Feeling the Happiness – Not Pain – of Others Predicts Helpful Behavior

Hand photo by -5m / Flickr.com

Hand photo by -5m / Flickr.com

The idea of putting yourself in another person’s shoes has been a hallmark of empathy, but whether you’re relating to negative or positive emotion matters, too, according to researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the Waisman Center, UW–Madison.

Empathy, or the ability for an individual to produce a similar emotional state of another person along with wishes for goodwill, can carry positive or negative emotion depending on the state of the person you’re empathizing with. For instance, if someone’s suffering, you may express empathic concern for that person. When sharing another’s joy, you may feel empathic happiness.

But new research suggests empathy – with both positive and negative emotions – may be equally effective in leading people to behave in more generous and prosocial ways.

“These findings could shed light on how we can better inspire people to act prosocially toward each other,” says Sharee Light, a former graduate student at CIHM and current postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan Medical School who led the study. “You don’t necessarily need to see a person suffer to want to help him or her.”

Sharee Light

Sharee Light

In the study, a group of 68 participants watched select clips from the popular TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, detailing one woman’s story in receiving a new house after losing a previous home to a natural disaster. While watching the clips, participants’ facial muscles were tracked using electromyography (EMG), allowing researchers to link facial reactivity to the empathic concern and happiness participants experienced in happy and sad moments throughout the show.

Throughout the session, people in the study were asked whether they wanted to donate themed books to children in a local school district – an action scientists could use to measure prosocial behavior. The team not only found that the intensity of both smiling and frowning while watching the clips predicted people’s willingness to donate a book, but it also predicted the types of books people wanted to donate, with people who expressed more empathic happiness opting to donate books with goodwill themes.

What’s unique, Light adds, is that these prosocial behaviors focused on others –schoolchildren — rather than the original person participants empathized with — the woman in the TV show. In this case, the prosocial behavior did not have to be directed at the person participants were empathizing with, suggesting that empathy has a sustained effect and carries over to participants’ subsequent behavior.

Though the study is the first of its kind to measure how empathic concern and empathic happiness manifests itself in the face, Light says there’s more research to be done to replicate the findings and explore these results further with more sophisticated tools, including functional MRI.

“This empathic happiness could be a route to increase positive emotion,” she says. “More research is needed, but empathic happiness might be one area to investigate to see how it boosts overall happiness. If so, would it be a skill that can be learned?”

— Marianne Spoon


‘Kindness Curriculum’ Boosts School Success in Preschoolers


035_CHIM-201112078-Krakora Studios

Photo courtesy of Krakora Studios

Watch Richard Davidson discuss this project at the 2015 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Over the course of 12 weeks, twice a week, the prekindergarten students learned their ABCs. Attention, breath and body, caring practice — clearly not the standard letters of the alphabet.

Rather, these 4- and 5-year-olds in the Madison Metropolitan School District were part of a study assessing a new curriculum meant to promote social, emotional and academic skills, conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the Waisman Center.

Researchers found that kids who had participated in the curriculum earned higher marks in academic performance measures and showed greater improvements in areas that predict future success than kids who had not. The results were recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

“This work started a number of years ago when we were looking at ways to possibly help children develop skills for school and academic success, as well as in their role as members of a global community,” says study lead author Lisa Flook, a CIHM scientist. “There was a strong interest in looking at cultivating qualities of compassion and kindness.”

While mindfulness-based approaches for children have become popular in recent years, few are backed by rigorous scientific evidence. The research team — graduate research assistant Simon Goldberg; outreach specialist Laura Pinger; and CIHM founder Richard Davidson, the UW-Madison William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry — set out to change that.

The team developed a curriculum to help children between the ages of 4 and 6 years learn how to be more aware of themselves and others through practices that encourage them to bring mindful attention to present moment experience. These practices, the researchers hypothesized, could enhance the children’s self-regulation skills – such as emotional control and the capacity to pay attention — and influence the positive development of traits like impulse control and kindness.

Past studies show the ability to self-regulate in early childhood predicts better results later in life with health, educational attainment and financial stability. Flook says early childhood is an opportune time to equip children with these skills since their brains are rapidly developing. The skills may also help them cope with future life stress.

“Knowing how critical these skills are at an early age, if there are ways to promote them, it could help set kids on a more positive life trajectory,” says Flook.

