Some people seem to experience less pain than others, and a new study suggests that the reason behind the phenomenon has to do with how and where those people focus their thoughts. It seems that mindfulness meditation could ease the suffering of countless individuals.
Lead study author Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the medical school, part of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, said:
“Mindfulness is related to being aware of the present moment without too much emotional reaction or judgment. We now know that some people are more mindful than others, and those people seemingly feel less pain.”
For the study, Zeidan and a team of colleagues analyzed data from a 2015 study that compared mindfulness meditation to a placebo painkiller. The researchers wanted to find out if dispositional mindfulness (one’s innate or natural level of mindfulness) was indeed associated with lower pain sensitivity and what brain mechanisms were involved.
The scientists asked 76 healthy participants who had never meditated to first complete the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory, a reliable measurement of mindfulness, to establish the volunteers’ baseline levels. Then, the researchers administered painful heat stimulation (120 degrees Fahrenheit) while the participants were undergoing MRI scans.
The scans revealed that higher dispositional mindfulness during painful heat was associated with greater deactivation of a brain region called the posterior cingulate cortex. Participants who reported higher pain showed greater activation of this brain region, compared with those who reported less pain.
The posterior cingulate cortex is a central neural node of the default mode network. The default mode network extends from the posterior cingulate cortex to the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain. Both regions are in constant communication with one another, and the network is associated with processing feelings of self and mind wandering, according to Zeidan.
He explained that whenever you do something like reading or writing, the default mode deactivates. But when you stop performing a task and start focusing on self-related thoughts, feelings, and emotions, the default mode reactivates.
“The results from our study showed that mindful individuals are seemingly less caught up in the experience of pain, which was associated with lower pain reports.
Now we have some new ammunition to target this brain region in the development of effective pain therapies. Importantly this work shows that we should consider one’s level of mindfulness when calculating why and how one feels less or more pain.
Based on our earlier research, we know we can increase mindfulness through relatively short periods of mindfulness meditation training, so this may prove to be an effective way to provide pain relief for the millions of people suffering from chronic pain.”
The study is an article in press, published ahead-of-print in the journal PAIN.