The Frontal Cortex

Mindfulness

At first glance, “mindfulness” meditation practices seem completely counterintuitive. If people are suffering from pain, shouldn’t they learn ways to not focus on their pain? Isn’t it better to block out the negative sensations? (Repression isn’t always such a bad thing…)

And yet, there’s some tantalizing evidence (much of it anecdotal) that aspects of mindfulness mediation can help people deal with chronic pain and various mental illnesses, such as depression. The virtue of being acutely aware of every sensation, even negative sensations, is that people become better able to modulate them. I wrote about a related study earlier this year for Best Life magazine, which coupled fMRI with aspects of mindfullness. Because patients with chronic back pain could see their pain represented in the brain – they paid exquisite attention to what they were feeling – they learned how to deal with the pain.

The good news is that while we can’t always realign our spines or fix our ruptured disks, we can control our perception of chronic pain. With the proper training, we can alleviate our own suffering. That, at least, is the optimistic conclusion of a recent Stanford study performed by Dr. Mackey and other researchers. The study used real-time fMRI brain imaging to teach people with chronic pain how to modulate their conscious response to the pain. Some of the subjects distracted themselves with pleasant thoughts, while others recited mantras or listened to soothing music. Despite the diversity of strategies, each of the patients could see the direct impact of his palliative thoughts. They watched as the specific parts of their brains associated with chronic pain gradually subsided in activity. They had become their own painkillers.

The results of the experiment were dramatic. Most of the chronic-pain patients reported a decrease in pain intensity, with an average decrease of 64 percent. The patients had stopped being the helpless victims of a structural abnormality in the body and could now focus on dealing with the pain in their minds. Simply knowing that they could control the pain made the pain less terrible.

Comments

  1. #1 Meryn Stol
    May 27, 2008

    Do you know “The Mindful Brain” by Daniel Siegel?

  2. #2 Ted
    May 27, 2008

    I think the whole point of techniques like these is that one CANNOT pay attention to something else. The pain, physical or mental is going to be there – the reaction is pretty much exogenous – how are you going to live? – is the question. It looks at the breadth of the beam if attention is a ‘spotlight’ as it is sometimes called. The choice is whether that distractor is going to take over, i.e. move the beam from one focus to another, or include both the distractor and the target and so not move.

  3. #3 Bob
    May 28, 2008

    Mindfulness Meditation is not about “distraction.” That’s a goal-oriented attitude that is counter-productive in practice.

  4. #4 jb
    May 28, 2008

    Often we worry about our body in this culture, thinking about how we’d like to look and feel, and sometimes this translates into action, we sign up for a fitness class, go on a diet, get a botox treatment, etc. but rarely do we actually pay attention to our body when we are sitting still or moving. Instead we watch television on our treadmill, listen to music while walking, and eat and converse, read, or drive. Not only do we miss enjoying the sensual pleasures of the body but we are also tuning out emotional signals. We pay a price for doing this.
    The oldest hospital-based program that applies mindfulness meditation to mental and physical disease and pain is the Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This was started in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The 8 week course is described in his “Full Catastrophe Living” book; recently there was a new edition. Various scientific research has come out of it. I have taught this course to cancer patients and their spouses and highly recommend it, from personal use as well.

  5. #5 Lee Pirozzi
    June 4, 2008

    For a week after I painted “The Artist’s Thalamic Life”,
    when I closed my eyes I saw the brain and the thalamus outlined. I had stared at it for weeks while painting it
    so I guess this was like the post-light-bulb flash effect. I just read a lot about it before I painted it and since
    meditation works for me, I’ve decided that if I visualize
    that part of my brain heating up and producing new cells, maybe I can imagine it to become different. If people can
    imagine exercise and obtain muscle tone – why not? You know I have a whole imagined video going on up there, and judging from all the free opinions granted to me, this meditation might be a new preservative for my old brain.

  6. #6 penis büyütücü
    February 13, 2009

    The good news is that while we can’t always realign our spines or fix our ruptured disks, we can control our perception of chronic pain. With the proper training, we can alleviate our own suffering. That, at least, is the optimistic conclusion of a recent Stanford study performed by Dr. Mackey and other researchers. The study used real-time fMRI brain imaging to teach people with chronic pain how to modulate their conscious response to the pain. Some of the subjects distracted themselves with pleasant thoughts,

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