Emotional style: the concept

When I looked up the word “emotion” in my Australian Oxford Dictionary the explanation referred to strong feelings. The word “feeling” has several meanings, but the relevant one gave an explanation in terms of emotions. So we all know what it means, right? In our binary habits of thinking we know that it is pretty much the opposite of reason, that emotions disrupt rational thought, that reasoning takes place in the pre-frontal and cerebral cortex while emotion bursts forth from the limbic system and the hypothalamus.

Wrong, says brain researcher Richard Davidson, who with help from science writer Sharon Begley has written a book The emotional life of your brain.

    A feeling permeates virtually everything we do. No wonder, then, that circuits in the brain that control and regulate emotions overlap with those involved in functions we think of as purely cognitive. There is no clear, distinct dividing line between emotion and other mental processes; they blur into each other. As a result, virtually all brain regions play a role in or are affected by emotion, even down to the visual and auditory cortices.


    What is surprising, however, is that much of the circuitry underlying the six dimensions [of emotional style] lies far from the brain’s supposed emotion regions – the limbic system and the hypothalamus.

As he wrote in 2011, Davidson ran a research lab with 11 graduate students, ten post-doctoral fellows, four computer programmers, 21 additional research and administration members, and some $20 million of research funds. He’s chalked up 40 years of work in the field.

The particular concept that Davidson has come up with is emotional style.

One thing there is universal agreement about is the existence of six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. Our experience of these emotions shows on our faces in a way that is universally recognised, independently of race or culture. Many other perhaps less strong emotions exist, such as indifference, or equanimity. To explain emotional style I’ll outline what it is, then what it is not, and then explain roughly how it came to be.

What is emotional style?

Davidson has delineated six dimensions of emotional style:

  • Resilience: How rapidly or slowly do you recover from adversity?
  • Outlook: How long does positive emotion persist following a joyful event?
  • Social Intuition: How accurate are you in detecting the non-verbal social cues of others?
  • Context: Do you regulate your emotion in a context-sensitive fashion?
  • Self-Awareness: How aware are you of your own bodily signals that constitute emotion?
  • Attention: How focused or scattered is your attention?

That’s from a blog post written by the man himself. This piece quotes exactly the introduction of the book, but adds the brain areas involved in each component.

I’d comment on two elements by way of clarification.

First, self-awareness goes also to understanding your own emotional state, which he says plays a crucial role in empathy.

Second, attention includes open, non-judgemental awareness, and emotional balance and equanimity.

Each dimension of emotional style has its own distinctive neuronal pattern or brain circuit, which can be measured in the lab.

Emotional style is the consistent way we respond to the experiences of our lives. We come into the world with an emotional style; elements have been detected in newborns. Emotional style can change quite markedly as a result of life experience, so it matters how parents, teachers and caregivers treat children. In one study, fully two-thirds of children had changed significantly between age three and age nine.

We can choose to change elements of our emotional style, of which more in another post.

What emotional style is not

The smallest, most fleeting unit of emotion is an emotional state, which may only last a few seconds. A feeling that does persist is termed a mood. A feeling that persists for years is a trait.

As mentioned, emotional style is a consistent way of responding to the experiences of our lives. It influences the likelihood of feeling particular emotional states and moods, and of possessing a trait.

Emotional style is not emotional intelligence, which I tend to think of as a skill or set of skills, especially in the frame of management and leadership training. It’s noteworthy that Daniel Goleman, who didn’t invent emotional intelligence, but who developed the mixed model and wrote a bestselling book about it, was at Harvard when Davidson did his doctorate there. They taught classes together and both seek to change the way emotions are perceived and treated in our thinking.

As I understand it, emotional intelligence came out of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (see my guest post at Quiggin’s and the very first guest post at Larvatus Prodeo [link no longer available, sorry]) and was motivated by comparing and contrasting emotions with IQ. We should remember that IQ was developed circa 1905 as a practical tool so that children in France could be appropriately grouped to undertake a very academic curriculum. It remains, I think, a not very well conceptualised mental construct, but one that has become reified in our thinking.

