Talking it out

I’ve kept a journal, off and on, for just about as long as I can remember (as long as I’ve been able to write, anyway). To me there is something valuable in naming and trying to understand emotional experience in particular, either through writing about it or talking it through with someone I trust, and I’ve always been interested in the idea of being an observer of your own emotional states, experiencing them but being aware of what they are and not getting totally swept up in them. Not that I can always do it, mind you, but it seems like a good idea.

Some of what I’ve read about mindfulness meditation indicates that it fosters that kind of awareness. Recent research into brain activity and mindfulness shows why naming emotional states might be valuable. The amygdala, an area of the brain important in experiencing emotions and mediating the physiological responses to them, is activated when we see faces bearing the expressions of particular emotions. In a recent study, people who saw faces expressing strong emotions like anger or fear and were given emotional labels to describe them showed less activity in the amygdala and more in an area of the cortex called the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This indicates that their raw emotional responses were held in check to some degree by that part of the cortex, which is involved in processing emotions and inhibiting behavior (although its exact role is not known). Furthermore, the shift of activity to the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex was more pronounced in those who were more mindful, in the sense of using the Buddhist technique of labeling emotions as they arise and then letting them go. So maybe the Buddha’s ancient advice about observing and labeling your emotions is helpful because it shifts us out of a reactive mode and into a more reflective mode. You can read more about it in this article from EurekAlert.

3 Comments

  1. I’m a fan of your blog, although I don’t leave comments often at all. I thought I’d leave one today though since you mentioned having kept a journal since you were able to write. If you are interested, a Bloomington independent filmmaker is working on a documentary based on adults reading aloud journal/diary entries from their youth (childhood and adolescence, mainly, but not limited to that). Would you be interested in participating? All I know for now, as a participant myself, is that you may choose entries to read on camera, and then be interviewed about them. The interview questions won’t be too probing or personal, you would be free to let the project guys know how comfortable you are with what you choose to read and the questions you are willing to answer about it.

  2. Thanks for posting! This sounds like a cool project. My childhood and early adolescent diaries/journals have all been either lost or discarded along the way (sigh). The earliest journals I still have go back to my late teens. I would be interested in participating if you think that would be of interest to the filmmaker. You can send contact info to mary@thinkingmeat.com if you like–thanks!

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