Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Book Review: The Emotional Life of Your Brain

I am a sucker for books by neuroscientists explaining the processes of our brain.  I find the subject thoroughly fascinating. This book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live - and How You Can Change Them, was no exception. I enjoyed listening to the research and the findings and the arguments for changing the patterns of your individual brain.

Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist who studies and teaches at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, argues that the brain has six emotional styles: resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context, and attention. Each individual varies in their strengths or weaknesses in each of these areas. In other words, some brains just aren't wired to be as resilient to life's trials and tragedies as others.  Depressed individuals have a different brain make-up than others who sail through life with a Pollyana-like enthusiasm despite setbacks.  I found the research to be quite interesting. I reveled in all the terminology flying by - the pre-frontal cortex, the amygdala, etc.

The argument goes further than just identifying six styles of relating to life. Dr. Davidson argues for the brain's plasticity and claims that we can actually change the way our brain responds. He is a big proponent for eastern meditation and much of his research focused on the changes in brain chemistry and brain response in individuals who rack up hours and hours of meditation. Although I'm not likely to take up this form of meditation after reading the book, I do think there is some value to considering the benefits gleaned from such practices and I would venture to guess that Christian prayer could elicit fairly similar results to those cited for meditation.

Still, I was a little bit disappointed with the book.  The lion's share of the book is spent talking about the author and his research and discoveries. When I placed the final disc (out of 9 cds) into my player, I was relieved to hear that he was finally going to address the ways he feels people can change the patterns of your brain. However, the methods suggested were vague and often the same across several different emotional styles. So that, if you want to be more resilient, practice mindfulness meditation, and if you want to be more attentive, practice mindfulness meditation. It sounded like the same solution almost every time - meditation.

Sadly, I don't think I can use this book as a resource to withdraw from all use of antidepressant medication (something I would welcome). It wasn't as practical as I had hoped. It did affirm for me the concept that each of us have been hard-wired in a particular way, but that our brain also responds to things based on our surroundings and our life experiences (lots of experiments with rats whose mothers paid close attention or completely ignored them and such). It is good to recognize the brain's plasticity. There just wasn't a step-by-step method for changing the way our brains are wired, at least none that I could embrace and follow rigorously.  I would have preferred to have been given some training in the cognitive behavioral therapy - changing the thoughts we think in response to situations by reassessing them consciously and reframing them into a different context or outlook.

So, while I did really enjoy listening to this book, and gleaned a lot of useful information about the brain, I don't think I enjoyed it quite as much as I had hoped. It was more focused on stories of the author's adventures and experiments and less focused on really handing over useful tools for people to change their brain chemistry. It is good to know there are scientists willing to look into something other than medication, but I'm still not sure I have the tools to change my own clinically depressed brain chemistry enough to wean from medication.

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