The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—And How You Can Change Them
by Richard J. Davidson and Sharon Begley. Hudson Street Press, 2012 ($25.95)

Not so long ago scientists downplayed emotions as cognitive flotsam, the product of primitive brain structures that derail logic and reasoning in more evolutionarily sophisticated regions of the cortex. Dramatic advances in brain imaging, however, are challenging that perspective. As psychologist Davidson argues in his new book, The Emotional Life of Your Brain, emotions are crucial to how the mind works.

According to Davidson, just as exercise can turn a flabby stomach into a six-pack, mental training such as meditation can fine-tune the brain and, consequently, your emotional style>, which he defines as the consistent way of responding to the experiences of our lives. With science journalist Begley, Davidson maps the six dimensions of emotional style--resilience, outlook, social intuition, self-awareness, sensitivity to context, and attention. The authors also provide user-friendly questionnaires for readers to assess where they fall on those scales.

Davidson made waves in 2004 and 2007 after he recorded brain activity in Buddhist monks who were masters at meditation. He found that meditating caused lasting modifications to their brain's wiring, creating stronger connections among regions important to attention, motivation and empathy and increasing brain activity, all of which help to explain the clarity that practitioners report. Davidson's discovery formed the basis for his theory that even ordinary people can change their emotional style by tweaking their behavior. A study published in 2011 in Psychiatry Research Neuroimaging supports this idea by revealing that even novice meditators showed an increase in gray matter, responsible for learning, memory and self-awareness.

Only in the final chapter does Davidson suggest self-improvement techniques, such as ways to develop a more positive outlook, become more self-aware or build resilience. He acknowledges, too, that certain methods, such as well-being therapy, in which practitioners affirm their self-worth and make a point of expressing gratitude and offering compliments, remain unproved. Still, evidence indicates that some techniques, especially meditation, do restructure the brain regions and neural connections associated with specific emotional styles. Whether they will enhance your life, well, only you can say.