Most of us are equipped with the knowledge of how to fix a flat tire, terminate a computer virus, or watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones without HBO. However, when it comes to a crisis, we instinctually panic, and become overridden with anxiety and stress. Now, a recent study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests meditation can help keep our emotional brain in check, even if we're not mindful.

When researchers recorded the brain activity of people looking at disturbing pictures shortly after meditating for the first time; those who weren't mindful were able to tame their negative emotions as well as people who were naturally mindful.

“Our findings not only demonstrate that meditation improves emotional health, but that people can acquire these benefits regardless of their ‘natural’ ability to be mindful,” said Yanli Lin, lead author of the study and a graduate student at Michigan State University, in a statement.

Mindfulness meditation has gained worldwide popularity for its ability to promote awareness of one's thoughts, feelings, and sensations, which has contributed to our overall health and well-being. The state of mindfulness is nurtured through the practice of sitting meditation by paying attention to the movement of the abdomen when breathing in and out, or as the breath goes in and out of the nostrils. Previous research has found it can strengthen the immune system and physiological responses to stress and negative emotions.

So, can an unmindful person become so by making mindfulness a "state of mind?"

To find out, Lin and her colleagues assessed 68 participants for mindfulness using a scientifically validated survey. The participants were randomly assigned to engage in either an 18-minute audio guided meditation, or listen to a control presentation of how to learn a new language, before viewing negative pictures, like a bloody corpse. Brain activity was recorded simulataneously as they viewed the photos to determine whether mindfulness is able to downregulate emotional brain regions. In addition, some participants were told to look at the gruesome photos “mindfully” while others did not receive any instruction.

The findings revealed those who meditated had varying levels of natural mindfulness, and showed similar levels of "emotion regulatory" brain activity as people with high levels of natural mindfulness. In other words, their emotional brain recovered quickly after viewing the disturbing photos. One session of mindfulness meditation helped keep their negative emotions in check. Among those instructed to be mindful while viewing the photos, they showed no better ability to keep their negative emotions in check.

This reveals the emotional benefits of mindfulness might be better reaped through meditation than “forcing” it as a state of mind for non-meditators.

"But for people who are not naturally mindful and have never meditated, forcing oneself to be mindful ‘in the moment’ doesn’t work. You’d be better off meditating for 20 minutes," said Jason Moser, coauthor of the study and associate professor of clinical psychology, in a statement.

But, how does mindfulness block negativity in the brain?

A 2014 study found the simple act of practicing mindfulness increased both brain activity and the density of brain tissue in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the hippocampus. The ACC, responsible for self-control, enables us to resist distractions, to focus, and avoid impulsivity in order to work efficiently and make great decisions. Meanwhile, the hippocampus is responsible for resilience in the face of stressful situations or a crisis. Increased brain activity in the ACC and hippocampus means we're better equipped to react calmly, and make rational decisions amid any situation.

Even a few minutes of mindfulness meditation can make a difference in quieting the mind and reducing stress.

Source: Lin Y, Fisher ME, Roberts SMM et al. Deconstructing the Emotion Regulatory Properties of Mindfulness: An Electrophysiological Investigation. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 2016.