Mindfulness for Better Brainpower
The Latest Research
Matthew Lieberman and colleagues at UCLA found that naming
emotional states calmed them down. This is a common technique
in mindfulness meditation. The meditator deals with random disturbances
by saying, "fear," "anger" "annoyance,"
or otherwise putting a label on interfering thoughts, emotions
and feelings, and then returns attention to breathing.
In the study, fMRI brain scans were done on 30 people, who
were asked to look at photos of people's faces, showing various
emotional states. Some photos had words below them describing
the possible emotional states of the person, such as "angry,"
"depressed" or "excited." They also had two
possible names, male and female.
Participants were asked to choose the appropriate emotional
label or gender-specific name. If the label chosen was a negative
emotion, the activity in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex
region became more active. This area is associated with thinking
in words about emotional experiences. The area associated with
emotional processing, the amygdala, was calmed.
Interestingly, this change in brain activity was not present
when the subjects simply chose the appropriate name for the person
in the photo. Also those subjects who were rated as more "mindful"
according to a questionnaire they filled out, showed a much greater
effect. Their "thinking area were much more active, and
there was a much greater calming effect in their emotional processing
area of the brain after labeling their emotions.
This may partly explain the beneficial effects of mindfulness
meditation in reducing stress, and so improving overall health.
The research was reported this year (2007) in the journal, "Psychological
Mindfulness and Brainpower?
Now for my own speculation. If this training of the mind makes
it possible to calm our negative emotions, it should also be
useful for increasing our ability to think clearly. In other
words, it may be yet another way to increase your brainpower.
Being in the midst of negative emotions probably reduces your
ability to think clearly in almost any situation. But it probably
just reduces the efficiency of your thinking when doing a math
problem. You might be slower, but you will probably still get
to the right solution most of the time.
On the other hand, what if the negative emotions are triggered
by the thinking itself? For example, what if you are debating
a political issue, and your opponent's argument has made you
angry? In this case, the outcome of your thinking is more likely
to be changed. You are not likely to agree with much he says
from that point on, for example, even if you might have under
Naming your emotions, then, might be a way to think more clearly
in a situation like this. You might take a breath and tell yourself,
"anger," and "hurt." Having then calmed these
emotions - especially if you practice mindfulness meditation
- you can then be more objective and think better.
I'll have more about mindfulness from time to time in the
It will be interesting to see what other research is done
in this area, and what it will show. For now, though, it is certainly
a safe experiment to try. Start naming those negative emotions.
A little mindfulness might just be good for that brainpower.