People who engage in Zen meditation do feel pain, new research reveals, but they don't think about it as much. The observation could have a bearing on the treatment of chronic pain among patients struggling with the impact of conditions such as arthritis and back pain.
Pierre Rainville, a researcher at the University of Montreal, and his colleagues report their findings in the journal Pain.
"Our previous research found that Zen meditators have lower pain sensitivity," said senior author Rainville. "The aim of the current study was to determine how they are achieving this."
How meditation eased pain
"Using functional magnetic resonance imaging [MRI], we demonstrated that although the meditators were aware of the pain, this sensation wasn't processed in the part of their brains responsible for appraisal, reasoning or memory formation," Rainville noted.
"We think that they feel the sensations, but cut the process short, refraining from interpretation or labelling of the stimuli as painful."
The authors' observations stem from work with 13 Zen meditators exposed to a painful heat stimulus. Functional MRIs were conducted of the meditators' brains as the team gathered their self-reported perceptions of pain.
Compared with an equal number of non-meditating study participants, the researchers found that highly experienced meditators reported lower pain responses, as well as less activity in those parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus) that are linked to cognitive processes, emotion and memory.
"Our findings lead to new insights into mind/brain function," study first author Joshua Grant, a doctoral student at the university, said.
"These results challenge current concepts of mental control, which is thought to be achieved by increasing cognitive activity or effort. Instead, we suggest it is possible to self-regulate in a more passive manner, by turning off certain areas of the brain, which in this case are normally involved in processing pain."
"The results suggest that Zen meditators may have a training-related ability to disengage some higher-order brain processes, while still experiencing the stimulus," added Rainville. "Such an ability could have widespread and profound implications for pain and emotion regulation and cognitive control. This behavior is consistent with the mindset of Zen and with the notion of mindfulness."
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