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AWAKENING. THE SCIENCE OF MEDITATION. How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body – Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson.

“To alleviate suffering and promote flourishing by integrating science with contemplative practice.”

An altered trait, a new characteristic that arises from a meditation practice endures, apart from meditation itself. Altered traits shape how we behave in our daily lives, not just during or immediately after we meditate. As meditation trains the mind, it reshapes the brain.

The most compelling impacts of meditation are not better health or sharper business performance but, rather, a further reach toward our better nature. These deep changes are external signs of strikingly different brain function.

Now we can share scientific confirmation of these profound alterations of being, a transformation that dramatically ups the limits on psychological science’s ideas of human possibility. We offer a cleareyed view based on hard science, sifting out results that are not nearly as compelling as the claims made for them.

As with gaining skill in a given sport, finding a meditation practice that appeals to you and sticking with it will have the greatest benefits. Just find one to try, decide on the amount of time each day you can realistically practice daily, even as short as a few minutes, try it for a month, and see how you feel after those thirty days.

More than forty years ago, two friends and collaborators at Harvard, Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson were unusual in arguing for the benefits of meditation. Now, as mindfulness and other brands of meditation become ever more popular, promising to fix everything from our weight to our relationship to our professional career, these two bestselling authors sweep away the misconceptions around these practices and show how smart practice can change our personal traits and even our genome for the better.

Drawing on cutting-edge research, Goleman and Davidson expertly reveal what we can learn from a one-of-a-kind data pool that includes world-class meditators. They share for the first time remarkable findings that show how meditation without drugs or high expense can cultivate qualities such as selflessness, equanimity, love and compassion, and redesign our neural circuitry.

Demonstrating two master thinkers at work, The Science of Meditation explains precisely how mind training benefits us. More than daily doses or sheer hours, we need smart practice, including crucial ingredients such as targeted feedback from a master teacher and a more spacious worldview.

Gripping in its storytelling and based on a lifetime of thought and action, this is one of those rare books that has the power to change us at the deepest level.

Chapter 1

The Deep Path and the Wide

One bright fall morning, Steve Z, a lieutenant colonel working in the Pentagon, heard a “crazy, loud noise,” and instantly was covered in debris as the ceiling caved in, knocking him to the floor, unconscious. It was September 11 , 2001, and a passenger jet had smashed into the huge building, very near to Steve’s office.

The debris that buried Steve saved his life as the plane’s fuselage exploded, a fireball of flames scouring the open office. Despite a concussion, Steve returned to work four days later, laboring through feverish nights, 6:00 pm. to 6:00 am, because those were daytime hours in Afghanistan. Soon after, he volunteered for a year in Iraq.

“I mainly went to Iraq because I couldn’t walk around the Mall without being hypervigilant, wary of how people looked at me, totally on guard,” Steve recalls. “I couldn’t get on an elevator, I felt trapped in my car in traffic.”

His symptoms were classic post-traumatic stress disorder. Then came the day he realized he couldn’t handle this on his own. Steve ended up with a psychotherapist he still sees. She led him, very gently, to try mindfulness.

Mindfulness, he recalls, “gave me something I could do to help feel more calm, less stressed, not be so reactive.” As he practiced more, added loving-kindness to the mix, and went on retreats, his PTSD symptoms gradually became less frequent, less intense. Although his irritability and restlessness still came, he could see them coming.

Tales like Steve’s offer encouraging news about meditation. We have been meditators all our adult lives, and, like Steve, know for ourselves that the practice has countless benefits.

But our scientific backgrounds give us pause, too. Not everything chalked up to meditation’s magic actually stands up to rigorous tests. And so we have set out to make clear what works and what does not.

Some of what you know about meditation may be wrong. But what is true about meditation you may not know.

Take Steve’s story. The tale has been repeated in endless variations by countless others who claim to have found relief in meditation methods like mindfulness, not just from PTSD but from virtually the entire range of emotional disorders.

Yet mindfulness, part of an ancient meditation tradition, was not intended to be such a cure; this method was only recently adapted as a balm for our modern forms of angst. The original aim, embraced in some circles to this day, focuses on a deep exploration of the mind toward a profound alteration of our very being.

On the other hand, the pragmatic applications of meditation, like the mindfulness that helped Steve recover from trauma, appeal widely but do not go so deep. Because this wide approach has easy access, multitudes have found a way to include at least a bit of meditation in their day.

There are, then, two paths: the deep and the wide. Those two paths are often confused with each other, though they differ greatly.

We see the deep path embodied at two levels: in a pure form, for example, in the ancient lineages of Theravada Buddhism as practiced in Southeast Asia, or among Tibetan yogis (for whom we’ll see some remarkable data in chapter eleven, “A Yogi’s Brain”). We’ll call this most intensive type of practice Level 1.

At Level 2, these traditions have been removed from being part of a total lifester-monk or yogi, for example, and adapted into forms more palatable for the West. At Level 2, meditation comes in forms that leave behind parts of the original Asian source that might not make the cross-cultural journey so easily.

Then there are the wide approaches. At Level 3, a further remove takes these same meditation practices out of their spiritual context and distributes them ever more wider, as is the case with mindfulness-based stress reduction (better known as MBSR), founded by our good friend Jon Kabat-Zinn and taught now in thousands of clinics and medical centers, and far beyond. Or Transcendental Meditation (TM), which offers classic Sanskrit mantras to the modern world in a user-friendly format.

The even more widely accessible forms of meditation at Level 4 are, of necessity, the most watered-down, all the better to render them handy for the largest number of people. The current vogues of mindfulness-at-your-desk, or via minutes-long meditation apps, exemplify this level.

We foresee also a Level 5, one that exists now only in bits and pieces, but which may well increase in number and reach with time. At Level 5, the lessons scientists have learned in studying all the other levels will lead to innovations and adaptations that can be of widest benefit, a potential we explore in the final chapter, “A Healthy Mind.”

The deep transformations of Level 1 fascinated us when we originally encountered meditation. Dan studied ancient texts and practiced the methods they describe, particularly during the two years he lived in India and Sri Lanka in his grad school days and just afterward. Richie (as everyone calls him) followed Dan to Asia for a lengthy visit, likewise practicing on retreat there, meeting with meditation scholars, and more recently has scanned the brains of Olympic-level meditators in his lab at the University of Wisconsin.

Our own meditation practice has been mainly at Level 2. But from the start, the wide path, Levels 3 and 4, has also been important to us. Our Asian teachers said if any aspect of meditation could help alleviate suffering, it should be offered to all, not just those on a spiritual search. Our doctoral dissertations applied that advice by studying ways meditation could have cognitive and emotional payoffs.

The story we tell here mirrors our own personal and professional journey. We have been close friends and collaborators on the science of meditation since the 1970s, when we met at Harvard during graduate school, and we have both been practitioners of this inner art over all these years (although we are nowhere near mastery).

While we were both trained as psychologists, we bring complementary skills to telling this story. Dan is a seasoned science journalist who wrote for the New York Times for more than a decade. Richie, a neuroscientist, founded and heads the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Healthy Minds, in addition to directing the brain imaging laboratory at the Waisman Center there, replete with its own fMRl, PET scanner, and a battery of cuttingedge data analysis programs, along with hundreds of servers for the heavy-duty computing required for this work. His research group numbers more than a hundred experts, who range from physicists, statisticians, and computer scientists to neuroscientists and psychologists, as well as scholars of meditative traditions.

Coauthoring a book can be awkward. We’ve had some of that, to be sure, but whatever drawbacks coauthorship brought us has been vastly overshadowed by the sheer delight we find in working together. We’ve been best friends for decades but labored separately over most of our careers. This book has brought us together again, always a joy.

You are holding the book we had always wanted to write but could not. The science and the data we needed to support our ideas have only recently matured. Now that both have reached a critical mass, we are delighted to share this.

