Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Mindfulness and Meditation: Six Dimensions of Emotional Style ~ Richard Davidson

Mindfulness and Meditation: Techniques That Can Help Improve Your Well-Being

Free online video course
Created by AARP and Taught by Richard Davidson

Unit 1 Full Transcript

About This Course

Famed neuroscientist Richard Davidson has spent the last 30 years researching the intimate relationship between meditation, emotions, and brain health. And he’s found that by practicing a few specific meditation exercises, it’s possible to change your brain and build well-being. In this course from Life Reimagined, Dr. Davidson explains what he calls the 6 Dimensions of Emotional Style, which are a guide to show how we behave during social interactions while facing adversity, and while navigating life’s curveballs. He shows participants how to find out where they fall on the spectrum for each dimension of emotional style. And he shows meditation practices that can help participants change their brains and emotional style to increase focus, decrease stress, and help cultivate a more caring and mindful life.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Richard Davidson

A 30-Year Journey

I was a graduate student at Harvard in the mid 1970s and I was really fortunate to be around some people whose demeanor and whose presence was really infectious to me. One of the things all these people had in common is an interest in a practice of meditation and that’s what first kindled my interest in this whole area.

This was the era when neuroscience was first beginning, and I was more and more convinced that for a scientific understanding of the mind, we needed to approach this through the brain.

Research on the brain and emotion largely was relegated to studies in rats, and I was convinced that there was a way to do this in human beings and we can begin to investigate how changes in emotions were associated with changes in the brain using non-invasive strategies.

I went to India for the first time in 1974. I think it’s fair to say that most of the faculty at Harvard thought I was going off the deep end. I went on my first meditation retreat and that experientially really ignited my passion for pursuing work in this area.

I first met His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1992 and he was interested in encouraging serious neuroscientific research on meditation. He heard that I was a neuroscientist and also was open to investigating meditation because of my own personal interest.

Up until that time I had just dabbled in this area, and I mostly focused on how stress and anxiety was represented in the brain. The Dalai Lama challenged me and he said, “You’ve been using tools of modern neuroscience to study anxiety and fear and depression and stress. Why can’t you use those same tools to study kindness and compassion?” And that was a wake up call for me.

And I made a commitment to the Dalai Lama that I was going to redirect my life and my career and put qualities like kindness and compassion squarely within the crosshairs of modern science, and that is something that we’ve been doing ever since.

The world is suffering and in fact now is a propitious time in human history for bringing these simple mindfulness and other kinds of practices to cultivate well-being. Well-being is actually a skill. If we practice at it we’ll get better. This is something that’s in each of our capacities, and we really can change the world by cultivating these simple habits on a large scale.


Hi. I’m Dr. Richard Davidson and I’m a psychologist and a neuroscientist by training. And I’m the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

In the very early years of my career, I was captivated by one central question: Why is it that certain people are vulnerable to life’s slings and arrows, and other people appear to be more resilient, and how can we nudge people along that continuum, to promote increased resilience, to promote increased well-being?

We have been, in our center, conducting research on how we can cultivate healthier habits of mind.

And the key insight that all of this work leads to is that well-being is actually a skill. We can actually cultivate well-being in the same way that we engage in physical exercise, in the same way that we may learn to play a violin. If we practice at it, we’ll get better.

And in this course, we will showcase Six Dimensions of Emotional Style that emerge from our research, that all play a fundamental role in impacting our well-being. And here’s the really cool insight. 

6 Dimensions of Emotional Style 
  • Resilience
  • Outlook
  • Social Intuition
  • Self-Awareness
  • Sensitivity to Context
  • Attention
Each one of these constituents of well-being and emotional style are controlled by circuits in the brain that exhibit plasticity. They can be changed by experience and they can also be changed through intentional practice.

And so the invitation in this course is that we can actually change our brains for the better by engaging in simple exercises to cultivate positive habits of mind. 

Six Dimensions of Emotional Style

We all respond differently to the same challenges in life. And that has always intrigued me. We spend a lot of time in airports. And if a plane is delayed, all I need to do is scan the passengers around to see the extraordinary variation in emotional reactivity in action. There’s the businessman yelling at the flight crew, the teenager with headphones who’s oblivious to the fact that the flight was even delayed, and the mortified parents with the newborn now dealing with a a very crabby baby. Each of these individuals has their own emotional style.

Through years of research, I’ve come up with what I call “The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style.”

These dimensions include: resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context, and attention. And just as each person has a unique fingerprint, we all have unique emotional styles. And that’s a good thing. That makes the world such a special place. We need people with different emotional styles.

But sometimes our emotional styles can hold us back from being who we want to be or living the kind of life we wish to lead. What I’ve found by studying meditation and other well-being exercises is that we can actually change the dimensions of our emotional style. They are not fixed. It’s actually possible to strategically and specifically change our brains to better suit our lives, to reduce stress and anxiety, to boost qualities like compassion and empathy, and ultimately, to cultivate well-being.


I will get to emotional style in a bit, but first. I want to explain a very important concept in neuroscience. And it’s called plasticity and it’s truly astonishing.

Simply put, plasticity means that our brains have the ability to change, and that change occurs automatically, without us even knowing about it, from the barrage of experiences and relationships that we have in our lives.

But we can also change our brains on purpose to fit our emotional needs and to promote well-being, by practicing a handful of simple mental exercises. Think about that. It’s empowering. Especially if you understand exactly what you want to change about your brain and why.

So that’s what this course is about. And if you choose to do so, that’s what we’ll do together.

In the first half of this course, I’ll teach you how our brains and emotions interact with each other and we’ll explore the Six Dimensions of Emotional Style. You’ll even be able to find your own set point for each of these dimensions, so that you’ll be able to see and judge for yourself whether or not you need improvement in a specific style.

In the second half of the course, I’ll show you simple introductory mindfulness and compassion exercises that can change these dimensions, and if you so choose, to better suit your lifestyle, and your personal goals.

I’ll also share with you simple ways to change your lifestyle to better suit your different emotional styles. Because sometimes, a simple lifestyle change is more effective than meditation or anything else we can do strictly with our minds.

And for what’s not covered in the videos in this course, I’ll give you other resources that you can refer to that can benefit you as well.

I need to take a moment here to tell you that some dimensions of emotional style are easier to change than others. And some people can change these emotional styles more easily than others.

It’s possible that none of the techniques that we’ll offer will help you change your emotional styles. You know your body and your brain better than anyone else. And if you have any questions or concerns about any of these strategies, please consult with your physician or with a mental health professional.

In Sanskrit, the word meditation literally means familiarization. These are practices that can help us familiarize ourselves with our own mind. You’ll need to familiarize yourself with the dimensions of each of your emotional styles.



Attention - Karen

My name is Karen and I’m a flight attendant. Why meditate? That’s where I start for the day. It is important for me to have that sense of centeredness. Because my work environment has that heightened anxiety added to it. So, people get on board. They get nervous. They get anxious. They’re afraid. They are looking to me for guidance and looking for me to be kind of the rock in the situation. So, I know the part I play. In order for me to feel that way, I have to be balanced. I have to have that centeredness and I have to feel good about starting out the day.

Attention - Richard Davidson

Welcome to the Attention Dimension. Attention. This is our ability to block out external noises and distractions, and focus on just one thing. You might think that attention would be a strange thing to include as part of an emotional style. But I’ve included it because attention is driven in large part by instances and events which are clearly emotional. You have to admit that with all the screens and lightings and distractions and gadgets that are blasting at us, all the time on a daily basis, it’s amazing that we’re able to maintain even a kernel of attention in the first place. But we’re humans, and we have a really extraordinary capacity to focus our attention.

There are two types of attention that I’d like to showcase today. The first we call selective attention. This is our ability to focus on just one thing closely, and ignore other things that may be happening at the same time. It’s our ability to talk to a person next to us at a baseball game while the crowd is going nuts and the beer man is walking by.

The next type of attention is what we call open non-judgmental awareness. This is our ability to take in all of what’s happening around us, including our thoughts and feelings that are popping up in our head, and to bring all of these subtleties to bear at the same point in time. To put it another way, it’s our ability to accept all of the sights and sounds and other sensations around us without getting fixated on any particular one of them. People are really good at focusing their attention, and those people who are good at it are able to zone out physical and emotional distraction so that they can get things done.

Unfocused ________________ Focused

And coincidentally, those that fall at the extreme end of this spectrum are people who we would call focused, or even hyper-focused. And, believe it or not, that’s not always a good thing. Some people get so caught up in the minutiae of what they’re doing that they actually miss other critical things that are happening around them.

Imagine that you’re working at home on something extremely important, some business assignment, for example, and your mind is so locked into the task at hand. Meanwhile, your kids are yelling for you, your dog is scratching at the door begging to be let out, and the UPS man is attempting to drop off an important package. But you’re so completely zoned in on your work that you missed all of the other things around us.

There are those that I would consider to be unfocused, on the other end of the spectrum. Their minds wander from one thing to the next, from their job, to their bills, to an argument that they may have had with their spouse, and the list goes on and on. They can have a hard time finishing tasks, and they sometimes forget that they’ve read something, by the time they get to the bottom of the page.

Now, since I’m a neuroscientist, I really have to talk a little bit about the brain. The pre-frontal cortex controls a lot of attention and guides our behavior. It helps us choose which type of external or internal factor to focus on, and which to ignore. This ability, the ability to choose what we focus on, is fundamental to our learning.

A recent study shows that the average American adult spends 47% of her or his waking life not paying attention to what they’re doing. That’s really an extraordinary fact. They’re too focused on their phones. They’re getting caught up in other activities like getting a cup of coffee. And there are just a multitude of tasks that they’re trying to do simultaneously.

So, how do you increase your attention? My suggestion comes from my experience as a scientist as well as a meditation practitioner. There are simple exercises of mindfulness meditation that can be helpful here. I’ve found that by studying long term meditation practitioners, that simply focusing on one object can boost activities in certain parts of the brain responsible for attention. Specifically, becoming mindful of our breathing, something that we carry around with us all the time. And also something known as the body scan. Both have been shown to improve our attention. We’ll show you how to do both of these exercises in the next unit.

If you are too focused, and you want to be able to have a more open view of what’s happening around you, I suggest that there’s another form of meditation, a simple kind of practice that we call open monitoring meditation. This allows you to accept non-judgmentally all the different external factors and sensations that are happening around you. Here you don’t focus on any one thing in particular, but rather, your awareness is panoramic. This is actually meant to build awareness of awareness itself.

Attention is our ability to focus on specific thoughts, on feelings and sensations that enter our mind, so that we can actually finish what we begin, and we can choose what we think about.



Resilience - Anne

My name is Anne and I’m a Certified Nurse’s Assistant for hospice. I meditate every morning so I kinda go to work fully resourced. I meditate, usually at lunch. In a good day I’ll get a break between every client. In hospice, there are very drastic changes that occur. My energy has to change. The family’s energy might be different. The client might have moved into pain from not being in pain. And so, meditation is all about that, where you really don’t know where you’re going until you arrive somewhere and it feels like new territory.

Resilience - Richard Davidson

Resilience is our ability to recover or bounce back quickly from a setback. If you’re a resilient person, you’re able to overcome adversity and move on with the activities of life. But if you lack resilience, you let the problems linger and they trickle into other aspects of your life and can hold you back. It may even keep you stuck in this aspect of your life for the remainder of your life, if you choose to do that. Every emotional style has a spectrum, that ranges from low to high and resilience is no different.

Slow to Recover __________________ Fast to Recover

On the low end of the spectrum are the people whom I consider to be slow to recover. These people are vulnerable. They are the kinds of people who suffer from depression and anxiety, and they sometimes lose their ability to function normally. For example, if this person gets cut off in traffic, he might fume for hours. At work, he might let the everyday problems that arise amplify his anger, and negatively affect his performance and his relationship with his colleagues. And when he gets home, he might take this anger out on his family and his loved ones, all because of a fairly minor incident.

On the high end of the spectrum are those who I consider to be fast to recover, or these are the resilient types. Maybe you know someone like this, a friend or a relative who is fired from their job or suffered some other sort of illness or setback. And within a matter of days or weeks, they seem to be back to their normal self. Some people are even able to spin a setback into something positive and actually benefit from it. Just like a scene out of a movie, the underdog gets fired and comes back even better than ever.

Now, there are what are called normative recovery times for every scenario, no matter how severe. For example, most people would expect the recovery from the loss of a loved one to take a considerable amount of time. That’s absolutely expected. But the reality is, from person to person, the recovery time for each of these different instances varies enormously. And that is interesting. Those differences have driven my research.  

