Mindfulness meditation reduces pain by separating it from the self: UC San Diego study reveals neural circuitry supporting mindfulness-induced pain relief
For centuries, people have been using mindfulness meditation to try to relieve their pain, but neuroscientists have only recently been able to test if and how this actually works. In the latest of these efforts, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine measured the effects of mindfulness on pain perception and brain activity.
The study, published July 7, 2022 in PAIN, showed that mindfulness meditation interrupted the communication between brain areas involved in pain sensation and those that produce the sense of self. In the proposed mechanism, 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. “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 painful heat was applied to their leg. After experiencing a series of these heat stimuli, participants had to rate their average pain levels during the experiment.
Participants were then 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 now instructed to meditate during the painful heat, while the control group rested with their eyes closed.
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