Training boosts the brain’s ability to block itself
Exercise is generally thought of something that strengthens your muscles, extending their capabilities to move more. A new exercise program for your brain looks to strengthen its ability to do less. Dialing back your brain’s activity may not sound like a good thing until you frame it in the context of self-control. Like a sort of mental “toning” exercise, this training strengthens parts of your brain that inhibit unwanted behavior. If it can be widely applied, this technique should help build mental endurance to avoid burning through your self-control too quickly.
Fortifying your focus
The behavior the team at Ben-Gurion University were targeting was negative emotions triggered by the amygdala, our brain’s emotional response center. They didn’t do anything directly with the amygdala though, instead taking people in a neutral emotional state and giving them a cognitively demanding task. The exercise required that they track an arrow on a screen, but to be successful participants had to ignore other arrows on the screen. Afterwards, they were asked to participate in a more emotionally charged activity which required ignoring negative pictures as much as possible.
Self-control over fear and sadness
People who had done the more intense version of the arrow exercise also did better on the emotional one. Scans before and after in an fMRI machine showed that these participants had less activation in their amygdalas, but more connectivity between their amygdala and an emotionally-regulating portion of the frontal cortex. No part of the brain had been damaged, but the natural control points had been bolstered, making it easier for these participants to manage their responses to negative pictures in the second task.
The idea that a person can bolster their emotional control in a non-emotional task is quite attractive. While it wouldn’t necessarily help someone “stop” being sad or depressed, there’s a chance it could help people self-regulate their responses to negative inputs, avoiding a larger loss of control.
Source: The brain can be trained to regulate negative emotions, study reports, Phys.org