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Mindful : October 2013
32 mindful October 2013 anger, and then targets this brain activity with mental exercises desig ned to alter it. The result is a healthier “emotional style,” as Davidson calls it. This mission is still in its infa ncy, but there are hints that it works. Much of Davidson’s research has focused on determining the patterns of brain activity that characterize facets of our emotiona l style, such as how well we maintain positive feelings. (Full disclo- sure: I cowrote Davidson’s 2012 book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain.) People who are a little familiar with brain struc- ture might assume that these patterns occur within the brain’s limbic system, an evolutionarily ancient region that includes the amygdalae, the two almond- shaped structures that are responsible for feelings of anxiety and fear. If these patterns were lodged in this ancient brain region, where our power- ful survival instincts emerge from, we would be out of luck. Think of trying to simply will yourself to be happy or sad, or any other emotion, with the brute force of a survivalist. Not so easily done. I don’t know about you, but if I’m feeling miserable and someone tells me to just cheer up on the spot, I want to slug them. Fortunately, the brain’s emotional circuits are actually connected to its thinking circuits, which are much more accessible to our conscious volition. That has been one of Davidson’s most import- ant discoveries: the “cognitive brain” is also the “emotional brain.” As a result, activity in certain cognitive regions sends sig nals to the emotion-generating regions. So while you ca n’t just order yourself to have a particular feeling, you can sort of sneak up on your emotions via your thoughts. This is easier to understa nd with examples. Davidson discovered that people who are resilient—able to regain their emotional balance after a setback rather than wallowing in anxiety, anger, depression, or a nother negative emotion—have strong connections between the left prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdalae. The left PFC sends inhibitory sig na ls to the amygdalae, basically telling them to quiet down. As a result, the negative feelings generated by the amygdalae peter out, a nd you’re not mired in unhappiness or resent ment . In contrast, people with little emotional resilience (including those with depression, who may be shattered by every disappointment) have fewer or weaker signals between the PFC and the amygdalae, due to either low activity in the PFC or poor connections between it and the a mygdalae. Neurally inspired therapy to increase emotional resilience, then, strength- ens the left PFC so it sends stronger, longer-lasting inhibitory signa ls to the amygdalae. One way to do this, Davidson says, is mindfulness meditation, in which you obser ve your thoughts a nd feelings with the objectivity of a disinterested, nonjudgmental witness. This form of mental training gives you “the where- withal to pause, obser ve how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a set- back, note that it as an interesting mental process, and resist getting drawn into the abyss,” he told me. As a result, you create stronger connections between the PFC and the a mygdalae, and thus fewer persistent feelings of anger, sadness, and the like after an emotional downer. Another way to strengthen the cir- cuitry that supports emotional resilience is through cognitive reappraisal training, in which you challenge the accuracy of catastrophizing thoughts (“I am days behind in my work; I’m going to get fired”). This “directly engages the pre- frontal cortex,” Davidson says, “resulting in increased prefrontal inhibition of the amygdalae.” Davidson has also discovered that in people whose default mode is a positive frame of mind and a sense of well-being, there is high activity in the left PFC as well as in the nucleus accumbens. This is a structure deep within the brain that is associated with pleasure and a sense of reward and motivation. In contrast, in people with a consistently negative out- look, the nucleus accumbens is quiet and is found to have few connections to the PFC. As with much of the brain’s emotional appa ratus, the nucleus accumbens is not reachable through conscious thought directly; you can’t will it into greater activity. However, Davidson believes you can exploit its connections to the PFC, which is accessible to conscious ta rgeting. The great streng th of the PFC is pla nning, imagining the future, and exercising self-control. By putting yourself in situations that demand fore- thought, he says, you can strengthen the PFC and thus its ability to goose activity in the nucleus accumbens. You might, for insta nce, put yourself in a situation where a n immediate reward beckons— forbidden food usually works, though anything fun when you’re supposed to be working would also be effective— and resist its siren call. What are the limits of neuroplasticity? The honest a nswer is, we don’t know. But when neuroscientists in the past scoffed at the power of the brain to change in meaningful ways, such as to remap the cortex in order to restore mobility after a stroke, they were often proved wrong. One new study even shows that the brain is plastic enough to change in response to cognitive demands that are as new to evolution as the industrial soot that caused moths to evolve gray wing scales. Earlier this year, scientists at Stanford pinpointed the anatomical coordinates of a brain region, a mere one-fifth of an inch across, that handles the sight of numerals. Yes, the brain has specialized real estate to process the likes of 5 and 24. Since “no one is born with the innate ability to recognize numerals,” says Stan- ford neuroscientist Josef Par vizi, “it’s a dra matic demonstration of our brain cir- cuitry ’s capacity to cha nge” in response to education a nd culture. If regular exposure to the 2+2s on flash cards, signs for 99¢ specials in store windows, and the other digits in our world is sufficient to cause the brain to develop specialized circuitry, surely we are only in Act 1, Scene 1, of understand- ing the power of neuroplasticity a nd how to exploit it. ● “Meditation gives you the wherewithal to pause, obser ve how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a setback, and resist getting drawn into the abyss.” Richard Davidson mind/body