Dr. Kaushik Sridhar

The Emotional Life of Your Brain

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Every person’s “Emotional Style” is unique, like fingerprints or snowflakes. Your style determines how you react  (mental health) to what life throws at you. Developing areas of expertise by repetition – such as playing the piano or navigating city streets as a taxi driver – increases activity and patterns in corresponding areas of the brain. A similar increase occurs when you practice skills virtually, because the brain responds to input from the external and internal world. You can think your way to virtuosity and change your emotional style through intentional effort.

Scientists now recognise that emotions form an important aspect of the mind. Six basic emotions – “happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust” and “surprise” – each generate the same corresponding facial expressions worldwide. Negative emotions correlate to increased activity in the right frontal area of the brain while positive emotions correlate to activity in the left frontal area.

Emotional Style and Health

Emotional styles have physiological consequences. Behavioral medicine studies the way human emotions affect physical health. Socially isolated people have higher levels of stress hormones and are more susceptible to flu. However, forcing someone who is comfortable with social isolation to be sociable would cause more stress and lead to physiological stress responses.

This connection works both ways: the body also influences the brain. Because the discipline of medicine separates psychology from internal medicine, the specific correlations between brain patterns and physiological effects have not been well-studied.

Mental Training

Researchers used a functional MRI (fMRI) to make images of the brains of people who were in various meditative states in order to learn how Buddhist mental techniques support positive emotion and a sense of well-being. This endeavor intrigued the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. He helped the researchers locate monks who had meditated for more than 10,000 hours. Tests with the monks found neurological evidence supporting traditional Buddhist teachings that meditation fosters awareness, focus and a positive outlook, and enhances compassion and a sense of well-being.

Perhaps your outlook is too positive and you are unable to resist today’s temptations because you stubbornly believe that things always turn out all right. To sustain a positive outlook for a longer period of time while building resistance to the lure of instant gratification, build neural connections that support your ability to plan ahead. When tempted by a short-term gain – for example, eating a brownie – visualize your long-term goal – losing weight – in detail. Imagine registering an additional pound lost. Imagine rewarding yourself in a different way, say, by buying a skinnier pair of jeans. Be sure to follow through on your reward. Altering your environment also helps resilience. If you are slow to recover, learn to leave the area where a setback occurs; for instance, walk out of the room where you just had a fight. To maintain or build your empathy, go to a space where good things happen.

To enhance your social intuition, observe people as an act of mindfulness meditation. Consider whether the messages you read in people’s faces matches what they say to you or communicate to you by their tone of voice and body language. You can turn to “well-being therapy” to nudge your outlook toward the positive. Three times every day, write down one of your positive personal traits and note a positive trait of someone you know. Say “thank you” regularly, and mean it. Notice and compliment other people’s accomplishments. Integrate these practices into your routine to maintain your gains. Assess your outlook weekly to see if things are looking up.

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