Improve Brain Processing of Emotional Stimuli with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“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.” – Jason Moser
The nervous system is a dynamic entity, constantly changing and adapting to the environment. It will change size, activity, and connectivity in response to experience. These changes in the brain are called neuroplasticity. Over the last decade neuroscience has been studying the effects of contemplative practices on the brain and has identified neuroplastic changes in widespread areas. In other words, mindfulness practices appears to mold and change the brain, producing psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits.
Mindfulness practice has been shown to improve emotion regulation. Practitioners demonstrate the ability to fully sense and experience emotions, but respond to them in more appropriate and adaptive ways. In other words, mindful people are better able to experience yet control their responses to emotions. This is a very important consequence of mindfulness. Humans are very emotional creatures and these emotions can be very pleasant, providing the spice of life. But, when they get extreme they can produce misery and even mental illness. The ability of mindfulness training to improve emotion regulation is thought to be the basis for a wide variety of benefits that mindfulness provides to mental health and the treatment of mental illness especially depression and anxiety disorders.
One way to measure emotional responses is to record brain activity with the electroencephalogram (EEG) that occurs in response to visual stimuli that reliably evoke emotional responses. In particular, the late positive potential (LPP) response in the EEG is a positive going electrical response to an emotion laden picture that occurs between 0.3 to 0.6 seconds following stimulus presentation. The LPP response has been associated with the presence of emotional information. As such, these electrical responses can be used to measure the brains response to emotional laden stimuli and can perhaps measure brain process of emotion regulation. It may be that simply being a mindful individual may be associated with different processing of emotional stimuli by the brain and this can be seen in the LPP response.
In today’s Research News article “Dispositional mindfulness and the attenuation of neural responses to emotional stimuli.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3541486/ ), Brown and colleagues recruited college students and measured their enduring levels of mindfulness (trait mindfulness), attentional control, neuroticism, and levels of positive and negative emotions. They measured the electroencephalogram (EEG) changes in the students that occurred in response to pictures that evoked pleasant or unpleasant emotions at a high level (e.g. skydiving, erotica, vs. mutilations) or at a low level (e.g. flowers vs. pollution).
They found, confirming prior research, that the late positive potential (LPP) response in the EEG was larger after pictures that evoked strong emotions regardless of whether they were pleasant or unpleasant than after pictures that evoked weak emotions. Importantly, they found that the trait mindfulness of the participants modulated the response. Students high in mindfulness had smaller LPP responses to images that evoked strong emotions both pleasant and unpleasant than low mindfulness students. Hence, mindfulness was shown to lessen the brains response to emotion laden stimuli.
This is interesting research that suggests that mindfulness changes the brains processing of emotional stimuli, reducing the strength of the response. The LPP is indicative of the very early stage of brain processing of emotional material. So, the results suggest that the brains of mindful people improve their ability to regulate their emotions and that this occurs at a very early stage of neural processing. It reduces the magnitude of the initial response to emotions. This may make difficult or extreme emotion easier to handle.
So, improve brain processing of emotional stimuli with mindfulness.
“The impact that mindfulness exerts on our brain is borne from routine: a slow, steady, and consistent reckoning of our realities, and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental, and less reactive. Just as playing the piano over and over again over time strengthens and supports brain networks involved with playing music, mindfulness over time can make the brain, and thus, us, more efficient regulators, with a penchant for pausing to respond to our worlds instead of mindlessly reacting.” – Jennifer Wolkin
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Brown, K. W., Goodman, R. J., & Inzlicht, M. (2013). Dispositional mindfulness and the attenuation of neural responses to emotional stimuli. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(1), 93–99. http://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nss004
Considerable research has disclosed how cognitive reappraisals and the modulation of emotional responses promote successful emotion regulation. Less research has examined how the early processing of emotion-relevant stimuli may create divergent emotional response consequences. Mindfulness—a receptive, non-evaluative form of attention—is theorized to foster emotion regulation, and the present study examined whether individual differences in mindfulness would modulate neural responses associated with the early processing of affective stimuli. Focus was on the late positive potential (LPP) of the event-related brain potential to visual stimuli varying in emotional valence and arousal. This study first found, replicating past research, that high arousal images, particularly of an unpleasant type, elicited larger LPP responses. Second, the study found that more mindful individuals showed lower LPP responses to high arousal unpleasant images, even after controlling for trait attentional control. Conversely, two traits contrasting with mindfulness—neuroticism and negative affectivity—were associated with higher LPP responses to high arousal unpleasant images. Finally, mindfulness was also associated with lower LPP responses to motivationally salient pleasant images (erotica). These findings suggest that mindfulness modulates neural responses in an early phase of affective processing, and contribute to understanding how this quality of attention may promote healthy emotional functioning.