Mindfulness vs. Pain Sensitivity
Have you ever wondered why some people feel pain more intensely than others? Are you one of those people who rarely ever feel pain? Well, researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine in North Carolina have found that mindfulness may be the reason behind this. According to the Canadian Medical Association, mindfulness is described as being able to attend to an experience such as a conversation, a clinical procedure or an administrative activity without being distracted, hurried or reactive in a way that compromises our understanding, decision making, caring and skillful actions. In simpler terms, it means to pay attention to the present moment without having a highly emotional reaction.
Fadel Zeidan, the study’s lead author and Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at Wake Forest School of Medicine, attempted to find out whether an individual’s innate mindfulness level was correlated with lower pain sensitivity. In addition, he sought to identify the brain mechanisms involved in lower pain sensitivity.
The study involved 76 volunteers who were deemed as healthy individuals. To ensure that an accurate level of dispositional mindfulness was being measured, it was imperative that the volunteers never meditated before. Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory was used to measure each participant’s baseline mindfulness level. Once the baseline levels were determined, the volunteers underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while being administered with painful heat stimulation (120°F, 49°C).
From this experiment, whole brain analyses showed that administering painful heat stimulation to those with higher dispositional mindfulness had greater deactivation of the posterior cingulate cortex and experienced less pain. In contrast, participant’s who reported higher pain revealed greater activation of the posterior cingulate cortex. While there is uncertainty regarding the function of this brain region, the posterior cingulate cortex is a central node of the default mode network (DMN). The DMN is associated with mind-wandering as well as processing feelings of oneself. Essentially, the DMN deactivates when a task, such as reading or writing is being performed. It is then reactivated when a person puts an end to a task and returns to self-related thoughts, emotions, and feelings.
Outcomes and Impact
The data indicated that there was less activation in the posterior cingulate cortex of the DMN for people with higher dispositional mindfulness ratings, which allowed them to experience less pain. Those with lower dispositional mindfulness ratings had higher activation of the posterior cingulate cortex and felt more pain. Thus, lead author Fadel Zeidan stated that “mindful individuals are seemingly less caught up in the experience of pain, which was associated with lower pain reports."
Millions of people suffer from chronic pain and the information gathered from this study is quite useful as we can now target the posterior cingulate cortex for the development of pain therapies. Further, mindfulness can be taken into consideration when understanding why one feels more or less pain. If you or anyone you know suffers with chronic pain, consult a healthcare professional about mindfulness meditation.
Leech, R., Braga, R., & Sharp, D. J. (2012). Echoes of the Brain within the Posterior Cingulate Cortex. Journal of Neuroscience, 32(1), 215-222. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.3689-11.2012