The Science of Mindfulness Meditation
by John M. Grohol, Psy.D., Psych Central, June 25, 2007
Los Angeles, CA (USA) -- A fascinating new study by UCLA researchers combines modern neuroscience with ancient Buddhist teachings. The scientists believe they have discovered the first neural evidence for why “mindfulness” — the ability to live in the present moment, without distraction — seems to produce a variety of health benefits.
When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger. Scientists see a robust amygdala response even when they show such emotional photographs subliminally, so fast a person can’t even see them.
But does seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face change our brain response” The answer is yes, according to Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience.
The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences.
It has also been implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions, but exactly what it contributes has not been known.
“What we’re suggesting is when you start thinking in words about your emotions —labeling emotions — that might be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for,” Lieberman said.
Mindfulness meditation, which is very popular in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, originates from early Buddhist teachings dating back some 2,500 years, said David Creswell, a research scientist with the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.
Mindfulness is a technique in which one pays attention to his or her present emotions, thoughts and body sensations, such as breathing, without passing judgment or reacting. An individual simply releases his thoughts and “lets it go.”
“One way to practice mindfulness meditation and pay attention to present-moment experiences is to label your emotions by saying, for example, ‘I’m feeling angry right now’ or ‘I’m feeling a lot of stress right now’ or ‘this is joy’ or whatever the emotion is,” said Creswell, lead author of the study, which will be featured in an upcoming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, a leading international medical journal for health psychology research.
“Thinking, ‘this is anger’ is what we do in this study, where people look at an angry face and say, ‘this is anger,’” Lieberman noted.
Creswell said Lieberman has now shown in a series of studies that simply labeling emotions turns down the amygdala alarm center response in the brain that triggers negative feelings.
Creswell, who conducted the mindfulness research as an advanced graduate student of psychology at UCLA, said mindfulness meditation is a “potent and powerful therapy that has been helping people for thousands of years.”
Previous studies have shown that mindfulness meditation is effective in reducing a variety of chronic pain conditions, skin disease, stress-related health conditions and a variety of other ailments, he said. Creswell and his UCLA colleagues — Lieberman, Eisenberger and Way — found that during the labeling of emotions, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex was activated, which seems to turn down activity in the amygdala.
They then compared participants’ responses on the mindfulness questionnaire with the results of the labeling study.
“We found the more mindful you are, the more activation you have in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the less activation you have in the amygdala,” Creswell said.
“We also saw activation in widespread centers of the prefrontal cortex for people who are high in mindfulness. This suggests people who are more mindful bring all sorts of prefrontal resources to turn down the amygdala.
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.
“The right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex can turn down the emotional response you get when you feel angry,” he said. “This moves us forward in beginning to understand the benefits of mindfulness meditation. For the first time, we’re now applying scientific principles to try to understand how mindfulness works.
“This is such an exciting study because it brings together the Buddha’s teachings — more than 2,500 years ago, he talked about the benefits of labeling your experience — with modern neuroscience,” Creswell said.
“Now, for the first time since those teachings, we have shown there is actually a neurological reason for doing mindfulness meditation. Our findings are consistent with what mindfulness meditation teachers have taught for thousands of years.”