Our joy also comes from our sense of a shared, meaningful mission: we aim to shift the conversation with a radical reinterpretation of what the actual benefits of meditation are, and are not, and what the true aim of practice has always been.

THE DEEP PATH

After his return from India in the fall of 1974, Richie was in a seminar on psychopathology back at Harvard. Richie, with long hair and attire in keeping with the zeitgeist of Cambridge in those times, including a colorful woven sash that he wore as a belt, was startled when his professor said, “One clue to schizophrenia is the bizarre way a person dresses,” giving Richie a meaningful glance.

And when Richie told one of his Harvard professors that he wanted to focus his dissertation on meditation, the blunt response came immediately: that would be a career-ending move.

Dan set out to research the impacts of meditation that uses a mantra. On hearing this, one of his clinical psychology professors asked with suspicion, “How is a mantra any different from my obsessive patients who can’t stop saying ‘shit-shit-shit’?” The explanation that the expletives are involuntary in the psychopathology, while the silent mantra repetition is a voluntary and intentional focusing device, did little to placate him.

These reactions were typical of the opposition we faced from our department heads, who were still responding with knee-jerk negativity toward anything to do with consciousness, perhaps a mild form of PTSD after the notorious debacle involving Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. Leary and Alpert had been very publicly ousted from our department in a brouhaha over letting Harvard undergrads experiment with psychedelics. This was some five years before we arrived, but the echoes lingered.

Despite our academic mentors’ seeing our meditation research as a blind alley, our hearts told us this was of compelling import. We had a big idea: beyond the pleasant states meditation can produce, the real payoffs are the lasting traits that can result.

An altered trait, a new characteristic that arises from a meditation practice endure, apart from meditation itself. Altered traits shape how we behave in our daily lives, not just during or immediately after we meditate.

The concept of altered traits has been a lifelong pursuit, each of us playing synergistic roles in the unfolding of this story. There were Dan’s years in India as an early participant-observer in the Asian roots of these mindaltering methods. And on Dan’s return to America he was a not-so-successful transmitter to contemporary psychology of beneficial changes from meditation and the ancient working models for achieving them.

Richie’s own experiences with meditation led to decades pursuing the science that supports our theory of altered traits. His research group has now generated the data that lend credence to what could otherwise seem mere fanciful tales. And by leading the creation of a fledgling research field, contemplative neuroscience, he has been grooming a coming generation of scientists whose work builds on and adds to this evidence.

In the wake of the tsunami of excitement over the wide path, the alternate route so often gets missed: that is, the deep path, which has always been the true goal of meditation. As we see it, the most compelling impacts of meditation are not better health or sharper business performance but, rather, a further reach toward our better nature.

A stream of findings from the deep path markedly boosts science’s models of the upper limits of our positive potential. The further reaches of the deep path cultivate enduring qualities like selflessness, equanimity a loving presence, and impartial compassion, highly positive altered traits.

When we began, this seemed big news for modern psychology, if it would listen. Admittedly, at first the concept of altered traits had scant backing save for the gut feelings we had from meeting highly seasoned practitioners in Asia, the claims of ancient meditation texts, and our own fledgling tries at this inner art. Now, after decades of silence and disregard, the last few years have seen ample findings that bear out our early hunch. Only of late have the scientific data reached critical mass, confirming what our intuition and the texts told us: these deep changes are external signs of strikingly different brain function.

Much of that data comes from Richie’s lab, the only scientific center that has gathered findings on dozens of contemplative masters, mainly Tibetan yogis, the largest pool of deep practitioners studied anywhere.

These unlikely research partners have been crucial in building a scientific case for the existence of a way of being that has eluded modern thought, though it was hiding in plain sight as a goal of the world’s major spiritual traditions. Now we can share scientific confirmation of these profound alterations of being, a transformation that dramatically ups the limits on psychological science’s ideas of human possibility.

The very idea of “awakening”, the goal of the deep path, seems a quaint fairy tale to a modern sensibility. Yet data from Richie’s lab, some just being published in journals as this book goes to press, confirm that remarkable, positive alterations in brain and behavior along the lines of those long described for the deep path are not a myth but a reality.

THE WIDE PATH

We have both been longtime board members of the Mind and Life Institute, formed initially to create intensive dialogues between the Dalai Lama and scientists on wide-ranging topics. In 2000 we organized one on “destructive emotions,” with several top experts on emotions, including Richie. Midway through that dialogue the Dalai Lama, turning to Richie, made a provocative challenge.

His own tradition, the Dalai Lama observed, had a wide array of time-tested practices for taming destructive emotions. So, he urged, take these methods into the laboratory in forms freed from religious trappings, test them rigorously, and if they can help people lessen their destructive emotions, then spread them widely to all who might benefit.

That fired us up. Over dinner that night, and several nights following, we began to plot the general course of the research we report in this book.

The Dalai Lama’s challenge led Richie to refocus the formidable power of his lab to assess both the deep and the wide paths. And, as founding director of the Center for Healthy Minds, Richie has spurred work on useful, evidence-based applications suitable for schools, clinics, businesses, even for cops, for anyone, anywhere, ranging from a kindness program for preschoolers to treatments for veterans with PTSD.

The Dalai Lama’s urging catalyzed studies that support the wide path in scientific terms, a vernacular welcomed around the globe. Meanwhile the wide way has gone viral, becoming the stuff of blogs, tweets, and snappy apps. For instance, as we write this, a wave of enthusiasm surrounds mindfulness, and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, now practice the method.

But viewing mindfulness (or any variety of meditation) through a scientific lens starts with questions like: When does it work, and when does it not? Will this method help everyone? Are its benefits any different from, say, exercise? These are among the questions that brought us to write this book.

Meditation is a catch-all word for myriad varieties of contemplative practice, just as sports refers to a wide range of athletic activities. For both sports and meditation, the end results vary depending on what you actually do.

Some practical advice: for those about to start a meditation practice, or who have been grazing among several, keep in mind that as with gaining skill in a given sport, finding a meditation practice that appeals to you and sticking with it will have the greatest benefits. Just find one to try, decide on the amount of time each day you can realistically practice daily, even as short as a few minutes, try it for a month, and see how you feel after those thirty days.

Just as regular workouts give you better physical fitness, most any type of meditation will enhance mental fitness to some degree. As we’ll see, the specific benefits from one or another type get stronger the more total hours of practice you put in.

A CAUTIONARY TALE

Swami X, as we’ll call him, was at the tip of the wave of meditation teachers from Asia who swarmed to America in the mid-1970s, during our Harvard days. The swami reached out to us saying he was eager to have his yogic prowess studied by scientists at Harvard who could confirm his remarkable abilities.

It was the height of excitement about a then new technology, biofeedback, which fed people instant information about their physiology, blood pressure, for instance, which otherwise was beyond their conscious control. With that new incoming signal, people were able to nudge their body’s operations in healthier directions. Swami X claimed he had such control without the need for feedback.

Happy to stumble on a seemingly accomplished subject for research, we were able to finagle the use of a physiology lab at Harvard Medical School’s Massachusetts Mental Health Center.

But come the day of testing the swami’s prowess, when we asked him to lower his blood pressure, he raised it. When asked to raise it, he lowered it. And when we told him this, the swami berated us for serving him “toxic tea” that supposedly sabotaged his gifts.

Our physiological tracings revealed he could do none of the mental feats he had boasted about. He did, however, manage to put his heart into atrial fibrillation, a high-risk biotalent, with a method he called “dog samadhi,” a name that mystifies us to this day.

From time to time the swami disappeared into the men’s room to smoke a bidi (these cheap cigarettes, a few flakes of tobacco wrapped in a plant leaf, are popular throughout India). A telegram from friends in India soon after revealed that the “swami” was actually the former manager of a shoe factory who had abandoned his wife and two children and come to America to make his fortune.

No doubt Swami X was seeking a marketing edge to attract disciples. In his subsequent appearances he made sure to mention that “scientists at Harvard” had studied his meditative prowess. This was an early harbinger of what has become a bountiful harvest of data refried into sales hype.

With such cautionary incidents in mind, we bring open but skeptical minds, the scientist’s mind-set, to the current wave of meditation research. For the most part we view with satisfaction the rise of the mindfulness movement and its rapidly growing reach in schools, business, and our private lives, the wide approach. But we bemoan how the data all too often is distorted or exaggerated when science gets used as a sales hook.

The mix of meditation and monetizing has a sorry track record as a recipe for hucksterism, disappointment, even scandal. All too often, gross misrepresentations, questionable claims, or distortions of scientific studies are used to sell meditation. A business website, for instance, features a blog post called “How Mindfulness Fixes Your Brain, Reduces Stress, and Boosts Performance.” Are these claims justified by solid scientific findings? Yes and no, though the “no” too easily gets overlooked.

Among the iffy findings gone viral with enthusiastic claims: that meditation thickens the brain’s executive center, the prefrontal cortex, while shrinking the amygdala, the trigger for our freeze-fight-or-flight response; that meditation shifts our brain’s set point for emotions into a more positive range; that meditation slows aging; and that meditation can be used to treat diseases ranging from diabetes to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

On closer look, each of the studies on which these claims are based has problems with the methods used; they need more testing and corroboration to make firm claims. Such findings may well stand up to further scrutiny, or maybe not.

The research reporting amygdala shrinkage, for instance, used a method to estimate amygdala volume that may not be very accurate. And one widely cited study describing slower aging used a very complex treatment that included some meditation but was mixed with a special diet and intensive exercise as well; the impact of meditation per se was impossible to decipher.

Still, social media are rife with such claims, and hyperbolic ad copy can be enticing. So we offer a cleareyed view based on hard science, sifting out results that are not nearly as compelling as the claims made for them.

Even well-meaning proponents have little guidance in distinguishing between what’s sound and what’s questionable, or just sheer nonsense. Given the rising tide of enthusiasm, our more sober-minded take comes not a moment too soon.

A note to readers.

The first three chapters cover our initial forays into meditation, and the scientific hunch that motivated our quest.

Chapters four through twelve narrate the scientific journey, with each chapter devoted to a particular topic like attention or compassion; each of these has an “In a Nutshell” summary at the end for those who are more interested in what we found than how we got there.

In chapters eleven and twelve we arrive at our long-sought destination, sharing the remarkable findings on the most advanced meditators ever studied.

In chapter thirteen, “Altering Traits,” we lay out the benefits of meditation at three levels: beginner, longterm, and “Olympic.”

In our final chapter we speculate on what the future might bring, and how these findings might be of greater benefit not just to each of us individually but to society.

THE ACCELERATION

As early as the 1830s, Thoreau and Emerson, along with their fellow American Transcendentalists, flirted with these Eastern inner arts. They were spurred by the first English-language translations of ancient spiritual texts from Asia, but had no instruction in the practices that supported those texts. Almost a century later, Sigmund Freud advised psychoanalysts to adopt an “even-hovering attention” while listening to their clients, but again, offered no method.

The West’s more serious engagement took hold mere decades ago, as teachers from the East arrived, and as a generation of Westerners traveled to study meditation in Asia, some returning as teachers. These forays paved the way for the current acceleration of the wide path, along with fresh possibilities for those few who choose to pursue the deep way.

In the 1970s, when we began publishing our research on meditation, there were just a handful of scientific articles on the topic. At last count there numbered 6,838 such articles, with a notable acceleration of late. For 2014 the annual number was 925, in 2015 the total was 1,098, and in 2016 there were 1,113 such publications in the English language scientific literature.

PRIMING THE FIELD

It was April 2001, on the top floor of the Fluno Center on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and we were convening with the Dalai Lama for an afternoon of scientific dialogue on meditation research findings. Missing from the room was Francisco Varela, a Chilean-born neuroscientist and head of a cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. His remarkable career included cofounding the Mind and Life Institute, which had organized this very gathering.

As a serious meditation practitioner, Francisco could see the promise for a full collaboration between seasoned meditators and the scientists studying them. That model became standard practice in Richie’s lab, as well as others.

Francisco had been scheduled to participate, but he was fighting liver cancer and a severe downturn meant he could not travel. He was in his bed at home in Paris, close to dying.

This was in the days before Skype and videoconferencing, but Richie’s group managed a two-way video hookup between our meeting room and Francisco’s bedroom in his Paris apartment. The Dalai Lama addressed him very directly, looking closely into the camera. They both knew that this would be the very last time they would see each other in this lifetime.

The Dalai Lama thanked Francisco for all he had done for science and for the greater good, told him to be strong, and said that they would remain connected forever. Richie and many others in the room had tears streaming down, appreciating the momentous import of the moment. Just days after the meeting, Francisco passed away.

Three years later, in 2004, an event occurred that made real a dream Francisco had often talked about. At the Garrison Institute, an hour up the Hudson River from New York City, one hundred scientists, graduate students, and postdocs had gathered for the first in what has become a yearly series of events, the Summer Research Institute (SRI), a gathering devoted to furthering the rigorous study of meditation.

The meetings are organized by the Mind and Life Institute, itself formed in 1987 by the Dalai Lama, Francisco, and Adam Engle, a lawyer turned businessman. We were founding board members. The mission of Mind and Life is “to alleviate suffering and promote flourishing by integrating science with contemplative practice.”

Mind and Life’s summer institute, we felt, could offer a more welcoming reality for those who, like us in our grad school days, wanted to do research on meditation. While we had been isolated pioneers, we wanted to knit together a community of like-minded scholars and scientists who shared this quest. They could be supportive of each other’s work at a distance, even if they were alone in their interests at their own institution.

Details of the SRI were hatched over the kitchen table in Richie’s home in Madison, in a conversation with Adam Engle, Richie and a handful of scientists and scholars then organized the first summer program and served as faculty for the week, featuring topics like the cognitive neuroscience of attention and mental imagery. As of this writing, thirteen more meetings have followed (with two so far in Europe, and possibly future meetings in Asia and South America).

Beginning with the very first SRI, the Mind and Life Institute began a program of small grants named in honor of Francisco. These few dozen, very modest Varela research awards (up to $25,000, though most research of this kind takes far more in funding) have leveraged more than $60 million in follow-on funding from foundations and US federal granting agencies. And the initiative has borne plentiful fruit: fifty or so graduates of the SRI have published several hundred papers on meditation.

As these young scientists entered academic posts, they swelled the numbers of researchers doing such studies. They have driven in no small part the ever-growing numbers of scientific studies on meditation.

At the same time, more established scientists have shifted their focus toward this area as results showed valuable yield. The findings rolling out of Richie’s brain lab at the University of Wisconsin, and labs of other scientists, from the medical schools of Stanford and Emory, Yale and Harvard, and far beyond, routinely make headlines.

Given meditation’s booming popularity, we feel a need for a hard-nosed look. The neural and biological benefits best documented by sound science are not necessarily the ones we hear about in the press, on Facebook, or from email marketing blasts. And some of those trumpeted far and wide have little scientific merit.

Many reports boil down to the ways a short daily dose of meditation alters our biology and emotional life for the better. This news, gone viral, has drawn miliions worldwide to find a slot in their daily routine for meditation.

But there are far greater possibilities, and some perils. The moment has come to tell the bigger tale, the headlines are missing.

There are several threads in the tapestry we weave here. One can be seen in the story of our decades-long friendship and our shared sense of a greater purpose, at first a distant and unlikely goal but one in which we persisted despite obstacles. Another traces the emergence of neuroscience’s evidence that our experiences shape our brains, a platform supporting our theory that as meditation trains the mind, it reshapes the brain. Then there’s the flood of data we’ve mined to show the gradient of this change.

At the outset, mere minutes a day of practice have surprising benefits (though not all those that are claimed). Beyond such payoffs at the beginning, we can now show that the more hours you practice, the greater the benefits you reap. And at the highest levels of practice we find true altered traits, changes in the brain that science has never observed before, but which we proposed decades ago.

