Dr. B's Blog

Ψ Mind your emotion

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 data[1]. 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. [2] 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 [3] 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. [4]

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.


[1] I personally don’t subscribe to this view of blogs. There are a great many that are better, in my opinion, than “real” news

[2] They used movie clips that were chosen for their ability to elicit sadness.

[3] Self-referential processing is defined as one’s tendency to relate information to him or herself

[4] Keightley, M., Seminowicz, D., Bagby, R., Costa, P., Fossati, P., & Mayberg, H. (2003). Personality influences limbic-cortical interactions during sad mood induction. NeuroImage, 20, 2031–2039.

Mindfulness and affective experience

A recent study (.pdf link) published by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania points to the benefit of mindfulness practice on working memory and emotion.

In the MT [mindfulness training] group, WMC [working memory capacity] decreased over time in those with low MT practice time, but increased in those with high practice time. Higher MT practice time also corresponded to lower levels of negative affect and higher levels of positive affect (indexed by the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule). The relationship between practice time and negative, but not positive, affect was mediated by WMC, indicating that MT-related improvements in WMC may support some but not all of MT’s salutary effects.

It seems like this blog is turning into one about mindfulness. This is really an unintentional side-effect of the fact that I have found mindfulness practice can be an integral part of many empirically supported psychological treatments.

Take for example CBT for panic disorder. Some core components are:

  • Identifying automatic thoughts
  • Challenging negative automatic thoughts
  • Identifying emotion associated with those thoughts
  • Interoceptive awareness and interoceptive exposure
  • Relaxation techniques

All of these key techniques are enhanced when one is practiced at being mindful. The same can be said for the treatment of depression and other types of anxiety. Further, I believe that the affective “stability” (for lack of a better word) afforded one practiced in mindfulness, can enhance life in a number of ways.

Does that mean that people who are “good” at being mindful don’t get depressed? No, but I believe that they don’t suffer nearly as much. And reducing suffering is what I try to do.

The Case for Compassion

I’m not a big proponent of the “love yourself” school of psychology. I mean, I do believe that self-love is an important part of one’s psychological health, but I don’t think I often say those particular words in a therapy session. I’m sure that in the moment, when I’m being mindful of the situation and my patient’s emotions, those words may come out of my mouth because they make sense at the time but that particular phrase just gets people’s cynicism worked up. If someone said that to me with a straight face, I might have a hard time taking them seriously, so I couldn’t easily use those words unless it really fit the situation.

That said, I am a big proponent of compassion. To me, the root of psychological well-being isn’t love but compassion. Compassion allows perspective-taking. It allows validation or firm guidance. It allows for a deeper, more adult connection between two people even if there’s no “love” in the room. That’s why I found this article so interesting.

Recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest. These studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive—a view which has its origins in Darwin’s Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good.

I often find evolutionary explanations for observed phenomena to be a little like waiting for the coin flip and then calling “heads!” as if you knew it would be heads all along, but that doesn’t stop me from liking the results the article talks about. I find that tempering my cynicism with some good old fashioned pollyannaism to be a nice balance.

Read the whole article here. Discuss below if you’d like.