Emotional Yoga: The importance of emotional flexibility for emotional well-being

Tom Hollenstein

Whether you are frequently wearing Lulu Lemon gear or not, it is difficult to miss the assurgency of yoga as a popular fitness activity. Taking the emphasis away from measurement-based exercise, like marathon running or bench presses, yoga is first and foremost about flexibility. Breathe. Stretch. Relax. Repeat.

In a similar way, one branch of emotion research over the past decade has begun to show the benefits of emotional flexibility.

In the most general sense, flexibility requires change in response to an event. With objects, as with bodies, this is often reflected in bending or changing shape somehow in order to accommodate shifting conditions without losing integrity. The opposite, then, is rigidity, where the object or body resists and retains its pre-existing shape. At its core, the concept of flexibility/rigidity is all about adaptation to local conditions in the environment.

With emotional flexibility, the same distinctions apply.

From moment-to-moment, emotions ebb and flow in a constant stream from one state to the next. A simple ritual of reading the newspaper can create a sequence of anger at a politician, sadness about the passing of a favorite celebrity, and a chuckle from the cartoon on page 12. Interacting with other people also punctuates that ebb and flow through complaints, joking, or interest.

flexible-emotions-Google-SearchA group of researchers led by Peter Kuppens and Peter Koval have examined this ebb and flow as emotional inertia, or the tendency to remain in an emotional state, even when conditions are changing (rigidity). To measure inertia, they use a type of correlation called an autocorrelation, which refers to the degree of correlation between a first moment (let’s call it time 1) with the next moment (let’s call it time 2) and so on. Higher autocorrelations of emotional states means that a person’s emotions are similar across multiple instances and that they are not changing very much. This indicates greater rigidity. Imagine being stuck in an angry mood all day and not reacting positively when you see an old friend. This would be pretty rigid. Now you might think that the reverse could be a good thing—getting stuck in a positive mood in the face of negative events, but this can be rigid too. Imagine you stay positive in the face of a slew of negative events during a really bad day (e.g., you get passed up for a promotion, you learn a friend is sick, you get in a fender-bender on the way home). This might buffer you from the effects of the negative events, but staying positive might also mean that you’re not appropriately reacting to those events or doing anything to change them. It might be more adaptive to get sad or angry when you get passed over for a promotion because it will make you try harder in the future. Consistent with this logic, a series of studies demonstrated that higher inertia, of both positive and negative emotions, has been associated with rumination and low self-esteem, but especially depression and the onset of depression in adolescents. Getting stuck, even in positive states, is not desirable.

But individual’s emotions don’t rise and fall in a vacuum. Most of the time, one’s emotions are ebbing and flowing because of interacting with someone else, whose emotions are also ebbing and flowing. Now add a third person. How can we measure that complexity?

My research group examines emotional flexibility among two or three interacting people by first viewing them as complex dynamic systems. Without getting too technical, the idea is that two people – let’s call them a “dyad” (as opposed to a monad or triad) – form a system of mutual influence on each other. The emotional patterns or “dynamics” of the interaction reveal the nature of that system. At a relatively simple level, we can characterize these dyadic systems as more or less flexible by measuring (1) the range of emotional states experienced; (2) the number of changes in emotional states experienced across time; and (3) the tendency to have short vs. long durations in emotional states. The image below shows the difference between a flexible mother-child dyad discussing a conflict they have at home and a rigid dyad doing the same thing.

Flexible gridrigid grid

Figure from Hollenstein, T. (2013). State Space Grids. New York: Springer.

These state space grids depict all possible emotional states of the mother (horizontal axis) and child (vertical axis) along 5 categories of different types of emotional experiences (e.g., a Hi Pos experience might be feeling excited whereas a Lo Pos experience might be feeling calm). This is simplified for the sake of illustration but can be done with any type of emotional experiences. Each box or cell of the grid represents one state; for example, the bottom left cell is for those moments when both mother and child are in highly negative states (e.g., angry, anxious). The dots and blue lines trace the sequence of those states across the interaction, and the size of the dot indicates how long they were in that particular state. Thus, you can see that the flexible dyad on the left has a greater range of states, (more cells occupied), makes more transitions (more lines), and has shorter durations (smaller dots) than the dyad on the right. The pattern for the flexible dyad on the left is like a movie, with the parent and child sharing and exchanging emotional expressions in fluid motions. The pattern for the rigid dyad on the right is like a series of still photographs, with the parent and child posing for a while and then shifting poses only occasionally. Using this technique, my colleagues and I have been able to show how:

 

Although it is not immediately intuitive, these studies indicate that these effects occur above and beyond emotional intensity or the emotions being experienced – inertia and rigidity in both positive and negative states is problematic. The take home message is clear: experiencing and expressing emotions in a flexible way is generally indicative of healthy functioning in day-to-day life.