Chapter 2

Ancient Clues

Our story starts one early November morning in 1970, when the spire of the stupa in Bodh Gaya was lost to view, enveloped in the ethereal mist rising from the Niranjan River nearby. Next to the stupa stood a descendant of the very Bodhi Tree under which, legend has it, Buddha sat in meditation as he became enlightened.

Through the mist that morning, Dan glimpsed an elderly Tibetan monk amble by as he made his postdawn rounds, circumambulating the holy site. With shortcropped gray hair and eyeglasses as thick as the bottoms of Coke bottles, he fingered his mala beads while mumbling softly a mantra praising the Buddha as a sage, or muni in Sanskrit: “Muni, muni, mahamuni, mahamuniya swaha!”

A few days later, friends happened to bring Dan to visit that very monk, Khunu Lama. He inhabited a sparse, unheated cell, its concrete walls radiating the late-fall chill. A wooden-plank tucket served as both bed and day couch, with a small stand alongside for perching texts to read, and little else. As befits a monk, the room was empty of any private belongings.

From the early-morning hours until late into the night, Khunu Lama would sit on that bed, a text always open in front of him. Whenever a visitor would pop in, and in the Tibetan world that could be at just about any time, he would invariably welcome them with a kindly gaze and warm words.

Khunu’s qualities, a loving attention to whoever came to see him, an ease of being, and a gentle presence, struck Dan as quite unlike, and far more positive than, the personality traits he had been studying for his degree in clinical psychology at Harvard. That training focused on negatives: neurotic patterns, overpowering burdensome feelings, and outright psychopathology.

Khunu, on the other hand, quietly exuded the better side of human nature. His humility, for instance, was fabled. The story goes that the abbot of the monastery, in recognition of Khunu’s spiritual status, offered him as living quarters a suite of rooms on the monastery’s top floor, with a monk to serve as an attendant. Khunu declined, preferring the simplicity of his small, bare monk’s cell.

Khunu Lama was one of those rare masters revered by all schools of Tibetan practice. Even the Dalai Lama sought him out for teachings, receiving instructions on Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara, a guide to the compassion-filled life of a bodhisattva. To this day, whenever the Dalai Lama teaches this text, one of his favorites, he credits Khunu as his mentor on the topic.

Before meeting Khunu Lama, Dan had spent months with an Indian yogi, Neem Karoli Baba, who had drawn him to India in the first place. Neem Karoli, known by the honorific Maharaji, was newly famous in the West as the guru of Ram Dass, who in those years toured the country with mesmerizing accounts of his transformation from Richard Alpert (the Harvard professor fired for experimenting with psychedelics, along with his colleague Timothy Leary) to a devotee of this old yogi. By accident, during Christmas break from his Harvard classes in 1968, Dan met Ram Dass, who had just returned from being with Neem Karoli in India, and that encounter eventually propelled Dan’s journey to India.

Dan managed to get a Harvard Predoctoral Traveling Fellowship to India in fall 1970, and located Neem Karoli Baba at a small ashram in the Himalayan foothills. Living the life of a sadhu, Maharaji’s only worldly possessions seemed to be the white cotton dhoti he wore on hot days and the heavy woolen plaid blanket he wrapped around himself on cold ones. He kept no particular schedule, had no organization, nor offered any fixed program of yogic poses or meditations. Like most sadhus, he was itinerant, unpredictably on the move. He mainly hung out on a tucket on the porch of whatever ashram, temple, or home he was visiting at the time.

Maharaji seemed always to be absorbed in some state of ongoing quiet rapture, and, paradoxically, at the same time was attentive to whoever was with him. What struck Dan was how utterly at peace and how kind Maharaji was. Like Khunu, he took an equal interest in everyone who came, and his visitors ranged from the highest-ranking government officials to beggars.

There was something about his ineffable state of mind that Dan had never sensed in anyone before meeting Maharaji. No matter what he was doing, he seemed to remain effortlessly in a blissful, loving space, perpetually at ease. Whatever state Maharaji was in seemed not some temporary oasis in the mind, but a lasting way of being: a trait of utter wellness.

BEYOND THE PARADIGM

After two months or so making daily visits to Maharaji at the ashram, Dan and his friend Jeff (now widely known as the devotional singer Krishna Das) went traveling with another Westerner who was desperate to renew his visa after spending seven years in India living as a sadhu. That journey ended for Dan at Bodh Gaya, where he was soon to meet Khunu Lama.

Bodh Gaya, in the North Indian state Bihar, is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists the world over, and most every Buddhist country has a building in the town where its pilgrims can stay. The Burmese vihara, or pilgrim’s rest house, had been built before the takeover by a military dictatorship that forbade Burma’s citizens to travel. The vihara had lots of rooms but few pilgrims, and soon became an overnight stop for the ragged band of roaming Westerners who wandered through town.

When Dan arrived there in November 1970, he met the sole long-term American resident, Joseph Goldstein, a former Peace Corps worker in Thailand. Joseph had spent more than four years studying at the vihara with Anagarika Munindra, a meditation master. Munindra, of slight build and always clad in white, belonged to the Barua caste in Bengal, whose members had been Buddhist since the time of Gautama himself.

Munindra had studied vipassana (the Theravadan meditation and root source of many now-popular forms of mindfulness) under Burmese masters of great repute. Munindra, who became Dan’s first instructor in the method, had just invited his friend S. N. Goenka, a jovial, paunchy former businessman recently turned meditation teacher, to come to the vihara to lead a series of ten-day retreats.

Goenka had become a meditation teacher in a tradition established by Ledi Sayadaw, a Burmese monk who, as part of a cultural renaissance in the early twentieth century meant to counter British colonial influence, revolutionized meditation by making it widely available to laypeople. While meditation in that culture had for centuries been the exclusive provenance of monks and nuns, Goenka learned vipassana from U Ba Khin (U is an honorific in Burmese), at one time Burma’s accountant general, who had been taught the method by a farmer, who was in turn taught by Ledi Sayadaw.

Dan took five of Goenka’s ten-day courses in a row, immersing himself in this rich meditation method. He was joined by about a hundred fellow travelers. This gathering in the winter of 1970-71 was a seminal moment in the transfer of mindfulness from an esoteric practice in Asian countries to its current widespread adoption around the world. A handful of the students there, with Joseph Goldstein leading the way, later became instrumental in bringing mindfulness to the West.

Starting in his college years Dan had developed a twice-daily habit of twenty-minute meditation sessions, but this immersion in ten days of continual practice brought him to new levels. Goenka’s method started with simply noting the sensations of breathing in and out, not for just twenty minutes but for hours and hours a day. This cultivation of concentration then morphed into a systematic whole-body scan of whatever sensations were occurring anywhere in the body. What had been “my body, my knee” becomes a sea of shifting sensation, a radical shift in awareness.

. . .

from

The Science of Meditation. How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body

by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson

get it at Amazon.com

DARK NIGHTS OF THE SOUL. Kidnapped by Depression – Dale M. Kushner * The Emotional Life of Your Brain – Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. and Sharon Begley.

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are. Emotions, far from being the neurological fluff that mainstream science once believed them to be, are central to the functions of the brain and to the life of the mind.”

Why and how do people differ so widely in their emotional responses to the ups and the downs of life? How myths and neuroscience can illuminate the darkness of depression.

Imagine a black sack thrown over your head. Imagine your arms and legs bound, your body injected with a drug that wipes out thoughts, flattens feelings, and numbs senses. This is depression.

Depression is called the dark night of the soul for good reason. Depression leads us into the night world, a world of shadows, emptiness, and blurry vision. You feel lost, lonely and alone, mired in the quicksand of sadness, vulnerable to thoughts of failure and unworthiness.

