Mindfulness, a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s current internal and external experience, has increasingly gained traction as a psychotherapeutic tool in emotion regulation.
Although the neural mechanisms underlying the effects of mindfulness have yet to be clarified, recent scholarship provides support in favor of the many benefits of mindfulness, including improvements in focus and working memory as well as the reduction of stress and anxiety.
Recent evidence also supports the ability of mindfulness to reduce emotional reactivity, as shown in psychology graduate student Yanli Lin’s Sept. 2016 study concerning the emotion regulatory properties of mindfulness.
Published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, the study involved 68 participants whose event-related potential (ERP) brain signals were recorded during the experiment.
Specifically, one type of ERP, the late positive potential (LPP), was monitored as the research participants listened to audio and then viewed emotionally evocative images.
Following the exercises, the participants completed a five factor mindfulness questionnaire as well as other self-report measures, which indicated the participants’ dispositional mindfulness.
To obviate analysis of gender-related outcomes, only female undergraduate students were recruited at the site of the study, Michigan State University. Moreover, the research participants were screened for prior experience in meditation.
During the audio stage, the participants, all novices in meditation, were randomly assigned to either a 20-minute long recording of a guided meditation practice or an 18-minute control audio.
The meditation exercise, led by Steve Hickman from the University of California San Diego Center for Mindfulness, instructed the participants on how to attend to their current feelings, thoughts and physical sensations.
The control audio, on the other hand, was a TED talk given by the linguist Chris Lonsdale on how to acquire second language fluency, a recording to which participants naturally listened.
The participants were then randomized to either mindful or natural viewing of the images, which were either negative or neutral.
Research subjects assigned to mindful viewing were told at the beginning of the task to be conscious of their feelings and thoughts while they looked at the pictures without trying to avoid or suppress their internal experience.
The other participants in the natural viewing group looked at the same pictures but did so naturally without being given additional instructions.
Mindful viewing, however, did not turn out to be a successful method in decreasing the late sustained LPPs, the LPPs recorded in a later time frame. The study showed that the late sustained LPPs were not significantly reduced, suggesting that mindful viewing failed to regulate emotional reactivity to the negative stimuli that some of the images presented. Instead, the LPPs were found to be reduced in the group of participants who had followed the audio instructions of the meditation exercise. While regulatory effects could not be induced via a state of mindfulness, mindfulness as a meditative practice was able to lower the LPPs.
The emotional regulatory effects of the meditative exercise were also apparent even in participants who did not find the tutorial to be engaging. Not many participants in the audio meditation group found the guide to be particularly interesting or educational, according to the self-report questionnaires. Yet, relative indifference to the meditative exercise did not diminish its effects.
LPPs were not decreased, however, in the earlier time frame for the participants who had undergone the meditative exercise. Instead, in the earlier time frame, control audio participants with a predisposition towards mindfulness had lower LPPs to aversive stimuli. The participants with greater dispositional mindfulness were identified through their responses to the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire.
As the meditative exercise decreased LPPs in the later time frame to the same extent as did dispositional mindfulness in the earlier time frame, lead investigator Lin and fellow researchers concluded that meditation enhances the emotion regulatory mechanisms that are already present in naturally mindful individuals.
“Our findings not only demonstrate that meditation improves emotional health, but that people can acquire these benefits regardless of their ‘natural’ ability to be mindful. It just takes some practice,” Lin said in a press release from Michigan State University.
Furthermore, as mindful viewing did not reduce LPPs in either the early or late time frames, deliberately attempting a state of mindfulness, according to Lin and fellow researchers, may not be an effective strategy for emotion regulation for those who are not naturally mindful.
That meditative mindfulness can provide benefits to anyone is a clinically significant finding which the researchers aim to support with further research.
The research team acknowledges the need to confirm their results with a larger sample that is not solely comprised of female participants. Moreover, further research would be required to investigate whether meditation comprises a unique and sustained processing of stimuli.