Do You Know Your Emotional Style?

Neuroscientist Richard Davidson spent almost 40 years studying the brain mechanisms that underlie our emotions. He determined that individuals have unique and consistent ways of responding to life experiences. These emotional styles are governed by specific identifiable brain circuits.

In his book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, co-authored with Sharon Begley, he describes six emotional styles:

1. Self-Awareness: How well you perceive the physical sensations in your body that reflect your emotions. (Self-awareness is determined by the ability of the insula to interpret signals from the body and organs.)

2. Sensitivity to Context: How good you are at regulating your emotional responses depending on the context you’re in. (This sensitivity is driven by activity levels in the hippocampus.)

3. Resilience: How slowly or quickly you recover from adversity. (Resilience is determined by signals between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.)

4. Social Intuition: How adept you are at picking up social signals from people around you. (Social intuition is shaped by the interplay between the amygdala and fusiform regions.)

5. Attention: How clear and sharp your focus is. (Attention is regulated by the prefrontal cortex.)

6. Outlook: How long you are able to sustain positive emotion. (Outlook is determined by the levels of activity in the ventral striatum, which is a part of the brain linked to our reward system).

I find it interesting that few of these six emotional styles directly correlate with the five basic components of emotional intelligence:

1. Self-Awareness: The ability to recognize and understand your own emotions, as well as the effect they have on others.

2. Self-Regulation: The ability to control and appropriately express emotions and impulses.

3. Social Skills: The ability to interact well with others.

4. Empathy: The ability to understand how others are feeling and respond accordingly

5. Internal Motivation: The ability to fulfill your own inner needs and goals.

Let’s use ES to identify Emotional Style and EI to identify Emotional Intelligence.

There are two emotional styles that directly correspond to two components of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-Awareness [ES] is clearly similar to Self-Awareness [EI].
  • Sensitivity to Context [ES] seems to correspond to Self-Regulation [EI].

The remaining four emotional styles appear to have a less distinct relationship to the emotional intelligence components. You may disagree with some of my pairings. I’m not sure what this says about my personality, but I prefer for things to even out…

  • It is possible that Resilience [ES] may relate in some way to Self-Regulation [EI].
  • Social Intuition [ES] may correspond to Social Skills [EI]
  • A case might be made that Social Intuition [ES] is related to Empathy [EI].
  • A case might also be made that Attention [ES] is related in some part to Internal Motivation [EI].
  • Finally, Outlook [ES] may relate to Internal Motivation [EI].

Despite this apparent lack of correspondence, both emotional styles and emotional intelligence do share one important quality. Neuroplasticity means that the brain (and thus, how you think, feel and respond) can be changed. Becoming more aware of your emotions is the first step in transforming them and your brain. Emotional styles can be modified and emotional intelligence skills can be learned and developed.

If you would like to get a sense of your emotional style, the Center for Healthy Minds offers a short questionnaire.

Richard Davidson is the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds, which is located at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Even though I scored a 7 out of 7 for Attention on the emotional styles questionnaire, I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of him or the Center, even though I have lived near the University for decades.

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