Psychologists have finally discovered how meditators do better at tasks that require self-control. Psychologists from the University of Toronto Scarborough have discovered a key secret behind meditators' self-control. They have found that meditators' openness to their own emotions helps them do tasks much better.
"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'," said Michael Inzlicht, associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, in a statement.
Psychologists had earlier found that people who engage in meditation show higher levels of executive control on laboratory tasks. But it has never been clear why and how they could do it.
To find the secret behind self-control, researchers conducted a study. During the study, researchers asked participants about their experience about meditating, and gave tests that measured how mindful they were of the present moment, and also how aware and accepting they were of their emotions.
The researchers then hooked up participants to an electroencephalograph and gave them something called the Stroop test.
In the test, participants were shown the name of a colour written in letters of a different colour - for instance, the word "red" spelled in green letters. Participants are asked to say the colour of the letters. The test requires them to suppress the tendency to read the word, and instead to concentrate on actual colours.
Psychologists then studied Error Related Negativity (ERN) among the participants. ERN is 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," said Rimma Teper, psychologist at the University of Toronto Scarborough, in a statement.
Meditators were generally better than non-meditators at the test, and also had generally stronger ERN responses. Psychologists believe that the ERN may have a motivational or affective component - in other words, it gives you a bad feeling about failing at a task and the feeling of failure may motivate you to do better. Because meditators are more aware of their feelings, they may pick up on that feeling more quickly and use it to improve their behaviour.
"Meditators are attuned to their emotions. They're also good at regulating their emotions. It fits well with our results," Teper said.