Weepy, hypersensitive, prone to lengthy periods of unbroken moping after rejection — and those are my good qualities. After three decades of being a pain in my own butt, I’ve pretty much given up hope on altering my emotional temperament.
But a recent article in The Vancouver Sun about one neuroscientist’s belief that we can change our “emotional style” has me wondering if in fact the old expression ‘you can’t change who you are’ is just a convenient excuse.
In his new book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, Richard J. Davidson tackles the misconception that our emotional responses to the world are fixed and therefore incapable of adaptation. In fact, argues Davidson, each one of us has the power to re-imagine our emotional style and re-wire our brains. All it takes is effort, intention and practice.
Said Davidson: “We can’t do anything about our genes per se. We’re all born with a complement of DNA that’s just not possible to change. But our brains are constantly being shaped by the forces around us, and we can take more responsibility for the optimal shaping of our brains by engaging in certain, deliberate behaviours.”
Davidson isolates six dimensions of emotional style — Resilience, Outlook, Social intuition, Self-awareness, Sensitivity to context, and Attention — and suggests that each person is some jumble of these dimensions. For example, someone who lacks the ability to bounce back from adversity may also have a more negative outlook on life or a weakened ability to connect with others socially. Another person may have a great deal of resilience and a keen sense of how to engage others socially. The trick is figuring out who you are and what dimensions you want to develop.
While Davidson doesn’t argue that there’s anything implicitly negative about any one person’s particular style, he does admit that some make life more difficult. If you’re looking to reduce the difficulty and amp up your enjoyment of life, you may want to consider practicing some exercises that Davidson offers in the book.
The Sun offers a handful of sample exercises. For example, to change a gloomy outlook make a point of writing down something positive about yourself and someone you deal with regularly and do this three times a day. If you want to work on your social intuition, next time you’re in a public place rather than drift off internally, focus on the sounds and voice around you. “Tune into specific voices; focus not on the intent but on the tone of voice. Describe to yourself what that tone conveys: serenity, joy, anxiety, stress, etc.”