Mediation could change how people experience pain, recent findings by researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison reveal.
A study published in the NeuroImage journal found that experienced meditators felt pain as intensely as a control group, but perceived it to be less unpleasant.
The findings could help scientists understand the mechanisms of meditation and explain why it has previously been applied successfully to chronic pain management.
In the study, a group of 14 expert meditators underwent a brain scan both before and during exposure to pain.
The experts all had practiced at least 10,000 hours of an advanced form of a type of meditation called Open Monitoring, which involves focusing on achieving a state of acceptance for the present moment without concern for the past or future.
The control group of volunteers received written instructions on Open Monitoring and was told to practice meditation 30 minutes per day for one week prior to the experiment.
In trials, the brains of participants were scanned while they were given 45 seconds to meditate with either Open Monitoring, or a type of meditation used as a control called Focused Attention, where they stared at a fixed object. Heat was then applied to the forearm in increasing temperature increments until the participant indicated it had reached an eight on a pain scale of zero to 10.
Participants were asked to give ratings on how intense the pain was and how unpleasant it felt. Both the expert and control groups gave the same ratings for pain intensity, but experts reported feeling less pain-driven unpleasantness with Open Monitoring meditation.
The functional magnetic resonance imaging scans showed that activity in the amygdala and the salience network in the brain could explain this difference. The amygdala is linked to emotion, and the salience network, which includes the dorsal anterior insula and anterior mid-cingulate, is related to the anticipation of pain.
Experts had less anticipatory activity in these regions prior to pain exposure, indicating that they had less anxiety before pain. However, more brain activity was found to occur in these locations during pain. Reduced anxiety levels could lead to faster habituation, a process where repeated exposure results in a lessened response, explaining the heightened brain activity.
Primary researcher Antoine Lutz said the mediation was not intended to eliminate pain, but instead change how it is perceived.
“It is not about changing the content of the experience,” he said, “so the intensity should not change and it could even be stronger … It’s more about changing the relationship to the pain.”
Mindfulness meditation has been growing in popularity lately with a myriad of applications, such as stress relief, increased immune functioning and management of chronic pain. Lutz said the study’s results could give validity to the practicing of meditation by chronic pain patients.
“Our findings provide some evidence as to why some of these therapies have tried to cultivate a sense of openness,” Lutz said.
According to Lutz, one weakness of the study was the high motivation of the expert meditators to demonstrate the benefits of meditation. In order to make the control group more motivated, a reward of $50 was offered to the participant who showed the largest reduction in brain activity induced by pain. Still, this may not have completely controlled for the motivation levels, and further research will be needed to confirm the results.