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The Emotional Life of Your Brain: 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.

The Emo­tion­al Life of Your Brain

(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 mea­sur­able changes in the brain?

– This arti­cle has been adapt­ed by arrange­ment with Hud­son Street Press, a mem­ber of Pen­guin Group (USA) Inc., from The Emo­tion­al Life of Your Brain by Richard J. David­son, Ph.D., and Sharon Beg­ley. Copy­right 2012 by Richard J. David­son, Ph.D., and Sharon Beg­ley.

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