Throughout the study period, trained CIHM instructors taught the curriculum in diverse classrooms throughout the Madison area and worked with students through hands-on activities involving movement, music and books. Each lesson provided students and teachers the opportunity to participate in mindfulness practices, including activities focused on compassion and gratitude, and to take note of their experience.

For example, kids were encouraged to think about people who are helpful to them – sometimes those they may not know well, like the bus driver — and to reflect on the role these people play in their lives, Flook says.

Teachers reported one of the kids’ favorite activities was a practice called “Belly Buddies,” in which they listened to music while lying on their backs, a small stone resting on their stomachs. They were asked to notice the sensation of the stone, and to feel it rising and falling as they breathed in and out.

“It’s something that’s so simple and it allows them to experience internal quietness and a sense of calm,” says Flook.

They also each received alphabet bracelets to wear, to help them remember their kindness curriculum ABCs.

The curriculum itself is rooted in long-standing adult mindfulness-based practices but was adapted to the children’s developmental ability.

The researchers measured the impact of the curriculum on sharing by using stickers the kids could choose to give to a variety of others or keep for themselves. They measured the kids’ ability to delay gratification by choosing one small reward to have immediately or waiting to receive a larger treat later.

The team looked at how well kids could switch from one mental task to another in a card sorting activity, where they were first asked to sort by shape, then by color, and finally, a mix of both. That’s a particularly challenging skill for young kids, Flook says.

The research team also assessed the students’ ability to pay attention by measuring how well they identified particularly oriented arrows on a screen despite the presence of other on-screen distractions, and it examined the students’ academic performance in the months following the study.

In addition to improved academics, the 30 students who went through the curriculum showed less selfish behavior over time and greater mental flexibility than the 38 kids in the control group.

Flook cautions that while the study was designed as a randomized control trial, additional, larger studies are needed to demonstrate the curriculum’s true power. However, the results demonstrate its potential.

Ultimately, the researchers would like to see mindfulness-based practices become “woven into” the school day, adapted to students across grade levels, becoming a foundation for how teachers teach and how students approach learning, Flook says.

“I think there’s increasing recognition of how social, emotional and cognitive functioning are intermingled; that kids may have difficulty in school when emotional challenges arise and that impacts learning,” she adds. “Can you imagine how this could shift the climate of our schools, our community, our world, if cultivating these qualities was at the forefront of education?”

For more tips on mindfulness skills and kids, check out the UW-Madison Research Blog.

— Kelly April Tyrrell

To Practice Mindfulness, Start by Counting Your Breaths

It’s as simple as breathing in and breathing out.

Mindfulness – a focus on the here and now through awareness of the present moment – can be both practiced and, importantly, measured by simply counting your breath, according to new studies led by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and published collectively this month in Frontiers in Psychology.

The practice of mindfulness has recently gained popularity in the U.S. Studies show it can reduce stress, improve student academic performance, and more. But researchers have lacked a scientifically rigorous way to measure it, sometimes hindering its credibility, says study leader Richard Davidson, a UW-Madison professor of psychology and psychiatry.

“We wanted to develop a behavioral measure of mindfulness,” says Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW’s Waisman Center.

6812062635_d4e281112d_oWith breath counting, the team of researchers says it has found that measure. It is, after all, a practice that dates back 1,500 years as a tool to train mindfulness, says Daniel Levinson, lead author of the paper and a graduate student at the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior.

The researchers hope their findings will help continue to push mindfulness into the mainstream. It has long been seen as the domain of monks and mystics, but Levinson would like to see it become as common as yoga and running are today. He wants to see more physicians and others using it as a tool to promote well-being and to engage in common conversation around mindfulness. He is hopeful this measure can help.

“It’s easy to answer self-report questionnaires in ways that are consistent with what a person thinks mindfulness to represent, the expectations about how a person highly mindful will behave,” says Davidson, but when it comes to keeping track of breaths, people can’t “fake good.”

To examine the practice as a tool for measuring mindfulness, participants in the study were asked to keep track of nine breaths in sequence by striking one computer key at each breath and a different key on the ninth breath in each sequence. To do so accurately, a person must be aware of each breath as it happens.

“Counting isn’t the main focus; it’s the experiential awareness of breath,” Levinson says. Breath counting is not mindfulness; rather, it’s a tool for measuring it, much like a thermometer is a tool for assessing the season.

