For centuries, people have used mindfulness meditation to help relieve pain. However, it’s only recently that neuroscientists have managed to test if and how it works. By measuring the effects of meditation on brain activity and pain perception, a team of researchers from University of California, San Diego discovered that meditation interrupts communication between areas of the brain that mediate the sensation of pain and those that produce a sense of self.
So, while pain signals still travel from the body to the brain during meditation, individuals feel less ownership of these pain sensations, so their pain and suffering are greatly reduced.
“One of the central tenets of mindfulness is the principle that you are not your experiences,” said study lead author Fadel Zeidan, an associate professor of anesthesiology at UC San Diego. . “You practice feeling thoughts and feelings without attaching your ego or sense of self to them, and we finally see how this plays out in the brain during the acute pain experience.”
Professor Zeidan and his colleagues recruited 40 participants whose brains were scanned while painful heat was applied to their legs, and had to rate their average level of pain during the experiment. Then they were split into two groups: some had to go through four separate 20-minute mindfulness training sessions, while the others spent their four sessions listening to an audiobook.
On the last day of the experiment, all participants had their brain activity measured again, but participants in the mindfulness group were instructed to meditate while the painful stimulus was applied to their leg. Participants who actively meditated reported a 32% reduction in pain intensity and a 33% decrease in pain unpleasantness.
“We were really excited to confirm that you don’t have to be an expert meditator to experience these pain-relieving effects,” Professor Zeidan said. “This is a really important discovery for the millions of people looking for a fast-acting, non-pharmacological treatment for pain.”
Brain scans revealed that mindfulness-induced pain relief was associated with a reduced association between the thalamus, an area of the brain relaying incoming sensory information to the rest of the brain, and certain regions of the default mode network, a set of brain areas responsible for self-awareness. The more these brain areas were decoupled or turned off, the less pain participants reported.
Thus, mindfulness meditation may provide a free and innovative method for pain treatment and could be successfully integrated into standard outpatient procedures.
“We feel like we’re on the cusp of discovering a new, non-opioid-based pain mechanism in which the default mode network plays a critical role in producing analgesia. We’re excited to continue to explore the neurobiology of mindfulness and its clinical potential in various disorders,” Professor Zeidan concluded.
The study is published in the journal Pain.
By Andrei Ionescu, Terre.com Personal editor