Colloquially, it is common to use flexibility and rigidity when describing others. We praise people for going with the flow, chilling out, or rolling with the punches, but then denigrate the stick in the mud or someone stuck in a rut. Perhaps what we are picking up on is a person’s ability to move in and out of emotional states with relative ease. In addition to making sure to do your sun salutations or enough reps, it is just as important to stretch your emotional muscles.

 

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Where in the brain are emotions?

Kristen Lindquist

This post is the latest in our Introduction to the Neuroscience of Emotion series. It discusses research using healthy human subjects and functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI for short) to understand the brain basis of emotions. In coming months, we’ll have posts about studying individuals and animals with brain lesions as well as other neuroscience tools.

According to Aristotle, emotions come from your heart. In his view, the brain is just a pile of meat that is used to cool the blood. We’ve learned a thing or two about the structure and function of anatomy since the time of Aristotle; almost everyone today agrees that emotions—and mental life, more generally—originate in the brain. But, the question that remains for modern neuroscientists is how this happens. Philosopher David Chalmers calls this “the hard problem” for a reason – understanding how the brain creates conscious experiences such as emotions is extremely challenging. Despite how hard this problem is, we’ve learned a lot over the past several decades about how the brain creates the mind, and in particular, how the brain creates our emotions.

One of the major focuses of my laboratory is to understand how emotions emerge from the complex firing of neurons across the brain. We typically study emotions in healthy adults, meaning that we’re interested in how emotions work when people are functioning optimally. Knowing how the brain creates emotions in healthy people helps scientists to begin to target what goes wrong when someone suffers from a mental disorder such as anxiety or depression. The majority of our research uses neuroimaging—or what is called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI for short). We use the same MRI machine that your doctor uses when she examines a tear in your knee, although we put people in the scanner head-first to examine their brain activity. This feat is accomplished via a fortunate property of the blood—it has different magnetic properties when it is carrying oxygen to your neurons v. when the neurons have used up all its oxygen; changes in how much oxygen are present in brain tissue can be detected by the MRI machine. Since “active” neurons need more oxygen, we can identify regions that are relatively more active during one mental event (e.g., feeling excited about an upcoming party) v. another (e.g., feeling neutral about making dinner tonight). In our studies, we ask people to experience certain emotions by showing them evocative images (e.g., a picture of a striking snake), having them recall emotional events (e.g., the death of a loved one), or even putting them in emotional situations (e.g., telling them they need to give a speech that we will evaluate) and examine which brain regions are more “active.” Decades of research have now examined this question and have revealed some interesting and surprising findings.

From Lindquist et al. (2012)

For a long time it was assumed that each emotion has its own neural real estate in the form of dedicated neural circuitry that is responsible for its creation. This can be seen in the belief that an emotion comes from certain brain area (e.g., the amygdala) or a network of areas in the evolutionarily “old” portion of the brain (e.g., a network in the brainstem and other regions below the evolutionarily “new” cortex). However, despite what many people (scientists and non-scientist alike) believe to be true, we do not find that there is one region or circuit for a given emotion (e.g., fear). One of our most comprehensive projects was a “meta-analysis” that summarized the findings of all of the existing fMRI studies to date. Our method was designed to reveal which brain regions were consistently active across different studies and types of emotion (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness) and which brain regions were specifically active during certain emotions (anger v. disgust v. fear v. happiness v. sadness). We found that much of the brain is consistently active when someone is “having an emotion”—not just the brainstem and subcortical regions (see figure above: regions in pink, orange and yellow represent regions that are consistently active across all studies of anger, disgust, fear, happiness and sadness). What was interesting about these consistently active regions was that they included brain areas that we know are involved in the types of “hot” body changes that accompany emotions (e.g., increases in heart rate, respiration, etc.), but they also included regions associated with the type of “cool” so-called cognitive functions aren’t generally associated with emotions such as attention, memories, and language. Each type of brain region was involved in all the emotions studied. Moreover, not a single brain region in our analysis was specific to any given emotion. For instance, the amygdala was not the brain basis of fear as is typically assumed (for another recent discussion from renowned neuroscientist Joe LeDoux see here). Instead, the amygdala was active across every type of emotion experience we looked at in our analysis (including fear but also anger, disgust, sadness, and happiness).

