Does Meditation Increase Self-Control?

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To understand the relationship between meditation and self-control we have to understand the neuroscience of willpower. 

In all types of self-control, one brain area consistently activates whenever we exercise it. The area is the right side ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (rVLPFC).

rVLFPC is called bran’s braking system because it can inhibit motor, emotional, and cognitive responses. 

From neuroimaging studies we know that meditators show a strong activity in rVLFPC. That makes sense because during meditation we are trying to achieve a state of mental silence by inhibiting our thoughts and distractions. In fact, meditation can be used as a type of attention and cognitive self-control training. 

As our rVLFPC gets a regular workout, (and since that area is responsible for all types of self-control), our ability to exercise willpower improves across these areas as well.

Another potential (albeit less understood) relationship between willpower and meditation comes from studies done by Mathew Lieberman.

He observed that when we articulate our emotions we show increased activity in rVLFPC, lower activity in amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for survival, where fear and anxiety originates), and lower activity in dACC (the area of the brain responsible for emotional aspect of the pain).

The official term for this phenomenon is affective labeling.

And what are we taught to do during meditation? To note our feelings and emotions and move on. To articulate them. So as we meditate, we learn to inhibit our emotions and reduce our fears and anxieties by activating rVLFPC.

That’s why long-term meditators show weaker relationship between amygdala and prefrontal cortex.

So meditation increases self-control by generating greater activity in the brain area responsible for willpower. 

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