The author is a prominent researcher in neuroscience, specifically what has become "affective neuroscience." That is, the study of the neurological basis of emotions. Here, you will read about 6 distinctive brain patterns, or circuits, that underlie how people react to the world, in particular how people regulate their emotions. You won't read about the difference between brain patterns representing Joy vs. Pride vs. Amusement, or Sadness vs. Shame vs. Envy. Presumably these are higher level categorizations which don't have such clear brain signatures (yet?). Instead, the author describes these 6 brain circuits as the underpinnings of what he calls Emotional Style which govern the context and duration of emotions for different people, and which ultimately give rise to moods and personality.
The 6 categories of Emotional Style are:
- Resilience: How slowly or quickly you recover from adversity.
- Outlook: How long you are able to sustain positive emotion.
- Social Intuition: How adept you are at picking up social signals from the people around you.
- Self-Awareness: How well you perceive bodily feelings that reflect emotions.
- Sensitivity to Context: How good you are at regulating your emotional responses to take into account the context you find yourself in.
- Attention: How sharp and clear your focus is.
At first I was wary of this approach, as there are numerous classification systems for emotions that strike me as somewhat arbitrary. After a while though, it sunk in and I realized how fundamentally these functions affect the contours (ups and downs) and contexts of our emotional states, and how we perceive and react to our social world. It is also extremely interesting to understand the basis for these characteristics in terms of brain function, something which is rarely tackled in a satisfactory way. Sometimes he seems to paint with too broad of a brush, probably a reflection of how much has yet to be learned, but overall it is very illuminating stuff.
In addition to helping readers understand the workings of the brain, readers are encouraged by the author to evaluate their own particular Emotional Style and consider how they might change it. He discusses many ways that the extreme ends of certain emotional style categories give rise to serious difficulties in life for some people (depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, social ineptitude, etc). The plasticity of the brain is emphasized, and the author gives very specific suggestions of ways to change if the reader so desires. I don't want to give the impression that this is merely a "self-help" type of book, as that would seriously underestimate the content here.
A very significant contribution the author makes is his evaluation of the effects of meditation on the brain. Richard Davidson is perhaps the foremost researcher in the world investigating the connection between meditation and brain function, and has worked closely with the Dalai Lama to recruit experienced monk meditators for brain scans (fMRI & EEG), in addition to studying how novice meditators' brains change over shorter periods of time. I have read other books on meditation and the brain (Buddha's Brain, The Blissful Brain) and this book has the strongest scientific basis by far.
In the course of the book, the author describes numerous experiments throughout his career that gave rise to these findings. It was interesting to learn how these discoveries came about, and to consider the efficacy of his methods. In fact, a good deal of time is spent on the narrative of the author's career and research methods. This might be off-putting for some people, but I found it to be a good framework to understand the methods used for this research, and to learn of the author's personal trajectory towards studying positive emotion, the brain, and meditation, though sometimes the author seems to take a tad too much credit (or perhaps he really is that important).
I have no doubt there is a great deal more we don't know about emotion regulation, but the neural circuits described here will inevitably play a foundational role for what is discovered in the future.