In the last post I shed light on a sample of research that shows how mindful emotional attention impacts the structure and function of the brain. So for example the simple act of labeling emotions, a principle ingredient of emotional mindfulness, actually changes the way the brain responds to emotional material. It appears that the mindful brain responds in a more integrated fashion whereas an unmindful brain appears to act in a more “fractionated” fashion, especially when faced with powerful emotions or stimuli. It has long been suspected that mindfulness and meditation facilitates integration between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. More recent research in neuroscience reveals that these practices enhances integration of midbrain and fore-brain structures.
These findings have huge implications that may enhance understanding of various forms of mental illness such as PTSD and other aspects of traumatic conditioning. It also indicates how the brain may be functioning under high levels of arousal, say during states of anger and fear. In such high arousal states, the brain appears to act almost exclusively in response to limbic system activation. The so called limbic brain is an evolutionarily older set of midbrain structures that is sometimes referred to as the mamallian brain which is designed to activate responses to perceived environmental threats. Thus, when one is responding solely in response to limbic arousal, their feelings and responses will be of a more “primitive” survival oriented nature and will respond with extreme fear, anxiety or rage. In such states, there is little or no access or input from the more evolutionarily advanced “rational” centers of the brain in the neocortex or “new brain” that can more accurately assess and respond to the level of threat.
We also now know that traumatic memories are not neurally arranged like other more ordinary autobiographical memories. traumatic memories appear to be more quarantined in the limbic brain and thus have little integration with the neocortex.
So, perhaps in a simplistic way, we can say that psychotherapy, regardless of the modality or approach being employed, can be seen as a vehicle to integrate the limbic and new brain such that one can respond in a more integrated (neurologically and behaviorally) manner. So what we are essentially doing is breaking down the ‘firewall” that separates the limbic brain and the new brain such that they can talk with each other. Talking or writing about difficult memories and emotional experiences, may help serve this function. And now we can see how the simple act of emotional mindfulness and labeling, helps the structures in the fore-brain, specifically in the prefrontal lobes, helps to quiet and modulate inputs from the limbic brain. My guess is that exposure therapies, in which one directly faces threatening stimuli in an unobstructed manner would have a similar neural impact. However, that is an empirical question that as yet has not been explored.
So I bring all this up since in my clinical experience, many patients appear to receive further motivation, validation to support their hard work, from having an understanding that what they are doing has real and measurable results, even at the neurobiological level. Lets face it, we love to be able to tangibly see physical results. So even if folks don’t necessarily understand all this scientific gibberish, they may find some solace in knowing that even such seemingly benign acts as mindfulness, emotional labeling, exposure and so on are making perceivable differences in the workings of their mind and brain.
The goal of both emotional exposure and mindfulness practice is the middle way: Neither the eradication, suppression or control of difficult emotions, nor indulgence or succumbing to their influence. The integrated brain can bear conscious witness to the rising of emotions and provide expression to these feelings in a modulated and responsible manner.