Thursday, May 26, 2011

Meditation Experience Predicts Less Negative Appraisal of Pain: Electrophysiological Evidence for the Involvement of Anticipatory Neural Responses

In a recent study, researchers in the United Kingdom examined the impact of meditation experience and the anticipation of and experience of pain. The control group consisted of 15 people with no previous experience in meditation. They were compared with 12 people who came from a variety of Buddhist and non-Buddhist meditative backgrounds. It was a pretty heterogeneous sample of meditators.

The researchers encountered difficulty developing a reliable estimate of meditation experience. They eventually disregarded the amount of hours per week of practice and instead looked at the overall lifetime experience with meditation. These ranged from less than 1 year to more than 30 years experience.

The researchers used a laser to induce a painful burning sensation in the participants. Anticipation of pain was created through a visual stimulus that indicated to the participants that they would be exposed to the laser within 3 seconds.  Because of the design, the researchers suggest they may have over-estimated the impact of the anticipation of pain on the actual pain response. In addition to self-report by the participants, the researchers used an EEG (e.g., brain scan) to measure participants' anticipation to and experience of pain.

Initially, the researchers found no significant difference in perceived pain between the mediation and control groups. Once the researchers dropped participants with less than 6 years of meditation experience from the analyses, however, participants with more meditation experience showed a lower response to anticipated pain unpleasantness.  This relationship was accounted for by the age of the meditators.  However, there was no correlation in the control group between pain response and age.  Although the relationship is not entirely clear, it appears that meditation experience may impact anticipation of pain.

In looking at the EEG results, an interesting pattern emerges. The researchers suggest that those with meditation experience were more likely to process and contextutalize the experience of pain before responding to it emotionally.

In summary, the researchers suggest that the cultivation of acceptance through practicing attentional control (i.e., through regular meditation practice) may allow people to show more equanimity in both in their anticipation of pain and their actual experience of it.

There are some limitations with the pain assessment in this study. As noted, researchers admitted that they had a difficult time determining if the pain assessment was in fact influenced by the anticipation of the pain. Also, because of the design of the study, we can't completely rule out that people who take up meditation are inherently different from those who don't meditate, and that these differences--rather than the actual meditation practice--better explain the results.

To download a  copy of the article, click on the full citation is below:

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sesame Street: Monster in the Mirror

I discovered this Sesame Street clip after a therapist posted it on a professional listserv. As the poster noted, it's a clever illustration of the ease that can come from accepting parts of us that we experience judgment towards. I'd like to thank Jonathan Kandell for sharing it!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind

I recently finished reading Kristin Neff's new book, Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. As I've mentioned before in Scientific Mindfulness, I've been following Dr. Neff's work on self-compassion for several years now. This new book is the first written for a lay audience.

A researcher at the University of Texas - Austin, Dr. Neff discovered self-compassion when she began attending a local Buddhist center while she was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkley. According to her book, she was really struck by the Buddhist view of compassion and devoted much of her professional career to defining and studying it. In Neff's conceptualization, self-compassion has three component: 1.) being kind to one's self, as opposed to harsh and judgmental; 2.) feeling part of the human condition, as opposed to alone and isolated; 3.) and being mindful of the present moment.

Research on self-compassion has really snowballed of late, and changes in self-compassion are being increasingly studied in mindfulness and acceptance-based research. There's also a growing body of literature suggesting that self-compassion is a more useful construct than that of self-esteem. Despite it's widespread use, our understanding of self-esteem is very problematic, as Dr. Neff discusses in her book.

Dr. Neff's book is an enjoyable mixture of theory, research, and personal anecdotes. It has elements of self-help but is not primarily a self-help book. Each chapter has exercises the reader may use to help develop self-compassion. I bookmarked several of them to use with clients. The exercises become a little weaker in the second half of the book, in my opinion--less specific, more abstract and vague--but I really liked many of them.

Dr. Neff does a great job incorporating research in a very readable and accessible style. Nothing is presented very technically, and the reader can easily find the studies cited in the "Notes" appendix in the back if he or she wants to seek out the original source material. I found myself flipping to the back frequently.

What I found most brave and unique about this book is Dr. Neff's willingness to speak candidly about her own life. In her book, she leads by example and shows a startling openness in sharing her own struggles. From an ex-husband who has never forgiven her for cheating on him to the difficulties of raising a child with autism, Dr. Neff offers incredibly personal anecdotes from her own experience and other people she knows. She doesn't present herself as an expert on self-compassion in the sense that she has it all figured out; rather, she vividly describes her own successes and struggles in incorporating self-compassion into her life.

Overall, I highly recommend the book. For people who'd like to know more about self-compassion and the research behind it, the book is a very up-to-date primer. For those interested in bringing more self-compassion into their lives, the book has a number of exercises and useful illustrations of self-compassion in action. As the book demonstrates and research increasingly shows, there is much to be gained in learning to treat ourselves more kindly.

Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New Yorker: HarperCollins.

You might also check out Dr. Neff's website at