Posted from archive: 01.02.2014 | by AMRA

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Grant [Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences] reviewed recent experimental studies of the effects of focused attention (FA) and open monitoring (OM) meditation on pain perception. FA meditations require sustained attention on a focal stimulus (e.g., the breath or a mantra), whereas OM meditations involve sustained attention on the monitoring process itself (e.g., dzogchen or choiceless awareness). Experimental support for FA’s analgesic effect is somewhat weak and inconsistent. However, there is mounting support for OM’s ability to attenuate pain.

Studies from three independent laboratories demonstrated that OM meditators show increased neural activity in their pain processing centers (e.g., the somatosensory cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and insula) and decreased activity in brain regions associated with elaborative mental processes (e.g., the various prefrontal cortical regions) when confronted with a painful stimulus. One study of Zen practitioners also showed that experienced meditators had decreased functional connectivity between these brain regions, and the less the functional connectivity, the lower their pain sensitivity.

An analysis of pain ratings and neural activity indicated that OM-mediated analgesia is due neither to distraction nor to opioid system activation, but to decreased elaborative cognitive activity. The author argued that sustained present-moment attention to sensory processes precludes the formation of mental narratives, cognitive appraisals, and self-related processes that exacerbate pain. He also noted that increases in parasympathetic activity and decreases in limbic-mediated fear conditioning may also underlie OM’s analgesic effects.

Reference:

Grant, J. A. (2013). Meditative analgesia: The current state of the field. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1307:55-63. [PMID: 24673150]

[Link to abstract]