Hello, Emotional Style!
The Emotional Life of Your Brain
Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D. with Sharon Begley. 2012.
Hudson Street Press, New York. 279 pages.
December 4, 2012—In our endless quest to know ourselves, we love personality tests. The human brain appreciates a good label: a shortcut to classifying the self in relation to others so each can be assigned to a tidy file drawer. And we like to keep the number of drawers limited if we can. Otherwise, what’s the use of a label, right? If we only have four temperaments or five personality traits to keep track of, we can assess people quickly and lock them away neatly. But how can we be sure our sorting system makes sense? Sure, we get a rewarding “Aha!” moment when the test seems to identify something we “feel” to be true about ourselves. But can we really trust that feeling, especially taking into account the brain’s tendency to seek out confirmation for what it already believes to be true? Is there a scientifically supportable way to understand our individual characteristics and traits?
Some of the most popular personality tests may seem, on the surface, to be scientifically sound—but considering recent leaps in the understanding of the brain, perhaps it’s time to take another look at their foundations. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), for instance, is based on Carl Jung’s theory that there are four personality dichotomies giving rise to 16 distinct personality types. What many people don’t know is that the MBTI was developed by a housewife and her daughter, neither of whom were psychologists, and the theory on which it rests dates back to the 1920s (long before the magnetic resonance brain scan was even a gleam in anyone’s eye). Nevertheless, the test remains inordinately popular among employers and government administrators.
Psychologists and clinicians, on the other hand, have long abandoned Jung’s dichotomous view of personality traits. Jung viewed his components of personality as though they could each be measured as two sides of a coin: a person might tend toward either “thinking” or “feeling,” for instance. Yet modern neuroscience has revealed that thinking and feeling operate in tandem within the brain: our logical processes require the engagement of emotional processes to work effectively.
Recognizing some of these problematic issues, modern psychologists prefer to measure personality components along continuums. One person might lean more toward introversion than someone else without necessarily qualifying as “an introvert.” Someone else might score highly on measurements of narcissism, but this alone does not define them as a “narcissist.” Such an approach certainly offers a more nuanced view of personality than is possible with only sixteen boxes to choose from, but even these updated tools fall far short of measuring—much less defining—personality.
Enter the age of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and the decade of the brain. “Anything having to do with human behavior, feelings, and ways of thinking arises from the brain,” points out Psychologist Richard J. Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Therefore, when it comes to human typing he says, “any valid classification scheme must also be based on the brain.”
This almost seems like a no-brainer. But the old classification systems are fun and popular—and most people aren’t bothered by the fact that they are “light on scientific validity,” as Davidson tactfully puts it.
Davidson has spent his career researching “affective neuroscience,” a fancy term for “how emotions work in the brain.” In doing so, it became clear that six dimensions form the foundation of what he calls “emotional style,” which can be thought of as the way in which we process our emotions and how that differs from the way other people process theirs. The six dimensions of emotional style are even more fundamental than any of the traits we might include in “personality.” They are the “atoms of our emotional lives,” says Davidson: the mechanisms that work together to produce the traits we like to measure so we can choose a lifelong career, or even a partner.
These dimensions include resilience style (how easily we recover from setbacks); outlook style (where we are on the scale of optimistic to pessimistic); social-intuition style (how well we read others); self-awareness style (how in tune we are with our thoughts and emotions); sensitivity-to-context style (knowing when certain behaviors are inappropriate); and attention style (where we fall between focused and distracted).
In The Emotional Life of Your Brain, his 2012 joint effort with Sharon Begley, author of Train Your Brain, Change Your Life, Davidson explains that our emotional styles arise not only from our genetics but also from our environment—which includes the relationships that shape us. Even more significantly, Davidson and Begley point to new research that shatters old assumptions: we are not stuck with our emotional styles. We can modify them significantly. “Who you are today,” they write, “does not need to be who you are tomorrow.”
That said, there is no single, ideal, overall emotional style. To function well as a society we need people with a variety of emotional styles, who contribute complementary interests and strengths as a result. Convinced that his research needed to account for these individual differences in human behavior, Davidson says he has always been drawn to the “outliers”—those subjects in behavior studies who do not fall in the narrow “average” range.
“Each of us responds differently to emotional triggers,” he points out, “and to talk about ‘most people’ or ‘the average person’ completely misses the mark.”
However, Davidson quickly deflates popular notions of “I’m okay, you’re okay.” Even if our emotional approach doesn’t leave us open to a diagnosis of mental illness, he says, a style may be sufficiently extreme that it prevents us from functioning effectively in society and enjoying full and meaningful relationships. In such cases we might want to consider working toward change.
Certainly we will want to do so if our emotional style leaves us vulnerable to depression or worse.
“When your Resilience style is so Slow to Recover [one extreme on the Resilience scale] that the slightest setback tips you into another acute episode of panic or anxiety, it has become pathological,” he points out. “When your Social Intuition style is so Puzzled that you have difficulty understanding basic social interactions and cannot form close relationships, it has become pathological—and may even fall along the autism spectrum.”
The opposite extremes on some of these spectrums may be no less pathological. Those who fall at the extreme Fast to Recover end of the Resilience scale may not be able to feel their own emotions intensely enough to empathize with others. “In order to have healthy relationships,” Davidson explains, “you need to be able to feel and respond to other people’s emotions, meaning if you are extremely Resilient, others may perceive you as unfeeling and emotionally walled off.”
If we do find ourselves on one extreme or the other, he reiterates, most of us are capable of nudging ourselves at least a little closer to the middle ranges and to help us do that, Davidson and Begley offer concrete, fMRI-confirmed strategies.
Davidson’s contribution to his field is groundbreaking. It places both personality and temperament in a new perspective —but it also sheds light on mental health disorders because it is founded on concrete knowledge of the mechanisms of the brain.
Until now, using conventional personality measures we have seen only the tip of the iceberg. We named it using words like shy, conscientious, intuitive, or agreeable, among many other descriptive terms. But now that we can peer under the iceberg to the brain mechanisms, we see that “shy” is a combination of being Slow to Recover on the Resilience dimension and having low Sensitivity to Context. Someone who is often anxious is a combination of being Slow to Recover, having a negative Outlook, having high levels of Self-Awareness, and being unfocused in Attention
Certainly there is still much to learn about the brain but with new tools at their disposal, neuroscientists can see that there’s much more underlying personality than was once believed.
Understanding emotional style allows us to recognize that there aren’t sixteen kinds of us: or five, or eleven, or any other finite number. In our emotional makeup we are as individual as snowflakes. This requires us to develop the ability to acknowledge others’ emotions with a certain degree of nonjudgmental understanding, realizing that it is through our emotions that we connect with one another. That realization, in turn, requires us to acknowledge that if our emotions are inhibiting our ability to connect—which is an elemental need of the human social brain—we can take advantage of the plasticity inherent in the brain to make alterations in our emotional style.
Does this mean we can no longer have fun with personality tests? Of course it doesn't. But we may not want to base significant decisions on them. On the other hand, an awareness of one another’s emotional style may lead to increased mutual understanding and more peaceful coexistence. And the understanding that these “traits” are not permanent or unchangeable may open us up to positive transformation in all of our relationships.