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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 Science."

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 other experiences.

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 Brainpower Newsletter.

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.

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