During depression, we yearn for a lost part of ourselves, for it seems that our spirited aliveness has deserted us, our appetite for living kidnapped and dragged down into the house of death.

Depression may feel as if parts of us have died, and yet is it possible depression opens us to another level of deep experience, one that matures us and brings new wisdom?

We are more than our genetic predisposition and our biochemistry; we are conscious creatures capable of discovering light in the darkness.

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are,” says a Talmudic expression. Through the lens of depression, the world is saturated with gloom.

One way to understand the lived experience of depression is to see it acted out symbolically in story form. Myths and fairytales show us the collective (and archetypal) universal patterns of the human psyche. I may have “my depression” and you, “yours,” but throughout the ages, worldwide, depression has plagued the human race.

The Rape of Proserpina (1621-22), white marble sculpture, by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680).
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One of the Greek Homeric hymns, the “Hymn to Demeter,” gives an early and vivid picture of depression. It tells the story of Persephone, Demeter and Zeus’s daughter, whom Hades, god of the underworld and brother of Zeus, falls in love with. When Hades asks Zeus’ leave to marry her, Zeus knows Demeter would never agree and says he will neither give nor withhold his consent. So, one day, while Persephone is gathering flowers in a meadow, the ground splits open and Hades springs forth and abducts her, dragging her down into his kingdom against her will. The unwilling bride screams to Zeus, her father, to save her, but he ignores her pleas. Demeter, a goddess herself, hears her daughter’s cries and also begs Zeus for aid, but he refuses to intervene.

Separated from her daughter, Demeter rages at the gods for allowing Persephone’s capture and rape. Her grief is “terrible and savage.” Disguised as an old woman, she roams the earth, neither eating, drinking, nor bathing while she searches for her child. During her time of mourning, the earth lies fallow.

“Then she caused a most dreadful and cruel year for mankind over the all-nourishing earth: the ground would not make the seed sprout, for rich-crowned Demeter kept it hid. In the fields the oxen drew many a curved plough in vain, and much white barley was cast upon the land without avail. So she would have destroyed the whole race of man with cruel famine.” “Hymn to Demeter,” translated from Greek by Hugh G. Evelyn-White.

Ceres Begging for Jupiter’s Help after the Kidnapping of Her Daughter Proserpine (1777) by Antoine-Frangois Callet (1741-1823).
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As Demeter pines for her daughter, so too, during depression, do we yearn for a lost part of ourselves, for it seems that our spirited aliveness has deserted us, our appetite for living kidnapped and dragged down into the house of death. With our instincts blunted, we sink into darkness, and experience the desolation of barren landscape. Like the grieving Demeter, our enthusiasm lost, our life-giving energy depleted, we fall into despair.

This feeling of isolation is a signature of depression and runs deep in those who try to articulate their condition and reach out for help.

As the story continues, Zeus’s mounting fear that if he does not reunite mother and daughter nothing will ever grow again on the land finally propels his intervention. He orders Hermes, messenger of the gods, into the underworld to bring Persephone back. Hades is surprisingly gracious in agreeing to her return. Inconsolable during her stay in the underworld, Persephone has yet to eat anything. Before she leaves, Hades urges her to eat at least three pomegranate seeds. Distracted by her joy at leaving, Persephone does so – and thereby consigns herself to return to Hades for three months every year. Had she not eaten the fruit of the underworld, she would have been able to stay with her mother forever.

When we enter the space of depression, it seems we will never “get out,” but as the myth reveals, nature is cyclic. The myth of Demeter and Persephone originates in ancient fertility cults and women’s mysteries, and is associated with harvest and the annual vegetation cycles. Symbolically, for a quarter of the year, while Persephone is in the underworld, lifeless winter prevails. When she returns to earth, spring advances, a time of rebirth.

But depressive cycles are not nearly as predictable as the seasons, and yet we might consider our time in the underworld as periods of incubation. While winter’s colorless landscape may suggest death, beneath the ground roots, seeds, and bulbs are dormant, not dead. They are busy with the business of storing nutrients for the coming season.

The Return of Persephone (1891), oil on canvas, by Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) shows Hermes returning Persephone to Demeter.
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For plants, winter’s stillness is necessary before spring’s renewal. Depression, too, can be viewed as a time of going inward and down into the depths, and can be a generative and creative interlude during which the psyche renews itself in the slower rhythms of dark days. Many artists attest to depressive episodes that prefigure a creative breakthrough. An astonishing number of famous artists, writers, and statesmen as diverse as Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Winston Churchill, Hans Christian Andersen, Abraham Lincoln, and Georgia O’Keefe have described experiencing depression.

Little is written about Persephone’s life in the underworld, but one thing is clear, she does not die. Quite the opposite. She is given the honorific title Queen of the Underworld. This suggests her movement “to below” is one of transformation and the acquisition of special gifts and powers. Depression may feel as if parts of us have died, and yet is it possible depression opens us to another level of deep experience, one that matures us and brings new wisdom?

When depression drags us away from the lively day world, we might remember Persephone. The darkness of the underworld may provide a special quality of illumination not possible in the glaring, horn-honking, digitally-frenzied daylight. To consider depression as an expression of loss, grief, mourning, and inevitability of mortality is to bring it into the realm of the human heart.

We are more than our genetic predisposition and our biochemistry; we are conscious creatures capable of discovering light in the darkness.

If myths allow us to look into “the heart of the matter,” then neuroscience allows us to peer into the actual matter of our brains. Dr. Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has made it his life’s work to investigate brain (neuro)plasticity, and how we can improve our wellbeing through the development of certain skills, including meditation.

In his groundbreaking book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change Them, Dr. Davidson and his co-author Sharon Begley offer an in-depth view of how our brains respond to different emotions and provide strategies to help balance or strengthen specific areas of brain circuitry.

Schematic of brain regions that showed significantly different association with amygdala in control versus depressed individuals.
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The experience of depression differs from person to person. With the aid of fMRI imaging, Dr. Davidson has been able to pinpoint dysfunctional areas of the brain and correlate them with patient’s symptoms. Under the subheading “A Brain Taxonomy of Depression,”

Dr. Davidson identifies three subcategories of depression. One group of depressed patients had difficulty recovering from adversity while another group had difficulty regulating their emotions in a context-appropriate way. The third group was unable to sustain positive emotions. Different patterns of brain activity were noted for each group.

Dr. Davidson is optimistic. His book offers a questionnaire to help readers figure out their emotional “style” and gives exercises that build skills to improve brain functioning. Sufferers of depression need hope. Dr. Davidson’s excitement about what he is learning in the laboratory is palpable and his hope contagious.

Archetypal myths and brain science may seem disconnected, but each presents its own form of wisdom, one through images and story, the other through investigatory science. Demeter’s suffering, the barren land, Persephone’s descent into darkness lodge in our imagination and dreams and recommend that we look into our own lives to discover the source of our grief. Neuroscience advances our knowledge of brain anatomy and its relationship to our feelings and emotions. Each perspective provides a potentially valuable way to examine and understand our experience of depression.

Psychology Today

THE EMOTIONAL LIFE OF YOUR BRAIN. How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live. And how You can Change Them.

Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley

INTRODUCTION

A Scientific Quest

This book describes a personal and professional journey to understand why and how people differ in their emotional responses to what life throws at them, motivated by my desire to help people lead healthier, more fulfilling lives.

The “professional” thread in this tapestry describes the development of the hybrid discipline called affective neuroscience, the study of the brain mechanisms that underlie our emotions and the search for ways to enhance people’s sense of well-being and promote positive qualities of mind.

The “personal” thread is my own story. Spurred by the conviction that, as Hamlet said to Horatio, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of” in the standard account of the mind provided by mainstream psychology and neuroscience, I have ventured outside the boundaries enclosing these disciplines, sometimes getting struck down, but in the end, I hope, achieving at least some of what I set out to do: to show through rigorous research that emotions, far from being the neurological fluff that mainstream science once believed them to be, are central to the functions of the brain and to the life of the mind.

