THE NEUROSCIENCE OF EMOTIONS

Einstein said we live in a world of problems which can no longer be solved by the level of thinking which created them. Welcome to the optimistic thinking which is changing what we previous thought to be law. For most of us who experienced Western medical training, psychiatry was presented as a soft, scientifically unproven science which is unquantifiable and without much merit. We learned that once we lose brain cells, the game is over. We learned that if you are nervous and irritable you will always be that way. I am delighted to report that these ideas are being turned over, examined in a new way, and corrected. The brain is changeable, both cognitively and emotionally. The brain may be the arbiter of truth foretelling whether we achieve mental and physical health with accompanying beautifully functioning longevity after all.

I often ponder whether we are capable of overcoming destructive emotions. I question what are the root causes of destructive behavior, unkindness, self-absorption, and the like. I wonder how we can control the emotions that drive those harmful forces. I also steadfastly and optimistically hold onto the belief that we can learn to live at peace with ourselves and others. Of most importance may be how we live in harmony with our own mind, our thoughts. Our status of self compassion often mirrors how we perceive others.

When I am in a good place with compassionate thoughts I have robust health in a neuroendocrinoimmunogastroenterologic sense. To put this in people talk, when I am in a good place I experience equanimity with ease of handling stressors, functioning hormonal pathways, robust immune function, and a gastrointestinal system that performs its myriad functions with synergistic synchronicity. A vital part of longevity is the ability to have benevolent control of our consciousness, to find our skills and passions, to be radiantly healthy.

Because I am so optimistic of our ability to change our neuronal landscape (mind chatter), I suggest that you read one of my favorite books, namely The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D. Dr. Doidge optimistically explains in readable neuroscience talk that changing our cognitive and emotional states is moldable by us. This is called neuronal plasticity, and this is good news. Doidge\’s book was one of the early harbingers of the neuroscientific inquiry and explanation of the term NEURONAL PLASTICITY. OUR BRAINS CAN CHANGE IN A POSITIVE WAY because our brains are not concrete, rather they are quite dynamic and have neuronal plasticity with the ability to change and grow, despite our chronological age.

The following are notes from cross-cultural dialogues that brought together the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist scholars with Western scientists and philosophers at the Mind and Life VIII Conference in Dharamsala, India in March, 2000. The science of neuronal plasticity was a welcome reprieve in our post 9/11 world which desperately needed an injection of optimism. Psychology is being viewed as a brain science which brings the discipline of psychiatry into a new light. The following notes represent my discoveries while studying Richard Davidson\\\’s research of the brain and accompanying neuronal structures. What I deemed to be of global importance will be noted in capital letters.

Here goes: Where for most of the twentieth century psychology explained everything from schizophrenia to child development with little or no regard to the workings of the brain, now it is unthinkable to do so. Richard Davidson\\\’s work draws on the formidable, state-of-the-art arsenal of scientific methods for studying the brain. Davidson utilizes turbocharged versions of the EEG such as those used in hospitals\\\’ neurology departments.

The limit of the usual EEG is that it only reads waves from brain activity that takes place just beneath the scalp. Davidson utilizes state-of-the-art software, combined with a special electrode array that taps far more sites than with the routine EEG which allows him to PINPOINT ACTIVITY AT LOCATIONS DEEP WITHIN THE BRAIN. This was a neuroscientific wonder because LOOKING AT MERELY THE ACTIVITY OF THE SURFACE OF THE BRAIN is a bit like trying to determine the weather map of the US by reading temperatures along the Canadian border.

There is the fMRI (functional MRI) which tracks tiny changes in blood flow throughout the brain whilst offered snapshots of the brain during mental activity. The drawbacks of the fMRI and EEG is that they are self limited due to the source localization brain information they provide. Davidson\\\’s lab draws on work with positron emission tomography, known as the PET scan, which uses radioactive tracer dyes to assess the activity of neurotransmitters (NTs) in the brain which allows researchers to measure which of the BRAIN\\\’S SEVERAL HUNDRED NEUROCHEMICALS which are also called NEUROTRANSMITTERS (NTs) are involved in a given mental activity.

RFM notes that at present we can manipulate seven (of the approximately 7000) NTs via FDA approved pharmaceuticals wherein the molecular structure is often not neurologically identical to the NTs we produce in our natural state. Furthermore, allow me to digress from the Mind and Life VIII Conference highlights with personal comments – there is another brain scan which shows the structure and very importantly the function of the inner brain. RFM comments on her personal odyssey to optimize her favorite organ, her brain. The experiment began by having a SPECT brain scan during rest and concentration, with a repeat brain series in one year. The original scan was done in 2007 with a followup scan in 2008 to assess positive change. Like the PET brain scan, the SPECT also utilizes a radioactive tracer to outline the function of the brain\\\’s inner structures. The SPECT shows the present FUNCTION of brain areas such as the PREFRONTAL NEOCORTEX, TEMPORAL AND PARIETAL LOBES, LIMBIC SYSTEM, AMYGDALA, HIPPOCAMPUS, BASIL GANGLIA, CEREBELLUM, and various other neuronal sub-structures such as the Ventromedial Prefrontal Neocortex, site of Prefrontal Neocortex dominance, etc. Of note is that I have LEFT Prefrontal Neocortex dominance which is presently considered to be a demonstration of optimism, the ability to see chaos as an opportunity to learn, perseverance, etc. SPECT scans are a fee for service journey as this scan is for wellness and self improvement. Discussion of the executive brain functions of the various structural brain compartments will be discussed in the glossary section.

