Meditation can change the brain’s response to emotion

There is a surging interest in the idea of neuroplasticity, that even adults can change their brains. Mindful meditation is one of the forerunners for methods of adjusting brain function, and not just in the regions of attention that you might expect; there’s also some compelling evidence that mindfulness can impact the regions of your brain that process emotions, particularly the amygdala.

The amygdala is one of the better-known but little-understood regions of the brain; most laymen (and psychology undergraduates) make a simple immediate connection of amygdala=fear. And while the amygdala is indeed necessary to experience fear, and plays a critical role in anxiety disorders, the amygdala’s role is far more complex. The amygdala has been linked to a wide array of social functioning, including the size of your social network, and may be at the root of autism. And because the amygdala may be better described as the region of the brain that helps us regulate attention to emotional stimuli, it might just experience permanent changes with meditation.

This was the theory of Gaelle Desbordes of Massachusetts General Hospital, and colleagues with expertise in religion, consciousness, and psychiatry from around the country. Adults in Atlanta were recruited to participate in one of two 8-week mindfulness seminars, including 20 minutes a day of meditation homework, or an equivalent health education class. Before and after training, the adults were shown over 100 images from the International Affective Picture System, with varying emotional content – some positive, some negative,  some neutral – and their amygdala’s reaction was recorded through the magic of fMRI.

Amygdala activity was the same before anyone began their programs (except that women’s amygdalas activated more than men’s). However, three weeks after the programs were over, mindfulness training had reduced activity in their right amydgalas when viewing the emotional pictures. The clearest advantage was with a program focused on mindful attention specifically, while more compassion-based meditation may actually have increased amygdala activity (possibly because the meditators had spent 8 weeks trying to feel empathy for others, and so were more affected by the emotions in the pictures). These changes in emotional processing came even though the meditators reported no real change in their depression or anxiety during the program, suggesting it’s a fundamental change in the brain and not an artifact of change in one’s own emotional state.

Although we can’t say how this amygdala change plays out in subjective emotional experience while watching the pictures, it’s a very important first step in understanding how meditation changes the brain: Even three weeks later, when novice meditators are no longer being assigned meditation exercises, their mindful attention training decreases brain activity associated with strong emotional responses.

It also opens very intriguing, though now entirely theoretical, possibilities for treating autism with mindfulness – because of the aforementioned linked between amygdalas and autism, anything that can reduce amygdala responsiveness might just help reduce the severity of autism symptoms. It all hinges on better understanding these little neuron clusters and their role in emotion processing and social situations.

Desbordes, G., et al. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 

(It’s worth noting that “Frontiers in…” journals are a new mode of publishing, that doesn’t follow the traditional mode of peer-review that science is founded on; but this particular article has been vetted by Amishi Jha, one of the biggest names in contemplative neuroscience, and reviewed by others in field, so I find this as trustworthy as any other neuroscience article I would read).

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