Worried? Talk It Out
10 July 2007
How Talking and Meditating Changes the Brain
By Lee Dye
are developing new evidence that helps explain why just writing
about fear and depression, or talking with a friend, can help
make the pain go away.
out that verbalizing our worries or fears has a measurable impact
on various parts of the brain. So does simply sitting on the floor
and meditating about such mundane things as breathing.
Sigmund Freud postulated that talking about our problems was good
therapy, experts have argued over whether he was right. Psychoanalysis
has a checkered past, and while many believe it works, not everyone
agrees. Now, there's new evidence that at least something is going
on in the human brain when fears are put into words, or when meditation
creates a state of mind that is free from distraction.
people have known that therapy works, or writing in a journal
helps, but lots of other people don't believe that," said psychologist
Matthew D. Lieberman of the University of California, Los Angeles.
"Now we're beginning to understand the mechanism for how that
works, and that may allow someone who is more skeptical to make
sense of it."
It may also
lead to better ways to treat patients who are emotionally disturbed,
and scientists at a number of institutions are using functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of people
as they verbalize fear, or as they meditate. The effect is surprisingly
people participated in Lieberman's study, which is published in
the current issue of Psychological Science. They were shown a
series of photographs, such as angry faces or passive faces, and
the angry faces produced a response in the part of the brain called
the amygdala, which is sort of the brain's alarm system. But that
response changed when the participants described the photographs.
attach the word 'angry,' you see a decreased response in the amygdala,"
Lieberman said. But simultaneously there is an increase in activity
in another part of the brain, the right ventrolateral prefrontal
cortex, which is believed to inhibit emotional response.
is a very old region of the brain that we share with many other
animals," he said. "Rodents have an amygdala that functions very
much like ours and it's a primitive system for detecting threat
and ambiguous things in the environment. We quickly turn our attention
to them and mobilize resources to deal with them."
all sorts of stress hormones, sending adrenaline through the system,
and that's a good thing because it prepares the body to act. But
too much of that can be bad for the body, causing diseases related
amygdala being turned on occasionally is an incredibly adaptive
feature that we and other animals have, but when the amygdala
is turned on too often or too intensely that's not good for us,"
that when the participants in the study verbalized their thoughts
when shown an angry face, the activity in the amygdala decreased,
and activity in the prefrontal cortex increased.
cortex seems to be involved in turning off emotional stuff," Lieberman
said. So it puts the brakes on the emergency response alarm sent
out by the amygdala, thus reducing stress.
he suggests, "when people are explicitly making sense of their
own feelings, usually by putting them into words."
Richard Davidson, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health,
has been using the same technique to study the neurological effect
of meditation. Participants in his study ranged from meditation
newcomers to Tibetan monks with 54,000 hours of meditation experience.
scans also showed an increase in activity in the prefrontal cortex,
which is among its many functions involved in the control
and regulation of attention. The Wisconsin researchers, who published
their work in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences, even resorted to a little psychological warfare
to see whether they could distract the attention of the participants.
It wasn't hard to derail the newcomers, because meditation isn't
as easy as it sounds, but the monks had no trouble at all.
if they heard a baby screaming, would have some emotional response,"
Davidson said. But the monks remained nonplussed. "They do hear
the sound we can detect that in the auditory cortex but they
don't have the emotional reaction." In other words, less amygdala,
more prefrontal cortex, the same result that the UCLA researchers
research grew out of a scientific relationship with the Dalai
Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, and he has studied
them for 15 years.
hopes that the research will eventually lead to a more enlightened
approach to treating patients with severe emotional problems.
If the amygdala, for example, is running out of control, there's
little chance that the prefrontal cortex will be able to correct
the course. And if the prefrontal cortex isn't up to the task,
"talk therapy isn't going to work because the machine doesn't
work right," he said.
it isn't practical to give every patient a brain scan to see whether
medication, or therapy, is the right course.
be ridiculous to have somebody get a $1,000 scan to see if they
should be getting $80 therapy," Lieberman said.
is that in five or 10 years we'll have some simple tasks, and
have patients do a simple emotional task," to determine whether
the problem lies in the amygdala or in the prefrontal cortex,
he said. "That would be a very cheap instrument for health providers."
is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives
in Juneau, Alaska.
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