One of the central teachings of mindfulness is that it’s possible to “know” our emotions in different ways. With sadness for example, depending on how we pay attention, we can become aware of the momentary, subjective experience of sadness, or we can follow a conceptual, largely thought-infused view of what it means to feel sad. We use mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) to help people experience the distinction between these different modes of thinking (we’ll call these modes the narrative and experiential modes.) For the past 10 years researchers have been trying to identify the specific brain regions that become engaged as people experience their emotions in these different ways. Sounds like a worthwhile endeavor, but how do we actually go about investigating these two modes in the brain?
An early approach by Norman Farb and his colleagues trained study participants to ask themselves a number of questions about personal traits such as if they felt they were stupid, smart, trustworthy, or lazy while being scanned by a functional MRI machine. These questions activated either a narrative/analytic mode (“What does this say about me as a person?” “Is this a good or a bad thing?”) or an experiential/concrete mode (“What is occurring from one moment to the next?” or “What am I aware of in my body?”). Once people were trained, the researchers looked at how mindfulness training interacted with these two modes to see whether each had a unique brain response. Two groups were tested, the first just before enrolling in an MBSR program and the second after completing the program.
What did they find?
People who were practicing mindfulness showed marked reductions in activity in a region of the brain often linked to self-evaluation and analysis (the medial prefrontal cortex). They also showed increased activity in regions linked to direct, moment-by-moment sensory experiences (the lateral prefrontal cortex, especially the insula).
Why we get caught up thinking about ourselves
In non-meditators, there was a strong connection between the two parts of the brain I described above (right insula and the medial prefrontal cortex), whereas in those trained in mindfulness these regions were “uncoupled.”
Here’s what that means: The fact that these two regions are tightly connected prior to practicing mindfulness suggests that it is usually very difficult for a person to focus on the moment without setting off thoughts about the self.
The “uncoupling” of these two parts of the brain that is associated with mindfulness suggests that the person is now able to maintain attention on body experience, without automatically activating “stories” about the self. Having actual data showing this phenomenon is hugely important, as it supports the notion of a fundamental neural dissociation between two distinct forms of self-awareness—narrative and experiential modes—that are habitually integrated but can be uncoupled through mindfulness training.
Can we learn to be less self-reflective?
Building on the findings of how mindfulness practice can heighten the contrast between the narrative and experiential modes of processing, the next question is whether people can learn how to do this when they are feeling sad and not just reflecting on self-descriptive adjectives.
Farb and colleagues now returned to the fMRI scanner and asked people who were about to start or had recently completed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to watch sad and neutral film clips while being scanned. For all participants, the sad film clips were again associated with medial prefrontal cortex activation (self-evaluation and analysis) as well as in language centers and regions that direct self-focus and reappraisal. Lower levels of activity were also found in areas that convey information about present moment awareness and bodily sensations (the somatosensory cortex and right insula). What is interesting is that when the effects of mindfulness training were examined, the group that completed the 8-week program were less likely to get mentally caught up in feeling sad than those who had not undergone training. Their brain patterns changed: the frontal regions that direct self-focus were less activated, and their moment-to-moment sensory awareness activation of the insula increased.
How to be present with sadness
If you’ve ever sat in on an MBSR or Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) class you will know that the practice of mindfulness is used to help you access information about what is occurring in your body when emotions like sadness are present. Through the practice, you learn to allow yourself to watch emotions as they arise—without getting caught up in thinking about them—and to create room for bodily sensations that accompany emotions. Considering the impact on the brain, this practice may help restore the balance between neural networks that support both problem-solving and body-based representations of emotions, especially when they are tipped too strongly toward the former. In fact, when we are focusing exclusively on self-referential problem-solving when we’re sad, we’re more likely to fall into a cycle of depression.
The practice of mindfulness allows us to make a key attentional shift—we can approach our experiences from an experiential mode rather than a narrative mode. The brain research indicates that this shift makes tangible changes to our minds and that training in mindfulness enables this shift to occur even in the presence of sad thoughts and feelings. In this way, mindfulness helps us create space for both the emotion and the self to co-exist, moving in tandem into the coming moment with a greater capacity for choice and self-care.