way those experiments work is that the information from different participants would all be averaged together so we would get an indication of the average response of the brain to fear. And what is different about the work that is described in our book "The Emotional Life of Your Brain" is the focus is on the variation across individuals, not on the average response. And so what has always fascinated me is, why is it that some people are more challenged by events in the environment whereas other people are less challenged? And it's those differences among people that are really the stuff of this book.

  • 11:09:23

    REHMWhen you talk about the differences among people, do you believe, for example, that there is one spot in the brain that -- from which emanates anger, for example, or reaction to some form of stimuli that would create anger in a normal brain?

  • 11:09:55

    DAVIDSONAs with most complicated psychological processes, they're not localized in a single spot in the brain but rather they are distributed in a circuit. And so in the book we describe different emotional styles. And each of these styles is located within a circuit but not a single spot, if you will. And a circuit simply means a distributed group of regions that interact together that represent a psychological function.

  • 11:10:31

    REHMSharon Begley, going back to 1872, Darwin wrote a book about the science of the brain. Why has brain research lagged so far behind other kinds of research?

  • 11:10:53

    BEGLEYWell, especially in the realm of emotion, you know, any self respecting scientist who wanted to study the brain was going to go for, you know, thinking and reasoning and judgment and all these things that make us human to, you know, deign to study things like fear as Ritchie mentioned or contentment or jealously or hatred or any of these emotions. I mean, this was just the riff-raff of the brain. So, you know, it really was the stepchild for neuroscience research for many, many years. And Ritchie was one of the few to, you know, stake a claim on these functions of the brain and give it a respectable scientific footing.

  • 11:11:31

    REHMHow did you two team up, Sharon?

  • 11:11:34

    BEGLEYWell, my last book, for which you were kind enough to have me on, Diane, five years ago, was about neuroplasticity. And that's just a fancy word that means the ability of the adult brain to change its structure and function in response to experiences, to the life we lead. And the last chapter of that book talked about Ritchie's research, in particular his work inspired by the Dalai Lama and his work, looking at the effect of meditation on the brain which of course is an avenue into neuroplasticity.

  • 11:12:04

    REHMAnd so meditation becomes one of the issues in this book.

  • 11:12:12

    DAVIDSONIt does. I have been describing what I call neurally inspired behavioral interventions. These are things that we can do that are non-pharmacological, that are based upon what we know about the brain to change or transform our emotional styles.

  • 11:12:34

    REHMGive me an example.

  • 11:12:35

    DAVIDSONWell, meditation is one example. And example from -- that is not from the meditation traditions would be cognitive therapy, for example. This is a strategy for changing the way we think about our beliefs and it -- we now know alters certain circuits in the brain and can be helpful to individuals who are suffering from depression or certain anxiety disorders.

  • 11:13:05

    REHMCertainly a number of people have heard of or know about meditation. But describe cognitive therapy which I have been privileged to undergo. Talk about how it works and why you think it may have an impact here.

  • 11:13:27

    DAVIDSONSure. Cognitive therapy was developed by Aaron Beck, a psychiatrist in Philadelphia. And cognitive therapy primarily involves teaching people to think differently about the causes of their behavior. So if something bad happens, if we're confronted by some adverse event in the environment, rather than attributing that negative thing to ourselves -- let's say we don't get a job promotion that we were expecting. Rather than attributing it to some flaw in ourselves and some consistent attribute of our behavior, we learn to reinterpret it and to adopt a larger perspective.

  • 11:14:18

    DAVIDSONSo instead of thinking that this is due to my inability, we can think of it as due to economic constraints in the organization that we work for, that it really has nothing to do with me particularly. This is happening to lots of people now. And by reframing it in that way, we can decrease the extent to which it interferes with our functioning.

  • 11:14:46

    REHMOf course, changing thinking maybe a first step, changing behavior is quite another step and far more difficult, wouldn't you agree?

  • 11:15:01

    DAVIDSONI would. And so cognitive therapy is often accompanied by specific behavioral exercises which individuals are instructed to engage in to help to consolidate and solidify the changes in their beliefs that may be occurring and to make them consistent with their behavior. But you're absolutely right, changing beliefs and changing behavior are two different and sometimes not synergistic goals.

