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Ruth Cohn
Emotion, Mindfulness and Therapeutic Change: Reflections on How We Use Our Brains

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 original]

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.

He continues:

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.

© 2005