So what are the brain mechanisms that are associated with resilience? In large part, there are two sectors of the brain that are important here. One is the pre-frontal cortex and the other is the amygdala. The pre-frontal cortex controls judgment and planning and other executive functions. And the amygdala is really important for our emotions, particularly for certain negative emotions and anxiety and the sense of being threatened.

What we’ve learned through our research is that people are able to recover quickly and become more resilient, and these people have heightened interactions between the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala. And it’s pretty amazing to actually see this in a brain scan.

How do you change your resilience? Well, if you want to increase your resilience and speed up your ability to recover from adversity, you’ll need to strengthen the connections between these two parts of the brain that I just spoke about.

The first thing I’d recommend is to try a simple mindfulness practice, such as mindfulness of breathing, which we’ll cover in a basic way later in this course. Mindfulness meditation can have many great benefits. It can cultivate well-being. It can decrease anxiety. It can reduce stress. It can improve our attentional focus, and the list goes on and on. But in terms of resilience, it promotes mental balance. It allows you to gain control of your thoughts and prevent your mind from spinning out of control.

If you’re low in resilience, it’s possible, your mind will move from one catastrophe to the next, compounding the problem. And if that’s the case, this may be a really good option for you.

Another way to increase your resilience may be with Cognitive Reappraisal Training. This comes from cognitive therapy, and it can teach people to look at life’s problems in different and less catastrophic ways.

For example, if you make a dire mistake at work, instead of allowing your negative thoughts of losing your job to take over, you’ll think: “I’ll never make this mistake again. This is not me.” You’ll tell yourself the mistake doesn’t define who you are and you’ll be able to move on more easily. Cognitive therapy is not something you should try yourself. You need to seek help from a professional.

Now, believe it or not, it’s possible to have too much resilience. Extremely resilient people tend to slough off real problems, leaving them to linger and to worsen. And these types of people often lack empathy and compassion for themselves and for others. So, if you wish to lower your resilience, and weaken the connections between the brain circuits responsible for resilience, here’s an exercise you can try. I know it may sound really simple, but think deeply about it.

Think about something bad that may have happened to you for a long period of time, and to take it one step further, write down the difficult and negative feelings that you’re having and read them over and over again. In other words, try to really put yourself in the situation of suffering. And so, that is a way that you can decrease your resilience, if you find that you are recovering too quickly in a particular situation.

So, resilience: our ability to bounce back from adversity or recover from those inevitable setbacks in life.



Outlook - Al

My name’s Al and I’m a potter and just a creative person. I wanted something more out of life. I wanted some equanimity, if you will, some answers. I thought, maybe I should meditate, and it’s a way to get away from the hustle and bustle of life. And if you remember that there’s a point where you can come and sit down and forget about it all. I’m less affected by the negative aspects of life. I understand that there’s evil and all crazy things in the world, but you can’t fix any of that until you fix yourself. And it makes so much sense to me. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be necessarily quote unquote a “spiritual leader” or some kind of guru or anything like that. It has nothing to do with that. It has something to do more with finding more of a purpose in your own life.

Outlook - Richard Davidson

Do you know someone who has always had a smile on his or her face? It seems like nothing can ever get them down? A person like this clearly has a positive outlook which is the next dimension that we’re going to talk about. People who fall on the positive end of this spectrum are the positive types and they’re naturally able to savor these positive moments and sustain positive emotions.  

Positive Type ______________ Negative Type
On the other end of the spectrum are those who tend to be cynical and pessimistic. It’s as though they have a dark cloud hovering over them. In more extreme cases, people with a low outlook can have depression. They can have trouble accomplishing goals. They can have problems planning and they have trouble sustaining their positive emotions. People who fall on the negative end of this spectrum are known as negative types.  

There are a number of different parts of the brain that contribute to this quality of outlook.
Again, our friend the pre-frontal cortex is involved, but it’s connected to another part of the brain that we haven’t yet spoken about called the nucleus accumbens. The connection between these two parts of the brain is part of what’s been called the Reward Circuit. And people who have high levels of outlook are able to show strong connections between these two parts of the brain.

