We’ve all had those moments in life where everything seems to be falling apart. A relationship has ended, a loved one has passed away, or a particularly intense fight has left us feeling as if there’s no good left in the world. Many people try to internalize it, find a way to deal with it themselves, while their friends and loved ones try to get them to talk about it. “You’ll feel better if you just get it out in the open.” Most people use this time, if they decide to open up, to get advice and gain perspective on the situation. Others use their diary or journal as a therapeutic device to explore their emotions.
Recent studies, however, suggest that labeling and talking about it — literally, just getting it out in the open — can help us deal with intense emotional experiences. Matthew D. Lieberman, Naomi Eisenberger, Molly Crockett, Sabrina Tom, Jennifer Pfeifer, and Baldwin Way of UCLA use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyze the way that our brains deal with emotions and labeling them. The press release from the University of California – Los Angeles, below, provides some additional details.
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Why does putting our feelings into words — talking with a therapist or friend, writing in a journal — help us to feel better? A new brain imaging study by UCLA psychologists reveals why verbalizing our feelings makes our sadness, anger and pain less intense.
When people see a photograph of an angry or fearful face, they have increased activity in a region of the brain called the amygdala, which serves as an alarm to activate a cascade of biological systems to protect the body in times of danger. Scientists see a robust amygdala response even when they show such emotional photographs subliminally, so fast a person can’t even see them.
But does seeing an angry face and simply calling it an angry face change our brain response? The answer is yes, according to Matthew D. Lieberman, UCLA associate professor of psychology and a founder of social cognitive neuroscience.
“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” said Lieberman, lead author of the study, which appears in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.
The study showed that while the amygdala was less active when an individual labeled the feeling, another region of the brain was more active: the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. This region is located behind the forehead and eyes and has been associated with thinking in words about emotional experiences. It has also been implicated in inhibiting behavior and processing emotions, but exactly what it contributes has not been known.
“What we’re suggesting is when you start thinking in words about your emotions –labeling emotions — that might be part of what the right ventrolateral region is responsible for,” Lieberman said.
If a friend or loved one is sad or angry, getting the person to talk or write may have benefits beyond whatever actual insights are gained. These effects are likely to be modest, however, Lieberman said.
“We typically think of language processing in the left side of the brain; however, this effect was occurring only in this one region, on the right side of the brain,” he said. “It’s rare to see only one region of the brain responsive to a high-level process like labeling emotions.”
Many people are not likely to realize why putting their feelings into words is helpful.
“If you ask people who are really sad why they are writing in a journal, they are not likely to say it’s because they think this is a way to make themselves feel better,” Lieberman said. “People don’t do this to intentionally overcome their negative feelings; it just seems to have that effect. Popular psychology says when you’re feeling down, just pick yourself up, but the world doesn’t work that way. If you know you’re trying to pick yourself up, it usually doesn’t work — self-deception is difficult. Because labeling your feelings doesn’t require you to want to feel better, it doesn’t have this problem.”
Thirty people, 18 women and 12 men between ages of 18 and 36, participated in Lieberman’s study at UCLA’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. They viewed images of individuals making different emotional expressions. Below the picture of the face they either saw two words, such as “angry” and “fearful,” and chose which emotion described the face, or they saw two names, such as “Harry” and “Sally,” and chose the gender-appropriate name that matched the face.
Lieberman and his co-authors — UCLA assistant professor of psychology Naomi Eisenberger, former UCLA psychology undergraduate Molly Crockett, former UCLA psychology research assistant Sabrina Tom, UCLA psychology graduate student Jennifer Pfeifer and Baldwin Way, a postdoctoral fellow in Lieberman’s laboratory — used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study subjects’ brain activity.
“When you attach the word ‘angry,’ you see a decreased response in the amygdala,” Lieberman said. “When you attach the name ‘Harry,’ you don’t see the reduction in the amygdala response.
“When you put feelings into words, you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala,” he said. “In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”
As a result, an individual may feel less angry or less sad.
This is ancient wisdom,” Lieberman said. “Putting our feelings into words helps us heal better. If a friend is sad and we can get them to talk about it, that probably will make them feel better.”
The right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex undergoes much of its development during a child’s preteen and teenage years. It is possible that interaction with friends and family during these years could shape the strength of this brain region’s response, but this is not yet established, Lieberman said.
One benefit of therapy may be to strengthen this brain region. Does therapy lead to physiological changes in the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex” Lieberman, UCLA psychology professor Michelle Craske and their colleagues are studying this question.
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Follow this link to read more about the study, including their research into Buddhist teachings and their effect on human cognition and even physiology.