The Direct Experience of Emotions, Not the Stories

Excerpt from "What Science Can Teach Us about Practice," by Kelly McGonigal, Buddist Geeks Episode 246: 

The Insular Cortex The yellow section in the diagram above shows the Insular Cortex and its association with desire.

The Insular Cortex The yellow section in the diagram above shows the Insular Cortex and its association with desire.

[A research study looked at] people who were suffering in the way that we typically mean in the West —people who are depressed — and this study randomly assigned adults who were moderately depressed into either an eight-week  Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Training or to a weightless control [group]. And after eight weeks, they exposed them to a number of film clips that were carefully chosen to just rip their hearts wide open —to make them cry, to make them sad, to make them think about things in their own lives that had happened.

So after the mindfulness training, there was greater activation in regions of the brain that help control attention, including the insula, a region of the brain that allows you to feel your emotions as they are happening, the direct experience of emotions, not the stories.

[The insula] became more activated among the people who were trained in meditation.  When people who aren’t trained in meditation are exposed to sad stories, their own story machines, that machine of suffering starts kicking in. [After] eight weeks of training, though, people were tending to their direct experience of emotions as they arise.

So we’re seeing here a possible mechanism that mindfulness training allows us to actually open up to the experience of sadness and that itself is therapeutic, [resulting in] reduced depression.

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