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Down the Rabbit Hole
Paul Kiritsis, PsyD Clinical Psychology, DPhil., MA (History)


Richard Davidson and the Theory of Emotional Style

Paul Kiritsis - Saturday, October 31, 2015

In The Emotional Life of Your Brain (2013), Richard Davidson expounds his theory of Emotional Style in the context of six phenomenological dimensions with discrete neural signatures. Davidson argues that existing neurophysiological correlates for each of the six discrete categories–resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context, and attention–strengthens both the empirical legitimacy of his proposed model and confidence in its predictive worth. Each dimension circumscribes a continuum and the unique combination of where one sits on the spectrum acts as a yardstick for detecting the salience of sadness, anxiety, and psychological stress; their neurocognitive vulnerability to mental pathology; and furthermore, the presence or absence of protective constitutional factors able to defend against that pathology.

            Resilience, the first category, measures one’s ability to convalesce from perceived setback through a subtle juxtaposition of personal events perceived as trivial or inconsequential with those that may be perceived as momentous with far-reaching consequences. The next category, outlook, looks to one’s predisposition for unvarnished pleasure, optimism, engagement, and permeability to events, objects, or situations intrinsically judged as embodiments of negative valence. This area investigates outlook to both trivial and momentous moments in life and proposes an existing correlation between the two: if you react in ways where your response and level of activation for a trivial event is consensually perceived as disproportionate and misaligned with the reaction the related external stimulus is anticipated to generate, then chances are that your reaction will be the same for more significant ones.

            In the third criterion there is a shift to the domain of social intuition, that is one’s aptitude and savviness in reading non-verbal and social cues like vocal inflections, posturing, and facial expressions–our attunement and sensitivity to the contextual information on display in any social environment. Picking up on these cues, themselves indicative of one’s true state of mind, is vital if we are to respond in a sensitive and appropriate manner and demonstrate appropriate levels of empathy and compassion. Subsequently we have the category of self-awareness which relates to a general cognizance and sensitivity to emotional stirrings and proprioceptive data along with astute discernment of another’s mental and intentional states, drives, and motivations, and thus to an ability to empathize by default. The fifth, sensitivity to context, deals with understanding and application of the implicit rules governing our social interactions and the sixth, attention, with our capacity to filter out irrelevant extracerebral noise; to ignore emotion-laden intrusions into conscious awareness; and to respond to nuanced cues emerging from the confines of the body or the social environment. Attention also involves unremitting periods of concentration with respect to the completion of explicit tasks and goals.  

To determine the recipe of my own emotional makeup I recoursed to a series of true-false questionnaires in the third chapter, answering each in an honest, perceptive and transparent fashion. My Emotional Style diagram is depicted below:



FAST TO RECOVER                                                                                                                      SLOW TO RECOVER



NEGATIVE                                                                                                                                                                          POSITIVE

Social Intuition


PUZZLED                                                                                                                                                   SOCIALLY INTUITIVE



SELF-OPAQUE                                                                                                                                                           SELF-AWARE

Sensitivity to Context


TUNED-OUT                                                                                                                                                                   TUNED-IN



UNFOCUSED                                                                                                                                                                    FOCUSED

Paul’s scores on the questionnaires assessing Emotional Style.

            According to the Emotional Style Questionnaires, I am a Positive person who is Fast to Recover, Socially Intuitive, Self-Aware, Tuned-In and mostly Focused, however there is an existing vulnerability to overstimulation and an intermittent tendency to becoming distracted during cognitive tasks that require deep, protracted cogitation and rational analysis. The assessment appears concordant with the current vicissitudes of my emotional life and my orientation to the external world. In the last twelve months, perhaps eighteen, I have noticed the gradual manifestation of atypical cognitive tendencies that were hitherto nonexistent. Whereas before I could execute complex mental computations and analytical tasks for hours at a time, now I find myself “spacing out” intermittently, becoming easily distracted by extracerebral stimuli, and switching gears from computational mode to image-making and passive fantasy mode during the process. The mind now wonders, flowing into preternatural nooks and crannies for seconds and minutes before returning like a thunderbolt to the present; it wishes to disengage from tasks necessitating high intellectual demand; and it tunes in and out of important interpersonal conversations without my permission in the manner that adverse weather periodically disrupts and scatters satellite signal, reducing the narrative lucidity and entertainment value of a viewing experience connected with a favorite TV serial.

            Often I’ll ponder whether the problem has its roots in mental exhaustion, a fairly common phenomenon amongst graduate students, or whether there is something far more sinister, anomalous, and perturbing unravelling. Reasons for concern exist yet they have not yet ballooned into grey-bearded cumulonimbus giants because I have an understanding of the self-organizing nature of the brain. I understand the immense power of subjective mental experience, its ability to modify synaptic connections and reorganize structure. The word theoretical neuroscience uses to describe this intriguing phenomenon is neuroplasticity. If imagining a five-finger melody being tapped out over and over on the keyboard with the fingers of the right hand can generate additional grey matter in the motor cortex within the space of a week (Davidson & Begley, 2013), then there’s no reason as to why an incurred biochemical or structural deficiency in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex manifesting on the phenomenal plane as a reduction in overall attentional capacity couldn’t also be reversed through a series of mindfulness-based exercises. In fact the prefrontal cortex, the most recent addition to our cortical hardware from an evolutionary standpoint, is an area that remains fairly plastic throughout our entire lives. We are only enslaved insofar as we attribute these undesirable changes to familial factors and genes. Amusingly, the brain liberated itself from the imposed constraints of genetic control a long time ago.

            Echoing the sentiments of Jon Kabat-Zin, Davidson offers a prescription of mindfulness-based meditation for strengthening focus. Neuroimaging studies with fMRI have shown increased activation of prefrontal and parietal regions during meditative states (Davidson & Begley, 2013); on the other hand anatomical MRI have revealed increases in the concentration of grey matter within the left hippocampus, the posterior cingulate cortex, the temporo-parietal junction, and the cerebellum (Holzel et al., 2012). Davidson recommends beginning with ten minutes of mindful breathing and body scanning per day before moving onto focused-attention meditation, otherwise known as one-pointed concentration. With this particular visualization the object of attention is usually visual–a candle, a pen, a button, or an ornamental fixture on the wall. Once the practices are being performed with exceptional aplomb, he or she should augment sessions by ten minutes every month until an hour is reached.

            My ten minute exercises in one-pointed concentration begin today…




Davidson, R. J., Begley, S., & Amari, F. (2013). The emotional life of your brain. Plume Printing.

Davidson, R. J., & Irwin, W. (1999). The functional neuroanatomy of emotion and affective style. Trends in cognitive sciences, 3(1), 11-21.

Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43.

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