Emotional Intelligence and the Brain: an interview with Daniel Goleman
Daniel Goleman’s new book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights, is a fascinating round-up of the latest cutting-edge research into how emotions are processed in the brain, and how we can better regulate our emotional responses in order to be happier, less stressed, and more creative. This week Bodhipaksa had an opportunity to interview Goleman about the cross-over between Emotional Intelligence and meditative practice.
Bodhipaksa: When I was trying to think of who “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence” would be useful for, I found I couldn’t think of anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading it. Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote the book?
Title: The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights
Author: Daniel Goleman
Publisher: More Than Sound
Available from Amazon.com Kindle Store and Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store.
Daniel Goleman: Anyone with a brain.
B: Well, I guess it would be good if everyone with a brain buys your book. Since you first started writing about emotional intelligence the workings of the brain have become much better understood. What research has most surprised you?
DG: I was delighted to discover the emerging field of social neuroscience, the new understanding of what happens in two brains while people interact rather than just in one brain alone. That ongoing surprise was why I went on to write Social Intelligence, and now “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence.” I’m particularly intrigued by the new findings on the different role the right and left hemispheres play in an “Aha!” moment of creative insight.
B: That was an especially interesting aspect of your book, especially in terms of insights arising when we’ve intensely focused on a problem and then let go of it and relaxed. A lot of meditators, of course, find that their meditation sessions become creative-thinking sessions. And the tradition doesn’t have much to say about this; I don’t think Buddhism offers any advice on how to think creatively or how to deal with creative thoughts that arise in meditation beyond “let them pass.” Do you have any advice — from your own practice or from your studies — of how to deal with creative thoughts arising in meditation?
DG: As a writer, I’ve long wondered about this. Especially because I like to have a period of writing just after my morning meditation session – I find the writing comes most easily then. And, of course, I get lots of good ideas while meditating – after all, the data suggests greater brain coherence during a session, and that fosters making new connections. This was pretty much settled for me by Anagarika Munindra, my first vipassana teacher, who advised me that when I got a great idea during a session, I just jot it down and let go of it. Over the years that pretty much has been a fall back – most often I just trust that the juicy ideas will come back to me after the session.
B: As a meditation teacher I now find I talk much more in terms of the brain, neural pathways, the relationship of the frontal cortex to the amygdala, etc, than I ever did before. Have you see that happening widely, and if you have can you give some examples?
DG: You’re not alone. Jack Kornfield now teaches each year with Daniel Siegel, the UCLA neuroscientist who wrote The Mindful Brain. And as dharma teachers learn more about brain science, it will be natural to weave these findings into talks. The principle of teaching in the terms that people understand – as the Buddha urged – suggests that in the West this integration of science and Buddhism will strengthen.
B: I actually find myself wanting traditional Buddhist models for discussing mental states — the hindrances, jhanas, etc — to be better understood in terms of their neural correlates. Is anyone working on that kind of investigation, or has work been done that can help elucidate those Buddhist models?
DG: This, I hope will be part of the program in the new field of contemplative neuroscience being spearheaded by scientists like Richard Davidson at Wisconsin and contemplatives like Matthieu Ricard of Sechen Monastery, who work in close collaboration.
B: Do you know what kind of things they’re working on at the moment?
DG: I believe they are continuing to add to their database of meditation adepts –- people with more than 15,000 lifetime retreat hours — and also creating a large sample of longtime Western meditators, whose experience totals are lower that the adepts. I also hear Davidson has some neat new methods for tracking changes in neuroplasticity.
B: One of the things you point out in your new book is that some parts of the brain communicate with each other through ganglia in the gastro-intestinal tract. I found that particularly interesting because in my own teaching I emphasize the relationship between feelings (or vedanas, which are really gut feelings) and the whole complex of thought and emotion that follows from those feelings. Can you comment on that aspect of research a bit more?
DG: In sensing the feelings throughout the body, the insula is another structure of real importance. This nodule allows us to scan for gut feelings, or to sense what’s up with our big toe, for that matter. Such sub-cortical circuitry knows more than we can say –- our life wisdom is embodied, cognitive scientists now tell us –- and so vedana vipassana may be one way to tune up our inner sensing ability.
B: Vedana vipassana meaning clearly sensing our feelings?
DG: Yes –- as taught, for example, by Goenka-ji, who was an early teacher of mine.
B: Do you think that at some point scientific studies of meditation might be changing how we meditate, for example by showing that some techniques are more effective than others, or perhaps by incorporating new techniques, such as combining fMRI with visual feedback, as in a recent study at the University of British Columbia?
DG: If meditation starts to be determined by what a machine tells us rather than by a qualified teacher, I suspect we may start to veer off the path.
B: I’d be wary of that as well, although I’d imagine that for some people with low self-awareness who have difficulty being objective about their feelings these methods could be useful, at least initially.
DG: These mechanical aids may prove useful for people with trouble concentrating –- for example, those with ADHD.
B: I was taking the UBC study as an extreme example, though, and was wondering if there might be more subtle factors at play. After all, as you’ve said, the neuroscience is already changing how we talk about and teach meditation, and in your book you tie an understanding of neuroscience into the art of learning new habits — so is it possible that neuroscience might change how we do meditation?
B: So far the research has been quite validating for those of us who practice and teach meditation. Have there been any studies done that you think might make meditators look more deeply at their assumptions? For example, you point out that it can be beneficial to be in a bad mood because you look at things more critically. I think some Buddhists might be reluctant to see “negative mental states” as having a useful role to play; the ultimate goal after all is to get rid of them entirely!
DG: Buddhist practitioners would probably make bad bill collectors –- that’s one profession where people actually put themselves in foul moods to be more effective.
B: It’s probably not an example of Right Livelihood! Which leads me to my next question. Some people are concerned because meditation is often being studied — and taught — detached from its traditional context of ethics. To what extent do you share this concern?
DG: I remember voicing this very question to my first dharma teacher, Anagarika Munindra, in Bodh Gaya in 1970. He said,” Whatever gets people to meditate is beneficial.” The Dalai Lama seems to share this outlook, when he has encouraged neuroscientists to study dharma methods outside the context of Buddhism, rigorously evaluate their benefits, and if they prove helpful, to share them widely.
B: I tend to think the same way, and I assume that an interest in meditation will lead to an interest in living with mindfulness and compassion. Besides I’m already noticing that science is showing that some traditional notions of what constitutes ethical behavior — giving, expressing gratitude, having loving relationships with friends and family — bring about happiness. Is the neuroscience of ethical behavior something you’ve looked into?
DG: Not yet. But Sam Harris has done a good job in his book, “The Moral Landscape.”
B: Lastly (a big question, I know) neurologically speaking, can you see any way the traditional conception of enlightenment as a state entirely free from craving and ill will could actually work? Is the brain that plastic? Can the parts of the brain governing fear, anger, etc go permanently offline or be permanently kept in a state of regulation? Or do you think that Enlightenment is simply an extraordinarily well-regulated brain, but not a state of complete freedom from negative emotional states?
DG: A wonderful question –- the big question, really. The short answer is, We don’t know yet. I love what the Dalai Lama once told me: “Some day the brain scientist and the meditator whose brain is being studied will be one and the same person.” Maybe then we’ll get your answer.
B: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Good luck with your book.