Of the more than 400 people studied, all completed breath-counting tasks. Some were asked to provide their mood prior to doing so. Other participants were trained for four weeks in breath counting and then compared to people trained in a memory task or not trained at all.

Yet others – including novice and long-term meditators – were trained in a distraction task where they were paid to correctly identify a colored object on a screen of objects, followed by testing where they were asked to identify a different colored object. During the testing, the subjects were no longer paid for their efforts, but they were “distracted” with the presence of the original colored object.

The researchers found that positive mood was associated with better breath-counting accuracy, long-term meditators were better breath counters than novices, better breath counters performed better in distraction tasks and participants trained in breath counting completed test tasks more accurately than those not trained in breath counting.

The findings show that mindfulness as measured through breath counting is associated with more self-awareness, less mind wandering, better mood and less distraction caused by the “want” of financial gain.

And while it may seem easy, Levinson says that when people are off-count, they’re unaware of it roughly two-thirds of the time. “The cool thing is we always are breathing, so we can do this anytime, anywhere,” Davidson says.

Levinson sums it up a bit more succinctly: “Everyone has a breath.”

CIHM and Madison Schools Team Up to Train Mindfulness Muscles

Mindfulness practice in the classroom may be one way to help students improve their academic performance, nurture their emotional well-being and bolster their behavior.

At least, that’s the idea behind a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, the recipient of a three-year, $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, in partnership with the Madison Metropolitan School District, to bring the centuries-old practice into the city’s classrooms.

“We want to assess, in a rigorous way using research, something that is done all over the world,” says Lisa Flook, assistant scientist at CIHM, part of the UW Waisman Center.

The large, randomized-control trial will involve 700 4th and 5th grade students and 20-30 teachers across 20 Madison elementary schools over the next three years. A specialized team from CIHM will train students and teachers in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an accessible, secular approach modified for the age groups in the study.

“Such practices, particularly early in life when neuroplasticity is at its peak, have the potential of helping children pursue a trajectory of healthy development,” says Richard Davidson, founder of CIHM and a professor of psychology and psychiatry.

The CIHM published the results of a successful study involving Madison teachers and MBSR last year and it conducted a pilot project involving Madison 5th graders in 2010.

After the first year, a large team of investigators will go into the schools to collect a wealth of data, including: student performance on computer tasks of attention; surveys of student mood, anxiety and perception of the classroom environment; student attendance, academic and behavioral records; and teacher surveys of their own job stress, psychological well-being, mood and empathy.

“When children are young they are setting their patterns for life,” says Flook. “Their emotional and social well-being matter.”

Kindness Curriculum (Belly shot)To practice mindfulness-based stress reduction, students and teachers are trained through a variety of practices to focus on the present moment, including bringing attention to their breathing. They are also taught to be attuned to their bodies and aware of their emotions, to “drop in” on their present state.

Over the course of the study, Flook and her team will develop and refine a mindfulness curriculum, working with teachers and the school district to have it become a routine and integrated aspect of the school day. The hope, Flook says, is for this to become sustainable, something schools choose to incorporate on their own even after the study is over.

“How do we support teachers and students after the program?” she says, looking ahead. “Mindfulness is like a muscle: you need to keep using it to keep it trained.”

— Kelly April Tyrrell

Early Life Stress can Leave Lasting Impacts on the Brain

For children, stress can go a long way. A little bit provides a platform for learning, adapting and coping. But a lot of it — chronic, toxic stress like poverty, neglect and physical abuse — can have lasting negative impacts.

A team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers recently showed these kinds of stressors, experienced in early life, might be changing the parts of developing children’s brains responsible for learning, memory and the processing of stress and emotion. These changes may be tied to negative impacts on behavior, health, employment and even the choice of romantic partners later in life.

Photo: illustration of brain

Different forms of early life stress, such as child maltreatment or poverty, impacted the size of two important brain regions: the hippocampus (red) and amygdala (green). Courtesy of Jamie Hanson and Seth Pollak

The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, could be important for public policy leaders, economists and epidemiologists, among others, says study lead author and recent UW Ph.D. graduate Jamie Hanson.

“We haven’t really understood why things that happen when you’re 2, 3, 4 years old stay with you and have a lasting impact,” says Seth Pollak, co-leader of the study and UW-Madison professor of psychology.

