fMRI reveals mindful people may feel less pain

Why do some people feel more pain than others? Using fMRI, researchers at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, found the answer may lie in mindfulness, according to recent research published in PAIN.

Lead author Fadel Zeidan, PhD, and colleagues described mindfulness as associated with an awareness of the moment without incorporating much emotional reaction or judgement.

“We now know that some people are more mindful than others, and those people seemingly feel less pain,” said Zeidan, with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in a statement.

Zeidan and colleagues set out to find if dispositional mindfulness, described as an individual’s innate or naturel level of mindfulness, is related to low pain sensitivity, and if so, what areas of the brain are connected to the process.

To begin the study, 76 volunteers who had never meditated completed the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory—a reliable measurement to determine baseline mindfulness levels, according to authors. Participants then underwent fMRI while they received “painful” heat stimulation of 120 degrees, the authors added.

Results showed higher dispositional mindfulness during pain was equated with greater deactivation of the posterior cingulate cortex—a default mode brain network which exchanges information with the medial prefrontal cortex. Together, the two regions process feelings of self and mind wandering, Zeidan said.

“Default mode deactivates whenever you are performing any kind of task, such as reading or writing,” according to Zeidan. “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.”

Going forward, the authors believe their study can help develop targeted pain therapies and aid those suffering chronic pain.