Monday, April 11, 2011


Another study has found that mindfulness meditation can help alleviate the sensation of pain.

The study, published in the 6 April 2011 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, gave 15 volunteers a crash course (four 20-minute sessions) in a type of mindfulness meditation called shamatha (Sanskrit for “calm abiding”). The 6 men and 9 women (aged 22 to 35 years) were instructed to pay attention to their breathing while “letting go” of any thoughts that might distract them from that focus.

After the training, the volunteers were asked to meditate while hooked up to MRI machines that could observe what was going on in their brains. As they meditated, a heated device was placed against their right calves, raising their skin temperature up to a painful but not torturous 120 degrees F (48.89 degrees C). They were then asked to rate both the intensity and the unpleasantness of the pain.

All the volunteers had undergone a similar type of experiment before they had received meditation training. During that initial experiment they had simply been told to close their eyes, reduce their movement and “meditate by focusing on the changing sensations of the breath” while prodded with the heat device. (By telling the volunteers to focus on their breathing but without giving them specific meditation training during this arm of the study the researchers could control for the phenomenon of divided attention. In other words, they would be better able to rule out distraction as a factor should the meditation arm of the study result in a reduction in pain.)

When pain ratings from both experiments were compared, researchers found that the volunteers had rated the pain stimulus given to them while they were officially meditating as being an average of 57 less unpleasant (with a range of 22 percent to 70 percent for individual volunteers) and an average of 40 percent less intense (with a range of 20 percent to 93 percent).

The MRIs also revealed some interesting findings. While meditating, the volunteers'  brains exhibited reduced activity in several areas, including in the primary somatosensory cortex, which is where our brain tells us which part of our body is experiencing pain — and how intense that pain is. (See this link for further material and an interview with study leader Dr Fadel Zeidan (pictured above), Psychologist at UNC Charlotte.)

Interestingly, the study found that the more successful a volunteer was at meditating (based on an assessment that measures levels of mindfulness), the more reduced activity they experienced in brain areas associated with pain.

The bottom line is this ... mindfulness meditation practice cannot eliminate pain altogether, but it certainly can it reduce the emotional intensity in which it is anticipated and experienced.

NOTE. This blog sets out a simple form of mindfulness sitting meditation.

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