Today's blog post is pretty science-heavy, so buckle in!
Neuroplasticity is considered one of the most important concepts to emerge from neuroscience in the last two decades. It refers to the idea that the brain is built to change and respond to experience.
Richard J. Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, suggests that “positive qualities can be approached as the end product of skills,” which have the potential to be trained and cultivated.
So the notion that "people are born who they are" in terms of traits is unsubstantiated in the face of neuroplasticity, and it is Davidson’s view that every person is born with the potential for all positive qualities because of this capacity for these qualities to be cultivated with training.
Davidson noticed that contemplative traditions involved techniques to cultivate positive qualities, and he went on to research the ability of mindfulness training to enhance these qualities.
Davidson developed a theory involving six key affective styles based on evidence from affective neuroscience, the study of the midbrain’s emotional circuitry, and how emotions affect attention.
Through the use of brain imaging techniques and psychological concepts of emotion, Davidson determined six affective styles:
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 on 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
Each affective style exists on a continuum and differs in the extent to which they are expressed from one individual to the next. For instance, while one individual has a high expression of a particular affective style, which manifests in their behaviour, another will have a low expression and demonstrate the opposite behaviour pattern.
Notably, Davidson identified specific neural circuits involved in different expressions of behaviour.
So, it has been suggested that by altering these neural circuits through mindfulness, individuals can change their position on the scales of affective styles and, ultimately, alter their emotional experience and behaviour.
This blog post will explore three of the six affective styles: resilience, outlook, and attention, and will discuss how mindfulness might positively change both brain and behaviour, specifically concerning these affective styles.
Resilience can be defined as the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. At one end of Davidson’s spectrum, individuals are so struck down by adversity that they recover extremely slowly or not at all. At the other extreme, individuals remain unaffected by setbacks or actively fight back and recover quickly from adversity and continue with their lives.
Among other research, Davidson studied a group of advanced meditators to determine if and how meditation could induce changes in the brain, which would impact this key element of affective style.
A group of advanced meditators and age and gender-matched comparison group underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on their brains while they viewed distressing images. The results showed that the meditator’s brains had a lower level of reactivity in the amygdala, a collection of nuclei in the temporal lobe responsible for processing fear; Davidson concluded that they were more protected against “emotional hijacking” because their brains “exhibited stronger operative connectivity” between the prefrontal cortex (PFC), responsible for managing reactivity, and the amygdala, which activates such reactions. The stronger this connection is, the less an individual will be affected by the emotional highs and lows of life; as such, they will be more resilient.
Interestingly, Davidson compared the advanced meditators with a group of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) trainees and found no evidence of a strengthened connection between the PFC and the amygdala during the same test of viewing distressing images.
Although MBSR did reduce the amygdala reactivity, the advanced meditators exhibited reduced amygdala reactivity and a strengthened connection between the PFC and amygdala. This result suggests that in the face of adversity, such as receiving a diagnosis of illness, the capacity to be resilient (dependent upon the strength of the connection between the PFC and amygdala) will be greater in advanced meditators compared with individuals who have little or no meditation experience.
However, resilience can be learned and continued practice could be the key to transforming a “state,” a temporary effect, into a “trait,” a longstanding behavioural change. Ultimately, among individuals who exhibited the shortest-lived amygdala response, their behaviour is changed as such: emotional responses are more appropriate, and emotions tend to come and go with greater ease, making these individuals more adaptive.
This rapid recovery is “a hallmark of resilience,” and Davidson suggest that with extended mindfulness practice, equanimity through life’s challenges can emerge.
Outlook can be defined as how long an individual can sustain positive emotions. At the “positive” end of the spectrum are optimistic individuals who always see the silver lining. Such individuals have the ability to sustain positive emotions for lengths of time. At the other end are individuals who experience rapid fading of positive emotions. As a result, individuals at the extreme “negative” end of this affective style have difficulty experiencing pleasure for any length of time and can be at risk for depression.
Davidson was interested in finding out what neurological differences might underlie this variance in outlook from healthy to depressed individuals. In one study, Davidson used fMRI to scan participant’s brains while they viewed images depicting joyful situations, with instruction to either simply view the picture or to try to sustain the positive emotion the picture induced after it vanished.
During the first half of the test, brains of depressed and healthy controls responded nearly identically; in both groups, the nucleus accumbens (NA), a region associated with positive emotion, was activated. This region is also covered with dopamine receptors, essential for motivation and seeking reward.
However, during the second half of the test, healthy participants continued to show high activation in the NA, a response that increased over time. In contrast, depressed individuals showed a decline in NA activity. Following the test, all participants rated how well adjectives like “happy” described them. Results showed the more sustained the NA activation, the more positive emotions participants recorded.
