There is mounting evidence that mindfulness meditation is beneficial for the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders, yet little is known regarding the neural mechanisms through which mindfulness modulates emotional responses. Thus, a central objective of this functional magnetic resonance imaging study was to investigate the effects of mindfulness on the neural responses to emotionally laden stimuli. Another major goal of this study was to examine the impact of the extent of mindfulness training on the brain mechanisms supporting the processing of emotional stimuli. Twelve experienced (with over 1000 h of practice) and 10 beginner meditators were scanned as they viewed negative, positive, and neutral pictures in a mindful state and a non-mindful state of awareness. Results indicated that the Mindful condition attenuated emotional intensity perceived from pictures, while brain imaging data suggested that this effect was achieved through distinct neural mechanisms for each group of participants. For experienced meditators compared with beginners, mindfulness induced a deactivation of default mode network areas (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices) across all valence categories and did not influence responses in brain regions involved in emotional reactivity during emotional processing. On the other hand, for beginners relative to experienced meditators, mindfulness induced a down-regulation of the left amygdala during emotional processing. These findings suggest that the long-term practice of mindfulness leads to emotional stability by promoting acceptance of emotional states and enhanced present-moment awareness, rather than by eliciting control over low-level affective cerebral systems from higher-order cortical brain regions. These results have implications for affect-related psychological disorders.
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