Emma Seppälä Has Thoughts on How to Avoid Kneejerk Decisions


There’s quite a good body of research now on the neuroscience of meditation, showing that it improves self-awareness, emotion regulation, self-control and many other things. Most people, if they’re honest with themselves, reach for some kind of coping habit when they are feeling stressed or down. Think food, alcohol, doomscrolling, entertainment, shopping, even overworking and overexercising. Most adults have never received formal education about what to do with negative emotions.

Addiction is not just about substance use. It’s about trying to avoid a feeling. It’s about trying to escape. You know it’s not good for you, but you do it anyway because you don’t like the current state that you’re in, whether it’s feeling pain, sorrow, loss or shame.

Why? Because your compulsion in that moment is stronger than your awareness. You’re thinking short-term, because the primitive areas of your brain hijack your ability to discern and be aware of the bigger picture of what’s good for you. You’re hyperfocused on relief from whatever you are experiencing, and impulsive to change it.

That hijacking occurs because the parts of the brain that serve decision-making and self-control — like the prefrontal cortex — often don’t work properly in the heat of the moment. This allows the more ancient brain areas that we share with our evolutionary ancestors (like rodents) to rule the mind. These areas, such as the amygdala, give quick, unrefined signals about potential threats and rewards. They are important for our immediate survival but can make wrong decisions without the prefrontal cortex giving us the bigger picture about what’s good for us in the long run.

Research shows that, when you meditate, you are strengthening that neural pathway for self-awareness. You’re expanding your ability to have awareness of, and therefore control over, your own emotions, without falling prey to compulsive behaviors. Meditation, because it cultivates self-awareness, allows you to gain perspective and thereby naturally gain self-control.



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