People who meditate do better on tasks that require self-control because they are more open to their own emotions, new research finds.
For psychologists, self-control or “executive control” is the ability to pay attention to appropriate stimuli and to initiate appropriate behavior while inhibiting inappropriate behavior. It’s what keeps you studying when you’d rather be watching TV, or lets you force yourself outside for a morning run rather than turn over and go back to sleep.
“These results suggest that willpower or self-control may be sharpest in people who are sensitive and open to their own emotional experiences. Willpower, in other words, may relate to ‘‘emotional intelligence’,” says Michael Inzlicht, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.
Previous work has found that people who engage in meditation show higher levels of executive control on laboratory tasks. But it’s never been clear why, says PhD student Rimma Teper, a co-author on the paper.
Most meditation traditions emphasize two major practices: awareness of the present moment, and acceptance of emotional states. It was possible that the practice of maintaining awareness of the moment strengthened executive control. But the researchers suspected emotional acceptance played a bigger role.
In a paper scheduled for publication in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, they looked at something called the Error Related Negativity (ERN)—an electrical signal that shows up in the brain within 100 ms of an error being committed, well before our conscious minds are aware of the error.
“It’s kind of like an ‘uh-oh’ response, or a cortical alarm bell,” Teper says.