People who engage in Zen meditation do feel pain, but they don’t think about it as much according to new research.
The latest findings could affect the way those suffering from conditions such as arthritis and back pain are treated.
Pierre Rainville and his colleagues from the University of Montreal carried out the research. He says:
“Our previous research found that Zen meditators have lower pain sensitivity…The aim of the current study was to determine how they are achieving this.”
“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 observed. “We think that they feel the sensations, but cut the process short, refraining from interpretation or labeling of the stimuli as painful.”
The authors’ observations are the result of work carried out 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.
One of the authors of the study, Joshua Grant said: “Our findings lead to new insights into mind/brain function,…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 behaviour is consistent with the mindset of Zen and with the notion of mindfulness.”
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