Researchers observed that the study participants who practiced mindfulness meditation reported greater pain relief than placebo. Brain scans showed that mindfulness meditation produced very different patterns of activity than those produced by placebo to reduce pain.
‘Mindfulness meditation was found to reduce pain by activating brain regions associated with the self-control of pain. It also was significantly better at reducing pain intensity and pain unpleasantness than the placebo meditation.’
Lead investigator Fadel Zeidan said, "While we thought that there would be some overlap in brain regions between meditation and placebo, the findings from this study provide novel and objective evidence that mindfulness meditation reduces pain in a unique fashion."
For the study, researchers used a two-pronged approach - pain ratings and brain imaging - to determine whether mindfulness meditation is merely a placebo effect. Mindfulness meditation was found to reduce pain by activating brain regions (orbitofrontal and anterior cingulate cortex) associated with the self-control of pain while the placebo cream lowered pain by reducing brain activity in pain-processing areas (secondary somatosensory cortex).
Another brain region, the thalamus, was deactivated during mindfulness meditation, but was activated during all other conditions. This brain region serves as a gateway that determines if sensory information is allowed to reach higher brain centers.
Zeidan said, "By deactivating this area, mindfulness meditation may have caused signals about pain to simply fade away. Mindfulness meditation also was significantly better at reducing pain intensity and pain unpleasantness than the placebo meditation."
The study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.