In some people who practice Zen meditation, sensitivity to pain decreases, perhaps because they have trained the brain to be less reactive to sensory stimulus. Zen meditation includes the practice of quietly observing thoughts as they come and go, without attachment.
Researchers from the University of Montreal conducted a study to determine the mechanisms underlying why Zen meditators have lower pain sensitivity. “Using functional magnetic resonance imaging [MRI], we demonstrated that although the meditators were aware of the pain, this sensation wasn’t processed in the part of their brains responsible for appraisal, reasoning or memory formation. We think that they feel the sensations, but cut the process short, refraining from interpretation or labeling of the stimuli as painful,” said study author Pierre Rainville, a researcher at the University of Montreal. Rainville has conducted prior studies showing that Zen meditators have lower pain sensitivity.
Investigators studied 13 experienced Zen meditators and 13 nonmeditators, exposing them to painful heat applied to the calf. An MRI scan was taken of each subject as he or she was exposed to the pain. Subjects then reported their level of pain. Data analysis showed that experienced meditators reported less pain and had less activity in the parts of the brain related to cognitive processes, emotion and memory.
Lead study author Joshua Grant, a doctoral student at the University of Montreal, said, “These results challenge current concepts of mental control, which is thought to be achieved by increasing cognitive activity or effort. Instead, we suggest it is possible to self-regulate in a more passive manner, by turning off certain areas of the brain, which in this case are normally involved in processing pain.” Rainville added, “The results suggest that Zen meditators may have a training-related ability to disengage some higher-order brain processes, while still experiencing the stimulus. Such an ability could have widespread and profound implications for pain and emotion regulation and cognitive control. This behavior is consistent with the mindset of Zen and with the notion of mindfulness.”
The study was published in the journal Pain (2010; doi:10.1016/j.pain.2010.10.006).