One of the complaints I often hear with respect to blogs is that they feel a lot like opinion and very little like research and data1. A primary objective of this particular blog is to present to you data that supports my assertions. Since I’m not a researcher (and there are many more talented people doing good work) I’m going to review articles for you. It may be that you don’t have access to these articles or you don’t understand them because of all the research-ese that goes into them. No matter the reason, I hope to help.
First up in our ”mindfulness articles” series is “Minding One’s Emotions: Mindfulness Training Alters the Neural Expression of Sadness ” (warning: pdf link). This technical article examines the differences in fMRI data from a control group and a practiced mindfulness trained group in response to induced sadness. As with much rigorous research, the groups were randomly assigned to control or treatment status and data were compared with the same stimuli.
The researchers utilized 3 minute clips of video, alternating in valence between sad and neutral video types and gathered data on participants’ subjective degree of sadness. The data were analyzed using a multivariate procedure designed to test for significant differences between groups and across time points and valence of the video (technically called a 2x2x4 mixed model ANOVA). This type of analysis allows us to draw conclusions about what the actual differences are between these various conditions.
Interestingly, the researchers found no difference between the control and mindfulness-trained groups on level of subjective sadness. That’s right – there was no difference between the participants who were trained in mindfulness and others on how affected they perceived themselves to be by the video clips. They were, however, less physiologically reactive to the stimuli.
Examining the effects of MT, we found that despite similar levels of self-reported dysphoria, the MT group demonstrated less neural reactivity to sadness provocation than the control group.
In other words, their brains reacted differently to the information presented by their “emotional system”. We find some information about what could be occurring in the fMRI data also collected during the study. There appeared to be less activation in the areas of the brain associated with self-referential processing and autobiographical memory. Similarly, the mindfulness trained group exhibit less inhibition in brain areas associated with interoceptive awareness. This difference suggests that they are somehow regulating their emotional response (which, you’ll recall, is similar across both groups) differently/more effectively than untrained participants because they are aware that something is happening to them. In other words, they are mindful of their current emotion.
There appears to be two take-home points from the afore-reviewed article. Our mindfulness-trained participants did not generate self-referential thoughts in response to the video clips. This cognitive distance appeared to allow some separation between the participants and the subject matter. And, secondly, there a marked awareness of the physiological processes occurring during the emotional experience and that process was observed as such – a physiological change.
A plausible mechanism of action for mindfulness effects may include the development of metacognitive skills for detached viewing of emotions, rather than the elaboration of emotional content through cognitive reappraisal.
This suggests a different way forward for dealing with significant negative emotion. Typically, our best efforts at dealing with emotional information is to re-attribute, re-evaluate, re-interpret the events. We work on generating alternative explanations for behavior or shifting “locus of control” to an external object, as well as using perspective taking (e.g., “How would you tell your friend to react to this situation?”). One of the problems with this type of strategy is that we have a tendency to end up in circular arguments with one “side” being more persuasive than the other depending on, guess what? Your mood. And when you’re already depressed, you’ve got a harder time doing this reappraisal work.
By shifting the plane of focus to something other than the cognitive back and forth we typically see, mindfulness can allow a different way to process information. By exiting this necessarily circular argument, we can start to make progress on dealing with emotion as it is: a natural reaction to events. When we start viewing emotions as natural phenomena and not events that need to be challenged or beaten back, we may finally be able to end the fight against reality in which we have been engaged.