Controlling Your Emotions

How difficult is it to become “mindful?” How quickly can we learn to meditate?

In the wake of growing worldwide popularity of meditation and medical encouragement of mindfulness as a means to promote health and well-being researchers wanted to know, “How quickly can we all get with the program?”

The scientists, working out of Michigan State University, assessed 68 participants for mindfulness using a scientifically validated survey. The test subjects were then randomly assigned to engage in an 18-minute audio guided meditation or listen to presentation of how to learn a new language, which acted as the “control.” Then they viewed negative pictures (such as a bloody corpse) while their brain activity was recorded.

The participants who had listened to the guided meditation showed similar levels of “emotion regulatory” brain activity as people with high levels of natural mindfulness. That is, their emotional brains recovered quickly after viewing the troubling photos. The scientists declared that those test subjects had their negative emotions in check.

“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,” said Yanli Lin, an MSU graduate student and lead investigator of the study. “It just takes some practice.”

What's more, some of the participants were instructed to look at the gruesome photos “in a mindful state of mind.” Others received no such instruction. The people who viewed the photos “mindfully” showed no better ability to keep their negative emotions in check.

What does this mean? The researchers suggest that for non-meditators, the emotional benefits of mindfulness might be better achieved through meditation, rather than “forcing it” as a state of mind.

“If you’re a naturally mindful person, and you’re walking around very aware of things, you’re good to go. You shed your emotions quickly,” said Jason Moser, MSU associate professor of clinical psychology and co-author of the study. “If you’re not naturally mindful, then meditating can make you look like a person who walks around with a lot of mindfulness. But for people who are not naturally mindful and have never meditated, forcing oneself to be mindful ‘in the moment’ doesn’t work. You’d be better off meditating for 20 minutes.”

The research was published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience.