The brain is an amazingly plastic piece of machinery. As a baby, it has a ton of connections going every which way creating an incredible number of neural conduits. Then, as we age and learn, these connections are slowly pruned away, shaping our neural highways in the most strategic way possible. Of course, just as the streets of our cities are always riddled with orange barrels, these connections and roadways are not set in stone. As we learn new abilities and add major life experiences to our beings, the plasticity of the brain allows it to change.
Perhaps the best and most widely known example of willfully changing our brains roadmaps is through the ancient practice of meditation. Though many different forms exist, most of them deal with blocking thoughts out and experiencing nothing but the moment. Anecdotally, people have come to recognize that through countless hours of practice, people can change the way in which they experience the world through meditation.
One way in which this practice is applied is in pain management. Previous research has shown that people can learn to deal with pain more easily through certain techniques of meditation. But how? And what does the brain of a meditation expert know that the rest of ours don’t?
A recent study from the University of Wisconsin sought to explore just this question. The experimenters rounded up 14 meditation experts who had practiced at least 10,000 hours in the art of Open Presence, a type of mindfulness meditation which stresses attention to the present moment. They also rounded up another group of participants interested in learning meditation, but with no previous experience. These folks were taught the basics and asked to practice for 30 minutes a day at home for a week.
Then came the pain.
First, the researchers gave the participants 45 seconds to settle into a meditative state. Then, the participants were subjected to heat produced by a small pad on the inside of their arm just below the wrist. The heat was raised to a level the participants rated as an 8 on a pain scale from 1 to 10, held for a few seconds, and then cooled off. This was repeated several times while researchers took a look at their brain through fMRI scans. As predicted, the expert meditators reported less unpleasantness than the novices, and their brains showed activity patterns to prove it.
In the seconds directly before the pain was administered, the experts had less activity in the amygdala, an anxiety-related area of the brain. What’s more, they had faster neural habituation, the tendency for stimuli to become less intense from having gotten used to it. By opening themselves up to the experience, the expert meditators were able to change their relationship with the pain, rather than changing the experience itself.
But if it’s all the same to them, I’d rather just avoid it in the first place and not worry about having to spend 10,000 hours of my life sitting still.
The paper “Altered anterior insula activation during anticipation and experience of painful stimuli in expert meditators” was published in NeuroImage by University of Wisconsin professors Antoine Lutz, Daniel McFarlin, David Perlman, Tim Salomons and Richard Davidson.