I have from time to time heard of monks who can meditate in the freezing cold and maintain a warm body temperature, and those who have a high threshold for pain. Well, it seems that science has proven that meditation helps reduce pain.
AFP, March 3, 2010
Montreal, Canada -- ZEN meditation helps lower sensitivity to pain by thickening a part of the brain that regulates emotion and painful sensations, according to a study published recently. University of Montreal researchers compared the grey matter thickness of 17 Zen meditators and 18 non-meditators and found evidence that practising the centuries-old discipline can reinforce a central part of the brain called the anterior cingulate. "Through training, Zen meditators appear to thicken certain areas of their cortex and this appears to underlie their lower sensitivity to pain," lead author Joshua Grant said in a statement.
Building on an earlier study, the researchers measured thermal pain sensitivity by applying a heated plate to the calf of participants. This was followed by scanning the brains of subjects with structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The MRI results showed central brain regions that regulate emotion and pain were significantly thicker in meditators compared to non-meditators.
James: This isn't news to Buddhism because reports of over-coming pain have been known in Buddhist history for centuries. It is interesting though to see science proving it. It makes sense though that meditation, which regulates the mind would help reduce pain. There is clearly a connection between the mind and body, so it isn't any wonder that Buddhists teach that oneness of body and mind through meditation and mindfulness opens the way for a calmer state of being. This is proving that through meditation one can literally rewire the brain, which surely has something to do with realizing long-term enlightenment.
I have noticed actually a higher pain threshold since beginning my Buddhist practice. I blew it off at first as being pseudo-science experiences but this makes me rethink that position. When I get tattoos I can sit through the pain to where at times it actually feels good!! I think that's in part because I meditate while getting the tattoo. The first few tattoos that I got where quite painful and ironically enough that was a time before I was practicing Buddhist meditation.
This also makes me think of the pain experienced from doing sitting meditation when first starting out or when returning to a dormant practice. Because the more you practice, the less painful it seems to get:
"The often painful posture associated with Zen meditation may lead to thicker cortex and lower pain sensitivity," Grant opined. Several of the meditators tolerated a maximum 53°C produced by a heating plate. They appeared to further reduce their pain partly through slower breathing: 12 breaths per minute versus an average of 15 breaths for non-meditators. "Slower breathing certainly coincided with reduced pain and may influence pain by keeping the body in a relaxed state," Grant said in the earlier study. Ultimately, Zen meditators experience an 18% reduction in pain sensitivity, according to the original study.
James: If everything is interdependent and interconnected then clearly it makes sense that the body can be tempered by the mind when its steered in the right direction. The mind in my opinion isn't entirely useless or bad as some Buddhists might believe. I see it as a wild horse that if tamed, it can accomplish some amazing things. After all, if we shut off the mind completely then we'd be piles of mush unable to be moved to practice compassion, loving-kindness and good will.