Brain_network

My latest research demonstrates that these brain regions are not just acting alone, but in concert with one another as parts of complex networks (see figure to the left for an image of what brain networks might look like–dots represent regions in the brain and lines represent connections between different regions). Take a minute and think about your social networks—you are probably part of several different social networks consisting of people who are connected by some function: you might have your work network, your family network, your neighborhood network, your exercise network, your school network, etc. Brain networks are just like this, except they are groups of brain regions working together to serve some function.

An emerging idea in neuroscience is that these groups of brain networks—what we call functional networks—are kind of like the basic “ingredients” of the brain. Just like ingredients in your pantry, they combine together to produce more complex products. Just as oil, flour, baking soda, and water can be combined to make cookies, pancakes, breads, etc. different brain networks supporting basic functions combine to create emotions, thoughts, perceptions, and all the mental stuff we experience on a day to day basis. We are finding that the particular combination of these network-based “ingredients” differs when you’re experiencing anger v. fear (see here), and even when you’re experiencing a thought v. an emotion (see here).

What’s compelling about these findings is that it appears that your emotions, and all your mental states for that matter, are created out of the same basic “ingredients” of the mind (for a more in-depth discussion, see here). These ingredients probably serve very basic functions such as activating your body for engaging in actions, representing your body changes as feelings, representing your past experiences in order to make meaning of the present, processing visual and auditory information from the world, and directing your attention to changes outside in the world or inside your body. The idea that your mental states are the complex products of basic “ingredients” is fundamentally different from the idea that each brain region serves its own special function for its own specific mental state. This new view also begins to chart a different path forward for understanding mental illness—a person with anxiety might not have something amiss with their “fear center,” but might instead have something wrong with a system that activates the body or a system that shifts attention (or both). We’re still just scratching the surface of how your brain creates emotions and fMRI offers only a single lens, but it’s already telling us important new things about how our brain creates our mental lives.

 

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We Are Not Born Alone

Tom Hollenstein

Relationships are good for us. For years, correlational study after correlational study has reported better health and mental health, longer life, less stress and negative emotions, and more happiness and positive emotions for those with good relationships compared to those with poor and/or few relationships.

As an example, consider an upcoming deadline at work that you worry you will not be able to meet, potentially resulting in dire consequences for your company and/or your job. Anxiety. Stress. The better you are able to manage that anxiety, the more likely you are to be able to focus and complete the task. If you are alone, both at home and at work, then the regulation of this stress is all on you. If you have good relationships both at work and at home, there are people to support you, encourage you, and help you feel less anxious.

How does this work?

The prevailing explanation is that relationships add benefits to individuals. Our default, or baseline, is as a solitary individual. This solitary baseline can then be enhanced by close relationships. Have one good relationship? That’s great. Have two? That’s even better. Have great relationships at home, work, and in the community? That’s the best. Let’s call this the Law of Added Positives: psychologically and biologically, good relationships provide extra positives to minimize individuals’ negatives.

However, according to Social Baseline Theory, based on evolution, neuroscience, and emotion advanced by James Coan and colleagues, the Law of Added Positives is not the way things work. In fact, they seem to work in reverse.

For millions of years, humans have been born into environments that included other people. Life begins with strong physical attachments to a mother that become5621007786_aa441a3deb_o strong emotional attachments to her and a group of (often related) others. Those that bonded and worked together for common solutions thrived; those that fought and worked against each other did not. An isolated individual was and remains an anomaly, someone unlikely to have the resources – resources that are as much psychological (e.g., emotional) and biological (e.g., neurological) as material. (e.g., food) – to survive and reproduce.

That is, our baseline or default circumstance is social.

Human biological systems evolved for – and now expect – a social environment where existential risk is distributed (i.e., safety in numbers) and survival efforts are shared. Fight the bear by yourself and you will expend a lot of energy and are less likely to survive; be one of a group fighting off the attacking bear, each individual using less energy with a greater likelihood that you survive. Less energy and greater chance of survival – that is what evolution is all about.

So how does this translate to modern day humans and the relationships-health connection? First consider some preliminary evidence provided by Proffitt and colleagues.

