Whether it's amazingly good news that sends you into a state of euphoria, or a devastating development that brings on feelings of despair and depression, emotional "intelligence" has a way of trumping the rational sort, for awhile at least. Sometimes that lasts for a short period of time; other times for what seems like an eternity.
In between those extremes are many other points along an emotional spectrum that influence our thoughts and behaviors. What is going on inside your head as you process those feelings? Answering, or at least shedding some light on how the hard-wired connection between the the brain and emotional control will be the topic of the next First Wednesdays discussion - and the first of 2014. It will be led by Dr. Paul Whalen, a professor of psychology at Dartmouth College.
"I think it's helpful to visualize what's going on inside your head when you're being emotional," he said in a recent phone interview. "It ends up being therapeutic; at least it does for me."
One of his areas of special interest is anxiety disorder, and using advanced and modern day brain scanning and imaging techniques it's possible to isolate certain "markers" within the brain to detect brain activity.
Those markers can point out differences in people who respond to anxiety in a jumpier or more nervous way than other people do, he said. Anxiety is commonplace - everyone experiences it eventually and sometimes frequently. Everyone can relate to it, he said.
"It's really a question of understanding the difference between being anxious sometimes and having a general anxiety disorder," he said. "There are things we all do - the question is how often are you doing them and are we doing them to a degree where they are functionally impairing your life?" An important route towards controlling anxiety, or some other emotion that tips you off-center, is insight into what's going inside your head that drives or produces these feelings.
Many people don't have a sufficient insight into what they are doing, he said, adding that studying the body - and he has earned a doctorate in physiological psychology - is a good way to understand behavior.
In the early 1990s, a technique for mapping brain activity known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) came into wide use that opened a new window into how the mind and its component parts behaved. It employs a technology that measures brain activity by detecting associated changes in blood flow. Scientists have long understood that there is a close connection between blood flow and the degree to which neurons in the brain become active.
At a brain imaging laboratory where Whalen works, he uses a technique that involves having groups of people look at facial expressions to determine how their brain reacts. This disarmingly simple-sounding method is effective and revealing, he said.
"A lot of the talk (at his First Wednesdays lecture) will be about what your brain looks like when it sees other human beings showing facial expressions - we can tell a lot about your biases. . . . . through something as simple as a facial expression."
Whalen's talk will start at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 8. It will take place at the First Congregational Church in Manchester Village. Admission is free and the talks are open to the public.
First Wednesdays is a program run by the Vermont Humanities Council and hosted locally by the Mark Skinner Library. Local sponsors include The Perfect Wife Restaurant and Tavern, The Spiral Press Cafe and Vermont Renewable Fuels.
For more information about upcoming First Wednesdays events, call the library at 802-362-2607.