Emotional intelligence is similarly problematic conceptually, but serves a purpose by gathering issues worth talking about.

Emotional style, by contrast, is claimed to represent patterns that emerged from studying the data. Such patterns are said to exist in brain circuitry, however we talk about them.

Developing the concept

In this section I’ll outline some of the early experimental work that led Davidson to develop the concept of emotional style.

In an early experiment participants were shown two TV clips, one of an excerpt of The Carl Burnett Show, meant to elicit positive emotions, and one of news footage about a mining accident. Participants were fitted with a skull cap containing 16 electrodes to pick up energy from brain waves. Back at that time it was a matter of numbers, punch cards and a computer that filled half a room.

The happy images of The Carol Burnett Show generated heightened activity on the left side of the prefrontal cortex. When people feared for the miners the right prefrontal cortex lit up.

This correlated with earlier research by Guido Gainotti who had studied people with brain damage. He found that people with damage to the right side of the cortex were subject to pathological laughter, while those with damage to the left side experienced fits of uncontrolled crying.

Later Davidson redid the experiment using puppies playing with flowers and gorillas taking a bath in the zoo to generate positive emotions. The negative emotions were supplied by images of leg amputation and third degree burns.

This time he wanted to be certain that the apparent positive emotions were genuine, so he arranged a collaboration with Paul Ekman, who did the cross-cultural research on the six basic emotions mentioned above. Ekman had worked out a coding of 44 facial muscles which express emotion. This time they had a hidden camera to video facial response in what looked like a speaker.

An interesting point here is that there is something called the ‘social smile’. Our facial muscles smile, but perhaps out of courtesy or some other reason. A genuine smile shows up in a crinkling in the corner of the eyes.

Taking this into account, the left-right brain activity correlated with positive and negative emotions.

Later he repeated the experiment with 10 month-old babies, using actresses laughing or crying, again correlating brain activity with emotional response.

In a further experiment, dabbing a few drops of either sugar water or lemon juice onto the tongues of newborns produced the same correlation.

In another experiment with 10 month-olds, baseline brain activity was measured. Then each mother and child were set up with the child in an infant seat and the mother beside him or her. On a cue from a flashing light the mother would simply get up and leave the room. The responses from the babies divided into two groups.

    They either began wailing almost immediately or appeared very curious and looked around the room with little sign of distress. The measures of baseline brain activity predicted these responses perfectly. The distraught, crying infants had higher baseline levels of right prefrontal activation than did the infants who took their abandonment in their stride.

Later in 1989 Davidson was reviewing all the data when he was impressed with the individual differences of participants. A positive emotional response to a happy video clip could vary by as much as 30 times as reflected in brain activity. The results were on a continuum but some people were off-the-chart happy. These quite dramatic differences in how people respond to life’s experiences gave him the idea of emotional style.

It was 22 years and masses of research later, however, before the concept was fully formed and written up for publication.

Measuring emotional style

The book The Emotional life of your brain can be used as a self-help manual. Each of the six components can be determined by answering true or false to 10 statements. The statements are not unidirectional. You might, for example, be asked to score one for each True answer to questions 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 10 and False answers to 4, 5, 8 and 9. Score zero for the reverse. This places you somewhere on the continuum of 1 to 10. A score of 3 or lower, or 8 or higher would be a strong result. For example, with Resilience a low score means ‘fast to recover’ and a high score means ‘slow to recover’.

It is suggested that having a partner or close friend fill out the surveys and compare results could be helpful.

An online survey of Resilience is here. I haven’t done it but I assume it’s the same as in the book.

Davidson makes no judgements on one score being ‘better’ than another. It’s just that life is easier when you recover fast and have a positive outlook. Healthier too, as it happens. It’s the old problem that if the shrinks had sorted out, say Van Gogh and Martin Luther, the world would be different.

All in all Davidson’s book and the concept of emotional style provides insights and tools to work on your life, should you so desire.

Fundamentally, though, I’d suggest that there is an emotional dimension to all experience, to every activity we undertake. One can’t say, however, that the prefrontal cortex is always engaged.