You see the glass half full, while your spouse sees it half empty. One of your friends recovers almost immediately after a setback, while another is depressed for weeks. One child intuitively understands other people, while another misses basic social signals. Why are people so very different?
The answer, says neuroscientist Richard Davidson, lies in our unique emotional styles. After nearly 40 years of studying the brain mechanisms that underlie our emotions, Davidson has identified six emotional ranges that affect how we think, feel, and react. Your unique emotional style is determined by where you land in each of these six spectra.
The six emotional styles are:
- Resilience: How long it takes you to rebound after adversity. Resilience is determined by signals between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.
- Outlook: How long you are able to maintain positive emotion. Outlook is determined by the levels of activity in the ventral striatum (a part of the brain linked to our reward system).
- Social Intuition: How skilled you are at picking up social signals from other people. Social intuition is shaped by the interplay between the amygdala and fusiform regions.
- Self-Awareness: How well you are able to perceive the physical sensations in your body that signal emotions. Self-awareness is determined by the ability of the insula to interpret signals from the body and organs.
- Sensitivity to Context: How you are at regulating your emotional responses depending on the context you're in. This sensitivity is driven by activity levels in the hippocampus.
- Attention: How sharply and clearly you can focus. Attention is regulated by the prefrontal cortex.
These six spectra combine to influence your personality. For example, someone who is seen as sociable likely has a positive outlook, keen social intuition, and a strong sensitivity to context. Someone who is seen as tenacious likely has high resilience and and a focused attention style.
Davidson notes that there is no one right emotional style for everyone; someone low in social intuition might be an excellent computer programmer, while someone with a negative outlook may use their pessimism as fuel to work harder and achieve more. However, Davidson notes that if you want to change your emotional style—for example, if you'd like to become more resilient—there are ways to do so.
Though your emotional style is in part genetic, it is also influenced by environmental factors. The inherent plasticity of the brain means that, through conscious changes, the brain itself (and thus, how you think, feel, and respond) can be changed. Davidson suggests that, by first becoming aware of your own emotional style, you can find if it is helping or hindering you. Then, through small changes—adopting mindfulness meditation, reflective journaling, or changing your environment, for example—you can begin to shift your emotional style, eventually finding a place on the spectrum that works for you.
For more information read Davidson's book The Emotional Life of Your Brain.