Who among us has not gotten upset by an argument, an unsettling talk with our boss, or a bad grade?
And have you noticed that some of us get over these troubling encounters quickly, while others sulk or fume for a long time?
Just why people some people are better at recovery than others, and what that says about their brain function, was explained to me by Richard Davidson, the director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin. Richie, as I’ve known him for years, was a graduate student with me long ago, and I’ve often written about his groundbreaking neuroscience research in my books. This time I chatted with him for an audio CD, “Training the Brain: Cultivating Emotional Skills.”
To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being upset by life’s setbacks or troubles; we’re wired for that. But some of us flip out at the smallest provocation, or hang on to the distress long after. And those differences, Davidson believes, represent underlying brain function.
When it comes to having a hair trigger or to staying preoccupied by an upset long afterward, the circuits around the amygdala, the brain’s alarm for threat, danger and fear, are at play. As Davidson told me, when his lab use brain imaging with such people, he finds a distinctive pattern in the mechanisms that release cortisol, a key stress hormone.
As I’ve described in Social Intelligence cortisol can be helpful at loswer levels; it’s crucial for mobilizing us to meet the demands of the day. But when cortisol surges through the body at high levels and stays there, we get stuck in emotional overdrive. This, Davidson tells me, impacts our health. David Spiegel at Stanford Medical School found that among women with metastatic breast cancer, those whose cortisol failed to go down at the end of the day ended up dying of cancer sooner.
People with phobias, Davidson finds, don’t have the problem of a prolonged stress response. Instead they have a super-quick amygdala response to what frightens them. That response trips with a wide range of innocuous things, too. It doesn’t take people phobic of spiders, say, any longer to recover than it does other people. But their initial surge of fear is so great that are apprehensive of that response itself – and go to great lengths to avoid whatever might trigger it (hence the phobia).
Then there are people who have very strong emotional responses, but who may or may not recover quickly or have a hair trigger. Davidson says that a strong response with a quick recovery may be quite adaptive emotionally.
Davidson’s intuition, he told me, is that people may gravitate to mates who have similar emotional styles – or perhaps drop partners whose style does not fit with their own. On the other hand, he conjectures, it would probably do well for someone prone to fits of anxiety to find an unflappable partner who might help them calm down.
And, he adds, whatever our emotional style, the very circuitry of the brain that determines it also happens to be the most plastic – that is, able to change with experience.
In our conversation he describes the good news: how mindfulness practice can help us modify these brain styles for the better.