Why does putting our feelings into words — talking with atherapist or friend, writing in a journal — help us to feel better? A new brainimaging study by UCLA psychologists reveals why verbalizing our feelings makesour sadness, anger and pain less intense.
Another study, with the same participants and three of thesame members of the research team, combines modern neuroscience with ancientBuddhist teachings to provide the first neural evidence for why "mindfulness" —the ability to live in the present moment, without distraction — seems toproduce a variety of health benefits.
When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face,they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, whichserves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect thebody in times of danger. Scientists see a robust amygdala response even whenthey show such emotional photographs subliminally, so fast a person can't evensee them.
But does seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angryface change our brain response? The answer is yes, according to Matthew D.Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of socialcognitive neuroscience.
"When you attach the word 'angry,' you see a decreasedresponse in the amygdala," said Lieberman, lead author of the study, whichappears in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.
The studyshowed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled thefeeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateralprefrontal cortex. This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and hasbeen associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences. It has alsobeen implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions, but exactlywhat it contributes has not been known.
"What we're suggesting is when you start thinking in wordsabout your emotions —labeling emotions — that might be part of what the rightventrolateral region is responsible for," Lieberman said.
If a friend or loved one is sad or angry, getting the personto talk or write may have benefits beyond whatever actual insights are gained.These effects are likely to be modest, however, Lieberman said.
"We typically think of language processing in the left sideof the brain; however, this effect was occurring only in this one region, on theright side of the brain," he said. "It's rare to see only one region of thebrain responsive to a high-level process like labeling emotions."
Many people are not likely to realize why putting theirfeelings into words is helpful.
"If you ask people who are really sad why they are writingin a journal, they are not likely to say it's because they think this is a wayto make themselves feel better," Lieberman said. "People don't do this tointentionally overcome their negative feelings; it just seems to have thateffect. Popular psychology says when you're feeling down, just pick yourselfup, but the world doesn't work that way. If you know you're trying to pickyourself up, it usually doesn't work — self-deception is difficult. Becauselabeling your feelings doesn't require you to want to feel better, it doesn'thave this problem."
Thirty people, 18 women and 12 men between ages of 18 and36, participated in Lieberman's study at UCLA's
Lieberman and his co-authors — UCLA assistant professor ofpsychology Naomi Eisenberger, former UCLA psychology undergraduate Molly Crockett,former UCLA psychology research assistant Sabrina Tom, UCLA psychology graduatestudent Jennifer Pfeifer and Baldwin Way, a postdoctoral fellow in Lieberman'slaboratory — used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study subjects' brainactivity.
"When you attach the word 'angry,' you see a decreasedresponse in the amygdala," Lieberman said. "When you attach the name 'Harry,'you don't see the reduction in the amygdala response.
"When you put feelings into words, you're activating thisprefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala," he said. "Inthe same way you hit the brake when you're driving when you see a yellow light,when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on youremotional responses."
As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad.
This is ancient wisdom," Lieberman said. "Putting ourfeelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can getthem to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better."
The right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex undergoes much ofits development during a child's preteen and teenage years. It is possible thatinteraction with friends and family during these years could shape the strengthof this brain region's response, but this is not yet established, Liebermansaid.
One benefit of therapy may be to strengthen this brainregion. Does therapy lead to physiological changes in the right ventrolateralprefrontal cortex? Lieberman, UCLA psychology professor Michelle Craske andtheir colleagues are studying this question.
Combining Buddhist Teachingsand Modern Neuroscience
After the participants left the brain scanner, 27 of themfilled out questionnaires about "mindfulness." Mindfulness meditation, which isvery popular in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, originates from early Buddhist teachings dating back some 2,500years, said David Creswell, a research scientist with the
Mindfulness is atechnique in which one pays attention to his or her present emotions, thoughtsand body sensations, such as breathing, without passing judgment or reacting.An individual simply releases his thoughts and "lets it go."
"One way topractice mindfulness meditation and pay attention to present-moment experiencesis to label your emotions by saying, for example, 'I'm feeling angry right now'or 'I'm feeling a lot of stress right now' or 'this is joy' or whatever theemotion is," said Creswell, lead author of the study, which will be featured inan upcoming issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, a leading internationalmedical journal for health psychology research.
"Thinking, 'this is anger' is what we do in this study,where people look at an angry face and say, 'this is anger,'" Lieberman noted.
Creswell said Liebermanhas now shown in a series of studies that simply labeling emotions turns downthe amygdala alarm center response in the brain that triggers negativefeelings.
Creswell, who conducted the mindfulness research as anadvanced graduate student of psychology at UCLA, said mindfulness meditation isa "potent and powerful therapy thathas been helping people for thousands of years."
Previous studieshave shown that mindfulness meditation is effective in reducing a variety ofchronic pain conditions, skin disease, stress-related health conditions and avariety of other ailments, he said.
Creswell and hisUCLA colleagues — Lieberman, Eisenberger and Way — found that during thelabeling of emotions, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex wasactivated, which seems to turn down activity in the amygdala. They thencompared participants' responses on the mindfulness questionnaire with theresults of the labeling study.
"We found the more mindful you are, the more activation youhave in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the less activation youhave in the amygdala," Creswell said. "We also saw activation in widespreadcenters of the prefrontal cortex for people who are high in mindfulness. Thissuggests people who are more mindful bring all sorts of prefrontal resources toturn down the amygdala. These findings may help explain the beneficial healtheffects of mindfulness meditation, and suggest, for the first time, anunderlying reason why mindfulness meditation programs improve mood and health.
"The rightventrolateral prefrontal cortex can turn down the emotional response you getwhen you feel angry," he said. "This moves us forward in beginning tounderstand the benefits of mindfulness meditation. For the first time, we're now applying scientificprinciples to try to understand how mindfulness works.
"This is such an exciting study because it brings togetherthe Buddha's teachings — more than 2,500 years ago, he talked about thebenefits of labeling your experience — with modern neuroscience," Creswellsaid. "Now, for the first time since those teachings, we have shown there isactually a neurological reason for doing mindfulness meditation. Our findings are consistent with what mindfulnessmeditation teachers have taught for thousands of years."
The research was supported by the National Institute ofMental Health.