  • 11:15:34

    REHMRichard Davidson is professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Sharon Begley is senior health and science correspondent for Reuters, author of "Train Your Mind: Change Your Brain," and co-author with Richard Davidson of "The Emotional Life of Your Brain." Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to, join us on Facebook or Twitter. Sharon?

  • 11:16:17

    BEGLEYI just wanted to add that I was glad you brought up cognition and cognitive behavior therapy because one of the real advances from Ritchie's work is to show that the parts of the brain that had long been considered, again you know, the pinnacle of human achievement, namely thinking, cognition, not emotion. But the thinking in cognitive parts of the brain play a crucial role in emotions.

  • 11:16:41

    BEGLEYThey have very busy highways connecting them to what had traditionally been thought of as the emotional regions of the brain. And by locating, at least part of our emotional life, in the cognitive parts of the brain which are the frontal cortex, right behind your forehead, that opens up just fascinating possibilities. For the ability of thought, to act back on emotion, which again gets back to cognitive behavior therapy.

  • 11:17:07

    REHMCan you, as a neuroscientist, actually see these various emotions play out on the screen in a scan of the brain while, say, a person is experiencing anger?

  • 11:17:28

    DAVIDSONWe can. Using modern technology, we can image or visualize in a three dimensional space, the unfolding of activation patterns that transpire through different parts of the brain.

  • 11:17:49

    REHMWhat do you see?

  • 11:17:51

    DAVIDSONWell, what we see is a picture that has the anatomical features of the brain and then superimposed upon that, we can color code patterns of activation that actually reflect blood flow. So these are local changes in the vasculature in the brain.

  • 11:18:15

    REHMAnd they're consistent with that kind of behavior in that person?

  • 11:18:23

    DAVIDSONRight. They would be consistent within a person, yes.

  • 11:18:27

    REHMThat's very, very interesting. And we've got lots of callers waiting. We'll get to you as quickly as we can as we talk about "The Emotional Life of Your Brain."

  • 11:20:04

    REHMWelcome back. Here in the studio Sharon Begley. She's senior health and science correspondent for Reuters and an author in her own right. Her last book was titled "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain," along with Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The two have written a new book titled "The Emotional Life of Your Brain," subtitled "How it's Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live -- and How You Can Change Them." I do hope you'll join us by phone, email, send us a Tweet or join us on Facebook.

  • 11:20:59

    REHMSharon, talk about what you and Richie mean by emotional style.

  • 11:21:07

    BEGLEYEmotional style is the whole concatenation of how you react to what life throws at you. And Richie's work has divided it into six dimensions, as it were. And together these describe how you react to adversity, how long you can maintain an upbeat attitude if something good has happened to you, things like attention, self awareness, which is also an aspect of emotion.

  • 11:21:33

    BEGLEYI mean, just think if you've ever gotten home and, you know, you've had a bad day at the office and you're interacting with your spouse in a negative way and you're carping about every little thing. And your spouse says, you must've had a really bad day. Don't you realize how angry you are? And you had no idea that you are angry and had had a bad day. That is an aspect of self awareness, being attuned to the emotional signals that your body sends you.

  • 11:21:57

    REHMYou also talk about sensitivity to context, Richie.

  • 11:22:02

    DAVIDSONYes, that's one of the six emotional styles. And let me just say that each of these styles was derived from years of neuro-scientific research. They weren't just created to novo but they really were induced from this body of research. What we mean by sensitivity to context is the modulation of one's emotional behavior based upon the context in which one finds oneself. So for example, when you are talking to your spouse or your partner, that would be very different than talking with your boss. And how you behave emotionally in those situations is different.

  • 11:22:45

    DAVIDSONOne of the areas of research that drove our interest in sensitivity to context is actually post traumatic stress disorder. And the reason for that is that when an individual who is subjected to a trauma, a real trauma, has changes in their biology and behavior, those changes are usually very adaptive in the moment of the trauma.

  • 11:23:10

    DAVIDSONBut when an individual then goes back to a safe environment -- and let's take an example of a veteran who comes back to the United States and is walking on a street in his or her neighborhood, a perfectly safe area, and an ambulance goes down the street with the siren going. They may have a panic attack in response to the ambulance because they're not modulating their emotional responses based upon the context. In this case the context is a safe environment in their hometown but the stimulus triggers this panic attack which may have been adaptive in the original traumatic context but is not adaptive when it is in the safe context.

  • 11:24:03

    REHMWhat about the idea of resilience? Did you talk with individuals as well as scan their brains?

