The first good news of the week: my refusal to walk while texting doesn’t just mean I am saved from walking into a foundation becoming an embarrassing YouTube sensation, it probably also keeps my amygdala in check.
The amygdala is a small structure nestled near the center of your brain that looks – in the mind of some long-ago brain researcher, at least – like an almond, and so was named after the Greek for that particular tasty treat. (Technically, I should say “the amygdalae are”, because you have one for each half of your brain, but that distinction is rarely made these days). Despite only being about the size of an almond as well, it plays a critical role in how we understand emotions and related to other people. Its last big splash in the headlines was the news that people with more friends tend to have a bigger amygdala, but the amygdala has also been fingered as a major player in autism, excess activity in the amygdala is linked to depression even in preschoolers, and is frequently blamed as the root of phobias and anxiety. Clearly, this is a region of the brain we want to keep healthy and on a very short leash.
Turns out, mindfulness can help with that, no meditation required. A research study led by David Creswell asked college students to come look at faces in an MRI scanner, and decide what emotion each face was expressing. Looking at emotional faces tends to get the amygdala worked up, especially when the emotions involved include anger and fear – but in a task like this we shouldn’t want the amygdala to get too worked up, because going on high alert about some photographs in a scanner would be overkill. Mindfulness seemed to put a brake on the amygdala, keeping it from getting overactive.
Specifically, students who were more mindful in their everyday lives (as reported on the Mindful Awareness Attention Scale) showed less activity in the amygdala, and more activity in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, or PFC, sits immediately behind your forehead, and plays a major role in higher-level cognition, including all types of self-regulation. The connection between PFC and amygdala activity while students were looking at these emotional faces suggests the PFC was regulating the amygdala: “calm down, dude, nothing to get excited about”. This didn’t change how quickly they recognized the emotions on the faces, but it may have tempered their own emotional reaction to those faces (although we can’t be sure, because the researchers didn’t measure that).
This ability to have the PFC tell the amygdala to chill out may be an important one for our day-to-day happiness. The relationship between those brain regions is becoming a major focus of treating depression and controlling anxiety, and if dispositional mindfulness can keep those connections strong, then a few more mindful moments throughout the day may keep depression and anxiety at bay.
Creswell JD, Way BM, Eisenberger NI, & Lieberman MD (2007). Neural correlates of dispositional mindfulness during affect labeling. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69 (6), 560-565. PMID: 17634566