We know that people who meditate do better on tasks that require self-control. It turns out that meditators’ openness to their own emotions is the reason, according to new research from the University of Toronto Scarborough.
“These results suggest that willpower or self-control may be sharpest in people who are sensitive and open to their own emotional experiences. Willpower, in other words, may relate to ‘emotional intelligence’,” said Michael Inzlicht, associate professor of psychology at UTSC. He co-authored the paper with PhD student Rimma Teper.
For psychologists, self-control or “executive control” is the ability to pay attention to appropriate stimuli and to initiate appropriate behavior while inhibiting inappropriate behavior. It’s what keeps you studying when you’d rather be watching TV, or lets you force yourself outside for a morning run rather than turn over and go back to sleep.
Previous work has found that people who engage in meditation show higher levels of executive control on laboratory tasks. But it’s never been clear why, says Teper.
Most meditation traditions emphasize two major practices: awareness of the present moment, and acceptance of emotional states. It was possible that the practice of maintaining awareness of the moment strengthened executive control. But Teper and Inzlicht suspected emotional acceptance played a bigger role.
In a paper scheduled for publication in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, they looked at something called the Error Related Negativity (ERN). ERN is an electrical signal that shows up in the brain within 100 ms of an error being committed, well before our conscious minds are aware of the error.
“It’s kind of like an ‘uh-oh’ response, or a cortical alarm bell,” Teper says.
For the study, the researchers asked participants about their experience meditating, and gave tests that measured how mindful they were of the present moment, and also how aware and accepting they were of their emotions.
The researchers then hooked up participants to an electroencephalograph and gave them something called the Stroop test. In the test, participants are shown the name of a colour written in letters of a different colour – for instance, the word “red” spelled in green letters. Participants are asked to say the colour of the letters. The test requires them to suppress the tendency to read the word, and instead to concentrate on actual colours.
Meditators were generally better than non-meditators at the test, and also had generally stronger ERN responses. Looking further, the researchers found that the best performers were those who scored highest on emotional acceptance, and that mindful awareness – the more cognitive aspect of mindfulness – had less to do with success on the test.
Teper says that the ERN may have a motivational or affective component – in other words, it gives you a bad feeling about failing at a task, and the feeling may motivate you to do better. Because meditators are more aware of their feelings, they may pick up on that feeling more quickly and use it to improve their behavior.
“Meditators are attuned to their emotions. They’re also good at regulating their emotions. It fits well with our results,” Teper says.