The power of meditation
Study demonstrates pain-related changes in brain activity as a result of mindfulness training
At a time when the population’s mental health is put to the test by a pandemic and economic crises, knowing what really makes a difference in improving quality of life is crucial. An important step in this direction was taken at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in the United States, when American scientists isolated electrical brain changes related to pain.
One important detail is that the study participants took an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course. The results of this study were published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.
According to Joseph Wielgosz, project leader and currently a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University, the study is the first to show pain-related changes in brain activity as a result of a meditation course widely offered in clinics geared towards meditative practices.
To measure neural pain response, participants’ brains were scanned while receiving a heat stimulus on their forearm. The researchers recorded two signatures of pain-related activities in the brain. The technique, developed by Tor Wager, a neuroscience professor at Dartmouth College, who also participated in the group of researchers, helps to more precisely pinpoint the brain activities directly linked to pain, which occur in the brain’s tangle of neuronal processes.
The importance of practice
“Just as an experienced athlete practices a sport differently than a beginner, experienced mindfulness practitioners seem to use their mental ‘muscles’ differently in response to pain than novice meditators,” explained Wielgosz, in a letter.
The study suggests that hands-on training for the mind and body to free themselves of judgment and function in the present helps participants learn to respond to pain with less distress and more psychological flexibility—which can make the pain itself less intense. According to the scientists, these discoveries can help demonstrate the potential of practicing mindfulness as a lifestyle.
“These robust results closely align with those obtained here in Brazil,” claims biologist Elisa Harumi Kozasa, a researcher at Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein (HIAE). According to her, there are even more extensive studies that show changes in brain anatomy after practicing very specific meditation activities.
“Here in Brazil, one study that followed elderly women who regularly practiced a particular type of yoga showed this. After eight years, cerebral cortex thickness had changed,” notes Kozasa.
The study compared 21 women over the age of 60 who practiced hatha yoga for at least eight years to a group—also of 21 women—who had never taken any sessions. “I don’t use the term mindfulness because there is much debate over what it actually encompasses. I prefer to focus on the practice, such as yoga or even specific exercises that follow defined protocols and that focus on the present moment and removing judgment,” stresses Kozasa.
As confirmed by several studies, yoga, for example, is a mind-body activity that requires attention and that has been associated with positive changes in brain structure and function, especially in areas related to consciousness, attention, executive functions, and memory.
According to Kozasa, although changes in brain structure are associated with long-term yoga practice, meditation performed over a very short period of time also generates results related to well-being but does not change brain anatomy. “This was demonstrated in another study we performed during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Kozasa and collaborators recruited a sample of 717 people to participate in the study. At random, half of the sample received an audio clip that was two minutes and three seconds long, with negative news about the pandemic. The other half listened to positive news. Afterward, everyone received a second audio clip that was three minutes and nineteen seconds of meditation. That is, with instructions on how to quickly relax.
“Even in this short period of time, the meditation worked and mitigated the effects of the negative news. This shows that practicing activities such as meditation helps improve emotional responses,” states Kozasa.