A new study published in the journal Pain reveals that naturally mindful people may feel less pain than non-mindful people.
Mindfulness is the ability to focus on the present moment without too much emotional reaction or judgment.
Researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina looked at data pulled from a 2015 study that compared mindfulness meditation to placebo analgesia. In this follow-up study, they wanted to investigate whether dispositional mindfulness — a person’s innate or natural level of mindfulness — was associated with lower pain sensitivity, and if so, determine what brain mechanisms were involved.
A total of 76 healthy volunteers who had never meditated before filled out the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory, a reliable clinical measurement of mindfulness, to determine their baseline levels. Then, while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they were administered painful heat stimulation (120°F).
The researchers found that greater levels of dispositional mindfulness during painful heat was associated with greater deactivation of a brain region called the posterior cingulate cortex, a central neural node of the default mode network. Furthermore, participants who reported greater pain showed higher levels of activation in this critically important brain region.
The default mode network reaches from the posterior cingulate cortex to the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain. These two brain regions continuously feed information back and forth. This network is associated with processing feelings of self and mind wandering.
“As soon as you start performing a task, the connection between these two brain regions in the default mode network disengages and the brain allocates information and processes to other neural areas,” said lead author Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine.
“Default mode deactivates whenever you are performing any kind of task, such as reading or writing. Default mode network is reactivated whenever the individual stops performing a task and reverts to self-related thoughts, feelings and emotions.”
“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,” Zeidan said.
The study offers novel neurobiological information showing that those with higher levels of mindfulness have less activation in the central nodes (posterior cingulate cortex) of the default network and experience less pain. On the other hand, those with lower mindfulness ratings had greater activation of this part of the brain and also felt more pain, Zeidan said.
“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,” Zeidan said.
“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.”