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:

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