Yet, early life stress has been tied before to depression, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, and a lack of educational and employment success, says Pollak, who is also director of the UW Waisman Center’s Child Emotion Research Laboratory.

“Given how costly these early stressful experiences are for society … unless we understand what part of the brain is affected, we won’t be able to tailor something to do about it,” he says.

For the study, the team recruited 128 children around age 12 who had experienced either physical abuse, neglect early in life or came from low socioeconomic status households.

Photo: Jamie Hanson

Jamie Hanson

Researchers conducted extensive interviews with the children and their caregivers, documenting behavioral problems and their cumulative life stress. They also took images of the children’s brains, focusing on the hippocampus and amygdala, which are involved in emotion and stress processing. They were compared to similar children from middle-class households who had not been maltreated.

Hanson and the team outlined by hand each child’s hippocampus and amygdala and calculated their volumes. Both structures are very small, especially in children (the word amygdala is Greek for almond, reflecting its size and shape in adults), and Hanson and Pollak say the automated software measurements from other studies may be prone to error.

Photo: Seth Pollak

Seth Pollak

Indeed, their hand measurements found that children who experienced any of the three types of early life stress had smaller amygdalas than children who had not. Children from low socioeconomic status households and children who had been physically abused also had smaller hippocampal volumes. Putting the same images through automated software showed no effects.

Behavioral problems and increased cumulative life stress were also linked to smaller hippocampus and amygdala volumes.

Why early life stress may lead to smaller brain structures is unknown, says Hanson, now a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University’s Laboratory for NeuroGenetics, but a smaller hippocampus is a demonstrated risk factor for negative outcomes. The amygdala is much less understood and future work will focus on the significance of these volume changes.

“For me, it’s an important reminder that as a society we need to attend to the types of experiences children are having,” Pollak says. “We are shaping the people these individuals will become.”

But the findings, Hanson and Pollak say, are just markers for neurobiological change; a display of the robustness of the human brain, the flexibility of human biology. They aren’t a crystal ball to be used to see the future.

“Just because it’s in the brain doesn’t mean it’s destiny,” says Hanson.

— Kelly April Tyrrell

It’s Not All Wedded Bliss: Marital Stress Linked to Depression

Photo: couple on couch facing away from each other

Photo: iStock photo

A long-term study by UW-Madison researchers shows that people who experience chronic marital stress are less able to savor positive experiences, a hallmark of depression.

Married people are, in general, happier and healthier than single people, according to numerous studies. But marriage can also be one of the most significant sources of long-lasting social stress. It’s not all wedded bliss.

Marital stress may make people more vulnerable to depression, according to a recent study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers and their colleagues.

The long-term study, published in the April 2014 issue of the journal Psychophysiology, shows that people who experience chronic marital stress are less able to savor positive experiences, a hallmark of depression. They are also more likely to report other depressive symptoms.

The findings are important, says study leader Richard Davidson, UW-Madison William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry, because they could help researchers understand what makes some people more vulnerable to mental and emotional health challenges.

They might also help scientists develop tools to prevent them.

“This is not an obvious consequence, if you will, of marital stress, but it’s one I think is extraordinarily important because of the cascade of changes that may be associated,” says Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW’s Waisman Center. “This is the signature of an emotional style that reveals vulnerability to depression.”

The researchers thought chronic marital stress could provide a good model for how other common daily stressors may lead to depression and similar conditions.

“How is it that a stressor gets under your skin and how does that make some more vulnerable to maladaptive responses?” says UW-Madison graduate student Regina Lapate. She is the paper’s lead author.

Photo: Regina Lapate

Regina Lapate

For the longitudinal study — part of the National Institute on Aging-funded Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) study directed by Carol Ryff, director of the Institute on Aging at UW-Madison — researchers recruited married adult participants to complete questionnaires rating their stress on a six-point scale.

They were asked questions like how often they felt let down by their partner or how frequently their spouse criticized them. They were also evaluated for depression.

Roughly nine years later, the questionnaire and depression assessments were repeated.

In year 11, the participants were invited to the laboratory to undergo emotional response testing, a means of measuring their resilience. Resilience, from an emotional perspective, reflects how quickly a person can recover from a negative experience.

The participants were shown 90 images, a mix of negative, neutral and positive photographs such as a smiling mother-daughter pair. The electrical activity of the corrugator supercilii, also known as the frowning muscle, was measured to assess the intensity and duration of their response.

