A study conducted at Wake Forest School of Medicine may provide an answer for why some people feel less pain than others—mindfulness. “Mindfulness is related to being aware of the present moment without too much emotional reaction or judgment,” said the study’s lead author, Fadel Zeidan, PhD, assistant professor at the medical school, part of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “We now know that some people are more mindful than others, and those people seemingly feel less pain.”
The researchers analyzed data from a previous study that compared mindfulness meditation to placebo analgesia. In the new study, Zeidan sought to determine if dispositional mindfulness, an individual’s innate or natural level of mindfulness, was associated with lower pain sensitivity.
In the study, 76 healthy volunteers completed the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory to determine their baseline mindfulness levels. Then, while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging, they were administered painful heat stimulation.
Whole brain analyses revealed that higher dispositional mindfulness during painful heat stimulation was associated with greater deactivation of a brain region called the posterior cingulate cortex, a central neural node of the default mode network. Further, in those that reported higher pain, there was greater activation of this critically important brain region.
The default mode network extends from the posterior cingulate cortex to the medial prefrontal cortex of the brain. These two brain regions continuously feed information back and forth. This network is associated with processing feelings of self and mind wandering, Zeidan said.
“As soon as you start performing a task, the connection between these two brain regions in the default mode network disengages and the brain allocates information and processes to other neural areas,” he said.
“Default mode deactivates whenever you are performing any kind of task, such as reading or writing. Default mode network is reactivated whenever the individual stops performing a task and reverts to self-related thoughts, feelings, and emotions. The results from our study showed that mindful individuals are seemingly less caught up in the experience of pain, which was associated with lower pain reports.”
The study provided novel neurobiological information that showed people with higher mindfulness ratings had less activation in the central nodes (posterior cingulate cortex) of the default network and experienced less pain. Those with lower mindfulness ratings had greater activation of this part of the brain and also felt more pain, Zeidan said.
“We know we can increase mindfulness through relatively short periods of mindfulness meditation training, so this may prove to be an effective way to provide pain relief for the millions of people suffering from chronic pain,” he said.
This article was adapted from information provided by Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.