Note that the various areas of the brain do not work in isolation, rather they work synergistically and are profoundly influenced by an endless number of intervening variables which are at present not capable of being measured directly – such as – nutriture status, the immune and endocrine systems, and perception of stressors. The reason I mention this is that our emotions profoundly affect our health. The point of doing brain scans on myself was to see if my one year follow-up scan was capable of change. After reading the neuroscientific literature I suspected that my brain, as well as everyone else\\\’s brain, could dramatically improve. In the name of good science, RFM did a one year followup SPECT which demonstrated remarkable improvement, and a highly functioning brain.

Let\\\’s return to the Mind and Life VIII 2000 conference – Davidson reviewed the role of the brain in DESTRUCTIVE EMOTIONS. This energized a turn toward the practical and presented the genesis of a program to HELP PEOPLE OVERCOME DESTRUCTION EMOTIONS AND CULTIVATE POSITIVE ONES. There is a set of wholesome emotions that emerge more strongly as the afflictive emotions become weaker. This is optimistic science and if someone did a brain scan, the improvements would be duly noted.

The Dalai Lama often highlighted the conference with his quick questions and many interruptions during the presentation which bespoke of his high level of delightful and often humorous respectful engagement. As Davidson continued his presentation there was one theme that became evidently clear – THERE IS A BRAIN BASIS FOR THE AFFLICTIVE EMOTIONS, NAMELY CRAVING, AGGRESSION, AND DELUSION. These are often called the Three Poisons. And they can be ameliorated. Humans can become more intelligent and mentally healthy. Some call this normal.

The history of which branch of psychology held the captain\\\’s seat was discussed. Cognitive psychologists, with their inventive methods for studying the mechanics of the mind\\\’s operations, were to oust behaviorists from their stranglehold on what research was proper for psychology. At the time there was an orthodoxy to be overturned. Mental operations such as images and memory could be studied, emotions were out of the picture.

The neuroscientist Richard Davidson was to lead the way in overturning what had become the new scientific dogma. He experienced ridicule and estrangement from his scientific peers. One of my favorite Einstein quotes is \\\”violent opposition is often encountered by mediocre minds\\\” Davidson spent ten lonely years in which the road he followed was not just unexplored and unvalued but virtually off the current scientific map.

In the mid-1970s Davidson had chosen to study not just emotions but the links between the brain and emotions. Even worse, he focused on the role of the prefrontal lobes in emotion at a time when conventional wisdom in neuroscience held that the emotions were centered deep in the brain, in the limbic system and brain stem, the first parts of the brain to evolve. We did not develop a PREFRONTAL NEOCORTEX until we started eating the little fish at the base of the ocean!!! You need fish oil for a highly functioning brain. THIS IS IMPORTANT – HERETOFORE THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX WAS SEEN TO BE DEVOTED EXCLUSIVELY TO HIGHER FUNCTIONING, NOTABLY THOUGHT AND PLANNING. DAVIDSON WAS SAYING THAT THE PREFRONTAL CORTEX HAS EMOTIONAL FUNCTIONS AS WELL.

Davidson noted that some brain injuries skewed patients\\\’ emotions. Davidson thought that pursing the connection between the prefrontal areas and emotion would be a fruitful research strategy. He followed his gut, and he struck gold. Why, under the same amount of stress, does one person fall apart and go downhill physically, while another stays resilient, going on to lead a long and healthy life. Differences in the circuitry of the brain might offer an answer.

Davidson launched the field now known as affective neuroscience, the study of the brain and emotions. Research that had once looked wildly speculative became the formative kernel of a scientific field. Davidson\\\’s stubbornly brilliant intuition proved right. Davidson has had a deep scientific fascination with how the brain underlies the qualities of the human experience. He received an $ll million grant from the National Institute of Health to study the impact of meditation on brain, immune, and endocrine function, and so on health. That 1999 grant represented a sea change in science.

Davidson seemed quite relaxed as he started his presentation to the Dalai Lama and other notable figures. The scientists who participated in these meetings have been irrevocably affected by their participation. \\\” When we go back into our scientific communities, we go back as different people.\\\” He presented his formal presentation stating that the goal was to review three major points. 1. Discuss some of the brain mechanisms that underlie emotion and the regulation of emotion, and consider some of their evolutionary origins. 2. Cover some of issues that are central to a neuroscientific understanding of afflictive emotional states. 3. Raise some facts and theories regarding three of the major afflictive emotional states: anger, aggression, and fear as one cluster; craving as a second; and delusion or ignorance as the third. Any kind of complex behavior, such as emotion, is not based in a single area of the brain. Rather, many parts of the brain work together to produce complex behavior. There is no one center for emotion, just as there is none for playing tennis – nor for anything complicated. It involves interactions across different brain areas. Among the most important cortical areas for regulating emotion are the Prefrontal Neocortex and the Parietal Lobe. Usually, the Parietal Lobe is thought to represent the senses – such as vision, hearing and touch. The Parietal Lobe also plays a role in mental representations, such as when we picture something in the mind\\\’s eye.

For more information about the ability of the brain to change, aka neuronal plasticity…..read Destructive Emotions by His Holiness The Dalai Lama and Daniel Goleman, and The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, MD.

Updated April 04, 2011