There is considerable scientific evidence to show that meditation has a beneficial effect on emotional processes. But what about physical states? In particular, can meditation practice influence our sensitivity to pain and even lessen its intensity in the moment?
The answer is yes, according to a small, preliminary study published in Psychosomatic Medicine (2009;doi: 10.1097/PSY.0b013e31818f 52ee). Scientists from the University of Montreal, in Quebec, researched the effect of mindfulness and mindful states on pain perception in meditators by comparing the responses of skilled practitioners with those of inexperienced control subjects.
The researchers enrolled 13 Zen practitioners with over 1,000 hours of meditation experience, along with 13 age- and gender-matched control volunteers who were not familiar with either meditation or yoga. Participants lay supine, with eyes closed, and received brief thermal stimuli to the calf under four conditions. During the two control conditions (first and fourth), subjects were asked simply to try not to fall asleep. During the second condition, described as concentration, they were instructed to focus their attention exclusively on the stimulation of their calf. During the third condition, called mindfulness, they were told to focus their attention on the stimulation of their calf and simply observe the sensation, moment by moment, while trying not to judge their experience.
During the concentration practice, the pain became more intense and more unpleasant for the control subjects; for the meditators, there was no significant change compared with baselines. During the mindfulness practice, the pain decreased in both intensity and unpleasantness for the meditators—but not for the controls. The ability of individual meditators to alter pain was related to how much they slowed their breathing rate and how many hours of experience they had. In a questionnaire, meditators reported higher tendencies to observe and be nonreactive to their experience compared with controls.
As noted by its authors, the study was limited by difficulties in keeping conditions constant across subjects; by the small sample size; and by possible confounding effects of participant expectations. Researchers conducted this small study to inform a future, large-scale randomized study that will involve intensive training of inexperienced individuals and extensive pre- and post-testing. Such a study should help determine the value of meditation in promoting health and well-being.