My thirty years of research in affective neuroscience has produced hundreds of findings, from the brain mechanisms that underlie empathy and the differences between the autistic brain and the normally developing brain to how the brain’s seat of rationality can plunge us into the roiling emotional depths of depression.

I hope that these results have contributed to our understanding of what it means to be human, of what it means to have an emotional life. But as these findings accumulated, I found myself stepping back from the day-to-day life of my laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, which has grown over the years to something resembling a small company: As I write this in the spring of 2011, I have eleven graduate students, ten postdoctoral fellows, four computer programmers, twenty-one additional research and administrative staff members, and some twenty million dollars in research grants from the National Institutes of Health and other funders.

Since May 2010, I have also served as director of the university’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, a research complex dedicated to learning how the qualities of mind that humankind has valued since before the dawn of civilization, compassion, wellbeing, charity, altruism, kindness, love, and other noble aspects of the human condition, arise in the brain and how they can be nurtured.

One of the great virtues of the center is that we do not confine our work to research alone. We very much want to get the results of that research out into the world, where it can make a real difference in the lives of real people. To that end, we have developed a preschool and elementary school curriculum designed to cultivate kindness and mindfulness, and we are evaluating the impact of this training on academic achievement as well as on attention, empathy, and cooperation. Another project investigates whether training in breathing and meditation can help veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq cope with stress and anxiety.

I love all of this, both the basic science and the extension of our findings into the real world. But it is way too easy to get consumed by it. (I often joke that I have several full-time jobs, from overseeing grant applications to negotiating with the university bioethics committees for permission to do research on human volunteers.) I did not want that to happen.

About ten years ago, I therefore began to take stock of my research and that of other labs pursuing affective neuroscience, not the interesting individual findings but the larger picture. And I saw that our decades of work had revealed something fundamental about the emotional life of the brain: that each of us is characterized by what I have come to call Emotional Style.

Before I briefly describe the components of Emotional Style, let me quickly explain how it relates to other classification systems that try to illuminate the vast diversity of ways to be human: emotional states, emotional traits, personality, and temperament.

The smallest, most fleeting unit of emotion is an emotional state. Typically lasting only a few seconds, it tends to be triggered by an experience, the spike of joy you feel at the macaroni collage your child made you for Mother’s Day, the sense of accomplishment you feel upon finishing a big project at work, the anger you feel over having to work all three days of a holiday weekend, the sadness you feel when your child is the only one in her class not invited to a party. Emotional states can also arise from purely mental activity, such as daydreaming, or introspection, or anticipating the future. But whether they are triggered by real-world experiences or mental ones, emotional states tend to dissipate, each giving way to the next.

A feeling that does persist, and that remains consistent over minutes or hours or even days, is a mood, of the “he’s in a bad mood” variety. And a feeling that characterizes you not for days but for years is an emotional trait. We think of someone who seems perpetually annoyed as grumpy, and someone who always seems to be mad at the world as angry. An emotional trait (chronic, just-about-to-boil-over anger) increases the likelihood that you will experience a particular emotional state (fury) because it lowers the threshold needed to feel such an emotional state.

Emotional Style is a consistent way of responding to the experiences of our lives. It is governed by specific, identifiable brain circuits and can be measured using objective laboratory methods. Emotional Style influences the likelihood of feeling particular emotional states, traits, and moods.

Because Emotional Styles are much closer to underlying brain systems than emotional states or traits, they can be considered the atoms of our emotional lives, their fundamental building blocks.

In contrast, personality, a more familiar way of describing people, is neither fundamental in this sense nor grounded in identifiable neurological mechanisms. Personality consists of a set of high-level qualities that comprise particular emotional traits and Emotional Styles. Take, for instance, the well-studied personality trait of agreeableness.

People who are extremely agreeable, as measured by standard psychological assessments (as well as their own and that of people who know them well), are empathic, considerate, friendly, generous, and helpful. But each of these emotional traits is itself the product of different aspects of Emotional Style. Unlike personality, Emotional Style can be traced to a specific, characteristic brain signature. To understand the brain basis of agreeableness, then, we need to probe more deeply into the underlying Emotional Styles that comprise it.

Psychology has been churning out classification schemes with gusto lately, asserting that there are four kinds of temperament or five components of personality or Lord-knows-how-many character types. While perfectly interesting and even fun the popular media have had a field day describing which character types make good romantic matches, business leaders, or psychopaths, these schemes are light on scientific validity because they are not based on any rigorous analysis of underlying brain mechanisms. Anything having to do with human behavior, feelings, and ways of thinking arises from the brain, so any valid classification scheme must also be based on the brain. Which brings me back to Emotional Style.

Emotional Style comprises six dimensions. Neither conventional aspects of personality nor simple emotional traits or moods, let alone diagnostic criteria for mental illness, these six dimensions reflect the discoveries of modern neuroscientiflc research:

Resilience: how slowly or quickly you recover from adversity.

Outlook: how long you are able to sustain positive emotion.

Social Intuition: how adept you are at picking up social signals from the people around you.

Self-Awareness: how well you perceive bodily feelings that reflect emotions.

Sensitivity to Context: how good you are at regulating your emotional responses to take into account the context you fmd yourself in.

Attention: how sharp and clear your focus is.

These are probably not the six dimensions you would come up with if you sat down and thought about your emotions and how they might differ from those of others. By the same measure, the Bohr model of the atom is probably not the model you would come up with if you sat down and thought about the structure of matter. I don’t mean to equate my work with that of the founders of modern physics, only to make a general point: It is rare that the human mind can determine the truths of nature, or even of ourselves, by intuition or casual observation. That’s why we have science. Only by methodical, rigorous experiments, and lots of them, can we figure out how the world works, and how we ourselves work.

These six dimensions arose from my research in affective neuroscience, complemented and strengthened by the discoveries of colleagues around the world. They reflect properties of and patterns in the brain, the sine qua non of any model of human behavior and emotion.

If the six dimensions don’t resonate with your understanding of yourself or of those close to you, that is likely because several of them operate on levels that are not always immediately apparent. For example, we tend not to be consciously aware of where we fall on the Resilience dimension. With few exceptions, we do not pay attention to how quickly we recover from a stressful event. (An exception would be something extremely traumatic, such as the death of a child; in that case, you are all too aware that you have remained a basket case for months and months.) But we experience its consequences. For instance, if you have an argument with your significant other in the morning, you might feel irritable for the entire day, yet not realize that the reason you are snappish and grouchy and churlish is that you have not regained your emotional equilibrium, which is the mark of the Slow to Recover style. I will show you in chapter 3 how you can become more aware of your Emotional Styles, which is the first and most important step in any attempt to either gracefully accept who you are or transform it.

A rule of thumb in science is that any new theory that hopes to supplant what came before must explain the same phenomena that the old theory did, as well as new ones. In order to be accepted as a more accurate and all-encompassing theory of gravity than what Isaac Newton had proposed after he saw the apple fall from the tree (or not), Einstein’s general theory of relativity had to explain all of the gravitational phenomena that Newton’s did, such as the orbits of the planets around the sun and the rate at which objects fell to earth, and new ones, too, such as the bending of celestial light around a large star. Let me show, then, that Emotional Style has sufficient explanatory power to account for well-established personality traits and temperament types; later, particularly in chapter 4, we will see that it has a solid foundation in the brain, something other classification schemes do not.

I believe that every individual personality and temperament reflects a different combination of the six dimensions of Emotional Style.

Take the “big five” personality traits, one of the standard classification systems in psychology: openness to new experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism:

– Someone high in openness to new experience has strong Social Intuition. She is also very self-aware and tends to be focused in her Attention style.

– A conscientious person has well-developed Social Intuition, a focused style of Attention, and acute Sensitivity to Context.

– An extraverted person bounces back rapidly from adversity and thus is at the Fast to Recover end of the Resilience spectrum. She maintains a positive Outlook.

