By Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D¹. with Sharon Begley
Reviewed by Francisca Saavedra
I have never practiced Buddhist meditation nor have I studied the effect of meditation on monks, but neurobiologist Dr. Richard Davidson makes it seem so simple. Davidson takes us through his own personal life as a scientist. Intertwining his personal history with the questions he and his colleagues have raised and the experiments they have carried out, he shows us not only his life but the life of our milieu, beginning 30 years ago, when talking and even more so studying meditation was seen as an oddity. Davidson shares in a very candid way how his interest in meditation developed and how the new available technologies and a meeting with the Dalai Lama inspired him to "come out of the closet" and to study positive emotions and the effect of meditation.
Davidson is a well–known neuroscientist from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who has worked for decades on the neuroscience of the emotions and, since the 1990s, on positive emotions and the effect of meditation. He is also the founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, which conducts interdisciplinary research on positive emotions.
The Emotional Life of Your Brain is written for the general public. With the exception of chapter four, that focuses on the specific areas of the brain involved in specific functions, one does not need to be a neurobiologist to understand or be totally engaged. The book presents a wealth of evidence from the field of neuroscience of the capacity we have to change our minds through mental training such as meditation and cognitive therapy.
Davidson shares with the reader his own personal journey in the field, his first questions in graduate school, and how he arrived at his theory and his understanding of the tremendous plasticity of our brains. He takes us from his first trials and failures in studying the effects of meditation in long–term Buddhist meditators in the mountains near Dharmasala, India, to his more successful studies later on with monks and non-monks in the lab.
This book is not only about the effects of meditation; it also presents a very appealing theory on personality types based on neurological mechanisms. Instead of using the conventional discrete categories of classification of personalities, Davidson talks about emotional styles that occur along a continuum and that are themselves defined by specific patterns of brain activity. An emotional style is defined in a six–dimensional space, with every personality being the reflection of the combination of these six dimensions. The axes that the author recognizes are: Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self–Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention. Each person has elements from each of the six dimensions and their unique combination makes our unique personalities. This personality or emotional style is not fixed, since our brains have the capacity to change in response to our experience, our training, and our thoughts.
In summary Davidson's book show us from a scientific point of view how mental training such as the practice of meditation can transform our brain circuitry and therefore many of our personality traits that we might think of as fixed. In other words, our brains have plasticity and we can transform them and the way we think if we choose to do so. This amazing insight has being known to many spiritual traditions for years, and it is now starting to be substantiated by science with the use of the scientific method.
1 Dr. Davidson is Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, and Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison.