In his recent Networker article “The Great Deception,” psychologist Brent Atkinson, author of Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy: Advances from Neurobiology and the Science of Intimate Relationships, explains the power of mental rehearsal and what this means for your clients.
Can feelings be changed through mental exercise? The answer appears to be yes. Over the past decade, dozens of studies have been published on a particular form of mental rehearsal known as compassion meditation. The exercise involves spending extended periods of time focusing on the intent and desire to develop feelings of compassion and loving-kindness for others. In fact, brain scans have revealed that brain circuits involved in empathy, positive emotion, and emotional regulation are dramatically changed in subjects who’d extensively practiced compassion meditation.
A 2013 study from a University of Wisconsin research team, published in Psychological Science, showed that focusing daily on the intention to be loving and compassionate not only strengthened feelings of compassion and related neural underpinnings, but also increased the concrete altruistic behavior of subjects. A study from Emory University recently also found that compassion meditation boosted “empathic accuracy,” a person’s ability to read the facial expressions of others.
These studies suggest that simply dwelling on the intention to develop a specific feeling activates the neural circuits responsible for producing that feeling. In focusing on the intention to be compassionate, meditators primed their brains for compassion. It’s reasonable to assume that the same principle applies to other feelings. Thus, if you spend five minutes a day thinking about things you’re grateful for, you’re likely to energize and create more connection with brain circuits that produce feelings of gratitude. If you spend five minutes a day vividly remembering times when you felt happy (or playful, affectionate, sexual, and so forth), you’ll energize and strengthen brain circuits that can produce these feelings. As neuroscientists explain, anything you consistently give attention to teaches the brain to produce more of it, and this is true with negative thoughts.
At our clinic, we ask partners to spend five minutes each day doing nothing but thinking about things they like about their mates and about good moments that they’ve spent together. The primary value of this emotional-accessibility exercise is that each time partners dwell on the good feelings they have toward each other, the neural circuits that generate feelings of connection—such as the middle insula, superior parietal lobule, right periaqueductal gray, left ventral tegmental area, and left rostro-dorsal anterior cingulate cortex—may be strengthened.
However, studies on mental rehearsal and compassion meditation suggest that it’s not just any kind of attention that produces these significant changes. Once again, regular, sustained work is essential.
Find out more the practical applications of brain science principles and how to integrate them into your clinical work in the Networker Webcast series Why Brain Science Matters.
Why Brain Science Matters:
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