We’d like to think it can, but what does the evidence show?
A working definition of mindfulness is that it attentively and non-judgmentally focuses on present experiences. But does this actually affect anything in the brain?
To find out, Jacqueline Lutz, from the psychiatry department at the University Hospital of Zurich, led a study investigating whether mindfulness could affect the brain during emotional arousal.
Lutz and her colleagues recruited 49 subjects with no prior or existing neurological or psychiatric illnesses and randomly assigned them to either the mindfulness group or the control group, which received no mindfulness instruction.
Researchers hypothesized that mindfulness would be associated with increased activation in areas of the brain that govern the regulation of emotion when people anticipated or viewed negative pictures.
They also wanted to know whether mindfulness is associated with decreased activation in regions known to be associated with emotional arousal, such as the amygdala and insula.
During fMRI scanning, subjects in both the control and the mindfulness group were shown cues that indicated whether the picture that followed would be positive, negative, neutral, or unknown (meaning there was a 50/50 chance it could be positive or negative).
Because mindfulness strategies are often meant to address unpleasant emotional events, the mindfulness group was instructed to apply aspects of mindfulness (for instance, non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, emotions, or bodily sensations) during only the unpleasant and unknown trials.
So what did the fMRI scans show?
The mindfulness group demonstrated decreased activation in the amygdala and other regions involved in processing emotion when they were shown the negative pictures. They also showed increased activity in the structures associated with emotion regulation when anticipating negative pictures.
This study suggests that even a short and simple mindfulness intervention has the potential to help regulate emotion.
One thing to note about this study, though, was that participants in the mindfulness group had different levels of prior meditation experience. So, the different levels of meditation experience could have also had an effect on their neural activity and not just the mindfulness intervention itself. Meditation experience was not measured in the control group.
If you’d like to learn more about this study, the full text can be found in Volume 8, Issue 4 of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Journal.
Have you ever used mindfulness to help patients regulate their emotions? Please share your experience in the comments below.