So, naturally, to increase our outlook, we’ll need to strengthen this Reward Circuit. So how can we do this? One of the ways is by resisting immediate rewards and opting for smaller longer term goals. Imagine a cupcake sitting right in front of you, but if you don’t eat it and if you save it for later, when you might be able to share it with friends and family, that would be potentially more rewarding. Every time you resist that cupcake, it’s like a push-up for your brain. It strengthens this Reward Circuit.

If you’re really gutsy, you can seek out and experience with an instant reward and pull yourself away from it or make it difficult to follow through with it. For example, if you feel the urge to go shopping, please go, but don’t take money with you. Just look at all the clothes or whatever it is that you’re shopping for, and think about all the money you’re saving by not buying that pair of designer jeans. Do this everyday for about fifteen minutes and you’ll be on your way to a brighter more positive outlook.

Another simple thing that you can do to increase your positive outlook is to surround yourself with pictures of friends and family and to listen to music that you like. Just make sure to rotate the pictures frequently to keep them fresh. Now, believe it or not, there are some people who actually have an overly positive outlook.

On that extreme of the spectrum are people who are so positive that they may have trouble seeing legitimate mistakes. They might think no matter what, no matter how severe the problem, everything is going to be okay. And that’s simply not always the case. So, if you’re a little too pie-in-the-sky and want to weaken the connection between the pre-frontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens, the heart of this reward circuit, here’s a simple exercise that you can try.

Imagine negative outcomes. I know it sounds like a bummer. But if you’re tempted to purchase a brand new motorcycle, write down all the things that can go wrong. Write down the possibility of getting into an accident, for example. Motorcycles are dangerous. Your insurance will go up. You just made a really big negative list and you can just reflect on it for a while. This might dim your outlook in a situation where it is important to decrease it.

So there we have it. That is outlook, the way you see the world.

Outlook: The way you see your world.

Invite a Friend  - Richard Davidson

I hope you’re enjoying taking the course as much as I’ve enjoyed teaching it. If you are, please invite your partner, a friend, a co-worker, members of your family or your community to sign up too. This course is free, and everyone can benefit from learning about their own mind. Please click one of the share options provided to help put someone on the path toward well-being.



Social Intuition - Ezekiel

My name’s Ezekiel and I am a senior business systems analyst. I meditate because of how stressful my days are. I had an incident where I knew this was going to be a really really stressful situation. So, a half hour before the meeting I just booked a conference room and I just took that opportunity to be in a quiet space and plan mentally what I was going to do. I was able to keep my resolve because I had already centered myself and I had already prepared myself for that level of stress. If you are a very practical person who thinks that this is just a bunch of hooey, I would suggest to just give it an honest go. Like, you will see how it changes your mindset. 

Social Intuition - Richard Davidson

Social Intuition: Ability to read other people’s nonverbal signals.

Social intuition is our ability to pick up on vibes, pick up on body language, on nonverbal cues, and this is the next dimension of emotional style that we’ll explore.

Maybe you’ve been caught in a situation like this. You’re with a family member or a friend and they start talking, and talking and talking. And all the while, your eyes begin to glaze over and you completely zone out. Yet, they don’t even notice. They just keep on going and going, totally ignoring your obvious disinterest in what they’re saying. At the extreme low end of the spectrum are those I consider to be puzzled.

Puzzled _______________________ Socially Intuitive

Or, you may know someone like this, a person who can almost read a stranger’s emotions, by just looking or listening. This is a person who has a keen ability to pick up on the nonverbal cues of others, on their facial expressions, on their vocal tone. And sometimes they even seem to know what someone else is feeling before they themselves know what they’re feeling. This is the type of person who notices when a co-worker is having problems at home, and invites them to let it all out and to talk about it. They’re also the ones who know when not to talk to someone else, and instead, give them some appropriate space. People who fall at the extreme high end of the social intuition spectrum are socially intuitive. They’re full of empathy, and also, of compassion. They see the struggle in others, and they’re able to take action to remedy the situation. In the recent past, this has also been referred to as emotional intelligence.

One of the great opportunities that I’ve had as a scientist is to spend time around the Dalai Lama. And he is an extremely socially intuitive person. To watch him show this is really a very special treat. He has the ability to pick out someone who may be suffering in a crowd of thousands and give them his complete and undivided attention, and simply ask them if they’re okay. Very unusual.

