Can meditation help your brain process emotions even when you’re not meditating? Contemplative philosophies would posit “yes”; practice is undertaken in preparation for life, such that a more mindful orientation generalizes to life outside of formal practice. A new study by DesBordes and colleagues in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience provides the first evidence to support this. Meditation training was found to impact cortical processing of negative emotions outside of formal meditation.
As human beings, we tend to chase after good emotions, and try to avoid the unpleasant ones. Contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation train the mind to have a mindful, accepting and compassionate orientation towards emotions, as well as mental and physical states. Over time and with committed practice, our samskara, deeply embedded emotional/behavioral templates and patterns that together comprise our worldview, are believed to shift and change beyond the realm of conscious awareness. This study is a great step toward beginning to understand some potential physiological correlates of this esoteric concept.
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Three eight-week courses were compared over the course of the study. The first was mindful attention meditation, which included training in mindfulness to thinking, feeling and breathing; the second was compassion meditation, which included training in metta, or loving-kindness, for self and others; and the third group was a control, providing general health information only.
Following each course, 12 from each group were placed in the fMRI brain scanner and shown 216 images intended to elicit negative, neutral, or positive emotions. During their time in the scanner no instruction of meditation was offered, and participants were checked with following the scan to ensure they had not been meditating.
Their findings emerged in the amygdala, a brain region involved in the processing of memory and emotional reactions. The researchers found decreased amygdala activity in response to images intended to evoke negative emotion by both of the meditation groups, while health education class participants experienced an increase in amygdala activity in response to the same images.
Higher activity in the amygdala is an indicator of greater emotional arousal, suggesting that meditation physiologically attenuates our response to negative emotions. This is consistent with previous research showing Buddhist monks who do compassion meditation experience decreased arousal in the amygdala and other brain regions during practice. But perhaps most intriguingly, the amygdala’s link to memory encoding signifies that more emotionally arousing information will correlate with memory.
Many of us routinely encode and store experiences in conscious or implicit memory, which often guide current emotions and actions beyond the realm of conscious awareness. Together with karma, epigenetic, and genetic factors, these encodings comprise our samskara. As we engage in contemplative practices, negative samskara slough and burn away, engendering newer, healthier patterns reflected by neuroplasticity and other factors. Thus, one theoretical implication of these findings suggests that meditation, by reducing amygdala arousal in response to negative emotions, may actually facilitate encoding and recall of fewer negative emotions or events, corresponding to transformation of samskara—thus altering one’s memory and experience of the world in profound ways.
Do you practice meditation? Have you found meditation or yoga to impact your emotions while you aren’t practicing?