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Who needs Advil? Not Zen meditators. Turns out, meditation can give you the superhero-like ability to control your mind -- and increase your tolerance to pain. New research, published in the journal Pain, shows that when people who meditate are subjected to painful stimuli, like being prodded with a hot needle, they feel it just like the rest of us non-meditating mortals would, but it doesn’t hurt them as much. (Good thing Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice wasn’t Buddhist, or we might have to rethink that whole “if you prick us, do we not bleed” speech). The reason it doesn’t smart so much: They process the sensation in a different area of the brain. So while meditators are aware of the physical feeling, it somehow bypasses the mind’s pain center and gets translated into something much more benign.
Past research has shown that people who meditate have fewer symptoms of pain, but scientists have been unclear how this was possible. To study this, researchers from the University of Montreal poked and prodded 13 meditators and 13 non-meditators with hot instruments, while analyzing their brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). As expected, they found that those with the most meditation experience showed the least reactions to pain. Meditators had less activity in the brain areas responsible for thought, emotion and memory, and showed less communication between the part of the brain that senses pain and the area that analyzes and interprets it. In layman’s terms: The brain only kind of hinted to the body that it was supposed to hurt.
According to the study’s senior author, Pierre Rainville, a researcher at the University of Montreal, their findings cast new light on what happens to the brain during meditation. Whereas experts believed emotions and thoughts were controlled through increased mental effort, they found that the opposite appears to be true -- that meditation practitioners are able to regulate their thoughts and emotions by turning off certain areas of the brain. "The results suggest that Zen meditators may have … an ability to disengage some higher-order brain processes, while still experiencing the stimulus," Rainville said in a written statement.
If you suffer from chronic pain -- or just want superhuman mind control, here’s how to begin Zen meditation. Sit in a comfortable, upright position. Lower your eyes and gaze at the floor a few feet ahead of you. Breathing through your nose, count each breath cycle. When you reach 10, start over. Counting and concentrating on your breath helps keep your mind from wandering. Your goal is to be able to let go of your thoughts and simply focus on being in the present moment. If you catch your mind wandering, don’t beat yourself up. Just acknowledge it and return to your breath. Besides alleviating pain, regular meditation can also help reduce stress, depression, anxiety, and may even boost the immune system. It practically has all the benefits of exercise, without moving a muscle.
While this is all great news for people who suffer from chronic pain and want to experiment with meditation, the question I’m left with is, what does pain feel like if it doesn’t hurt? Something tells me it’s similar to the sound of one hand clapping.
Have you ever tried meditation? Chime in below!