  • 11:24:13

    DAVIDSONAbsolutely. Resilience is one of the emotional styles as well and it refers simply to how quickly or slowly you recover from adversity. And there are some individuals who, despite having objective life stress, are able to maintain very high levels of psychological wellbeing. Those are people who we think of as resilient. And it turns out that they recover quickly from adversity when we bring them into the laboratory.

  • 11:24:44

    DAVIDSONI've talked extensively to a number of these people. We're doing a research project now that's funded by the national institute on aging, which is focused on midlife in the United States. And as part of that study, we are examining individuals from 35 to 75 years of age in a diverse sample throughout America. And one of the faux side of this study is resilience and learning how people actually age in an optimal way. And one of the characteristics of resilience we've discovered that's very key, is this capacity to recover quickly from adversity. And that seems to play a very important role in the maintenance of wellbeing in these individuals.

  • 11:25:38

    REHMSharon, you also, in the book, have a questionnaire helping people to identify their own emotional styles. What do you mean by emotional style?

  • 11:25:57

    BEGLEYYes. So there are six questionnaires to help people figure out where they fall along the spectrum for each of the six components of emotional style. So you mentioned resilience, Diane. Again, these are totally amenable to, you know, sort of self insight, as it were. So for resilience you can ask yourself if -- let's say you get to work or school and you put a dollar in the vending machine and it doesn't give you anything. Okay. So you kick it and you perhaps mutter something under your breath. But does it ruin your entire morning? Does it ruin your entire day? Now, that's obviously a trivial example.

  • 11:26:36

    BEGLEYThere are more serious setbacks and people can similarly ask themselves if they have had, you know, Richie's previous example, if you have been disappointed at work, if you have not received the promotion that you felt you deserved. Again, are you able to bounce back from that fairly quickly? Are you able to recover and go on with your life? Or does it really put you in the doldrums for, you know, days, weeks, months or longer and really lead to dysfunction in how you go through your days?

  • 11:27:06

    BEGLEYAnd so again, six questionnaires for six dimensions of emotional style, trying to get people a sense of where they are now. And therefore, you know, whether they want to move themselves along any of the dimensions.

  • 11:27:18

    REHMAnd on our website at, there is a quiz from the book that people can take to find out how sensitive to context you are. And sensitivity to context, as you've heard, is one of the emotional styles identified by Richard Davidson based on his research. We've got lots of callers waiting. I'm going to open the phones, 800-433-8850. First let's go to Joe in St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:28:04

    JOEThank you for taking my call, Diane. Love your show.

  • 11:28:07

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:28:08

    JOEMy question relates to some research. I'm a geriatric physician at St. Louis University. And our collaborator at Sichuan University in China identified a group of elderly, 90 years old and over, and we were able to look at that group before and after the major earthquake in May of 2008. And we identified the mortality rate as being twice as high after as before, not including any trauma-related deaths. It was 7 percent before and 15 percent afterwards during the period.

  • 11:28:48

    JOEMy question for your guests is could you help me a little bit with the science. We have many theories, but what do you think the science behind this very elderly population is related to your resilience?

  • 11:29:01

    REHMGosh, that's an interesting question, Richie.

  • 11:29:04

    DAVIDSONIt is a fascinating question and a really interesting observation. One of the chapters in our book talks about the relation between emotional styles and health and specifically how the circuits in the brain interact with the immune system, the endocrine system and the autonomic nervous system that modulate our physical health. And there's absolutely no question given the excellent research today that emotions play a very important role in aspects of our physical health. And I think we begin to see these relationships even more strongly in older individuals when there are some compromises to their systemic biology at that period.

  • 11:29:48

    DAVIDSONAnd so the fact as you're describing, that following the earthquake, there was an increase in mortality in this way certainly, I think, makes sense in terms of the impact of brain circuits that are involved in anxiety and stress playing a role in impairing the immune system and the endocrine system, which might lead to those consequences.

  • 11:30:18

    REHMSharon, do you want to add to that?

  • 11:30:19

    BEGLEYI just would've said it would've been a wonderful research project to have the brain scans of the elderly people in China before and after the tragic earthquake. Then you might be able to say, okay, people who had this brain style underlying resistance had perhaps a greater chance of surviving in the aftermath of it, whereas those who were less resilient, as Richard just described, the effect of that on the immune system, the cardiovascular system, etcetera caused them to be more likely to die.