As the nickname suggests, the frowning muscle activates more strongly during a negative response. At rest, the muscle has a basal level of tension but during a positive emotional response, the muscle becomes more relaxed.

Measuring how activated or relaxed the muscle becomes and how long it takes to reach the basal level again is a reliable way to measure emotional response and the tool has been used before to assess depression.

“It’s a nice way to get at what people are experiencing without asking people for their emotional response: ‘How are you feeling?'” Lapate says.

Prior studies have shown that depressed individuals have a fleeting response following positive emotional triggers. Davidson was interested in not just how much a muscle relaxes or tenses when a person looks at an image but also in how long it takes the response to subside.

“If you measure at just one time point, you are losing valuable information,” says Lapate.

Davidson and colleagues found the five to eight seconds following exposure to positive images most significant.

Study participants who reported higher marital stress had shorter-lived responses to positive images than those reporting more satisfaction in their unions. There was no significant difference in the timing of negative responses.

Now, Davidson is interested in how to help people change this weakened ability to enjoy positive experiences, to enable them to become more resilient to stress.

“To paraphrase the bumper sticker: ‘Stress happens,'” says Davidson. “There is no such thing as leading a life completely buffered from the slings and arrows of everyday life.”

By understanding the mechanisms that make individuals more prone to depression and other emotional disturbances, Davidson is hoping to find tools — such as meditation — to stop it from happening in the first place.

“How we can use simple interventions to actually change this response?” he asks. “What can we do to learn to cultivate a more resilient emotional style?”

— Kelly April Tyrrell

New Study Reveals Critical Role of Conscious Awareness in Regulating Emotional Responses

Emotions photo from SeRGioSVoX / Flickr.com

Emotions photo from SeRGioSVoX / Flickr.com

Neuroscientists and psychologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently discovered a connection between emotional reactions to stimuli not consciously “seen” and the way we view other, unrelated people in our environment. They found this happens only when we are unaware of the initial emotional provocation.  This suggests there are regulatory benefits associated with processing emotion and being fully aware of the trigger.

The study, published today in the journal Psychological Science and conducted at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds in the UW’s Waisman Center, shows that conscious awareness of an emotional trigger decreases the likelihood that an emotional reaction will bias you against other, unrelated targets in your environment.

Their findings highlight a crucial role for conscious awareness in emotion regulation. Conscious awareness is defined here as “conscious access”, or processing an external emotional stimulus with a reportable perceptual experience.

If we are exposed to stressful news in the background of our activities during the course of a busy day—even if we don’t consciously register the information—it can color our judgment of other unrelated attributes of the environment. But the researchers findings suggest that being consciously aware of the stressful news breaks this association, making it less likely that this negative response will “spill over” and color our perception of other stimuli.


Regina Lapate

“Even when you’re not consciously aware of an emotional stimulus, regions of the brain still pick up on it and process it,” says Regina Lapate, lead author on the paper and a doctoral student at the center. “We wanted to know, what are the functional consequences of this?  What are the behavioral consequences of those responses when you’re not aware, and how do they differ from when you are aware?”

Prior studies have shown that when a person evaluates neutral stimuli, like a face or an abstract pattern, their rating of the stimuli is changed if a negative image was presented before it, especially if the image was hidden from view.  The popular theory was that a person uses emotional information garnered from the initial stimulus to interpret the subsequent image in a negative way. The subsequent response is thereby biased based on the initial reaction.

“What we found is that conscious awareness breaks the correlation between that first emotional reaction and our later evaluations of neutral stimuli,” Lapate explains.

The 46 participants in the study were presented with emotional and neutral stimuli. In half the trials, conscious awareness was manipulated using a visual awareness manipulation method called continuous flash suppression.  While one eye was presented with a low-contrast, static image—a fearful face or a spider (emotional), or a flower (neutral)—the other eye was being shown a high-contrast, dynamic block of colors.  To measure the magnitude of emotional response to the subsequent images, the researchers looked at whether skin conductance, or sweat, increased. To measure the behavioral impact of the initial response, the researchers asked participants to rate the likeability of neutral, novel faces shown seconds later.

The scientists found that fearful faces increase sweat responses regardless of awareness, and that higher level of sweat responses to a fearful face predicts less liking of a subsequently shown, neutral face—but only if you are unaware of the fearful face.

