“…in the April 6 Journal of Neuroscience. Individuals who practiced mindfulness meditation, or samatha, during a pain experiment reported much less discomfort than they did in earlier, meditation-free sessions. Samatha, the team says, flipped switches on or off in diverse regions of the brain underlying attention, expectation and even the awareness of thoughts themselves.
In just four 20-minute sessions, the dilettantes got a crash course in how to focus their attention on their breathing without becoming derailed by sore bottoms or anxious thoughts.
Meditation, often associated with tranquility, in fact lights up parts of the brain like a Christmas tree. The anterior insula, for instance, which lies in a deep fold on the side of the brain and has been associated with sensing heat, cold and pain, shined bright in the meditation experiments. This region may also preside over the awareness of thoughts themselves, says Zeidan, a cognitive neuroscientist also at Wake Forest. If you’ve ever suppressed the desire to honk your horn rudely in traffic, you may have your anterior insula to thank. “The meditators were able to take a step back from their thoughts and look at them for what they were,” he says.
Parts of the thalamus, on the other hand, flicked off during meditation. The thalamus filters the endless trains of sensory signals arriving to the brain from the body. Meditation could, then, ensure that fewer ouch-inducing signals reach the conscious mind in the first place.
This study illustrates what a powerful pain reliever psychology can be, says Donald Price, who researches pain and the placebo effect at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In some cases, changing a patient’s outlook on pain can be just as soothing as certain doses of morphine. But, he admits, most doctors and nurses don’t have the time to turn the lights down low and lead meditation sessions.”