Emma Seppälä reflects on how to avoid instinctive decisions

There is now a good body of research on the neuroscience of meditation, showing that it improves self-awareness, emotion regulation, self-control, and many other things. Most people, if they are honest with themselves, adopt some sort of habit of dealing with the situation when they feel stressed or down. Think about food, alcohol, fate, entertainment, shopping, even overwork and excessive exercise. Most adults have never received formal education on what to do with negative emotions.

Addiction isn't 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 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 think 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're experiencing and impulsive about changing it.

This hijacking happens because the parts of the brain that serve decision-making and self-control – such as the prefrontal cortex – often malfunction in the heat of the moment. This allows the older brain areas we share with our evolutionary ancestors (like rodents) to govern the mind. These areas, like the amygdala, provide rapid, unrefined signals about potential threats and rewards. They are important for our immediate survival, but they can make bad decisions without the prefrontal cortex giving us a bigger picture of what is good for us in the long term.

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

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