Or I should say feelings in my mind. You might already know about the research of Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley, but if you don’t, this recent issue of Newsweek has an interesting article about it. Click here to read it.
Their research shows that we all have an “emotional style” that can be traced to patterns of activity in the brain, creating for each of us a unique emotional profile. Our emotional style includes the elements of resilience, outlook, self-awareness, social intuition, attention and sensitivity to context.
Some of this is not new. We all know, for example, that different people have different emotional responses to the same event. We all know that some people are more emotional than others, and that different people have different dominant emotions. We might, for example, describe one person as being a happy person and another as being angry.
We might explain all this by saying that that’s just the way we are. We might think we have no control over our individual emotional make up, or over the fleeting, transitory feelings that we experience as we go through our days. And this is where we would be mistaken. Although it’s true that our basic, primal instincts of fight or flight are triggered in the more primitive part of our brain, the thinking part of our brain can create neural patterns that will override or temper the intense, stressful reactions of what is sometimes referred to as our “lizard” brain.
Scientists no longer see our brains as hard-wired at an early age. The term “neuroplasticity” describes the brain’s life long ability to change its actual structure and function. We see this happen when someone who has suffered a brain injury is able to train other parts of the brain to take over the tasks of the injured area. The same is true for our emotional patterns.
Two forms of mental activity are especially helpful in training our brains to rewire our thinking patterns, to enhance our emotional well-being. Both of these activities are techniques we’ve discussed on this blog.
The first is cognitive behavior therapy, which is a fancy phrase for paying attention to our thoughts. Our feelings are based on underlying thoughts and beliefs. Let’s say, for example, that I left a message for you and you didn’t call me back. I might feel upset or hurt or angry. But look deeper. Underneath those feelings I will find thoughts. For example, you are being rude by ignoring my message. You think you are so important that my message doesn’t matter. You are upset with me and you’re giving me the silent treatment.
You get the idea. We often don’t examine the reactionary thoughts we have. But if we did, we might see that we are telling ourselves a story that might not be true. I don’t know why you didn’t call me back. Maybe your phone doesn’t work. Maybe you are crazy busy and will call me when you can. The point is that my feelings are based on faulty thinking. If I found out that you didn’t call back because you were in a car accident, my feelings would be very different even though the event — your not calling back — was the same. Questioning our basic assumptions can help us shift away from feelings that cause us distress.
The other mental activity highlighted in the article is meditation, especially mindfulness meditation. Meditation helps us become more self aware of our internal chatter, as we watch our thoughts come and go without getting hooked into our emotional reactions to our thoughts. Brain studies of Buddhist monks who spend a lot of time meditating show increased activity in the part of the brain that promotes well being. Through meditation, they have actually restructured their brains to increase joy.
Through these methods, and other forms of mental activity, we can strengthen the thinking part of our brain and increase the pathways to the primitive part of our brain, allowing our higher consciousness to calm our instinctive stress reactions and enhance equanimity.
Now that’s something worth thinking about!