“Whenever you’re fully aware being shown a fearful face, there’s no association between sweat responses to it and how you evaluate later-presented neutral faces,” says Lapate.

She plans to continue exploring the role of awareness in processing emotion, and understanding how conscious awareness influences activity in emotional-processing neural substrates. This new knowledge may one day have important clinical implications.  The findings imply that learning to cultivate increased awareness of emotional information can help people to better regulate their emotions.

“When we go about our lives, our visual system is overloaded, so we’re only consciously aware of a fraction of that information,” says Lapate. “How do peripheral expressions of emotion that may go undetected influence us? How do they affect the brain? Especially when we’re not actively attending to them?”

It may be beneficial to learn to focus one’s attention in different ways in order to process emotion more effectively, for example.

Other authors on the study included Bas Rokers, of UW-Madison and Utrecht University in the Netherlands, T. Li of the University of Chicago, and Richard J. Davidson.  The study was funded by National Institute of Mental Health grants R01-MH43454 and P50-MH069315, awarded to Richard J. Davidson.

Study Reveals Gene Expression Changes with Meditation

Genome art photo by Marc / Flickr.com

Genome art photo by Marc / Flickr.com

With evidence growing that meditation can have beneficial health effects, scientists have sought to understand how these practices physically affect the body.

A new study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France reports the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation.

The study investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness practice in a group of experienced meditators, compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain (IIBB-CSIC-IDIBAPS), where the molecular analyses were conducted.

The study was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Mindfulness-based trainings have shown beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders in prior clinical studies and are endorsed by the American Heart Association as a preventative intervention. The new results provide a possible biological mechanism for therapeutic effects.

The results show a down-regulation of genes that have been implicated in inflammation. The affected genes include the pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 as well as several histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes, which regulate the activity of other genes epigenetically by removing a type of chemical tag. What’s more, the extent to which some of those genes were downregulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test involving an impromptu speech and tasks requiring mental calculations performed in front of an audience and video camera.

Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers say, there was no difference in the tested genes between the two groups of people at the start of the study. The observed effects were seen only in the meditators following mindfulness practice. In addition, several other DNA-modifying genes showed no differences between groups, suggesting that the mindfulness practice specifically affected certain regulatory pathways.

Richard J. Davidson

However, it is important to note that the study was not designed to distinguish any effects of long-term meditation training from those of a single day of practice. Instead, the key result is that meditators experienced genetic changes following mindfulness practice that were not seen in the non-meditating group after other quiet activities — an outcome providing proof of principle that mindfulness practice can lead to epigenetic alterations of the genome.

Previous studies in rodents and in people have shown dynamic epigenetic responses to physical stimuli such as stress, diet, or exercise within just a few hours.

“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression,” Davidson says.

“The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions,” Kaliman says. “Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.”

Study funding came from National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (grant number P01-AT004952) and grants from the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and an anonymous donor to Davidson. The study was conducted at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the UW-Madison Waisman Center.

— Jill Sakai

Having a Purpose in Life May Be Protective Against Exposure to Life’s Unpleasantness

Hand photo by Moyan Brenn / Flickr.com

Hand photo by Moyan Brenn / Flickr.com

Alt text here

Stacey Schaefer

One’s purpose in life or the ability to find meaning from life’s experiences— especially when confronting life’s challenges— may promote better emotion regulation, according to a new study conducted by the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the Waisman Center, in collaboration with the Institute on Aging, both at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The results of the study, led by Assistant Scientist Stacey M Schaefer, PhD, were recently published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

In the study, well-being was defined by a person’s self-reported ability to act independently, manage their surroundings, achieve personal growth, have positive relationships with others, positively accept themselves, and find purpose and meaning in life.  The latter facet of well-being was of primary interest given a growing body of literature suggesting the degree to which a person feels he or she has purpose in life is predictive of better health and life longevity.

As part of the Midlife in the US Longitudinal Study of Health and Well-Being (MIDUS) , a  large sample of adults ranging from 36-84 years old were brought into the laboratory to view unpleasant, neutral, and pleasant pictures while their psychophysiological responses were recorded. Their purpose in life was measured 2.5 years prior to their laboratory recordings.  Those who reported higher levels of  meaning and purpose  showed improved emotional recovery following exposure to negative pictures  as indicated by the magnitude of eye blinks in response to a startle probe (loud burst of white noise) shortly after the pictures’ offset . Purpose in life predicted better recovery, defined as smaller eye blink response after negative picture offset,  after controlling for age, gender, how much positive and negative emotion people generally feel, and other aspects of psychological well-being.