– An agreeable person has a highly attuned Sensitivity to Context and strong Resilience; he also tends to maintain a positive Outlook.

– Someone high in neuroticism is slow to recover from adversity. He has a gloomy, negative Outlook, is relatively insensitive to context, and tends to be unfocused in his Attention style.

While the combinations of Emotional Styles that add up to each of the big five personality traits generally hold true, there will always be exceptions. Not everyone with a given personality will have all the dimensions of Emotional Style that I describe, but they will invariably have at least one of them.

Moving beyond the Big Five, we can look at traits that all of us think of when we describe ourselves or someone we know well. Each of these, too, can be understood as a combination of different dimensions of Emotional Style, though, again, not everyone with the trait will possess each dimension. However, most people will have most of them:

– Impulsive: a combination of unfocused Attention and low Self-Awareness.

– Patient: a combination of high Self-Awareness and high Sensitivity to Context. Knowing that when context changes, other things will change, too, helps to facilitate patience.

– Shy: a combination of being Slow to Recover on the Resilience dimension and having low Sensitivity to Context. As a result of the insensitivity to context, shyness and wariness extend beyond contexts in which they might be normal.

– Anxious: a combination of being Slow to Recover, having a negative Outlook, having high levels of Self-Awareness, and being unfocused (Attention).

– Optimistic: a combination of being Fast to Recover and having a positive Outlook.

– Chronically unhappy: a combination of being Slow to Recover and having a negative Outlook, with the result that a person cannot sustain positive emotions and becomes mired in negative ones after setbacks.

As you can see, these common trait descriptors comprise different permutations of Emotional Styles. This formulation provides a way of describing what the brain bases for these common traits are likely to be.

If you read original scientific papers, it is easy to get the impression that the researchers thought of a question, designed a clever experiment to answer it, and carried out the study with nary a dead end or setback between them and the answer. It’s not like that. I suspect you realized as much, but what is not as widely known, even among people who gobble up popular accounts of scientific research, is how difficult it is to challenge a prevailing paradigm.

That was the position I found myself in during the early 1980s. At that time, academic psychology relegated the study of emotions mostly to social and personality psychology rather than to neurobiology; few psychology researchers were interested in studying the brain basis of emotion. What little interest there was supported research on the socalled emotion centers of the brain, which were then thought to be exclusively in the limbic system.

I had a very different idea: that higher cortical functions, particularly those located in the evolutionarily advanced prefrontal cortex, are critical to emotion. When I first suggested that the prefrontal cortex is involved in emotion, I was met with an endless stream of skeptics. The prefrontal cortex, they insisted, is the site of reason, the antithesis of emotion. It certainly could not play a role in emotion, too. It was very lonely trying to carve out a scientific career when the prevailing winds blew strongly in the other direction. My search for bases of emotion in the brain’s seat of reason was viewed as quixotic, to say the least, the neuroscientific equivalent of hunting elephants in Alaska. There were more than a few times, especially when I struggled to get funding early on, when my skepticism about the classic division between thought (in the highly evolved neocortex) and feeling (in the subcortical limbic system) seemed like a good way to end a scientific career, not begin one.

If my scientific leanings were a less-than-savvy career move, so were some of my personal interests. Soon after I entered graduate school at Harvard in the 1970s, I met a remarkable group of kind and compassionate people who, I soon learned, had something in common: They all practiced meditation. This discovery catalyzed my then rudimentary interest in meditation to such an extent that, after my second year of grad school, I went off to India and Sri Lanka for three months to learn more about this ancient tradition and experience what intensive meditation might bring. I had a second motive as well, I wanted to see whether meditation might be a suitable subject for scientific research.

Studying emotions was controversial enough. Practicing meditation was practically heretical, and studying it was a scientific nonstarter. Just as academic psychologists and neuroscientists believed that there are brain regions for reason and brain regions for emotions, and never the two shall meet, so they believed that there is rigorous, empirical science and there is woo-woo meditation, and if you practiced the latter, your bona fides for the former were highly suspect.

This was the period of The Tao of Physics (1975), The Dancing Wu Li Masters (1979), and other books arguing that there are strong complementarities between the findings of modern Western science and the insights of ancient Eastern philosophies. Most academic scientists dismissed this as trash; being a meditator in their midst was not, shall we say, the most direct path to academic success. It was made very clear to me by my Harvard mentors that if I wanted a successful scientific career, studying meditation was not a very good place to start. While I dabbled in research on meditation in the early part of my career, once I saw how deep the resistance was, I set it aside. I remained a closet meditator, though, and eventually, once I had been granted tenure at the University of Wisconsin, and had a long list of scientific publications and honors to my credit, returned to meditation as a subject of scientific study.

A big reason I did so was a transformative meeting I had with the Dalai Lama in 1992, which completely changed the course of both my career and my personal life. As I describe in chapter 9, the encounter was the spark that made me decide to bring my interests in meditation and other forms of mental training out of the closet.

It is breathtaking to see how much has changed in the short period of time that I’ve been at this. In less than twenty years, the scientific and medical communities have become much more receptive to research on mental training. Thousands of new articles are now published on the subject in top scientific journals each year (I was tickled that the first such paper ever to appear in the august Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was by my colleagues and me, in 2004), and the National Institutes of Health now provides substantial funding for research on meditation. A decade ago that would have been unthinkable.

I believe this change is a very good thing, and not because of any sense of personal vindication (though I admit it’s been gratifying to see a scientific outcast of a topic receive the respect it deserves). I made two promises to the Dalai Lama in 1992: I would personally study meditation, and I would try to make research on positive emotions, such as compassion and well-being, as central a focus of psychology as research on negative emotions had long been.

Now those two promises have converged, and with them my tilting-at-windmills conviction that the seat of reason and higher-order cognitive function in the brain plays as important a role in emotion as the limbic system does. My research on meditators has shown that mental training can alter patterns of activity in the brain to strengthen empathy, compassion, optimism, and a sense of well-being, the culmination of my promise to study meditation as well as positive emotions. And my research in the mainstream of affective neuroscience has shown that it is these sites of higher-order reasoning that hold the key to altering these patterns of brain activity.

So while this book is a story of my personal and scientific transformation, I hope it offers you a guide for your own transformation. In Sanskrit, the word for meditation also means “familiarization.” Becoming more familiar with your Emotional Style is the first and most important step in transforming it. If this book does nothing more than increase your awareness of your own Emotional Style and that of others around you, I would consider it a success.

CHAPTER 1

One Brain Does Not Fit All

If you believe most self-help books, pop-psychology articles, and television therapists, then you probably assume that how people respond to significant life events is pretty predictable. Most of us, according to the “experts,” are affected in just about the same way by a given experience, there is a grieving process that everyone goes through, there is a sequence of events that happens when we fall in love, there is a standard response to being jilted, and there are fairly standard ways almost every normal person reacts to the birth of a child, to being unappreciated at one’s job, to having an unbearable workload, to the challenges of raising teenagers, and to the inevitable changes that occur with aging. These same experts confidently recommend steps we can all take to regain our emotional footing, weather a setback in life or in love, become more (or less) sensitive, handle anxiety with aplomb . . . and otherwise become the kind of people we would like to be.

But my thirty-plus years of research have shown that these one-size-fits-all assumptions are even less valid in the realm of emotion than they are in medicine. There, scientists are discovering that people’s DNA shapes how they will respond to prescription drugs (among other things), ushering in an age of personalized medicine in which the treatments one patient receives for a certain illness will be different from what another patient receives for that same illness, for the fundamental reason that no two patients’ genes are identical. (One important example of this: The amount of the blood thinner warfarin a patient can safely take to prevent blood clots depends on how quickly the patient’s genes metabolize the drug.)