  • 11:30:54

    REHMJoe, good luck to you in your project.

  • 11:30:58

    JOEThank you. By the way, we do have blood samples and genetic samples before the earthquake. We never went back afterwards.

  • 11:31:02

    REHMThat's interesting. Yeah. That's very interesting. Thanks for calling. And to, let's see, Cleveland, Ohio. Good morning, Suzanne.

  • 11:31:15

    SUZANNEGood morning. I'm a clinical psychologist and I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy can be very effective in the treatment of things like depression and anxiety.

  • 11:31:29

    SUZANNEThe first thing I find in working with clients with these problems is that while there is a subset of clients who are wholeheartedly willing to work with me in the context of these interventions doing cognitive therapy, engaging in that and in behavioral therapy, there's a large proportion of clients who seem to want to hold on to their negative emotional patterns and their negative emotional states.

  • 11:32:00

    SUZANNEAnd I'm wondering if the researchers might have identified any type of emotional style or cognitive style that goes with wanting to hold on to your negative emotions, that perhaps there's some gain from holding on to depression or anxieties that makes such (unintelligible) like cognitive therapy, behavioral intervention very difficult to help with these types of problems.

  • 11:32:30

    REHMThanks for your call. Richie.

  • 11:32:33

    DAVIDSONWell, I would first say -- it's a really interesting question. I would first say that one of the main thrusts of our book is that one size is unlikely to fit all. And so based on the idea of emotional styles there is no one intervention or one therapeutic strategy which is likely to be beneficial to people across the emotional style dimensions. One of the important challenges for science going forward is to better match an individual's emotional style with her or his optimal therapeutic intervention that may help in actually changing those styles.

  • 11:33:14

    DAVIDSONSo I think that in terms of your specific question regarding holding onto negative thoughts and emotions, I think that here's a case where certain kinds of mindfulness and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy may be particularly helpful. Because one of the important consequences of mindfulness is to enable a person to observe thoughts and decrease the charge, if you will, the emotional charge that those thoughts have. And it's a gradual process. It's not something that will happen magically overnight but I believe it could be helpful.

  • 11:33:58

    REHMAnd Suzanne sounded certainly frustrated with that kind of dark wall she's hitting. Mindfulness of course beginning with Dr. Herbert Benson and his work at Harvard, and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's see, we have here Maureen who's in Boston, Mass. Good morning, to you.

  • 11:34:33

    MAUREENGood morning. I just would like to congratulate Dr. Davidson and Dr. Begley and their colleagues. I just think that this is amazing research. I'm a physician, I'm a pediatrician. I actually trained at another leading group at the UMass Medical Center with Jon Kabot-Zinn and Saki Santorelli and his colleagues.

  • 11:34:53

    MAUREENMy question to you today, because I just find this work so compelling, when we look at the brain now as neuroplastic, which is a word I never learned in medical school 30 years ago, the most compelling group of patients for me -- and obviously I'm a pediatrician -- is how do we impact the very actively developing brain of children, adolescents? We now know that the adult brain is not fully connected. And as a mother of teenagers and 20-year-olds I know that clinically as well. How do we impact in a way, and are you studying children and adolescents, young adults? Because I think this is an area that is very rich with implications for health.

  • 11:35:44

    DAVIDSONIt's a wonderful question. Thank you so much for asking it. As I'm sure you know, the brains of children are more plastic. That is there are sensitive periods earlier in development where the brain is more transformable by experience. And one of the important implications of the work we described in the book is that our brains, wittingly or unwittingly, are constantly being shaped. And we can, in fact, take more responsibility for the more optimal shaping of our brains, particularly the brains of our children.

  • 11:36:17

    DAVIDSONWe are doing a lot of research with kids, starting with preschool kids, where we're actually developing curricula to foster cooperation and kindness in very young children to see if we can set children off on a more positive trajectory and are looking at the affects of those interventions on hard nose measures.

  • 11:36:43

    REHMBut surely those would be more social interventions rather than brain scans or that sort of thing.

  • 11:36:52

    DAVIDSONRight, although we're using brain scans to assess the impact of these interventions.

  • 11:36:55

    REHMAll right. I see.

