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Research: Naming negative emotions makes them weaker

naming emotionsWired Magazine reports on research that’s of relevance to meditators — especially those that use the vipassana technique of “noting,” where we name the most prominent aspect of our experience, saying inwardly, for example, “anger, anger” when we recognize that that emotion is present.

Meditation generally, and the technique of noting in particular, helps us to stand back from our emotions and to recognize that they are transitory events passing though our consciousness. Without this ability to stand back from our emotions we can easily become engulfed by them and we identify totally with them. Instead of experiencing anger we simply are angry.

It’s akin to flying in an airplane. When the plane is inside a cloud this is similar to being engulfed in an emotion. Everything you can see is cloud; everything you experience is filtered through the emotion. When the plane rises above the cloud you can see it from the outside; you can sense not only the emotion but also aspects of yourself outside of the emotion, including your relation to the emotion itself. The emotion is therefore weaker and has less of a hold over us.

Perhaps all those blog posts you wrote about your breakup really did have a purpose.

Naming feelings takes some of the emotional impact out of them by engaging a brain region that aids self-control, according to new research.

In a clever series of experiments, UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman found that labeling a picture of someone who looked angry as “angry” reduced the negative emotional feelings that most people feel when viewing such a photograph.

“Putting feelings into words activates this region that’s capable of producing emotional regulatory outcomes, which could explain why putting feelings into words dampens them down,” Lieberman said in a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences annual meeting on Saturday.

While plenty of psychological treatments have involved talking about one’s feelings, Lieberman’s work is some of the first to demonstrate the underlying neural basis for the therapeutic nature of talking something out. The research is based on the idea that engaging a part of the brain that aids in self-control, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, helps put a damper on feelings, no matter how you get that part of the brain involved.

First, the researchers had subjects view photographs of men and women with some positive and some negative facial expressions. The negative facial expressions tended to stimulate activity in the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with processing emotions.

The researchers had the subjects play a simple game while looking at the photos. If the photo was of a woman (and 80 percent of the pictures were) they pressed the “go” button, but if the picture was of a man, they didn’t press the button — their brain had to intervene to inhibit the motor response of pressing the button. Simply exerting self-control over the motor function by not pressing the button led to reduced negative emotional response. The idea is that the self-control area of the prefrontal cortex turns on and helps all forms of self-control. They call this “inhibitory spillover.”

In the next set of studies, they had one set of people label the photos with simple gender-name matching — match Seth to the picture of a man, not Sarah. Another group was asked to name the emotions on the faces of the people in the pictures. The subjects who named the emotions experienced less negative emotion associated with negative images. By focusing on the emotions in the pictures to label them, the subjects engaged that piece of the prefrontal cortex and “down regulated” their intensity.

It’s important to note that the regulatory effect didn’t come from increased self-awareness about one’s relationship to the emotion. The more tightly regulated emotional response was practically a side effect of the cognitive task of labeling the emotion in the face. The researchers postulate that the same principle is at work when you talk about your feelings: it’s the bare fact of labeling your emotions that counts, not whatever conclusions you draw in the course of verbal expression (or poetry writing).

It’s possible that these techniques could be used to treat fear-based conditions from arachnophobia (fear of spiders) to zemmiphobia (fear of the great mole rat).

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Pingback from Talking About Bad Feelings Helps Control Them? Really, now? » Awake in This Life
Time: February 16, 2009, 11:58 am

[…] post on UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman’s recent study of labeling emotions. At first blush it may seem like this supports the idea that any of us using the vipassana technique of […]

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