Using meditation to enhance attention, emotional regulation, and self-awareness

Here at fasttwitchgrandma.com, we are a group of people who love to exercise and are interested in the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain and body. Most of us, however, cannot (and do not want to) devote our entire day to exercising. Considering that the average adult American reports having 4 hours of free time a day (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2017), what can we do with our extra free time to help support our health and well-being?


Meditation is one such thing, and recent research is showing that you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to obtain the many benefits of this practice. Meditation is a mindfulness practice that is meant to free the self from suffering. Buddhist spiritual texts expounded the idea that meditation could be used as a way to change the mind and alter consciousness, creating samadhi or enlightenment. Many different types of meditation exist, such as focused attention meditation, open monitoring meditation, loving kindness meditation, mantra meditation, moving meditation, and the list goes on. Each type has a different focus; however, most practices emphasize slow, deep breathing and relaxation exercises.


Though scientific meditation research is in its infancy, much has been done to investigate the effects of meditation on the mind. A recent excellent review entitled, The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation (Tang et al., 2015), identified three specific mental areas that are improved with meditative practice.





Attention

The practice of meditation requires a focused concentration. In fact, it is a practice of cultivating attention. Studies investigating both long-term meditators (including monks) and brief meditative practices (weeks to months of training in novice meditators) clearly show that one of the prominent improvements obtained from meditating is an enhancement in the ability to pay attention or to attend to information in our environment. This is primarily evidenced as an increased ability of the brain to perform conflict monitoring or inhibitory control. This means that meditators are better able to inhibit unnecessary or unneeded responses. These types of behavioral changes are reflected in the brain as larger and more active regions of the prefrontal cortex, specifically, the anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. These regions support executive functions, which include short-term memory, attention, planning, and problem solving.


Emotional Regulation

In addition to improving attention, meditation improves how we feel. The primary Buddhist texts explain that one of meditation’s primary goals is aimed at freeing the self from suffering. Scientific research has shown that in fact, this is one of meditations principal benefits. By meditating, you can decrease mood disturbance, depression, and anxiety, and if you suffer from a mood disorder, meditating can help relieve your symptoms. In effect, meditation causes our mood state to shift in a positive way. It enhances our emotional regulation, which may underlie many of the beneficial effects of this practice. Tang and colleagues state that, “Emotion regulation refers to strategies that can influence which emotions arise and when, how long they occur, and how these emotions are experienced and expressed.” Two brain changes have been linked to these findings. First, when presented with a stressful situation or an emotional image, meditators show decreased activation of the amygdala and increased activation of the prefrontal cortex. These brain regions are involved in emotional and cognitive processing, respectively. Therefore, the idea is that meditators are better able to control their emotions by regulating both emotional and cognitive centers of the brain.


Self-awareness

In Buddhist philosophy, it is thought that a static sense of self contributes to mental unrest. Through meditation, one can accomplish a detachment from the idea that the self is a non-changing entity and rather conceptualize it (and consciousness itself) as an experiential phenomenon – an emergent process that happens in the moment. Through self-reported measures, researchers have found that meditation alters several aspects of self-awareness such as boosting self-esteem, increasing acceptance of oneself, and enhancing non-attachment, a term used to refer to the impermanent nature of the mind. Meditation may enhance self-awareness by affecting what neuroscientists refer to as the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is a network of brain regions that includes specific regions of the cortex as well as the hippocampus. This network is activated during rest or mind wandering, is associated with self-referential processing or rumination about oneself, and is hyperactivated in patients with depression and other mood disorders. When the brains of experienced meditators were compared to non-meditators during a meditative experience, activity in the DMN decreased, but only for those individuals experienced in meditation. This indicates that the meditative brain may be better able to generate a less ruminative and critical and more positive and realistic sense of self.


Conclusions

Though meditation may not be associated with burning calories, it is certainly a beneficial practice for many aspects of our mental wellbeing. On days when you need a rest, meditation is something that you can do to support brain health and just make you feel better. Remember, you don’t need to be a Buddhist monk to receive these benefits. Just 10 minutes a day can help!


References:


Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213-225.

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Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise

Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute

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© 2016 by Julia C. Basso.