People with autism often fall on the other end of the spectrum, the low end. They have a hard time picking up on the nonverbal cues of others. And they’re often afraid of making eye contact. In fact, one of the hallmark signs of a person with autism is the inability to make eye contact, because this stresses them out, and they actually get scared from it. Which brings us to the brain. 

There’s a circuit in the brain that involves two important parts that is critical for regulating how socially intuitive a person is: the amygdala and the fusiform gyrus. Someone who is low on the social intuition spectrum has low levels of activity in the fusiform gyrus which helps to decode facial expressions, and they also have very high levels of activity in the amygdala, which is responsible for negative emotions and stress and anxiety.

There are a few ways that you can increase your social intuition. The first is by studying and paying attention to the social interactions of strangers. When you’re out in public, check out the facial expressions of people deep in conversation. Then try to predict their facial expressions and their body language. Notice whether or not they’re making physical contact, and how long they make that contact for. Try to listen to the tone of their voice, and the volume, and observe whether it matches their facial expressions. Once you feel comfortable listening to strangers, try this exercise on people you know. Observe their facial expressions, their body language, and the tone of their voice.

There are two types of meditations that can also help to build social intuition. The first is simple mindfulness meditation, and the second is what’s called loving kindness meditation. I spoke about mindfulness meditation in a previous lesson. It’s about awareness of breathing or awareness of other qualities, and reflecting on our thoughts in a non-judgmental way.

Loving kindness meditation involves saying positive things about people to ourselves and reflecting on their positive attributes. Just that act alone, simply cultivating this kind of positivity has many benefits to our well-being. And we’ll show you a simple loving kindness meditation later in this course.

But maybe you find yourself fixating a little too much on people’s eyes and their body language, and you want to lessen your social intuition. This can occur. One way to do this is by simply avoiding eye contact. Another way is to schedule time to interact with people instead of interacting with them throughout your entire day. This will ease your temptation to fixate on others.

So there we have it. Social intuition. It’s our ability to read other people’s nonverbal signals.



Self-Awareness - Krista

I am Krista and I’m a real estate agent. It’s a high stress job. I’ve been yelled at on the phone before. I’ve been sworn at. I’ve been called very nasty names by agents because they’re frustrated with their day as well. Mindfulness and meditation helps me keep myself in as sane and sound mind as possible. If something didn’t go right or something changed, it’s up to me to really bring everybody back into the present moment. So, anybody who’s thinking about it, just start. Quiet your mind. Quiet your room. I mean, even in the car, turn the radio off and just observe who you are in that present moment.

Self-Awareness - Richard Davidson

Self-Awareness: Ability to read signals that your body is sending you.

Self-awareness is your ability to pick up on the signals, on the feelings and on the messages that our body is continually sending to us. Does this sound familiar? Overall, you think you’re feeling emotionally normal. But then a friend or a loved one will come along and ask if you’re doing okay. Because in reality, you look anxious, you may look nervous, you may look sad, and you’re wearing all that on our sleeve. In fact, you’re actually sweating, you have increased heart rate, yet the whole time, you thought you’re fine. 

Self-Opaque _____________________ Self-Aware

Some people have a really hard time feeling their own feelings. It’s not that they’re ignoring their feelings. There are signals that are continuously happening in our body. It's that they’re simply unaware that these signals are occurring.

At the extreme low end of self-awareness are those I call self-opaque. This can be dangerous. Imagine if you’re ill and you have an infection and you ignored all the signals your body was giving you. Or, potentially, worse. Imagine that you had tightness in your chest and you ignored that too, which may signal a serious health concern.

Self-awareness matters for our emotions too. If we can't sense when we’re angry or when we’re depressed, imagine what consequences that can have on our loved ones. We could be a ticking time bomb ready to blow up at any moment.

Then, there are those on the high end of the spectrum that I call self-aware. They know exactly why they feel the way they do and they’re emotionally tuned in to the messages their body is giving them. Maybe they had a bad day at work and they’re angry. And just acknowledging where that anger comes from allows them to take a step back and stop themselves from saying something they may regret later on.

Higher levels of self-awareness are common in empathic people. Since they’re able to know how they themselves feel, they can tune in to how others are feeling.

But too much self-awareness can actually come at a cost as well. Some people actually sense the pain, anxiety and stress of others all the time. And when that happens, they can experience an increase in stress hormones like cortisol. They can experience an elevated heart rate. You can imagine that these high levels of self-awareness can play a role in the burnout that is sometimes experienced by doctors and nurses and teachers and others who are surrounded by the pain and suffering of those around them.

At the most extreme high end of this spectrum, are people who are so tuned into their body that they can actually suffer from panic disorders and from hypochondriasis. These are people who where every little new sensation or feeling or emotion can make it hard for them to live their life in a normal healthy way, because they get so fixated on these messages from their body, and they interpret them as signs of danger. 

The part of the brain that controls self-awareness is really interesting. It’s a part of the brain called the insula, and it’s really a cool part of the brain because its the only part of the brain that we know that has what is called a viscero-topic map of the body. This means that all of the visceral organs, like our heart, our liver, our sexual organs, our lungs, our stomach, they’re all mapped to a specific location in this sector of the brain. This part of the brain monitors these organs, and it lets us know when we’re in danger. Think of this part of the brain as the hub of communication for the mind, the brain and the body to all come together. Heightened activation in this sector of the brain is linked to increased awareness of physical sensations, of emotions and higher levels of self-awareness in general.

So how can we change our self-awareness? The best treatments we’ve found come from cognitive therapy. For example, if someone on the extreme end of the spectrum, say, someone with hypochondriasis, is in physical pain, instead of reacting to the pain, we can teach them to tell themselves that their body feels lots of different kinds of sensations, and this is just another one of those sensations and it will pass. Cognitive therapy can decrease activity in the parts of the brain that control self-awareness, and therefore reduce symptoms of anxiety and panic.

Another way to reduce self-awareness is, paradoxically, through mindfulness meditation, which we’ll cover in Unit 2. This type of meditation helps us to allow all of the feelings and emotions come into our mind without judgement. We can see them, but we don’t need to react to them.

You can understand how that might help someone who is hyper-aware of all the sensations that are occurring in their body. Mindfulness meditation doesn’t teach us to ignore these sensations, but it helps us to change our relationship to these sensations, to be able to experience them in a non-judgmental way.

I’ll get into more of this later. But our research shows that even after a short period of practicing mindfulness meditation, people can show some improvement on this dimension.

Ironically, one of the best ways to become more self-aware is also through mindfulness meditation. So, in other words, mindfulness meditation can really help us to achieve some balance. By starting to identify the sensations and feelings that are occurring in our body, not judging them, we can build up awareness of our self.

Another simple way that we can build self-awareness is to rearrange our environments to suit us better. We can start by decreasing distractions in our life. We can put down our phones and unplug, and find a quiet space to reflect on our feelings, and to pay attention to the signals that our body is sending us. So, this is self-awareness — the ability to react to the signals our body is sending us.


Dawn Bazarko

 Sensitivity to Context - Dawn Bazarko

Hi. My name is Dawn Bazarko. I’m a nurse and a change agent in health care. My mindfulness work at United Health Group began with company nurses back in 2009. I got my certification as a facilitator at UCLA and it has since evolved into standing up this new business Moment Health, and offering programs both in mindfulness and mindful self compassion. I started meditating because I was facing a fairly major crisis in my life and went on a weekend meditation retreat and left feeling like a different person, like something had happened to me. I wasnt sure what it was, but it was probably the first time that I really slowed down. I found that it helped me emotionally regulate and not deal with stress so reactively. It also helped me cultivate more patience and self-awareness so that I understood the impact that I was having on others and the impact that stress and burnout was having on me.

Sensitivity to Context - Richard Davidson

Sensitivity to context is our ability to regulate how we behave in certain contexts and situations and pick up on the natural rules of social interaction that are appropriate for a specific context. Think of it as the emotional style that allows you to project outwardly onto others and to your environment.

For many of us, the way we act at home, for example, is not the same way we would act in the office. And the way we act with our friends is not the same way we might act with our family. But picture this, a man is in a business meeting with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And in that moment, out of all the ways to break the ice, he tells an extremely raunchy joke. Everyone in the room is appalled, yet the man is actually confused as to why everyone can’t take a joke.

Tuned out ___________________________ Tuned in

This is a classic case of someone saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and we would say being inappropriately attentive to context. Those who fall on the extreme low end of the sensitivity to context spectrum are people I call tuned out, and those who are on this extreme low end of the spectrum may be those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

For those of you who don’t know, PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder, is a condition often seen in soldiers returning from combat or people who have experienced a significant traumatic event. What happens is sights and smells and sounds that are similar to those from the traumatic context trigger flashbacks. For example, the sounds of bangs and booms on a construction site may trigger a memory of an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) exploding and that memory could trigger feelings of panic. I think of PTSD as fundamentally a disorder of disrupted context. On the other end of the spectrum are those that I consider tuned in. These people understand how to behave under a wide variety of circumstances, whether with their family, their friends, their colleagues, or complete strangers.

But a person can be too tuned in. Some people are so high on the spectrum that they are afraid of acting in a certain way in public and humiliating themselves. These people also may act one way to their friends, another way to their relatives, and yet another way to their colleagues and actually start doubting who they are as people. They can have a sort of identity crisis. 

The part of the brain that controls our sensitivity to context is a really interesting part of the brain called the hippocampus. And it's known for helping us to create long term memories, but it also helps us shape our behavior in certain contexts or situations. Those who are tuned in have strong activity in this area, and those who are tuned out have weak activity in this area.

Low activity has been linked to trouble forming new memories of contextual situations, which makes sense when we think about post-traumatic stress disorder. From my example earlier, if someone with PTSD hears the construction noise, they automatically associate it with an explosion. In other words, they’re not making the appropriate contextual distinctions between the safe context of observing a construction site and the traumatic context of being in a war zone.

One way to possibly build sensitivity to context is with something called exposure therapy, which is commonly used for people with post-traumatic stress. This is not something you try out on your own. This needs to be done under the care of a skilled therapist, but the idea is very simple. Expose someone who’s gone through a trauma to a similar type of trauma but in a safe context.

For example, if a woman was assaulted in an alleyway and now she’s afraid to leave her house, her therapist might ask her to first learn a simple breathing exercise to help keep her calm, but then have her think about the alley. Then, over time when she gets the hang of that, her therapist might take her to a street near the alley. Then, when she feels comfortable with that, she can take her first steps in the actual alleyway in daylight, and so on and so forth.

The idea is that over time the woman will again feel safety in the area and not associate that alley with the traumatic context, and this enables her to develop better context distinctions. There haven’t been any research studies done on ways to move people toward the tuned out end of the spectrum, but again I suspect that mindfulness meditation may help cultivate our sense of self-awareness. And this might helps us understand our thoughts and feelings and sensations better, and keep us aware of the things that are happening around us.

So, again, sensitivity to context is our ability to regulate how we act in certain social situations.
Unit 1 Wrap Up - Richard Davidson

Congratulations to all of you. You’ve made it to the end of Unit 1. I know we’ve covered a lot of territory with the Six Dimensions of Emotional Style, but it’s really crucial that you learn about the relationship between your brain and emotions. They really are tied together and they drive our sense of well-being. But once you know where you fall on the spectrum of each dimension, then you can start to take steps to alter these dimensions in ways that might suit you better.

Through our research, we’ve found that if you spend just a few minutes a day training your mind with specific mindfulness and well-being exercises, you can change your brain for the better, and that is really powerful. And that’s what we’re going to cover in Unit 2.

I’ll show you ways to change your set points for these dimensions. We’ll talk briefly about some exercises that can help to build compassion and empathy, and may even help to reduce your stress. I'm going to focus primarily on simple meditation exercises because they not only can change your emotional style, but they’re simple to do and they can be done at home, they can be done yourself, without the guidance of a medical professional. And they’re also just a great way to cultivate well-being anywhere and anytime.

Which reminds me of something. You don’t need to be a yogi or a Buddhist monk in a temple to practice meditation. You can start with just small amounts of practice for a few minutes a day in your office or at home, and you can steadily increase from there.

But know this. Scientists are actively studying the dosage of meditation and there isn’t a one-size fits all answer. What works well for one person might not work for another. And also, we’re just beginning to understand how all of this works and why some treatments are more effective than others for particular types of people. But don’t let that stop you. If you choose to, you can take a formal course.

And just so you’re aware, the following guided meditations are not meant to be comprehensive. They’re just a starting point. But we’ll show you some very short versions of popular meditation techniques that you can use. Ready? Now the real fun can begin. 

Go to Unit 2

Unit 1 full transcript posted here with permission from AARP.

May all beings be happy, free of suffering and its causes.

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