  1. Perception of effort is biased by energy cost/benefit. People perceive hills as steeper and distances as farther away when they are wearing a heavy backpack compared to when they are not. This is taken as evidence that neurobiological systems automatically adjust the perception of difficulty based on the energy required.
  2. Social proximity reduces perception of energy costs. If your friend is standing next to you with a heavy backpack, you will perceive the hill as less steep and the distance as not as far. Just being near someone else lightens the load.
  3. The closer the relationship, the greater the effect. It is not merely the presence of any other human being that indicates load sharing. Your best friend has a bigger effect on your perception of incline and distance than a new acquaintance.

So, if you’re facing that deadline at work alone, it may make the task seem more difficult and less possible.

Coan and colleagues developed Social Baseline Theory based on this and other evidence but tested it more directly, by looking at threat processing in the brain. They conducted a hand-holding fMRI study with three conditions: no hand holding, holding the hand of a stranger, and holding the hand of their partner. Participants received a mild ankle shock on 20% of trials in which they saw a threat cue on a screen. Threat-related brain activity was greatest in the alone condition, less in the stranger condition, and the least in the partner condition. Like the backpack studies, those with the least amount of threat-related brain activity had the highest quality relationships with their hand-holder. Other studies have shown this effect as well.

Instead of relationships adding some extra positives, as the Law of Added Positives would assume, those with the most load sharing were the most efficient at processing threat, requiring the least energy. As social connection and therefore load sharing, diminished, more energy for neural activation was required to deal with the threat. Maybe the law is one of Added Negatives.

Perhaps the greatest implication of Social Baseline Theory is the way that we conduct psychological, especially emotional, research. In an effort to minimize extraneous variables, much of what we have come to understand about human thoughts and feelings and behavior has come from experimental isolation – a single human alone in a room in front of a computer. The assumption has been that the individual is the fundamental unit of analysis and when we include other people it is to enhance or diminish whatever capacities were witnessed in isolation. Perhaps what we have revealed is human functioning at its least efficient, most taxing, and least natural.

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Pride and Guilt: Affective Keys to Sustainability

Lisa Williams

By most accounts, the 2015 Paris COP21 Summit in December was a success. Member nations committed to restricting global warming to no more than 2°C, and ideally only 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels – largely by cutting greenhouse gas emissions. While such nation-level commitment is of utmost import, slowing or curbing the negative effects of climate change will also require people to take actions themselves. A body of recent research highlights how emotions might play a pivotal role in motivating such actions.

Empirical findings point to two specific emotions that might be at the heart of pro-environmental action: pride and guilt. Pride arises from engaging in socially-valued behaviors and reinforces doing them. Guilt, on the other hand, stems from performing socially-sanctioned behaviors and dissuades doing them.

It appears that the simple anticipation of pride or guilt carries the potential to shape pro-environmental behavior. Specifically, anticipated pride from engaging in sustainable behavior and guilt from not doing so promotes intentions to engage in sustainable consumption.1,2 As such, it appears that it would require no more than thinking about the pride one would feel after buying an electric car or the guilt over choosing to not install solar panels to bring about sustainable choices.

There is also promise that pride and guilt can be leveraged to promote sustainability at the group level. In one study, when guilt was elicited by thinking about the in-group’s responsibility for environmental damage, individuals endorsed efforts to redress the damage.3 Pride elicited by thinking about the in-group’s responsibility for environmental protection led individuals to endorse further environmental protection.

We have insight into why pride and guilt have these effects. Once feeling guilty or proud, individuals feel more responsible for their choices,4,5 thus increasing the likelihood that they take it upon themselves to make better choices. More generally, both pride and guilt promote self-control,6 which is key if individuals want to change entrenched past patterns of behavior.

Whether at the individual or group-level, felt in the moment or anticipated in the future, or via responsibility or self-control, it is clear that pride and guilt carry the power to lead us to engage in actions that benefit the environment. If we set personal sustainability targets, pride and guilt will provide the impetus to stick to them.Earth marble

The challenge, then, becomes how to capitalize on pride and guilt to maximize positive environmental behavior. Research in the context of voting behavior suggests that something as simple as the threat of publicizing individuals’ (in)action can be the spark to bring about these socially-oriented emotions, and, in so doing, behavioral change.7 In fact, I’d suggest that pride and guilt may underlie the success of the Neighbourhood Scoreboards Project,8 which investigated the effect of posting energy usage and ranking on the facades of houses in a neighborhood in Sydney, Australia. Simple outcome: a 2.5% drop in energy consumption.

