The findings have to do with the difference between pain and suffering. The study reports that patterns of brain activation show how suffering is reduced throughout the practice of mindfulness, even when the sensation of pain is present.
The study, by researchers from Giessen University in Germany, Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and Massachusetts General Hospital, involved 17 experienced mindfulness meditators and 17 non-meditators. While brain activation of participants was measured in an MRI scanner, participants received mildly painful electric shocks on the left lower arm. Participants were instructed to relate to the shocks in different ways: with mindfulness, and with a normal, daily life stance. Participants were then asked to rate the intensity and unpleasantness of the shocks, and the anticipatory anxiety in regard to receiving the shocks.
The meditators reported experiencing the pain as significantly less unpleasant. They also reported less anticipatory anxiety. The MRI images revealed interesting changes in brain activation during the state of mindfulness as well—increased activation in brain regions that are involved in processing the sensory aspects of the pain experience, but decreased activation in brain regions that are involved in regulating pain through reappraisal. In other words, though the meditators fully experienced the pain, they suffered less from it.
For more information about the study, click here.
To read more about using mindfulness to deal with pain, see this collection of stories: Mindfulness and Pain Management—Start Here.