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Study suggests emotions may trump mind in matters of self-control while meditating

A new study examining two hallmarks of meditation found that openness to one's emotional experiences may play a larger role than mindfulness of the present in increasing a practitioner's self-control.

For a paper slated for publication in Social Cognitive and Affective NeuroscienceUniversity of Toronto researchers studied the Error Related Negativity (ERN), described as an "uh-oh" response: a pre-conscious electrical signal to the brain that appears before we are aware of an error being committed. As explained in a article:

For the study, participants were asked about their experience meditating, and took tests that measured how mindful they were of the present moment, and also how aware and accepting they were of their emotions.

The participants were then hooked up to an electroencephalograph and given something called the Stroop test.


Meditators were generally better than non-meditators at the test, and also had generally stronger ERN responses. Looking further, 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.

Reading about self-control and mindfulness brought to mind the work of Stanford's Kelly McGonigal, PhD, author of the book The Willpower Instinct and an instructor in Stanford's Health Improvement Program. I asked McGonigal for her thoughts on the study and was told, "These new findings are consistent with previous research showing that meditation trains the brain for greater focus and self-control." She went on to say:

What I find most interesting about this study is that of all the qualities mindfulness meditation trains, it was emotion acceptance that best predicted impulse control. Most people think that meditation is about getting rid of thoughts and emotions -- pushing them away to experience a still mind. In reality, mindfulness meditation trains us to not get caught up in them. This study is a good reminder of that.

McGonigal also shared her personal take on one part of the study:

I'm not sure I agree with the study researcher's interpretation that meditators do better on this task because they are more sensitive to their own emotions, including the bad feeling of making a mistake. The lead researcher speculates that the meditators feel worse about making an error and are motivated to avoid it. I think it's more likely that they don't need to defend against awareness of being wrong.

Previously: The science of willpower
Photo courtesy of Bliss Flow Yoga

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