Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Unemotional Life of My Brain

I just finished reading "The Emotional Life of Your Brain", by Richard J. Davidson, with Sharon Begley. He got his PhD from Harvard (he's 6 months younger than me). He has been at University of Wisconsin at Madison since 1984. "He is currently Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, and the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, the final where he serves as Founder and Chair." I read it on the recommendation of my daughter Erica. We may be working on a fun /art project with tagging emotions in various content.

This book is the story of how he lead the development of the science of Affective Neuroscience -- how emotions are created and processed in our brains.

In Chapter 1 he defines Emotional Styles. These are each of our settings for the 6 tuning knobs that he says define our basic affective structure. The 6 dimensions of emotional style are:

  1. Resilience: the speed at which you recover from adversity. Range is from "Fast to Recover" to "Slow to Recover". Oddly, this scale is inverted from the others, low is "good", on the other 5, low is "bad". Brain: prefrontal cortex and amygdala. Prefrontal cortex, conscious control, amygdala, negative emotion.
  2. Outlook: how long you are able to sustain positive emotion. Range is "Negative" to "Positive". Brain: prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens (I believe aka the pleasure center). Left prefrontal cortex for Positive, right for Negative.
  3. Social Intuition: how well you pick up social signals from others. Range is "Puzzled" to "Socially Intuitive". Brain: amygdala and fusiform gyrus. The fusiform gyrus is where we do facial recognition (and recognition of individuals from classes we are expert in). Autistics seem to get this circuit totally overloaded, to where looking in others' eyes spikes terror in their amygdala.
  4. Self-Awareness: how well you detect bodily feelings that reflect emotions. Range is "Self-Opaque" to "Self-Aware". Brain: insula. The main method for testing this was, how well you can detect your own heartbeat???
  5. Sensitivity to Context: regulating your emotions based on appropriateness to current context. Range is "Tuned Out" to "Tuned In". Brain: hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. I had not heard this about the hippocampus before.
  6. Attention: how sharp and clear your focus is. Range is "Unfocused" to "Focused". Brain: phase locking (synchronous firing) in the prefrontal cortex. Tested by looking for "attentional blink" for numbers inserted in series of letters.
He kind of draws a line in the sand that, based on the brain, these are the correct 6 dimensions. I'll pick a bone with that later.

Chapter 2 gives a history of his career and how his theories accreted over the years. There's discussion of how emotion was being largely ignored in neuroscience, with the only real writing on it Darwin's 1872 "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal", blogged here. Initial research mapping brain activity was with EEGs, which of course later moved to fMRI. He also worked with Paul Ekman on using facial muscles to recognize emotional states. That's the real-life guy that the TV show "Lie To Me" was based on. I like that show, check out Ekman's website, it's like the damm show! Yay! In addition to noting that emotional states are tied to various parts of the brain, they also saw large variation between individuals -- hence Emotional Style.

Chapter 3 talks about each dimension, and then for each dimension gives you a 10 question test. We'll discuss my scores later.

Chapter 4 talks about the brain anatomy associated with each dimension, noted in the list above. Surprising to him was that the cortex was so involved, rather than just the limbic system -- the older, central brain parts -- which is traditionally held to be the seat of emotions.

Chapter 5 traces how our Emotional Style develops. Typical mix of nature and nurture. There were earlier studies that said "Born shy, always shy" that his findings overturned -- Emotional Style can change as a child develops. Some discussion of MAOA, "the violence gene", discounted by the same data as Pinker used. Gene methylation to turn off gene activation discussed.

Chapter 6 is "The Mind-Body-Brain Connection, or How Emotional Style Influences Health". Positive Outlook, etc, boost the immune system and otherwise make you healthier. Lower cortisol maybe one of the main mechanisms. Botox in women's brows stops frowning, and they then take longer to read unhappy sentences than happy ones. I think we've seen before, smiling actually does make you happier.

Chapter 7 talks about what happens when you go off of the deep end in Emotional Style dimensions, and maps mental illnesses into these dimensions. Depression, autism, bipolar, and ADHD seem to fit in pretty well, schizophrenia (mind just broken) not so much so?

Chapter 8 is "The Plastic Brain". Over the last few decades, the degree to which the brain is believed to be plastic, regardless of age, keeps being revised ever upwards.

This chapter is where I have a bone to pick. He discusses OCD: overactivity in the orbital frontal cortex and striatum form "the worry circuit". So here's 2 new brain regions we haven't heard of before. And there is a range of behavior associated with them, from "laid back slob" on one end to "obsessive compulsive disorder" on the other end. So why is this not another Emotional Style dimension? Call it "Attention to Detail", or "German-ness" or "Neatness" or whatever?

With Chapter 9 the tone of the book changes. He reveals himself to be a closet Buddhist meditator, going back to his very early days as a psychologist. Plus he's a bud of the Dalai Lama. So they do various tests with various level of experienced and novice meditators, and find out that meditation can indeed change your brain states. So you can use it to adjust the knobs on your Emotional Style, and these will actually change your brain, thanks to the brain's plasticity. This continues into chapter 10.

Finally, chapter 11 presents a cookbook of what type of meditation(s) and other mental exercise can be used to twist the 6 different Emotional Style dimension knobs. A lot of them make sense. In other places it struggles:

"There has been little research on how to strengthen or weaken these connections." (between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex which are the basis of Sensitivity to Context)
Which brings me to my test scores. They were 0,7,6,7,8,9. In contrast, the author's scores were 2,7,7,8,8,9. So my profile is not to dissimilar from his. Most notable is the 0 in Resilience. With reference to our snappy title, "Dad's Blunted Affect" has been a family topic of discussion a time or 3. But the proposed exercise to turn that knob up:
... focus intently on whatever negative emotion or pain you are feeling as a result of a setback. This can help sustain the emotion, at least for a time, and increase activation of your amygdala.
I kind of think I'm going to take a pass on that.

My other high score was 9 in Attention. I'll buy that, I've always felt that excellent powers of concentration were one of my super-powers.

But, following up on the picking of bones. "German-ness" I've already said could be a new ES dimension. What about a dominance to passivity dimension, which I think has strong sociobiological consequences? I would surely think that the brain patterns of someone being an alpha and dominating another person would be quite different from those of the other person. What about an anger to calmness / self-control dimension? What about love and hate?

The blog post that mentioned Darwin above also discussed another book on emotions that I read: "The Cognitive Structure of Emotion" by Ortony, Clore and Collins (1990). That book did not attempt at all to map emotions to the brain. It just attempted to catalog emotions into a logical structure. Here the structure is:

This seems more logical to me, but, at some level, we're talking apples and oranges here.

There was also overlap between this book and the Pinker I recently reviewed. Seems like the ideas need to merge -- need to get the memes breeding!

He did say in the introduction that he stands by his 6 because they all came from experimentation on the brain. But for him to claim that this is the complete list of dimensions of ES, I think he needs to list every region of the brain and show that they are all accounted for. What would he have called the "worry circuit", my "German-ness" dimension, if he'd done that?

But, I do think Davidson's emphasis (shared with his bud the DL) on building healthy compassionate minds is extremely laudable and is based on sound science. I hope his center continues to make progress.

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