The Science of Tapping: What happens in our brains while we’re tapping? Results of an fMRI study

(by Sarah Murphy, LPC) A German study presents another possible explanation for why tapping is effective: bifocal emotional processing. This functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, conducted at Hannover Medical School in Germany by Dina Wittfoth and her colleagues, gives us a glimpse at what happens in our brains when we tap. The study adds to the growing evidence base for tapping.

The theory

Researchers wondered if tapping is effective because of bifocal emotional processing, i.e., attending to two stimuli at the same time. In this case, one stimulus was images designed to elicit feelings of disgust or fear, and the other stimulus was imaginary tapping.

The study setup

Because people in fMRI machines need to keep still, the researchers in this study asked their participants to visualize tapping.

Seventeen healthy young adults participated in the study. They were fMRI scanned twice in the same day. Between scanning sessions, they learned a tapping sequence taught by five lay practitioners. Participants chose their three favorite points to visualize tapping on during the second scanning.

Inside the machine, participants watched the disgusting or fear-inducing images. In the second scan, researchers cued participants to visualize tapping while watching the images, to “stay present with the picture while tapping” and to “be curious to see what happens.”

Study results

Participants rated the subjective unit of distress (SUD) on a scale from 0 to 10 for each image. The SUD rating decreased significantly for disgust (p= 0.001) and moderately for fear (p=0.089) in the imagined-tapping round.

The fMRI images showed that the amygdala increased activation, while the ventral anterior cingulate cortex decreased activation during the visualized-tapping scan. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, associated with working memory and multitasking, showed moderately more activity in the visualized-tapping scan. 

How the brain changed during visualized tapping

The anterior cingulate cortex links the emotional limbic brain to the thinking cortex. The ventral anterior cingulate cortex plays a role in sizing up a situation and processing emotional stimuli. Researchers suggested that the diminished activity in this region might indicate that this process was reduced when participants were focusing on the tapping visualization; thus, tapping seems to slow down our quick appraisals and mitigates against our fear conditioning, helping regulate our autonomic nervous system. 

It was previously thought that activity in the amygdala, which is known as a structure responsible for processing visceral emotion, would be decreased. Instead, its activity increased. Interestingly, the increased activation in the amygdala was found specifically in a subregion, the left and right sides. The sides of the amygdala work with the visual cortex. Perhaps this increased activation was due to the dual tasks of seeing and visualizing. 

Making it real

Tapping, and even imaginary tapping, seems to mitigate our “gut reactions.” Imagine a world in which people learned tapping from a young age. The practical method of emotional self-regulation would be second nature. Reinforced with regular practice, we could learn to keep our emotional reactivity at bay. What a beautiful world it could be.

Check out other research studies

ACEP has extensive bibliographies of research studies on energy psychology. And you can download them. Visit energypsych.org/research.

Author

Sarah Murphy is a licensed professional counselor and coach with more than 12 years of clinical experience. She is Communications Committee Chair for ACEP. She specializes in energy psychology, including EFT, as well as mindfulness and hypnotherapy. In her therapy practice, she works with individuals seeking to find peace within themselves, people who have serious medical diagnoses, and couples who want to resolve conflict and live in harmony. Learn more at www.transformative-therapy.com


Comments

  1. NamHari Kaur says:

    Anyone know what three pointa the subjects tapped?

  2. They got to choose their three favorite spots!

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