Recently, neuroscientists at the University of California – San Diego studied whether mindfulness meditation can reduce the perception of pain. That, of course, meant actually causing the volunteers to experience pain.
What’s at stake is a central claim of mindfulness meditation:
“One of the central tenets of mindfulness is the principle that you are not your experiences,” said senior author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “You train yourself to experience thoughts and sensations without attaching your ego or sense of self to them, and we’re now finally seeing how this plays out in the brain during the experience of acute pain.”University of California – San Diego, “Mindfulness meditation reduces pain by separating it from the self” at ScienceDaily (July 8, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.
Researchers scanned the brains of 40 volunteers while applying painful heat to one of their legs. They then split them into two groups. One group got four 20-minute mindfulness training sessions. We are told that “During these visits, they were instructed to focus on their breath and reduce self-referential processing by first acknowledging their thoughts, sensations and emotions but then letting them go without judging or reacting to them.” The control group listened to an audio book for four sessions instead.
On the last day of the study, the painful heat and brain scans were applied again. This time, the mindfulness study group was told to meditate but the control group was told to just rest and keep their eyes closed. So what was the result?
Researchers found that participants who were actively meditating reported a 32 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 33 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness.University of California – San Diego, “Mindfulness meditation reduces pain by separating it from the self” at ScienceDaily (July 8, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.
Fadel Zeidan was pretty enthusiastic about the result, saying “This is a really important finding for the millions of people looking for a fast-acting and non-pharmacological treatment for pain.”
Neurologically, the team found:
…mindfulness-induced pain relief was associated with reduced synchronization between the thalamus (a brain area that relays incoming sensory information to the rest of the brain) and parts of the default mode network (a collection of brain areas most active while a person is mind-wandering or processing their own thoughts and feelings as opposed to the outside world).
One of these default mode regions is the precuneus, a brain area involved in fundamental features of self-awareness, and one of the first regions to go offline when a person loses consciousness. Another is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which includes several sub regions that work together to process how you relate to or place value on your experiences. The more these areas were decoupled or deactivated, the more pain relief the participant reported.University of California – San Diego, “Mindfulness meditation reduces pain by separating it from the self” at ScienceDaily (July 8, 2022) The paper requires a fee or subscription.
The significance of the study is that it shows that, while the perception of pain is subjective, the mind’s effort to limit pain’s influence can be detected in the brain. Zeidan and his colleagues hope that their work will help help develop mindfulness meditation as one avenue in the treatment of chronic pain.
Other research has shown that mindfulness meditation can have significant physical effects. Tibetan monks can change their metabolism during profound states of meditation. But, of course, the monks who were studied had spent much of their lives meditating. A recent review of studies found that mindfulness made a small but significant difference for a variety of issues among study participants for whom mindfulness was not a core feature of their lives.
Overall, sensitivity to pain depends in part on brain development. Pediatric neurosurgeon Michael Egnor has pointed out that babies probably feel pain more strongly than older children and adults. The thalamus, deep in the brain, creates the perception of pain and the cortex tends to moderate it. But a baby’s cortex is underdeveloped relative to the thalamus.
Egnor writes, “I have cared for hundreds of premature infants and it is very clear that these very young children experience pain intensely. An innocuous needlestick in the heel to draw small amount of blood would ordinarily not be particularly painful for an adult. But a tiny infant will scream at such discomfort.”
On that view, mindfulness meditation enables an adult, who already has the advantage of a fully developed brain, to gain even further distance from pain through focused mind-based exercises.
You may also wish to read: Study: Eight-week mindfulness courses do not physically change the brain. Earlier studies may have been hampered by a small, self-selected, particularly needy participant base and by the fact that any intervention can succeed at first. Tibetan Buddhist monks who can control their metabolism and brain waves have spent their lives meditating. Their brain changes are consistent with that fact.