Different brain areas are activated when we choose to suppress an emotion, compared to when we are instructed to inhibit an emotion, according a new study from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and Ghent University.
In this study, published in Brain Structure and Function, the researchers scanned the brains of healthy participants and found that key brain systems were activated when choosing for oneself to suppress an emotion. They had previously linked this brain area to deciding to inhibit movement.
“This result shows that emotional self-control involves a quite different brain system from simply being told how to respond emotionally,” said lead author Dr Simone Kuhn (Ghent University).
In most previous studies, participants were instructed to feel or inhibit an emotional response. However, in everyday life we are rarely told to suppress our emotions, and usually have to decide ourselves whether to feel or control our emotions.
In this new study the researchers showed fifteen healthy women unpleasant or frightening pictures. The participants were given a choice to feel the emotion elicited by the image, or alternatively to inhibit the emotion, by distancing themselves through an act of self-control.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of the participants. They compared this brain activity to another experiment where the participants were instructed to feel or inhibit their emotions, rather than choose for themselves.
Different parts of the brain were activated in the two situations. When participants decided for themselves to inhibit negative emotions, the scientists found activation in the dorso-medial prefrontal area of the brain. They had previously linked this brain area to deciding to inhibit movement.
In contrast, when participants were instructed by the experimenter to inhibit the emotion, a second, more lateral area was activated.
“We think controlling one’s emotions and controlling one’s behavior involve overlapping mechanisms,” said Dr Kuhn.
“We should distinguish between voluntary and instructed control of emotions, in the same way as we can distinguish between making up our own mind about what do, versus following instructions.”
Regulating emotions is part of our daily life, and is important for our mental health. For example, many people have to conquer fear of speaking in public, while some professionals such as health-care workers and firemen have to maintain an emotional distance from unpleasant or distressing scenes that occur in their jobs.
Professor Patrick Haggard (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) co-author of the paper said the brain mechanism identified in this study could be a potential target for therapies.
“The ability to manage one’s own emotions is affected in many mental health conditions, so identifying this mechanism opens interesting possibilities for future research.
“Most studies of emotion processing in the brain simply assume that people passively receive emotional stimuli, and automatically feel the corresponding emotion. In contrast, the area we have identified may contribute to some individuals’ ability to rise above particular emotional situations.
“This kind of self-control mechanism may have positive aspects, for example making people less vulnerable to excessive emotion. But altered function of this brain area could also potentially lead to difficulties in responding appropriately to emotional situations.”
A new study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France reports the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation. The study investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness practice in a group of experienced meditators, compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain (IIBB-CSIC-IDIBAPS), where the molecular analyses were conducted.
The study was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Mindfulness-based trainings have shown beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders in prior clinical studies. The new results provide a possible biological mechanism for therapeutic effects.
The results show a down-regulation of genes that have been implicated in inflammation. The affected genes include the pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 as well as several histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes, which regulate the activity of other genes epigenetically by removing a type of chemical tag. What’s more, the extent to which some of those genes were downregulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test involving an impromptu speech and tasks requiring mental calculations performed in front of an audience and video camera.
Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers say, there was no difference in the tested genes between the two groups of people at the start of the study. The observed effects were seen only in the meditators following mindfulness practice. In addition, several other DNA-modifying genes showed no differences between groups, suggesting that the mindfulness practice specifically affected certain regulatory pathways.
However, it is important to note that the study was not designed to distinguish any effects of long-term meditation training from those of a single day of practice. Instead, the key result is that meditators experienced genetic changes following mindfulness practice that were not seen in the non-meditating group after other quiet activities — an outcome providing proof of principle that mindfulness practice can lead to epigenetic alterations of the genome.
Previous studies in rodents and in people have shown dynamic epigenetic responses to physical stimuli such as stress, diet, or exercise within just a few hours.
“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression,” Davidson says.
“The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions,” Kaliman says. “Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.”
Study funding came from National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (grant number P01-AT004952) and grants from the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and an anonymous donor to Davidson. The study was conducted at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW-Madison Waisman Center.
Perla Kaliman, María Jesús Álvarez-López, Marta Cosín-Tomás, Melissa A. Rosenkranz, Antoine Lutz, Richard J. Davidson. Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators.Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2014; 40: 96 DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.11.004
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in August that symptoms of anxiety had tripled and depression symptoms had quadrupled among a group of 5,470 adults as compared with a survey sample from 2019. Meanwhile mental health services have been stretched worldwide. One reason is that mental health personnel and the facilities they work in have been reassigned to COVID-related tasks during the crisis.
All of us need to sustain and enhance our psychological resilience to weather the daily toll of activity restrictions, rising case numbers, hospitalizations and deaths. A set of simple measures known as psychological first aid or mental health first aid can enable people to help family, friends and others in their communities who experience psychological distress from pandemic fatigue, COVID convalescence, or the loss of a friend or relative. Read the entire article at Scientific American