#6: Neuroscience research on emotional regulation

Emotional regulation is paramount to wellbeing and healthy social functioning. Our ability to choose how we respond to a stimuli is an important human behavior, and one that is linked to happiness and the pursuit of higher-level goals.

Emotional regulation takes place in the the right superior frontal gyrus, a region in the prefrontal cortex. Complex, executive-level brain function takes place in this area. Emotional regulation works similarly to interoception, the process by which our brains create meaning from internal bodily sensations. Emotional regulation, like interoception, is culture bound; we create emotions and feelings based on cultural and societal norms that we learned during childhood.

Unless you have a brain lesion, you have the ability to choose your emotions. Emotional regulation, like anything else that doesn't yield immediate gratification, can be learned, at any age because of neuroplasticity. Studies from Stanford show that neuroplasticity at any adult age can be as robust as in childhood, if focus is applied.

How our brains regulate emotions

Reappraisal is the mechanism in our brain that reduces the personal relevance of negative events. It helps to manage emotions by down-regulating negative feelings. There are two types of reappraisal strategies: the first, REAPPsit, is situation focused; the second, REAPPself, is self focused. Employing a REAPPsit strategy means you reinterpret the meaning of an emotional event; this requires holding several alternative explanations in working memory. Employing REAPPself, also known as distancing, means you adopt the role of a third person observer. It would be like thinking of the stimuli as randomly seen in a newspaper.

REAPPself is a strategy commonly practiced in meditation. In meditation, the meditator recognizes emotions that spontaneously arise, acknowledges them, and lets them go. The emotions can then be observed objectively, as something outside of the person.

Emotions are like waves in an ocean: waves arise spontaneously, and then disappear. Seasoned meditators are skilled at recognizing strong bodily sensations that signal a wave, and allow those sensations to pass through their body without creating a strong emotional response.

The path to freedom

Buddhism has trained super heroes for thousands of years. Now, we have neuroscience to explain the ancient practice’s claims. Through exploratory voxel based lesion system mapping analysis (VLSM), an advanced brain imaging technique, neuroscientists are able to conduct studies on brain-lesioned patients and a healthy control group. In these studies, the patients and the control group are asked to complete REAPPSelf tasks and researchers measure how well each group can perform the tasks, and what brain regions are working (or not working).

Reappraisal strategies are powerful for emotional regulation. You don’t need to meditate to practice reappraisal. The next time you feel a wave of strong emotion, I encourage you to identify the stimulus and witness it objectively. Imagine you are reading about it happening to someone in a newspaper. Alternatively, you can create a few different explanations for the event. Next time a similar stimulus happens, you’ll have a few alternative explanations handy. Remember, you can’t choose what happens to you, but you can choose how you respond.

References

Detaching from the negative by reappraisal: the role of right superior frontal gyrus (BA9/32)

How Emotions Are Made, The Secret Life of the Brain

Change Your Brain: Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman | Rich Roll Podcast


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