You don’t have to be a naturally mindful person to reap the emotional benefits of meditation.
When researchers recorded the brain activity of people looking at disturbing pictures immediately after meditating for the first time, the participants who weren’t mindful were able to tame their negative emotions just as well as participants who were naturally mindful.
“Our findings not only demonstrate that meditation improves emotional health, but that people can acquire these benefits regardless of their ‘natural’ ability to be mindful,” says Yanli Lin, a graduate student at Michigan State University and lead investigator of the study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. “It just takes some practice.”
Mindfulness, a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, has gained worldwide popularity as a way to promote health and well-being. But what if someone isn’t naturally mindful? Can they become so simply by trying to make mindfulness a “state of mind”? Or perhaps through a more focused, deliberate effort like meditation?
To find out, researchers assessed 68 participants for mindfulness using a scientifically validated survey. The participants were then randomly assigned to engage in an 18-minute audio guided meditation or listen to a control presentation of how to learn a new language, before viewing negative pictures (such as a bloody corpse) while their brain activity was recorded.
The participants who meditated—they had varying levels of natural mindfulness—showed similar levels of “emotion regulatory” brain activity as people with high levels of natural mindfulness. In other words their emotional brains recovered quickly after viewing the troubling photos, essentially keeping their negative emotions in check.
In addition, some of the participants were instructed to look at the gruesome photos “mindfully” (be in a mindful state of mind) while others received no such instruction. Interestingly, the people who viewed the photos “mindfully” showed no better ability to keep their negative emotions in check.
This suggests that for non-meditators, the emotional benefits of mindfulness might be better achieved through meditation, rather than “forcing it” as a state of mind, says Jason Moser, associate professor of clinical psychology and coauthor of the study.
“If you’re a naturally mindful person, and you’re walking around very aware of things, you’re good to go. You shed your emotions quickly,” he says.
“If you’re not naturally mindful, then meditating can make you look like a person who walks around with a lot of mindfulness. But for people who are not naturally mindful and have never meditated, forcing oneself to be mindful ‘in the moment’ doesn’t work. You’d be better off meditating for 20 minutes.”