Difficulties letting go of fearful memories?

 “Just remember, if your thoughts wander away – gently remind yourself to return to focusing on your breath”. The voice in my mindfulness app startles me a little as I am deep into my meditation, sitting in a chair with my eyes closed. After more than a month’s practice I now believe I find it easier to “let go” of my negative thoughts and feelings. But is it possible to influence your brain activities just by doing mindfulness – what does science say?

I made myself do mindfulness meditations for thirty days in a row this spring when I volunteered to take part in a study at Lund University lead by Ulrich Kirk from the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern Denmark. We were around 60 participants and half of us were instructed to engage in mindfulness, the other half to act as a control group.

At the end of the study I was taking part in, I, and all of the other participants, underwent tests on two consecutive days. The tests were performed in the Humanities Lab at Lund University where we watched geometrical shapes of different colours on the computer screen. Sitting in the lab I had two electrodes on my finger that measured skin conductance response (SCR) and one electrode that occasionally gave me a negative stimulus in the form of an electric shock. The shock was set to be uncomfortable but not really bad. I tried to focus on my breathing at the same time as I watched the screen.

After finishing the second day of testing I still had no idea of the purpose of the study so I asked Ulrich Kirk to explain:

“This study is about the effects of what we call aversive learning. When you came in here on the first test-day you saw some shapes on the computer. Some of them were associated with a shock which induces a fear response in your nervous system. This is called acquisition of a fear response. In real life this happens when there is something in the environment that signals danger and the autonomous nervous system starts to send out a fear signal.”

“To answer the question ‘how do you forget fearful memories’ is relevant for helping patients with a posttraumatic stress disorder.”

“So, we trained you up on that by showing a purple cylinder and a light blue cylinder, close in colour but still possible to distinguish between. In your case the light blue one signalled danger and was sometimes associated with a shock in the first session of the first day, while the purple one was safe. The second session was an extinction phase, that is, we did not give you shocks, and the stimulus that what was previously fearful was now safe.”

“Today, on the second test-day, we tested the ‘spontaneous recovery’. Your memory of the previous test-day has been consolidated during the night’s sleep, and we believe that today your brain is still deciding what the “message” of the stimulus is. At first, the light blue shape still signals danger and you show a physiological response, while the other is safe, but after a while you realize that you will not get any shocks, and the physiological response signal drops off. Finally, you understand that a stimulus that once was fearful is now safe.”

Being mindful, according to Ulrich Kirk, has to do with dissociating your emotional experience of a stimulus that induces fear, anxiety or other negative emotions. That is, not to identify yourself so much with your emotions. One of the definitions of being depressed or having an anxiety-disorder is that you identify with the emotion. In mindfulness training you instead note that ‘this is how I register this emotion in my body’, and that makes the emotion fade off a little bit.

“What we study here is if mindfulness, in this forceful conditioning paradigm, makes you more able to dissociate yourself from the fear we trained you up on. It is important to be able to distinguish a previous fearful response that now may have changed to something else. In real life, the environment is volatile and things changes all the time. Mindfulness makes you not linger on to the emotion and then you are open for whatever is in the present moment, you are ready for new learnings.”

The results from this, and similar studies, could be useful for helping people who have a difficulty turning off their fear response, for example people who suffers from anxiety, depression or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). To answer the question ‘how do you forget fearful memories’ is also very relevant for helping patients with a posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to Ulrich Kirk several studies have shown that you are able to train specific areas of the brain using mindfulness and because of that act more adaptively. He and other scientists can actually measure and ‘see’ the changes in brain activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

The hopeful message I get from Ulrich Kirk, as I am leaving last session and the Humanities Lab, is:

“This type of behavioural training actually makes a difference!”

Now I am waiting to see if there is a difference in fear response extinction rate between my group and the control. Will the mindfulness group forget faster that the light blue cylinder earlier signalled danger?

Text: Pia Romare

Ulrich Kirk is Associate Professor at the Department of Psychology, University of Southern Denmark, Odense  ukirk@health.sdu.dk  www.sdu.dk/ansat/ukirk


The Humanities Lab and Collaborators

The Humanities Lab is an interdisciplinary department for research technology and training at the Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology at Lund University. We host technology, methodological know-how, archiving expertise, and a wide range of research projects. Lab activities are centered around the humanities with research targeting issues of communication, culture, cognition and learning, but many projects are interdisciplinary and conducted in collaboration with the social sciences, medicine, the natural sciences, engineering, and e-Science.  

Collaborators are among others Per Davidson at the Department of Psychology, Lund University and Johan Mårtensson at the Humanities Lab, and also Daniela Schiller from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, and Elizabeth Phelps and Joseph Ledoux at New York University.

Skin conductance response

Skin conductance response also called galvanic skin response (GSR), galvanic skin response (or reflex), the rapid variation in the electrical conductivity of the skin as a measure of the effect of an emotional stimulus on autonomic activity. (from https://www.britannica.com)

At the Humanities Lab the BioPack System is used to look at an autonomic nervous system arousal

Aversive learning

In aversive learning an aversion is created toward a targeted behaviour by pairing it with an unpleasant stimulus, such as a painful electric shock.


Mindfulness is a meditation technique based on being aware of what is happening right now, at this very moment. You do this with a curious and accepting attitude, that is, without valuing or judging what you are experiencing in the present. You anchor yourself in the moment by consciously paying attention to your own breathing, your body and everything you see around you right now. Mindfulness can reduce stress, anxiety and melancholy and can be a help in dealing with sleep problems.

(Translated from Insamlingsstiftelsen för Forskning om Mindfulness och Medkänsla, in Swedish)


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