“Our eye blinks are emotion-modulated; this means that such responses to a startle probe are bigger when people are feeling more negative in the presence of negative stimuli.  We found that those with greater purpose in life showed smaller eye blinks after exposure to negative stimuli,” says Dr. Schaefer, who has advanced degrees in psychology and whose primary interest is in gaining a better understanding of how a person’s ability to regulate his or her emotions interacts with his or her cognitive ability, ability to self-regulate other behaviors, health, and well-being.

Schaefer and the scientists at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds predicted that those who reported having a greater purpose in life would experience a faster emotional recovery from the negative stimuli than those who reported having little purpose in life. The scientists measured psychological well-being by having participants rank how much they agree or disagree with statements such as, “I’m not so sure that my life adds up to much,” “I find it satisfying to think about what I have accomplished in life,” and “My aims in life have been more a source of satisfaction than frustration to me.”

“Our study’s overall goal is to look at how people process emotion and see how these patterns relate to health and well-being,” says Dr. Schaefer.  They cite findings from other recent studies showing that people’s self-reported purpose in life predict future health and mortality. Those with higher purpose in life have lower cardiovascular risk, lower risk of depression, lower weight and healthier cholesterol levels.  In fact, “People are more likely to be mobile when they get older, less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, and even less likely to die if they have higher levels of purpose in life.  It appears to be a protective or resilience factor,” says Dr. Schaefer.

The results from the current study provide objective evidence that having purpose in life may afford protection from negative events through enhanced emotion regulation and suggest that over repeated exposure to negative events and stressors, purpose in life may improve resilience resulting in better health and greater longevity.

In addition to Dr. Schaefer and Dr. Davidson, authors of the paper include Jennifer Morozink Boylan, Carien M van Reekum, Regina C Lapate, Catherine J Norris, and Carol D Ryff. The full study is published on PLOS ONE and can be found at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0080329.

This research received funding support from the National Institute on Aging (PO1-AG020166), the National Institute on Mental Health (R01 MH043454), and the Waisman Intellectual and Developmental Disabilites Research Center (Waisman IDDRC), P30HD03352. J.Morozink Boylan was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (T32MH018931-22).

Local Middle School Students Invited To Participate In Research Study Involving Video Games

Video game controller photo by Chapendra / Flickr.com

Video game controller photo by Chapendra / Flickr.com

Madison area students in the seventh and eighth grades (enrollment as of Fall 2013) are being invited to participate in a research study that will help scientists investigate the use of video games as tools for training well-being.

The Center for investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, is offering adolescents a chance to play an iPad game as part of a study, which aims to evaluate the impact of playing games on the brain and behavior. The findings from the study could lead to new developments in using games as tools for training well-being.

The Center has collaborated with UW-Madison’s Games + Learning + Society to develop the games used in this study. Game design is informed by neuroscience and education research.

Adolescent research subjects will be asked to complete computer tasks in our lab, undergo two MRI scans and be randomly assigned to play a game. The results of the study will help scientists determine how games can impact well-being during adolescence and determine the effectiveness of using games as a training tool.

The study sessions take place at the Waisman Center on the UW-Madison campus (1500 Highland Avenue, Madison, WI). Depending on the level of participation, families will receive up to $200. Adolescents who complete all components of the study will be entered into a drawing for a chance to win an iPad.

Parents or legal guardians of adolescents who are interested in participating in the study are encouraged to call (608) 262-5061 or send an email to UWGamesStudy@bi.wisc.edu schedule a screening appointment.

Video game play is a promising new field of educational research and practice. Video games offer a space where learning and training tasks can be made fun and challenging, and it gives students opportunities to be involved and immersed in the process of learning new skills and information in ways that are difficult or impossible with more traditional paradigms.

“By the time they reach the eighth grade, virtually every child in the Western world is playing smartphone apps, video games, computer games,” says Richard J. Davidson, PhD, founder and chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, UW-Madison. “Our aim is to investigate whether time spent on gaming could be used for constructive purposes and to take advantage of the natural inclination that young people have for this kind of technology.”