When it comes to how people respond to what life throws at them, and how they can develop and nurture their capacity to feel joy, to form loving relationships, to withstand setbacks, and in general to lead a meaningful life, the prescription must be just as personalized. In this case, the reason is not just that our DNA differs, though of course it does, and DNA definitely influences our emotional traits, but that our patterns of brain activity do. Just as the medicine of tomorrow will be shaped by deciphering patients’ DNA, so the psychology of today can be shaped by understanding the characteristic patterns of brain activity underlying the emotional traits and states that define each of us.

Over the course of my career as a neuroscientist, I’ve seen thousands of people who share similar backgrounds respond in dramatically different ways to the same life event. Some are resilient in the face of stress, for instance, while others fall apart. The latter become anxious, depressed, or unable to function when they encounter adversity. Resilient people are somehow able not only to withstand but to benefit from certain kinds of stressful events and to turn adversity into advantage.

This, in a nutshell, is the puzzle that has driven my research. I’ve wanted to know what determines how someone reacts to a divorce, to the death of a loved one, to the loss of a job, or to any other setback, and, equally, what determines how people react to a career triumph, to winning the heart of their true love, to realizing that a friend will walk over hot coals for them, or to other sources of happiness. Why and how do people differ so widely in their emotional responses to the ups and the downs of life?

The answer that has emerged from my own work is that different people have different Emotional Styles. These are constellations of emotional reactions and coping responses that differ in kind, intensity, and duration.

Just as each person has a unique fingerprint and a unique face, each of us has a unique emotional profile, one that is so much a part of who we are that those who know us well can often predict how we will respond to an emotional challenge.

My own Emotional Style, for instance, is fairly optimistic and upbeat, eager to take on challenges, quick to recover from adversity, but sometimes prone to worry about things that are beyond my control. (My mother, struck by my sunny disposition, used to call me her “joy boy.”)

Emotional Style is why one person recovers fairly quickly from a painful divorce while another remains mired in self-recrimination and despair. It is why one sibling bounces back from a job loss while another feels worthless for years afterward. It is why one father shrugs off the botched call of a Little League umpire who called out his (clearly safe!) daughter at second base while another leaps out of his seat and screams at the ump until his face turns purple.

Emotional Style is why one friend serves as a wellspring of solace to everyone in her circle while another makes herself scarce, emotionally and literally, whenever her friends or family need sympathy and support. It is why some people can read body language and tone of voice as clearly as a billboard while to others these nonverbal cues are a foreign language.

And it is why some people have insight into their own states of mind, heart, and body that others do not even realize is possible.

Every day presents countless opportunities to observe Emotional Styles in action. I spend a lot of time at airports, and it is a rare trip that doesn’t offer the chance for a little field research. As we all know, there seem to be more ways for a flight schedule to go awry than there are flights departing O’Hare on a Friday evening: bad weather, waiting for a flight crew whose connection is late, mechanical problems, cockpit warning lights that no one can decipher . . . the list goes on. So I’ve had countless chances to watch the reaction of passengers (as well as myself!) who, waiting to take off, hear the dreaded announcement that the flight has been delayed for one hour, or for two hours, or indefinitely, or canceled.

The collective groan is audible. But if you look carefully at individual passengers, you’ll see a wide range of emotional reactions. There’s the college student in his hoodie, bobbing his head to the music coming in through his earbuds, who barely glances up before getting lost again in his iPad. There’s the young mother traveling alone with a squirmy toddler who mutters, “Oh great,” before grabbing her child and stalking off toward the food court. There’s the corporate-looking woman in the tailored suit who briskly walks up to the gate agent and calmly but firmly demands to be rerouted immediately through anywhere this side of Kathmandu, just get her to her meeting! There’s the silver-haired, bespoke-suited man who storms up to the agent and, loud enough for everyone to hear, demands to know if she realizes how important it is for him to get to his destination, insists on seeing her superior, and-red-faced by now-screams that the situation is completely intolerable.

Okay, I’m prepared to believe that delays are worse for some people than for others. Failing to make it to the bedside of your dying mother is definitely up there, and missing a business meeting that means life or death to the company your grandfather founded is a lot worse than a student arriving home for winter break half a day later than planned. But I strongly suspect that the differences in how people react to an exasperating flight delay have less to do with the external circumstances and more to do with their Emotional Style.

The existence of Emotional Style raises a number of related questions. The most obvious is, when does Emotional Style first appear, in early adulthood, when we settle into the patterns that describe the people we will be, or, as genetic determinists would have it, before birth? Do these patterns of emotional response remain constant and stable throughout our lives? A less obvious question, but one that arose in the course of my research, is whether Emotional Style influences physical health. (One reason to suspect it does is that people who suffer from clinical depression are much more prone to certain physical disorders such as heart attack and asthma than are people with no history of depression.)

Perhaps most fundamentally, how does the brain produce the different Emotional Styles, and are they hardwired into our neural circuitry, or is there anything we can do to change them and thus alter how we deal with and respond to the pleasures and vicissitudes of life? And if we are able to somehow change our Emotional Style (in chapter 11 I will suggest some methods for doing so), does it also produce measureable changes in the brain?

The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style

So as not to leave you in suspense, and to make specific what I mean by “Emotional Style”, let me lay out its bare bones. There are six dimensions of Emotional Style. The existence of the six did not just suddenly occur to me, nor did they emerge early on in my research, let alone result from a command decision that six would be a nice number. Instead, they arose from systematic studies of the neural bases of emotion. Each of the six dimensions has a specific, identifiable neural signature, a good indication that they are real and not merely a theoretical construct. It is conceivable that there are more than six dimensions, but it’s unlikely: The major emotion circuits in the brain are now well understood, and if we believe that the only aspects of emotion that have scientific validity are those that can be traced to events in the brain, then six dimensions completely describe Emotional Style.

Each dimension describes a continuum. Some people fall at one or the other extreme of that continuum, while others fall somewhere in the middle. The combination of where you fall on each dimension adds up to your overall Emotional Style.

Your Resilience style: Can you usually shake off setbacks, or do you suffer a meltdown? When faced with an emotional or other challenge, can you muster the tenacity and determination to soldier on, or do you feel so helpless that you simply surrender? If you have an argument with your significant other, does it cast a pall on the remainder of your day, or are you able to recover quickly and put it behind you? When you’re knocked back on your heels, do you bounce back and throw yourself into the ring of life again, or do you melt into a puddle of depression and resignation? Do you respond to setbacks with energy and determination, or do you give up?

People at one extreme of this dimension are Fast to Recover from adversity; those at the other extreme are Slow to Recover, crippled by adversity.

Your Outlook style: Do you seldom let emotional clouds darken your sunny outlook on life? Do you maintain a high level of energy and engagement even when things don’t go your way? Or do you tend toward cynicism and pessimism, struggling to see anything positive? People at one extreme of the Outlook spectrum can be described as Positive types; those at the other, as Negative.

Your Social Intuition style: Can you read people’s body language and tone of voice like a book, inferring whether they want to talk or be alone, whether they are stressed to the breaking point or feeling mellow? Or are you puzzled by, even blind to, the outward indications of people’s mental and emotional states? Those at one extreme on this spectrum are Socially Intuitive types; those at the other, Puzzled.

Your Self-Awareness style: Are you aware of your own thoughts and feelings and attuned to the messages your body sends you? Or do you act and react without knowing why you do what you do, because your inner self is opaque to your conscious mind? Do those closest to you ask why you never engage in introspection and wonder why you seem oblivious to the fact that you are anxious, jealous, impatient, or threatened? At one extreme of this spectrum are people who are Self-Aware; at the other, those who are Self-Opaque.

Your Sensitivity to Context style: Are you able to pick up the conventional rules of social interaction so that you do not tell your boss the same dirty joke you told your husband or try to pick up a date at a funeral? Or are you baffled when people tell you that your behavior is inappropriate? If you are at one extreme of the Sensitivity to Context style, you are Tuned In; at the other end, Tuned Out.

. . .

from

The Emotional Life of Your Brain. How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live. And how You can Change Them.

by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. and Sharon Begley

get it at Amazon.com