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Experientially opening oneself to pain rather than avoiding it is said to reduce the mind's tendency toward avoidance or anxiety which can further exacerbate the experience of pain. This is a central feature of mindfulness-based therapies. Little is known about the neural mechanisms of mindfulness on pain. During a meditation practice similar to mindfulness, functional magnetic resonance imaging was used in expert meditators (>10,000 h of practice) to dissociate neural activation patterns associated with pain, its anticipation, and habituation. Compared to novices, expert meditators reported equal pain intensity, but less unpleasantness. This difference was associated with enhanced activity in the dorsal anterior insula (aI), and the anterior mid-cingulate (aMCC) the so-called 'salience network', for experts during pain. This enhanced activity during pain was associated with reduced baseline activity before pain in these regions and the amygdala for experts only. The reduced baseline activation in left aI correlated with lifetime meditation experience. This pattern of low baseline activity coupled with high response in aIns and aMCC was associated with enhanced neural habituation in amygdala and pain-related regions before painful stimulation and in the pain-related regions during painful stimulation. These findings suggest that cultivating experiential openness down-regulates anticipatory representation of aversive events, and increases the recruitment of attentional resources during pain, which is associated with faster neural habituation.
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The aim of mindfulness meditation is to develop present-focused, non-judgmental, attention. Therefore, experience in meditation should be associated with less anticipation and negative appraisal of pain. In this study we compared a group of individuals with meditation experience to a control group to test whether any differences in the affective appraisal of pain could be explained by lower anticipatory neural processing. Anticipatory and pain-evoked ERPs and reported pain unpleasantness were recorded in response to laser stimuli of matched subjective intensity between the two groups. ERP data were analysed after source estimation with LORETA. No group effects were found on the laser energies used to induce pain. More experienced meditators perceived the pain as less unpleasant relative to controls, with meditation experience correlating inversely with unpleasantness ratings. ERP source data for anticipation showed that in meditators, lower activity in midcingulate cortex relative to controls was related to the lower unpleasantness ratings, and was predicted by lifetime meditation experience. Meditators also reversed the normal positive correlation between medial prefrontal cortical activity and pain unpleasantness during anticipation. Meditation was also associated with lower activity in S2 and insula during the pain-evoked response, although the experiment could not disambiguate this activity from the preceding anticipation response. Our data is consistent with the hypothesis that meditation reduces the anticipation and negative appraisal of pain, but effects on pain-evoked activity are less clear and may originate from preceding anticipatory activity. Further work is required to directly test the causal relationship between meditation, pain anticipation, and pain experience.