If you name your emotions, you can tame them,
according to new research that suggests why meditation works.
Brain scans show that putting negative emotions into words calms the brain's
emotion center. That could explain meditation's purported emotional benefits,
because people who meditate often label their negative emotions in an effort to
"let them go."
Psychologists have long believed that people who talk about their feelings
have more control over them, but they don't know why it works.
UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues hooked 30 people up to
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines, which scan the brain to
reveal which parts are active and inactive at any given moment.
They asked the subjects to look at pictures of male or female faces making
emotional expressions. Below some of the photos was a choice of words describing
the emotion - such as "angry" or "fearful" or two possible names for the people
in the pictures, one male name and one female name.
When presented with these choices, the subjects were asked to pick the most
appropriate emotion or gender-appropriate name to fit the face they saw.
When the participants chose labels for the negative emotions, activity in the
right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex region - an area associated with thinking
in words about emotional experiences - became more active, whereas activity in
the amygdala, a brain region involved in emotional processing, was calmed.
By contrast, when the subjects picked appropriate names for the faces, the
brain scans revealed none of these changes, indicating that only emotional
labeling makes a difference.
"In the same way you hit the brake when you're driving when you see a yellow
light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on
your emotional responses," Lieberman said of his study, which is detailed in the
current issue of Psychological Science.
In a second experiment, 27 of the same subjects completed questionnaires to
determine how ¡°mindful¡± they are.
Meditation and other ¡°mindfulness¡± techniques are designed to help people pay
more attention to their present emotions, thoughts and sensations without
reacting strongly to them. Meditators often acknowledge and name their negative
emotions in order to ¡°let them go.¡±
When the team compared brain scans from subjects who had more mindful
dispositions to those from subjects who were less mindful, they found a stark
difference¡ªthe mindful subjects experienced greater activation in the right
ventrolateral prefrontral cortex and a greater calming effect in the amygdala
after labeling their emotions.
"These findings may help explain the beneficial health effects of mindfulness
meditation, and suggest, for the first time, an underlying reason why
mindfulness meditation programs improve mood and health," said David Creswell, a
UCLA psychologist who led the second part of the study, which will be detailed
in Psychosomatic Medicine.