Mindfulness largely refers to a state of awareness characterized by a particular attitude of acceptance and non-judgement towards ‘events’ occurring in the realm of our attention. These events may constitute thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, emotions, recursive thinking patterns, etc. The challenge in cultivating mindfulness lies in acknowledging these thoughts/feelings/sensations/perceptions, instead of reacting to them in habit-formed ways. Therefore, mindfulness allows us to adopt a more detached perspective on our experiences, promoting greater objectivity in selecting responses and behavior.

Mindfulness is cultivated through the practice of meditation, and has its roots in ancient Eastern traditions. Research has shown that mindfulness reduces the extent to which we react to emotional events, which is reflected not only in the way we perceive these events but in the way our body physically responds to them. This may potentially explain why mindfulness is beneficial when introduced in treatments targeting depression and anxiety. The way in which the effects of mindfulness on emotional events are reflected in brain function, however, is not clearly established.

Therefore, our research group at Université de Montréal (laboratory of Dr Mario Beauregard) conducted a study examining brain function changes underlying a mindfulness state of awareness while processing emotionally charged pictures. To do this, we examined a group of individuals having practiced meditation for more than 1000 hours, and another comparison group with no prior experience in meditation (but which was trained for one week before the experiment). The participants viewed pictures depicting negative emotional (eg.: war scenes), positive emotional (eg.: a grandfather smiling and hugging his grandchild) and neutral content (eg.: a common object, such as a lamp). At the same time, their brain activity was recorded inside an MRI scanner. Each group viewed these pictures in a state of mindfulness, as well as in a regular (non-mindful) state of awareness.

Essentially, both experienced meditators and non-meditators reported that they felt less emotionally aroused from the pictures when viewing them in a mindful state of awareness than when they were not in a mindful state. Also, brain function recorded from the long-term practitioners in comparison to the non-meditators revealed the following results. While viewing the emotional pictures in a mindful state of awareness did not reduce activity in a relatively ‘primitive’ fear and arousal-related brain structure, i.e. the amygdala, mindfulness was related to reduced activity in thought-related brain areas, i.e. within the prefrontal cortex. This potentially indicates that, with long-term meditation experience, the mechanism through which mindfulness attenuates arousal to emotional events is not attained through the initial primitive reaction, but through the secondary thoughts and judgements triggered by arousing events. This interpretation however, needs to be validated with behavioral tasks specifically assessing mindfulness and thought-related elaboration towards emotional events.

In a second report, we also observed differences between our group of long-term meditators and non-meditators in the way their brain activity was organised during a state of rest, i.e. when participants were not engaged in a specific task. Thus, this may indicate that meditation is related to brain organisation changes which extend beyond a meditative state of awareness per se.

It is important to point out, however, that cause and event conclusions cannot be derived from the results of these studies, and that further research projects examining a group of participants before and after having acquired mindfulness experience are needed to support our findings. Nonetheless, our studies shed light onto the brain mechanisms operating when individuals experience emotional content in a mindful way. As researchers and scientists persist in studying and uncovering these processes, we will gain a better understanding of the impact that emotional experiences and meditation have on our psyche, our body, and our brain. Finally, with a better understanding of these processes, mindfulness can be more efficiently implemented into treatment options for disorders related to stress and emotional lability.