In a 1997 book, John Gottman proposed a fascinating hypothesis.
“Talking about emotions, while also genuinely displaying
emotion puts the left hemisphere in control of both hemispheres”
(p.278. Italics in original). Gottman, whose name has in recent
years virtually become a household word due to his groundbreaking
research on marital relationships, was originally an MIT trained
mathematician. He became a psychologist in the early 70’s
and has striven ever since, to ground the art of relationship
therapy in hard science, so as to create psychotherapeutic
approaches that will have an impact on the woeful and painfully
intractable (if not worsening) divorce rate. For three decades
he has done systematic, longitudinal research and collected
data on what elements make for successful and lasting relationship
and what factors predict separation and divorce. Physiology
is an important part of his study.
The integration of biology, neuroscience and somatics with
depth psychology and psychotherapy has long been a passion
of mine, so I have been an avid follower of scientists like
Gottman for many years. Gottman’s 1997 book, Meta-Emotion:
How Families Communicate Emotionally is a remarkable integration
of science and everyday life, research and practice. Essentially
a book that studies different styles of feelings about feelings,
it is the research precursor to his parenting method. He continues:
We propose that the use of emotion language as part of
the experience of emotion does two things: (a) It controls
the emotion, and (b) it blends positive affects with negative.
Thus teaching children to be able to talk about feelings
changes the brain pathways and changes the brain activation
in response to emotion.
Another part of our hypothesis is that talking about emotion
while also genuinely displaying the emotion changes the
peripheral autonomic control of the cardiovascular response
to emotional expressions from relatively more sympathetic
to a relatively more parasympathetic control. [italics in
What does this mean? The right hemisphere is the home of
the more difficult, and so-called negative feelings such as
anger and fear. We now know that the fight/flight response
and the emotional activation associated with trauma, although
more complicated, reside in the limbic region of the right
hemisphere as well.
The left hemisphere is the home of the more “positive”
emotions such as joy and gratitude. The left prefrontal region
is the site where verbalization, meaning making and the creation
of autobiographical narrative take place. The left hemisphere
is something of a cognitive executive that attempts to organize
experience with thought and words.
The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system
that regulates involuntary action such as the heart and glands.
It affects the release of stress hormones and changes in heart
rate, for example. It has two branches, the sympathetic branch,
which is energizing and mobilizes the body for action; and
the parasympathetic branch which is calming, and puts the
brakes on arousal.
Gottman’s hypothesis proposes intentionally being in
two places at once: in the experience of emotion and in the
observation of, and/or verbalization about the emotion. He
suggests that the thinking, speaking mind can calm the activated
emotional brain and body, shifting control from sympathetic
to parasympathetic. In effect, the left brain might be enlisted
to calm the right brain, and the entire organism, down.
What do we expect would be learned from such experiments?
We expect that, to the extent that parents succeed in getting
children to talk about their feelings and do the components
of emotional coaching, the child’s frontal EEG will
be left rather than right dominant, and that autonomic variables
(particularly heart rate and vagal tone) will show calming
rather than arousal (p.279).
I found this hypothesis very exciting. This simultaneous
presence in experience, and observation or articulation
of it, reminded me of the state of mindfulness or dual awareness
found in many and varied psychotherapeutic and spiritual
practices. It sounded as if Gottman was describing or proposing
an explanation of its physiology and possible benefit.
I thought of some of the ways that I practice. In my work
with couples, intense emotions are activated by large and
small interactions that are in some way reminiscent of painful
childhood events. In the “triggered” emotional
state, partners work to both feel the emotion and describe
it, if possible linking it to the antecedent experience. In
effect, they are summoning the left and right hemispheres
to work in tandem. The conversation ensues in this dual awareness,
and they become calmer. The body settles. The client appears
to be processing experience. The memories appear, if we are
successful, to become less potent to future triggering.
