If the idea of meditation has always sounded like a supremely dull way of wasting time, these findings may surprise you. Research from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has indicated that about an hour of meditation training can transform your pain experience.
Meditation may also reduce certain types of undesirable brain activation in the bargain. In fact, meditation was found to be more effective than morphine and other pain-relievers, by about 25 percent.
Participants in the study were taught meditation techniques in four classes, each of which was of 20 minutes duration. Their brain activity was monitored by arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI), before and after each training session.
After each meditation class, each participant's pain ratings were found to be reduced by anywhere from 11 to 93 percent.
Then there's the effect on the primary somatosensory cortex, a part of the brain which is involved in our perception of how painful a stimulus feels. The pre-class scans showed abundant activity in this area of the brain. In the post-class scans, no indication of pain-related activity was detected.
There are a few other areas in the brain which participate in the reduction of pain experience. The anterior cingulate cortex, the anterior insula and the orbito-frontal cortex, for instance, were all activated by the meditation exercises.
These regions shape the brain's experience of pain that is sent via nerve signals from the body. Meditation seems to be effective in part because it affects many areas of the brain that interpret the pain messages.
Researchers are encouraged by the fact that meditation training need not be complex or difficult to be effective in the relief of pain.
Funding for this study came from the Mind and Life Institute in Boulder, Colo., and from the Center for Biomolecular Imaging at Wake Forest Baptist. Findings were published in the April 6, 2011 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Other research from Massachusetts General Hospital, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Medical School has suggested that meditation's ability to turn down pain could be related to a brain wave called the alpha rhythm.
Participants attended eight weeks of a mindfulness meditation program. When tested and compared with a control group that didn't take the meditation program, these participants experienced greater and faster modulation of the alpha rhythm.
Brain cells make use of different frequencies or brain waves for different functions. The alpha rhythm is associated with cells that process sight, sound and touch in the cortex of the brain. It helps to tune out distractions and facilitates the transmission of information from the senses to various parts of the brain.
Participants in the eight week mindful meditation sessions seemed to have a greater ability to alter their alpha rhythm and their perception of pain.
Grants from the National Institutes of Health and from the Osher Research Center at Harvard Medical School funded the research. A Eurekalert! public release from April 21, 2011 announced that the report would appear in the journal Brain Research Bulletin.
Demystifying Meditation: Brain Imaging Illustrates How Meditation Reduces Pain
Meditation may help the brain 'turn down the volume' on distractions
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Reviewed June 6, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton