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UCLA

Putting feelings into words produces therapeutic effects in the brain

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By Stuart Wolpert

Published Jul 10, 2007 12:13 PM


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.

Another study, with the same participants and three of the same members of the research team, combines modern neuroscience with ancient Buddhist teachings to provide the first neural evidence for why "mindfulness" — the ability to live in the present moment, without distraction — seems to produce a variety of health benefits.

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.

BRAIN'S AMYGDALA RESPONDS TO

"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."

HOW DOES IT WORK?

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."

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