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Mindful : August 2014
mind science If people know anything about the relationship between memory and stress, it’s probably that the latter can wreak havoc on the former, as shown by the mem- ory impairment that often accompanies post-traumatic stress. According to Jha, who now heads the Jha Lab at the University of Miami, “Atten- tion and working memory are the workhorses of emotion regulation. Our hypothesis is that psychological health a nd resilience rely on the optimal neural functioning of atten- tion and working memory.” The idea that cognitive processes like memory affect emotiona l regulation has undermined a longsta nding tenet of brain science. For decades, neuroscientists believed the brain’s emotion circuits were confined to the limbic system (an evolution- arily ancient region deep in our gray matter) while cognitive circuits filled the cortex (a more recent evolutiona ry invention). Emotions dwelled in the bad part of town, the brain’s version of the neighborhood where bar fights a nd lovers’ quarrels occur, and cognition resided in the ivory tower. But many studies refute that simplistic notion. Cogni- tion regularly goes slumming, as signals f rom cognitive cir- cuits travel to the brain’s emo- tion regions. The evidence: • People with social a nxiet y disorder beca me more com- fortable in social situations, after improving their ability to focus attention using mindfulness, a 2010 study found. People with better working memory and atten- tional control are better able to regulate emotions, a 2008 study found. • Conversely, those with poor working memory are more vulnerable to what’s called “reactive parenting,” whereby a parent who has reached the end of his or her rope yells, storms about, and even smacks a child (who may not even have misbehaved)—all sig ns of lousy emotional control. When working memory and attention buckle under stress, “emotional regula- tion becomes problematic,” Jha says. “ Working memory seems to correspond to how well people can control their behavior, especially in the face of distractions—emo- tional or otherwise.” The discovery that bet- ter working memory and attention are associated with better emotional control, a nd resilience, offers a promising avenue toward increasing both. Previous studies found greater resilience associated with high socioeconomic status, education, and certain personality types such as optimists. Sadly, there’s no quick fix for low education and income, and science has not perfected personality transplants. Working memory and attention, by contrast, can improve with training. The MMFT study exam- ined whether mindfulness training ca n benefit Marines prepa ring for deployment to Iraq by improving their work- ing memory, a nd whether that would affect the decline in cognitive functioning and the increase in anxiety as In the old model, emotions dwelled in the part of town where bar fights occur, and cognition resided in the ivory tower. 26 mindful August 2014 26 mindful August 2014