  • 11:36:57

    DAVIDSONYes. So we're also doing work with kids where we're developing online games, tools that can be used in a SmartPhone app or on a computer that will actually -- that are designed to cultivate better regulation of attention. And also regulation of emotion using strategies that are taken from any place we can get useful ideas, including the meditation traditions as well as western psychology.

  • 11:37:32

    REHMRichard Davidson and Sharon Begley, co-authors of a new book. It's titled "The Emotional Life of Your Brain." Short break, we'll be right back.

  • 11:40:04

    REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, we're talking about a new and fascinating book titled "The Emotional Life of Your Brain." It's coauthored by Richard Davidson. He's professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And Sharon Begley, she is senior health and science correspondent for Reuters, author of "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain." I'm wondering about the socially intuitive brain. Sharon, talk about that.

  • 11:40:48

    BEGLEYSo that is one of the dimensions of emotional style. And it describes basically what the label would suggest. It's the ability to look into someone's eyes, look at their facial expressions, read their body language and intuit what they are feeling. Before the break, Diane, you mentioned Darwin's book looking about the emotions. And from that point on, the idea was raised scientifically that we read people's emotions by reading their faces.

  • 11:41:17

    BEGLEYAnd some of us have a greater ability to do that than others. And autism, for instance, that's one of the capacities that is severely diminished. People who fall along the autism spectrum have a great deal of trouble just looking into the eyes of other people. And if you are not looking into someone else's eyes, you have almost no chance of reading their feelings.

  • 11:41:38

    REHMSo it's not only the eyes, however, it's also the body itself, Richie?

  • 11:41:44

    DAVIDSONYes. It includes the eyes, the rest of the face, the body posture, tone of voice. But what Sharon was referring to is among individuals with autism, they particularly show a propensity to avert their gaze from the eye region of the face. And actually one of the people who Darwin talked a lot about in his book in 1872 was a French anatomist by the name of Duchenne. And Duchenne studied the importance of the eyes for emotional expression. And it turns out that a lot is conveyed right around the eye region of the face. And so if you actually don't look at that region of the face, if you avoid it, you're going to miss a lot of very important information.

  • 11:42:39

    REHMAnd what happens -- and you raise this in your book. What happens with men or women who've had Botox to try to change the look of that face in the eye region, perhaps in the facial region? What happens there?

  • 11:43:03

    DAVIDSONWell, there's a very important theory of emotion that was actually first proposed by William James that says that in part our emotional experience is derived from the perception of bodily changes that are occurring. And a major source of those bodily changes is facial expression, as Darwin and others have commented. And so what Botox does is it temporarily paralyzes facial muscles when it's injected into the face to eliminate wrinkles. And the elimination of wrinkles is by relaxing the muscles to the point where they are actually not contracting.

  • 11:43:43

    DAVIDSONAnd so if we artificially interfere with these facial muscles, we can interfere with the feedback that normally occurs when the face contracts and then provides information to the brain about what is going on emotionally. And this is particularly important for empathy, because in empathy -- what happens in empathy is you experience the emotion of others in part by simulating their facial expression. And if you cannot make their facial expression because it has been interfered with, with Botox, that can actually disrupt our empathic capacity.

  • 11:44:22

    REHMI wonder if it also in some way could affect the individual who's had the Botox because he or she cannot react to the opposing person and whether brain circuitry changes in light of that.

  • 11:44:44

    DAVIDSONWell, I think you're absolutely right, Diane. I think that it would eliminate their ability to contract those muscles in the first place, which would also have very important consequences for the perceiver's ability to pick up on the emotions that individual may be experiencing.

  • 11:45:07

    REHMInteresting. All right. Let's go back to the phones to Deltona, Fla. Good morning, Michael.

  • 11:45:17

    MICHAELGood morning, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.

  • 11:45:19


  • 11:45:19

    MICHAELCan you hear me?

  • 11:45:20

    REHMSure can.

  • 11:45:23

    MICHAELYes. I wanted to ask Dr. Davidson a question in regards to cognitive therapy. One, isn't there a negative effect, you know, from the fear of denial of, you know, possibly individuals, even, you know, of their personal inadequacies? And second, shouldn't it be a priority that the person, you know, their thinking 'cause this is in regards to thinking, that they should be realistic in the situation in which they're faced? You know what I'm saying? And my last comment is great way to raise children, this idea of cognitive therapy. I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.

  • 11:45:53

    REHMAll right. Thanks for calling.