I thought of somatic trauma processing. We now know that
when trauma is activated it can be very difficult or even
impossible to think, as the overwhelmed nervous system goes
into full boar fight flight activation and the left brain
largely shuts down. In the method I practice, we use a technique
called “sensorimotor sequencing.” Here the focus
is on sensation rather than emotion, but the intention once
again is dual awareness. The traumatized person, in an activated
state of autonomic arousal, focuses on the experience of the
arousal, following and naming it as it moves through the body.
Again, with success, the result is calming, the body settles,
the trauma is progressively processed, it becomes less and
less flammable to future activation. So is it as Gottman hypothesized,
the left brain reigning in the right, or progressively calming
the nervous system down? What is the potency of this dual
awareness, long the domain of spiritual practitioners, in
calming a stressed nervous system down?
I recently had the privilege of spending a week at the Gottman
Institute in Seattle. Of course I was eager to ask Dr. Gottman
the long burning question that I had been pondering since
reading his 1997 book. “In 1997 it was stated as a hypothesis,”
I said to him. “Has there been any subsequent research
on this?’’ To my dismay, he said there had not.
So consumed with myriad other questions, he had not gotten
to that one. So the questions remain, and he is not so sure
any more about that old hypothesis. To my disappointment,
he did not appear all that interested in it anymore.
In 1983, the Dalai Lama, a group of highly advanced Buddhist
scholars and practitioners, western psychologists, philosophers
and international neuroscientists of high renown, joined together
to form a research institute. Their purpose was to bridge
the enterprises of spiritual study/practice with the study
of neuroscience; and that each of the represented disciplines
could further the understanding of the others. Their annual
meetings have resulted in a remarkable series of books, some
edited by Daniel Goleman. The report of their 2001 meeting
is the book Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them?
It contains the report of a study, which if not precisely
the one I had in mind, is fascinating nonetheless.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson used Functional MRI (fMRI)
brain imaging equipment to observe the brain function of a
highly trained Buddhist monk in a series of meditation practices,
for the purpose of ascertaining what actually goes on physiologically
in the meditator’s brain. The fMRI is a scanning device
that has vastly accelerated our knowledge of the living brain,
by measuring blood flow in the active, functioning brain.
Essentially it shows us what part of the brain is firing in
the execution of different tasks or in different states. In
the segment of greatest interest to me, the monk meditated
actively on compassion. Granted the monk studied was extremely
experienced. (And not a trauma survivor as far as I know!)
And the study is preliminary. The result showed a marked activation
of the left middle frontal gyrus, the region of the brain
previously identified as being the locus of such emotions
as happiness, enthusiasm, joy, high energy and alertness.
The parallel region in the right hemisphere correlates to
more distressing emotions such as sadness, anxiety and worry.
In the entire sequence of six practices studied, the meditation
practice in question increased the activation on the left
side and diminished the activation on the right. The activities
appeared to heighten calm and emotions of well-being, and
right hemisphere firing was lessened. Beyond mindfulness or
simple dual attention per se, these practices appeared to
be successful in regulating or changing emotional states by
virtue of a particular focus of attention.
I am not a Buddhist or even a meditator. I am a psychotherapist
whose approach has always been highly relational and continues
to be. I am devoted to an attachment theoretical orientation
both to brain development and emotional regulation. Yet I
cannot help but be fascinated and curious as to how we can
best use our brains in the service of our therapeutic work
and our relationships. So my meandering study continues. Have
we any researchers out there perhaps?
Goleman, D., Dalai Lama (2003). Destructive
Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? New York. Bantam.
Gottman, J., Fainsilber Katz, L., Hooven,
C. (1997) Meta-Emotion: How Families Communicate Emotionally.
Mahwah, NJ. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Ogden, P., Minton, K. (2000). “Sensorimotor
psychotherapy: One method for processing traumatic memory.”
Traumatology, 6 (3) article 3.
Ruth Cohn, MFT, is in private practice in
Oakland. She specializes in individual and couple’s
therapy with survivors of childhood trauma and neglect and
their intimate partners and families. She is an AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, also certified in EMDR and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy. Her website can be found at www.cominghometopassion.com.