Studies suggest that mindfulness meditation can help to regulate the emotions.
The University of California-Berkeley define mindfulness as: "Maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment."
A Harvard Help Guide tells us that: "Above all, mindfulness practice involves accepting whatever arising in your awareness at each moment."
Mindfulness has gained popularity in recent years. Rooted in religious practice and prayer, and especially in Buddhism, proponents claim that it can benefit the immune system, improve attention and memory, and increase the density of gray matter in the brain.
The search for neural associations that underlie mindfulness
Now, researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) have found neural evidence that mindfulness helps to control negative feelings, not just in people who are naturally disposed to be mindful or well-practiced in meditation, but in anyone.
On the basis that mindfulness can help to regulate the emotions, the team wanted to know whether someone who is not naturally mindful can enter a "mindfulness state of mind" through a decision to do so, or by undertaking a focused, deliberate effort.
The team of psychology researchers, led by Yanli Lin, an MSU graduate student, invited a group of 68 native English-speaking females, who had not practiced mindfulness meditation before, to participate in the study. Analysis showed that participants came to the experiment with different levels of natural mindfulness.
Each participant wore an electrode cap, to enable EEG recording. They then took part in one of two 18-minute activities. Some listened to a guided meditation, while others were exposed to a language-learning presentation.
Immediately after the meditation, they were shown some disturbing pictures - for example, a blood corpse. The researchers used the EEG to record their brain activity while viewing the images.
Meditation appears to help tame emotions
The participants were instructed to view the pictures either "mindfully" or "naturally." After this, they completed a questionnaire.
Results indicate that, whether the participants had high or low levels of natural mindfulness, the brain was able to control negative emotions to the same extent. Exposure to the meditation session appeared to help the emotional brain to recover quickly after seeing the photos, suggesting that meditation enabled participants to tame their negative emotions.
Some participants were also asked to view the images "mindfully," while others were not, but this did not appear to affect their ability to control emotions.
It would seem that meditation could be more helpful in achieving emotional control than just telling people to "be mindful," says Jason 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. 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."
Jason S. Moser
Lin believes the results show that meditation can improve emotional health, and that even people who are not naturally mindful can acquire these benefits through practice.
One challenge in conducting such research, say the authors, is that there are different definitions and types of mindfulness, as well as the potential interference of mood and anxiety disorders, among other confounders. The team attempted to minimize this by choosing, as far as possible, a homogeneous group. The participants were all undergraduates, and they were all right-handed.