 

References:

1 Onwezen, M. C., Antonides, G., & Bartels, J. (2013). The Norm Activation Model: An exploration of the functions of anticipated pride and guilt in environmental behavior. Journal of Economic Psychology, 39, 141–153.

2 Onwezen, M. C., Bartels, J., & Antonides, G. (2014). The self‐regulatory function of anticipated pride and guilt in a sustainable and healthy consumption context. European Journal of Social Psychology, 44(1), 53–68.

3  Harth, N. S., Leach, C. W., & Kessler, T. (2013). Guilt, anger, and pride about in-group environmental behavior: Different emotions predict distinct intentions. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 34, 18–26.

4 Antonetti, P., & Maklan, S. (2014). Feelings that make a difference: How guilt and pride convince consumers of the effectiveness of sustainable consumption choices. Journal of Business Ethics, 124(1), 117–134.

5 Antonetti, P., & Maklan, S. (2014). Exploring postconsumption guilt and pride in the context of sustainability. Psychology and Marketing, 31(9), 717–735.

6 Hofmann, W., & Fisher, R. R. (2012). How guilt and pride shape subsequent self-control. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(6), 682–690.

7 Panagopoulos, C. (2010). Affect, social pressure and prosocial motivation: Field experimental evidence of the mobilizing effects of pride, shame and publicizing voting behavior. Political Behavior, 32, 369–386.

8 Vande Moere, A., Tomitsch, M., Hoinkis, M., Johansen, S., & Trefz, E. (2011). Comparative Feedback in the Street: Exposing Residential Energy Consumption on House Facades. Proceedings of 13th IFIP TC13 Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (INTERACT ’11), Part I, LNCS 6946, Springer: 470-488.

 

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Narrowing the Achievement Gap with Social-Emotional Skills

Sherri Widen

By the time of kindergarten entry there is an achievement gap between children from low income families and those from higher income families. This gap continues to grow as children progress through school – low income children are less likely to complete high school, attend college, or find well-paying jobs. An important component of school-readiness is how well children are able to successfully navigate social and emotional situations. Social-emotional skills, for example, help children (and adults) get along with others and focus on tasks. The question is: How can we narrow the achievement gap between low- and higher-income children?

One factor that influences educational disparities is differences in family income level and children’s early learning opportunities at home. Indeed, by four years of age, children in low-income families have heard about 30 million fewer words than wealthier children. Such gaps are troubling given the strong links between early home environments and children’s development of social, emotional, literacy, and numeracy skills, which are critical for later academic success.

The story is not just about how economic resources shape cognitive learning – children’s early acquisition of social and emotional skills also creates meaningful differences in long-term success. Children who enter kindergarten with poor social-emotional skills have more difficulty forming and maintaining friendships, more behavior problems, and lower levels of academic achievement. Emotion regulation and self-regulation skills contribute to a variety of other skills that help children succeed in school including following directions, maintaining focus on a task, engaging in classroom activities, and working independently – skills that affect self-confidence, peer relationships, and coping with stress, which in turn affect academic success. But there is hope. Social-emotional skills can be developed via strategic interventions, and children who start out at a disadvantage may be able to overcome learning gaps.

One promising parenting intervention is Ready4K. Ready4K leverages the power of text messaging – texting is nearly ubiquitous (especially among traditionally texting at breakfastunderserved families) and extremely inexpensive and easy to scale – to support parents and enhance the home learning environment. Each week, Ready4k sends text messages with information and activities related to school-readiness skills to parents of preschoolers. So as not to overwhelm parents, and in an effort to help them build new parenting “muscles,” the information is provided in bite-sized pieces and recommended activities take only a few minutes a day and build on existing family routines. Ready4K has already used text-messages to improve preschoolers’ early literacy skills. This year, for the first time, the program will include text messages to support preschoolers’ social-emotional skills. For instance, it encourages parents to increase their children’s self-confidence by letting their children make choices. As another example, the new messages promote perseverance in children by praising their efforts on a difficult task. The hope is that stronger social-emotional skills will provide a solid foundation for children’s future success in school. By harnessing the power of text messaging (which most people have already) to deliver useful information to parents, we hope to help parents to raise the next generation of socio-emotionally competent children and narrow the achievement gap.