  • 11:45:56

    DAVIDSONYeah, so I didn't -- the very first part I assume was about cognitive therapy. I didn't hear all the details. But I think it is important that we be realistic, as you say, although there's research which indicates that actually one of the problems with patients with depression is that they exhibit what some psychologists have called depressive realism. Most of us go around with a kind of slightly optimistic bias and so we are all a little bit unrealistic in an optimistic sense and that actually can be helpful to us, so it's not always the most adaptive strategy for us to be completely realistic based on these ideas.

  • 11:46:51

    REHMAll right. To Ashland, Ky. and to Mary. Good morning to you.

  • 11:46:58

    MARYGood morning, Diane. My question is what sort of success have you had with cognitive therapy for adults who as adolescents were bullied? They were the victims of bullying when they were young. Now that they're adults, they may or may not have some sort of post traumatic stress. And I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 11:47:19

    REHMMary, before you go, let me just tell you that we are going to do a program tomorrow in the first hour on bullying, so I hope you'll tune in then. I wonder, Richie, whether there has been perhaps not necessarily on bullying, but physical, emotional violence against an individual and how that may be rectified by cognitive therapy, by meditation, something of that sort.

  • 11:47:59

    DAVIDSONYeah, it's a very critical challenge both practically as well as theoretically. We've done some research on kids who've been maltreated and abused in various ways. And there's no question that there are actually differences in their brain structure. That is we can actually see using a structural MRI scan shrinkage of certain regions of the brain in their actual volume. And so this is one of the deleterious consequences of neuroplasticity, if you will. Now, having said that, we don't know to what extent those changes are reversible.

  • 11:48:42

    DAVIDSONThe thrust of the work that is described in our book "The Emotional Life of Your Brain" would indicate that some of those changes indeed are reversible. And -- but we don't know yet what the best strategies are for working with these kinds of people and that's clearly a scientific challenge that needs to be addressed in the future.

  • 11:49:03

    REHMAnd, Sharon, in your book "Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain," you did talk about brain plasticity. How does it work?

  • 11:49:15

    BEGLEYThe brain can respond to sensory information that arrives, so in that case one very cool example is that people who are blind from birth, their visual cortex isn't getting any signals. That's a huge part of the brain. It takes up about one-third of the volume of the brain back in -- in the back of your head. So, you know, to anthropomorphize here, the visual cortex is sitting there realizing, gee, no signals are arriving, I had better switch careers. And then people who have been blind from birth, their visual cortex can start processing sounds. It can start processing tactual sensations, you know, what you feel on your fingertips.

  • 11:49:53

    BEGLEYPeople who read brail, which of course is done through the fingertips, their visual cortex is becoming active. And even cooler, the visual cortex, which is considered a sort of, you know, rudimentary part of the brain, can actually start doing grammar and parsing language. So that's just an amazing example of how a region of the brain that you'd think would be hard wired to do vision and nothing but vision can undergo a significant change and undertake very different functions.

  • 11:50:22

    REHMSo -- but I would think that children's brains are far more plastic than the adult brain.

  • 11:50:32

    BEGLEYYes. And the earlier that you have had, for instance, one of these traumas, not that we wish it on anybody, but, as Richie said, the child brain is much more malleable than the adult brain. But, you know, you always have to put an asterisk there, Diane, because one of the most important components of neuroplasticity is that the brain gives birth to new neurons. You know, we always read about we lose, you know, some percent of our brain every year and, you know, then why bother getting up in the morning.

  • 11:51:01

    BEGLEYBut anyway, it's been shown that people well into their 50s, 60s, 70s, I'm not sure if people have looked later, they are creating new neurons, a process called neurogenesis. And these new neurons fit their way into circuits so you're renewing your brain all the time.

  • 11:51:16

    REHMBut if you stop getting out of bed, if you stop reading, if you stop engaging with other people, what happens?

  • 11:51:28

    BEGLEYDon't do that, no. Keep getting out of bed and even more important, aerobic exercise. You'd think that it would be crossword puzzles and learning, you know, a third language, but in fact it's aerobic exercise that is the best way to stimulate neurogenesis.

  • 11:51:40

    REHMHow do we know that?

  • 11:51:42

    BEGLEYBecause studies have taken people before and after a regimen of aerobic exercise, which is nothing, you know, fancier or harder than mall walking.

  • 11:51:51

    REHMGood walking.

  • 11:51:51

    BEGLEYYes, exactly.

  • 11:51:52


  • 11:51:52

    BEGLEYThis was literally mall walking. And they measured the volume, the gray matter in the brain before and after. And low and behold, it increased. So, again, there are, you know, very interesting theories about the molecular growth factors and everything else that are stimulated by aerobic exercise. But the bottom line is get off your seat and get out there.

  • 11:52:13

    REHMGet out and walk. Have you actually measured or looked at people's brain scans before a walk and after a walk, Richie?

  • 11:52:25

    DAVIDSONWe have not, but there have...

  • 11:52:27

    REHMI think that would be fun.

  • 11:52:29

    DAVIDSONIt would be. It would absolutely be. And, you know, Sharon is pointing out a very important finding in this research literature which clearly does indicate the importance of aerobic exercise. What has not been studies though is the effects of certain of kinds of mental exercises that we can do on neurogenesis, that is the growth new neurons. So while it is absolutely true that physical exercise has this very important beneficial component, we don't know to what extent mental exercise may have a similar component.

  • 11:53:04

    REHMOf course, Dr. Richard Restak has written about the kinds of puzzles and challenges that people can offer themselves mentally. So perhaps putting all of it together we can keep our brains healthier for a long time. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's see. Here's a posting on Facebook, "I would love to hear some tips on how to make some simple day to day changes to improve my outlook or resilience." Sharon.

  • 11:53:46

    BEGLEYSo for both of those Richie's work has shown the circuitry that's involved, so let's just take resilience. We were describing earlier how the thinking part of the brain is very involved in emotion. In this case, resilience reflects the ability of the prefrontal cortex, again, the region that does high order thinking, to quiet down the region of the brain and the emotional part of the brain that gets you upset and angry, et cetera. So the prefrontal cortex is sending signals, be quiet, calm down, don't be so upset.

  • 11:54:17

    BEGLEYSo what you wanna do -- you know, people reading that or hearing that would think, oh, gee, I'm doomed to be not resilient because I don't have these connections or they're not strong enough, they're not numerous enough. But instead what Richie's work implies is that by exercising the prefrontal cortex, again the thinking part of the brain, you will increase the number of connections, you will increase the strength of the connections and therefore the highway, the communication pathway down to the upset part of the brain will be better.

  • 11:54:43

    REHMIt's called practicing discipline, is it not?

  • 11:54:48

    DAVIDSONYes. I think the element of practice is hugely important, Diane, and this really is an insight that is gleaned from both common sense as well as from neuroscience research. The old idea that one can go to a therapist for 45 minutes a week and make changes just flies in the face of everything we understand about the brain. Regular practice is something very important to produce enduring change.

  • 11:55:15

    REHMWell, it's like someone who says, I'm going to go on a diet, and then is presented with a whole range of possible eating delights, but isn't disciplined at the core.

  • 11:55:36

    DAVIDSONDiscipline is something extremely important. And there is research which indicates that the construct of self control which is really about discipline and willpower and relates very strongly to the resilient style that we talk about in the book. This is something that where measures of this quality early in life actually can predict later adult outcome. And it suggests that interventions which can strengthen discipline and strengthen self control early in life have a great deal of promise in terms of improving the trajectory of life outcomes.

  • 11:56:18

    REHMSharon, do you practice meditation?

  • 11:56:22

    BEGLEYI do not. People ask me that with some regularity. And my answer has long been and still is there are just not enough minutes in the day. But when someone makes it safe to meditate on the New York City subway system, then sign me up.

  • 11:56:36

    REHMHow about you, Richie?

  • 11:56:38

    DAVIDSONI do meditate every day.

  • 11:56:41

    REHMHow long?

  • 11:56:42

    DAVIDSONSomewhere between and 30 and 45 minutes.

  • 11:56:45

    REHMDo you believe it has helped to strengthen you and to help you shape your own brain?

  • 11:56:57

    DAVIDSONI do. I think it has really been an important part of my life. I couldn't do what I'm doing without it.

  • 11:57:02

    REHMWell, I think we could talk a lot longer about all this. Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, they are the coauthors of "The Emotional Life of Your Brain." Fascinating work. Wish you best of luck.

  • 11:57:21

    DAVIDSONThank you so much, Diane.

  • 11:57:22

    BEGLEYThanks so much.

  • 11:57:23

    REHMThanks for being here. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.

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