A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled - Ruby Wax (2016)


Changes in Brain Reactivity to Negative Pictures After a Mindfulness Retreat


The figure shows the magnitude of brain responses (event-related potentials) to neutral and negative pictures before and after the mindfulness retreat with smaller responses to negative pictures after the retreat.

Below is a graph of my reactions to neutral and negative pictures when I’m focused on my breathing before and after the mindfulness retreat.


The figure shows brain responses (event-related brain potentials) to neutral and negative pictures before and after the mindfulness retreat. The highlighted area is the late positive potential (LPP) sensitive to regulation of emotions.

This is how they summed me up:

In our analyses, we were looking at a brain index (event-related brain potential, which is called the late positive potential (LPP)), which is sensitive to how effectively we are able to regulate emotions. Lower magnitude of this brain index suggests better ability to regulate emotions (e.g., Hajcak, 2006). In this study, we have compared the brain’s responses to negative (of medium intensity) and neutral pictures while the participants were asked to meditate (to focus on their breath and to perceive whatever arises in their mind as fleeting, temporary experience). When comparing Ruby’s results before and after a five-day retreat, we have found a decrease in the brain responses to negative pictures, but not to neutral pictures. This suggests more adaptive regulation of the brain responses to negative pictures after the retreat, while the sensitivity to neutral pictures has been retained. In other words, the effect did not seem to be simply due to ‘de-sensitization’ to the pictures after seeing the same pictures the second time, which often happens with repetition. These results seem to align with the findings from the only published study so far showing links between modulation of this brain index and mindfulness (Brown et al., 2012). In that study it has been found that higher levels of mindfulness disposition are associated with lower magnitude of this brain index. However, it is important to remember that the current comparison was only for one person tested before and after a retreat. To provide conclusive, rigorous results we would need to test a group of participants before and after a retreat and also control for the repetition effect by comparing the results of the retreat group to the changes in a group which did not engage in the retreat or engaged in a different activity.


Brown, K. W., Goodman, R. J. & Inzlicht, M. (2012), ‘Dispositional Mindfulness and the Attenuation of Neural Responses to Emotional Stimuli’, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience8, Jan. 2013, (1) 93–9.

Hajcak, G. & Nieuwenhuis, S. (2006), ‘Reappraisal Modulates the Electrocortical Response to Unpleasant Pictures’, Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience6 (4), 291–7.

‘Investigating the Impact of Mindfulness Training on Adolescents’ Attention and Emotion Regulation’

by Kevanne Sanger & Dusana Dorjee, PhD, Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice, School of Psychology, Bangor University Mindful Brain Lab (http://mindfulbrain.bangor.ac.uk)

The aim of this project was to investigate changes in brain functioning resulting from mindfulness training delivered as part of the regular school curriculum to sixth-form students (aged sixteen to eighteen years). The study involved students from four schools in North Wales. School teachers in two schools delivered an eight-week mindfulness course to their students and we measured changes in brain activity patterns, questionnaire responses, and also number of GP visits before and after the course. Students from the other two (control) schools were tested at the same time for points for comparison; they continued with their school curriculum as usual and received mindfulness training when the assessments were completed. The brain responses were measured as brain wave patterns in two computer-based tasks. The first task assessed attention, with brain responses recorded to shapes displayed rarely or frequently. The second task measured brain responses to happy, sad and neutral faces displayed on the computer and assessed emotion processing and emotion regulation.

The results were encouraging, showing that the sixth-formers were better able to stop responses to shapes which were irrelevant to the attention task and distracting. This is important for maintaining attention focus. In the emotion task, students who received mindfulness training processed the emotions in faces more fully than students not trained in mindfulness. In fact, lower magnitude of brain responses to the emotional faces was seen over time in the group without mindfulness training. The questionnaire results also showed benefits: with mind-wandering increasing in the control group of students, but not in the mindfulness group, and well-being increasing in the training group. Moreover, students who had received mindfulness training reported fewer visits to their GP for mental health reasons, e.g. stress or sleep problems, after mindfulness training. Taken together, these results suggest that mindfulness training might increase adolescents’ ability to remain focused on a task, and inhibit responding to distracting information. It can also have a positive effect on adolescent well-being, and encourage their openness to perceiving emotions in others.

Mindfulness with Primary-school Children

Researchers at the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice in the School of Psychology at Bangor University (Vickery & Dorjee, 2015) recently conducted the first study on mindfulness with primary-school children in the UK context. In this research, children from years 3 and 4 in one school received mindfulness training and their results were compared to those of children in the same years in two other schools which did not teach mindfulness (these two schools were offered mindfulness training after the completion of the assessments). The mindfulness training was delivered as part of the regular PSE curriculum by the children’s own schoolteachers, who were trained in mindfulness six months earlier. The evaluations primarily focused on changes in emotional well-being of children and changes in metacognition – children’s ability to notice and regulate their behaviour. Aspects of emotional well-being, such as positive and negative affect and emotional awareness, were evaluated in questionnaires filled in by the children. Meta-cognition was assessed through questionnaires completed by the children’s teachers and parents. The children were assessed before the start of the mindfulness training, right after they had completed the training and three months after completion of the mindfulness training (with metacognition evaluated only before the training and three months after training). The researchers also evaluated how much children enjoyed practising mindfulness in school.

The results showed that most children (76 per cent) liked practising mindfulness in school, which is higher acceptability than most newly introduced subjects, with typical acceptability of about 50 per cent. There were also significant decreases in negative affect of children three months after the training and teachers reported significant improvements in children’s metacognition. Parents did not report significant changes in children’s metacognition. In some, most of the changes were found three months after the training, which is likely due to the mindfulness training first enhancing awareness and cognitive abilities of children and this then having an impact on their ability to self-regulate emotions. It is also possible that questionnaire measures are not sensitive enough to detect more subtle changes in children’s attention abilities and emotion processing. Indeed, further studies conducted at Bangor with children from the same schools using brain-wave-derived markers suggested improved efficiency of attention after the mindfulness training. The research team is currently conducting further, more extensive, research on mindfulness with primary-school children, focusing on changes in brain markers of attention and emotion regulation.


Vickery, C. & Dorjee, D. (2015), ‘Mindfulness Training in Primary Schools Decreases Negative Affect and Increases Meta-cognition in Children’, Frontiers in Educational Psychology.