Electrophysiology Of Emotional Regulation In Mindfulness Investigated

Meditation can help tame your emotions even if you’re not a mindful person, a new study from Michigan State University suggests.

Psychology researchers recorded the brain activity of people looking at disturbing pictures immediately after meditating for the first time. These participants were able to tame their negative emotions just as well as participants who were naturally mindful.

Mindfulness, a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings and sensations, has gained worldwide popularity as a way to promote health and well-being.

But what if someone isn’t naturally mindful? Can they become so simply by trying to make mindfulness a “state of mind”? Or perhaps through a more focused, deliberate effort like meditation?

“Our findings not only demonstrate that meditation improves emotional health, but that people can acquire these benefits regardless of their ‘natural’ ability to be mindful,” said lead investigator Yanli Lin. “It just takes some practice.”

Keeping Negative Emotions In Check

Researchers assessed 68 participants for mindfulness using a scientifically validated survey, the 39-item Five-Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ; Baer et al., 2006). The participants were then randomly assigned to engage in an 18-minute audio guided meditation or listen to a control presentation of how to learn a new language, before viewing negative pictures (such as a bloody corpse) while their brain activity was recorded.

The participants who meditated (they had varying levels of natural mindfulness) showed similar levels of “emotion regulatory” brain activity as people with high levels of natural mindfulness. In other words their emotional brains recovered quickly after viewing the troubling photos, essentially keeping their negative emotions in check.

In addition, some of the participants were instructed to look at the gruesome photos “mindfully” (be in a mindful state of mind) while others received no such instruction. Interestingly, the people who viewed the photos “mindfully” showed no better ability to keep their negative emotions in check.

In The Moment

This suggests that for non-meditators, the emotional benefits of mindfulness might be better achieved through meditation, rather than “forcing it” as a state of mind, said Moser, MSU associate professor of clinical psychology and co-author of the study.

“If you’re a naturally mindful person, and you’re walking around very aware of things, you’re good to go. You shed your emotions quickly,” Moser said. “If you’re not naturally mindful, then meditating can make you look like a person who walks around with a lot of mindfulness.

But for people who are not naturally mindful and have never meditated, forcing oneself to be mindful ‘in the moment’ doesn’t work. You’d be better off meditating for 20 minutes.”

This research was supported by the Mind and Life Institute, Francisco J. Varela Research Award 2014-Varela-Lin

Yanli Lin, Megan E. Fisher, Sean M. M. Roberts, Jason S. Moser
Deconstructing the Emotion Regulatory Properties of Mindfulness: An Electrophysiological Investigation
Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2016; 10 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2016.00451

Image: Li Yang

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