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Can MRI Show Us How Mindfulness Relates to Pain?

People who are more in tune to mindfulness experience less physical pain than those who struggle with staying in the present, says a study scheduled to be published in PAIN.

Researchers from the Wake Forest School of Medicine wanted to figure out if a person’s natural inclination toward mindfulness was connected to stronger pain sensitivity, and how the brain demonstrates these pain signals. The researchers invited 76 participants who had never practiced mediation to complete the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory, an evaluation that rates their level of mindfulness. The participants then had MRI exams while being administered a painful heat stimulation (120 degrees Fahrenheit).

The MRI scans found that while experiencing pain, those with higher levels of mindfulness demonstrated a “greater deactivation” of the posterior cingulate cortex, a very active and metabolically-critical region of the brain that’s the central neural node of the default mode network. Scans of participants who experienced greater levels of pain showed “greater activation” in this area.

The hub of autobiographical feelings and mind wandering is located between the posterior cingulate cortex and the medial prefrontal cortex, two regions that are constantly exchanging information. People who correctly practice mindfulness demonstrated less activation in the posterior cingulate cortex and reported less pain. People who felt more pain also had lower mindfulness ratings and a stronger activation in this region of the brain.

“Default mode deactivates whenever you are performing any kind of task, such as reading or writing” said Fadel Zeidan, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the Wake Forest School of Medicine. “Default mode network is reactivated whenever the individual stops performing a task and reverts to self-related thoughts, feelings and emotions. The results from our study showed that mindful individuals are seemingly less caught up in the experience of pain, which was associated with lower pain reports.”

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