Reviewed by Joyce Alexander, RNP (retired)
As many of you who have read my articles and book reviews in the past know, I am fascinated by scientific studies of the brain and how our experiences affect both the anatomy and physiology of our brains. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other life events affect our brains in many ways. In their book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Richard J. Davidson, PhD, with Sharon Begley, reveal more about the power of the human brain.
DNA—the building blocks we get from our parents—except in the case of identical twins, is unique for each of us. Our DNA works by turning on or turning off different genes which we have inherited. For example, in people with the gene for Type II diabetes, the amount of weight they gain will turn on the gene for the “metabolic syndrome” of diabetes and heart disease. If they don’t gain the extra weight as an adult, the gene will not be activated. So our environment, how we eat, sleep, work, and, most importantly according to this book, how we think and our emotions, determine not only our physical health but our emotional health. The good news is, according to Dr. Davidson, we can control this. Let me repeat, we can control this.
Dr. Davidson has spent his entire very successful career, after graduating from Harvard, as a researcher and teacher at several prestigious universities. He taught about neurology of the brain, specifically studying emotions and how they work inside the brain, how our emotions influence our thinking, and vice versa.
Genes are not destiny
He stated, and then goes on to prove with scientific evidence, that “genes are not destiny.” Another analogy he gives is “Genes load the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.”
He gives wonderful examples of studies done proving that stroking and grooming in animal babies that are genetically programmed to be “neglectful” mothers totally overcomes the genetic tendency to be poor mothers, and vice versa.
While research, and in my case, my own family history, shows that there is definitely a genetic portion in psychopathology, this book should give hope to nurturing parents whose children have a psychopathic parent. By nurturing those children from infancy, the genetic tendency may be overcome and their child may grow up to have empathy and a conscience, which are lacking in the psychopaths.
Dr. Davidson has termed his observations of people as “Emotional Style.” His studied infants, and then followed those children through age three, and then again at age nine. Using fMRI and EEGs, he showed that the environmental changes in the children’s lives can definitely change their “emotional styles.” A child who is shy at birth may become very outgoing as a nine year old, and vice versa. Children who suffer the death or serious illness of a parent may go from being very outgoing and resilient, to being shy and anxious.
The six “emotional styles” are Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self-Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention.
- Resilience is our ability to overcome, to recover from an event.
- Our Outlook ranges from negative to positive.
- Social Intuition is our ability to discern a social situation from being puzzled, as someone who was autistic or had Aspergers might be, to someone who was very socially intuitive.
- Self Awareness ranged from being opaque to very self aware.
- Sensitivity to Context ranged from Tuned out to Tuned in.
- Attention was from unfocused to totally focused.
Dr. Davidson also gives a true/false test for each of these emotional styles so that you can rate yourself on the scale and see where you fall. There is no pass/fail on any of these tests. But you can see where you might be on any of the emotional styles and where, if anywhere, you might want to work on yourself.
The tests were interesting to me. I saw just exactly where I knew I was lacking recently in my ability to focus my attention, due to a heavy stress load I am under right now because of my son’s up coming parole hearing.
Mind and body
Though the words he uses to define “Emotional Style” are a bit different from some other researchers I have read, the content of his research bears out what I know from my career and training in nursing. The mind and body are not two separate things; they are one. There is no dichotomy between the two. The Bible says, “as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Dr. Davidson’s research bears this out.
The “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” that Dr. Davidson gives as a way for us to reduce our stress, and to literally change our brain, is nothing new, but he shows how we can use it to heal ourselves. We can grow new attachments in the parts of the brain that focus on happiness and decrease the parts of our brain that are negative.
Dr. Davidson’s research into meditation has shown scientifically that it reduces stress, reduces physical and medical problems in the body.
I highly recommend this book to any LoveFraud reader as one that has some specific ways to help us cope and to recover from trauma, or even PTSD, induced by our tangling with a psychopath. This is not a “pop psychology” book, but one based on good, solid research and evidence about how we can take control of our emotions, our health, both mentally and physically. I had practiced a form of meditation similar to MBSR in years gone by, but stopped doing so. Because of this book, I have gone back to meditation and have found that I am already seeing very positive results in reducing my stress levels.
The Emotional Life of Your Brain is available on Amazon.com.
Guided Mindfulness Meditation Series, is available on Amazon.com.