Meditation Expertise Changes Experience of Pain

By Dian Land for University of Wisconsin-Madison News

Meditation can change the way a person experiences pain, according to a new study by UW–Madison neuroscientists.

The researchers found that during a pain experiment, expert meditators felt the discomfort as intensely as novice meditators, but the experience wasn’t as unpleasant for them.

Images of brain regions linked to pain and anxiety may explain why. Compared to novice meditators, experts had less activity in the anxiety regions.

Not only did the experts feel less anxiety immediately before pain stimulation, they also became accustomed to the pain more quickly after being exposed repeatedly to it.

The scientists, based at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, run a robust program analyzing the effects of meditation. The new study adds to a growing body of knowledge in the young field.

The study involved an advanced form of mindfulness mediation called Open Presence, but other kinds of meditation also may provide benefits, says Antoine Lutz, first author on the paper appearing recently in NeuroImage.

“We predict that mindfulness-based stress reduction and related programs should also lead to a decrease in some of the elaborate brain processes that account for distress as people deal with pain,” he says.

People use many different strategies to handle pain, including trying to avoid it (blocking it out with music, for example), redefining it (“It’s not so bad today”) and changing the context of the experience (with hypnosis or a placebo pill).

Mindfulness meditation, which stresses attention to the present moment, has proven to be useful for chronic pain, but the UW researchers were interested in understanding the brain mechanisms underlying it.

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