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Of all the reasons people have for trying meditation, being less emotionally reactive is usually pretty high up. “Being mindful,” or “being zen,” is synonymous these days with rolling with the punches, and being non-reactive (or less reactive). And there’s definitely something to it: Neuroscience is starting to back up the subjective emotional changes we notice by illustrating what’s going on in the brain when people are confronted with stressors. A new study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience finds that people who naturally lack mindfulness can achieve at least a bit of it, and reduce their emotional reactivity, by doing a short bout of meditation. But instructing people to be more in the moment by itself doesn’t seem to work. Which suggests there’s something inherent about meditation that helps build mindfulness, whereas “forcing” ourselves to be mindful may just not work.
The team from Michigan State University tested 68 participants for mindfulness. Like any trait, people naturally vary, with some being high in natural mindfulness and some being low. They were then randomly assigned to do an 18-minute guided meditation or listen to a tape about learning a new language (i.e, the control group). Finally, they were shown various images, some of which were disturbing, and asked to view the images either naturally or mindfully. At the same time, the team measured the electrical activity in their brains, via electrodes on the scalp.
It turned out that for the people who were naturally mindful, their brains showed less reactivity, or a quicker recovery, after seeing disturbing images. This part is not surprising, but the team also found that the participants who’d done the guided meditation also showed less reactivity, similar to those who were naturally mindful. The same wasn’t true for those who were simply told to be in the moment, which seems to suggest that you can’t force it.
“Our brain data suggested that after 20 minutes of meditation, peoples’ emotional brain activity was significantly reduced,” says study author Jason Moser. “But asking people to ‘mindfully view’ the pictures—i.e., be mindful of emotions in the moment when being confronted with negative scenes—did not. So, to gain quick relief of negative emotions our data suggest meditation works better than trying to be mindful in the moment.”
Why does this discrepancy exist? It may be because being mindful is hard to do explicitly, or consciously. It may be that you have to back into it another way—by meditating, which naturally and spontaneously helps develops it.