What I’m Reading: The Emotional Life of Your Brain

In mediation, negotiation, and conflict coaching, you run into a wide range of emotions; well, maybe not so wide. People are typically upset, angry, frustrated, and confused. These are relatively temporary emotions based on the situation in which they find themselves. But we also have, according to Dr. Richard Davidson, author of The Emotional Life of Your Brain, emotional styles that are part of our ingrained personalities. These are not transient, but rather part of who we are.  They can also be modified according to Dr. Davidson.

Davidson, who bases his theory on scientific evidence gathered during extensive research involving use of sophisticated brain scanning equipment to measure changes in brain chemistry and electrical activity during performance of various mental tasks, posits that there are six emotional styles:

  • Resilience.
  • Outlook.
  • Social intuition.
  • Self-awareness.
  • Sensitivity to context.
  • Attention (as in how sharp your ability to focus is).

Each of these styles is governed by an area of the brain. Resilience, for instance, is determined by signals that fire between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Using MRIs and EEGs, researchers can actually “see” these emotions in the brain. We all fall somewhere on the spectrum for each of these styles, and this determines how we feel, think, and act.

It doesn’t have to determine how we feel, think, and act forever, though. To strengthen the areas in which we are weak, Richardson suggests meditation (nope, not mediation). Buddhist monks, for instance, do not follow a dogma; rather, they are trained to examine their innermost selves. They practice, through meditation, recognizing emotions, but not reacting to them.

In one study, a Buddhist monk was exposed to a sudden loud noise. If we are exposed to a firecracker, we’ll react. Our blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, and muscles respond all before our conscious selves do. This monk, however, did not register any of those changes. He could regulate these emotions, right on down to a physical level that could be precisely measured.

Meditation and mediation may be close in spelling, but they are miles apart in reality. I could recommend that we start each session with some mindful breathing and whatnot, but I’m guessing that wouldn’t go over well. Where Richardson’s work does relate to mine is in the importance of understanding emotions and how they can govern our behaviour. If, for instance, I’m dealing with someone who lacks resilience, it might be useful for me to recognize that and give them time to recover from a question or a negative comment. Often conflicts arise precisely because a person has a lack of sensitivity to context, or a poorly developed sense of social intuition that means they keep stepping on toes without realizing it.

Emotions are not just fleeting feelings; if I can become more aware of how emotion breaks down and impacts the mediation process (or conflict coaching, negotiation, etc.), I can try to accommodate for that in a session. For someone who is not sensitive to context, for instance, we can try to make that more clear. They may not be aware how they are contributing to the conflict, and just realizing that can help.

As I become more aware of things like The Emotional Life of Your Brain, the more I see people in conflict who are stuck because of some emotional block. Where is it coming from? How can I use this insight to address the problem and help them find a resolution?

But I also become more aware that there is very little you can do in some situations. We can’t make people mediate when they are not ready or willing to resolve conflict any more than we can make them meditate when they are not open to change.

Good books should make you think, wonder, and try to answer the questions they pose. Dr. Richardson’s intriguing book did just that, making me question how much I can control as a mediator and how much depends on the emotional styles of the participants. Also, I’m thinking of taking up meditation. Recognizing emotion but not reacting is helpful in my line of work.

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