In depression, the NA cannot maintain its activity, most likely due to a malfunction in connectivity between itself and the PFC. As a result, the NA has an initial spike in activity followed by a dramatic fall, represented by positive emotions fading quickly. Therefore, strong connections between the PFC and NA are required to sustain positive emotions and move individuals towards a “positive” outlook.
Research demonstrates that compassion meditation has the ability to alter functional connectivity strength between the NA and dorsolateral PFC, while gratitude practices are associated with modulations in connectivity in emotion and motivation-related brain regions, leading to positive correlations on the depression scale.
These neural changes resulting from compassion meditation have been associated with reduced depressive symptoms, including an improved sense of self and others and greater general acceptance and emotional tolerance. Ultimately, compassion-style meditations may shift individuals towards the “positive” outlook affective style by strengthening connections between the PFC and other brain regions important for positive traits.
Attention can be defined as how sharp and clear one’s focus is. In this digital age, there are many demands on attention and countless distractions. Arguably, many individuals today may relate to falling at the “unfocused” end of the attention spectrum, with people experiencing increasing rates of anxiety and attentional deficit disorder year on year.
In fact, cognitive scientist Herbert Simon observed, “A wealth of information means a poverty of attention”.
An important finding by Goleman and Davidson is that attentional tasks cannot run in parallel; rather, they involve moving from one task to the next. This is important evidence in light of the increasing statistics on multitasking. When attention is returned to the original task, its strength is significantly diminished.
Goleman and Davidson warn that this maladaptation could filter into the rest of life. For example, in one study, heavy multi-taskers were more easily distracted in general and experienced more socio-emotional difficulties.
This could be problematic when individuals come up against life’s challenges. When emotions like anxiety are triggered, the amygdala paralyses executive function in the PFC. As the brain’s centre for threat, the amygdala holds attention on what it deems threatening, making it more challenging for the individual to involve themselves in PFC functions such as consciously focusing attention or planning, which would result in an “unfocused” affective style.
However, various studies with novice meditators have found evidence that mindfulness has the ability to calm the amygdala, which has the secondary effect of improving attention. One study assigned novice meditators randomly to practice Mindful Attention Training, a technique that places attention on the breath, or compassion meditation and used an active control group assigned to a series of health talks.
Participants were scanned using fMRI before and after they had eight weeks of training and viewed a range of images, including upsetting pictures of burn victims. The Mindful Attention group alone showed reduced amygdala activity in response to the upsetting images, and these changes in amygdala function happened at the baseline state, suggesting the beginnings of long-term behavioural change such as “increased activity in brain regions implicated in attentional deployment”.
In short, mindfulness improves attention by strengthening the connections between the PFC and the amygdala, moving individuals toward the “focused” end of the attention spectrum. This not only helps individuals to cope with difficult emotions and challenges, but the ability to manage attention may also improve the propensity for other dimensions of affective style such as social intuition, as the ability to consciously focus on aspects of one’s environment while ignoring others is a key building block for other affective styles.
In accordance with the findings on neuroplasticity, the brain is constantly changing in response to experience, both positively and negatively, and largely unbeknownst to the individual.
Such neural changes have the power to shape emotional attitudes and modify behaviour. Therefore, it is of great significance that people become aware of this knowledge and take responsibility for their brain health, as where one stands on the spectrum of Davidson’s affective style sets the stage for the quality of life each individual will experience.
Davidson suggests mindfulness training as a way of rewiring neural pathways to change emotional style and behaviour for the better. Recommendations include a broad spectrum of mindfulness practices, including breath meditation for improving focused attention, to compassion meditation for improving positive outlook; Davidson is clear that each mindfulness practice develops particular changes to neural circuitry, which provide benefits to specific affective styles.
In terms of the wider implications of this research, there is an increased cultural demand for techniques to improve resilience; burnout has become a widespread issue. Constant stress exposure has a negative shaping effect on the brain, manifesting as the inability to cope in daily life. Mindfulness practices that focus on calming the amygdala will be important tools to arm such individuals to support their wellbeing and protect against future burnout.
Anxiety and depression disorders are also on the rise; Davidson’s theory of affective style can be utilised to address the areas these individuals may be struggling with, such as “unfocused” attention as in the case of anxiety, or “negative” outlook in the case of depression. In this way, the particular mindfulness techniques allocated to these areas of affective style can be applied to induce neural changes and positively shift individuals toward the healthy range of the spectrum, where they can experience beneficial changes to their health, behaviour, and wellbeing.
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