In a New England laboratory, painful heat is delivered to the forearms of subjects undergoing brain scans. The fMRI results are remarkable: the participants' brains respond not as if they are experiencing painful heat but instead just mild temperatures.
Who are these superhumans?
They are normal individuals who have never practiced meditation before but who received a brief 20-minute introduction to mindfulness.
Chuck Norris-like superhuman ability in just 20 minutes? Tell me more.
While there is plenty of research studying the benefits of mindfulness meditation, past research tended to focus on participants who regularly practice meditation or on the effects of days or weeks of mindfulness training.
But what if you don't practice meditation? Could mindfulness techniques applied "in the moment" to control negative emotions or painful experiences work for you?
According to new research published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience , a brief 20-minute introduction to mindfulness helped individuals with no past meditation experience regulate negative emotions and decrease physical pain.
Here's how it worked. Participants without any past mindfulness training were specifically selected for the purpose of being able to examine the effectiveness of mindfulness as an emotion regulation strategy.
Past research has often focused on mindful meditation as an effective intervention over time, such as stress reduction or re-training your brain.
Scientists Hedy Kober and colleagues explain that "the present study addressed a single, fundamental component of mindfulness practices—mindful acceptance as an emotion regulation strategy, applied in the moment—and offers new insights into the neural mechanisms by which it reduces negative affect and pain, in the absence of meditation training."
In the study, participants, while undergoing brian scans, where shown 60 images, 30 neutral and 30 negative, such as a picture of a cobra ready to strike. In addition to the visual stimuli, the subjects experienced 30 warm and 30 painfully hot thermal stimulations delivered to their forearms.
Accept vs. React
Before beginning the brain scans and the trials, participants received 30 minutes of task training. One of two instructional cues, ACCEPT or REACT, would direct them how to respond following subjection to the image or thermal stimuli.
- If they received the REACT cue, the participants were told to "react naturally, whatever your response might be." (This was the control condition.)
- If they received the ACCEPT cue, they were instructed to "attend to and accept their experience as it is." (This was the mindful acceptance strategy.)
While there are different definitions of mindfulness, for this study the authors used Bishop's 2004 two-component operational definition of mindful acceptance strategy as:
- Attention to present moment sensation, coupled with
- Non-judgmental acceptance of the sensation as it is, allowing it to exist without trying to avoid it or react to it
Kober and colleagues explained to participants that the ACCEPT cue means that "if you feel a sensation of warmth on your forearm, you should simply attend to what is felt, without making any judgment of the 'goodness' or 'badness' of that sensation."
The participants then underwent the brain scans while adopting either the REACT or ACCEPT mindset during the trials of the images or thermal stimulations.
The researchers discovered that when the participants followed instructions to ACCEPT (mindful acceptance) versus the REACT (natural reaction) to the stimuli, they reported significantly lower negative emotional responses to both the image and the thermal trials.
How the brain processes negative stimuli
The study not only found that mindful acceptance modulates response to negative stimuli, but the brain scans also revealed that the reaction to the negative stimuli was being processed differently when the ACCEPT strategy was adopted.
During the painful heat trials, the areas of the brain that are recruited to deal with pain showed reduced activity when participants were asked to use the mindful acceptance strategy. Subjects experienced the pain as less intense when they adopted the ACCEPT strategy. As the authors explained, "Mindful acceptance modulates the intensity of experienced pain, including physiological aspects above and beyond judgments and self-report of pain."
Don't reappraise the situation. Experience the situation differently.
While the study found that using mindful acceptance strategy when dealing with adverse situations reduces pain and negative emotions, it also shows the mechanisms by which mindful emotion regulation works.
The brain scans revealed that during the ACCEPT condition the prefrontal cortex (PFC) was not being recruited. Other forms of emotion regulation, such as reappraisal , generally depend on PFC regions related to cognitive control. Forms of emotional regulation that rely on the PFC tend to be top-down strategies, meaning they rely on higher processing to reinterpret the emotions and experience of the event.
In contrast, the study found that mindful acceptance strategy does not rely on reappraisal but works because the pain or negativity from the stimulus is experienced as less intense. In this way, mindful acceptance is a bottom-up strategy that actually changes early affective appraisal.
This study is one of the first of its kind to examine how mindfulness can be used in the moment as a way to regulate emotions even for those with no training in mindfulness, and that a single session on how to use mindfulness has positive results.
This new study on mindfulness helps us understand that
- mindful acceptance is a powerful emotion regulation strategy
- can be learned quickly
- deploys effectively
- alters how you interpret the intensity of pain and negative emotions
As anxiety starts to build and when adverse situations crop up, the beauty of this study is that it shows that you can use the strategy mindful acceptance anytime and anywhere to prevent taking in all that negativity and pain.
Hedy Kober, Jason Buhle, Jochen Weber, Kevin N Ochsner, Tor D Wager. Let it be: Mindful-acceptance down-regulates pain and negative emotion. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 27 January 2020; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsz104