New research evaluates the relationship between mindfulness, pain, and brain activity
A new study has measured the effects of mindfulness on pain perception and brain activity, in an effort to better understand how the relationship works.
The research, published in the journal, PAIN, was led by investigators at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. They found that mindfulness meditation interrupted the communication between brain areas involved in pain sensation and those that produce the sense of self. In addition, they found that pain signals still move from the body to the brain, but the individual does not feel as much ownership over those pain sensations, so their pain and suffering are reduced.
“One of the central tenets of mindfulness is the principle that you are not your experiences,” said senior author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, associate professor of anesthesiology at UC San Diego School of Medicine in a statement. “You train yourself to experience thoughts and sensations without attaching your ego or sense of self to them, and we’re now finally seeing how this plays out in the brain during the experience of acute pain.”
On the first day of the study, 40 participants had their brains scanned, while heat was applied to their leg inducing pain. After experiencing a series of these heat stimuli, participants had to rate their average pain levels during the experiment.
Next, participants were split into two groups. Members of the mindfulness group completed four separate 20-minute mindfulness training sessions. During these visits, they were instructed to focus on their breath and reduce self-referential processing by first acknowledging their thoughts, sensations, and emotions but then letting them go without judging or reacting to them. Members of the control group spent their four sessions listening to an audio book.
On the final day of the study, both groups had their brain activity measured again, but participants in the mindfulness group were instructed to meditate during the painful heat, while the control group rested with their eyes closed.
Researchers found that participants who were actively meditating reported a 32 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 33 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness.
When the team analyzed participants’ brain activity during the task, they found that mindfulness-induced pain relief was associated with reduced synchronization between the thalamus and parts of the default mode network, according to the study.
One of these default mode regions is the precuneus, a brain area involved in fundamental features of self-awareness, and one of the first regions to go offline when a person loses consciousness, according to researchers. Another is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which includes several sub regions that work together to process how you relate to or place value on your experiences. The more these areas were decoupled or deactivated, the more pain relief the participant reported.
By relinquishing the self-referential appraisal of pain, researchers said mindfulness meditation may provide a new method for pain treatment. Still, Zeidan said he hopes trainings can be made even more accessible and integrated into standard outpatient procedures.
“We feel like we are on the verge of discovering a novel non-opioid-based pain mechanism in which the default mode network plays a critical role in producing analgesia. We are excited to continue exploring the neurobiology of mindfulness and its clinical potential across various disorders,” Zeidan said.