Fadel Zeidan has proven that minimal training in meditation can lessen the perception of pain in research subjects.
He also has shown that similarly brief sessions of meditation can increase cognitive function - the ability to multitask, recall items in a series and complete tests on a deadline.
Now, he wants to find out why even short stints of meditation affect the brain that way.
As a post-doctoral fellow at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, Zeidan is building on research he started at UNC Charlotte. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to capture images of the brain, he is examining how mindfulness meditation affects pain perception.
The research is ongoing, but the preliminary results look promising.
"Meditation doesn't take the sensation of pain away," Zeidan said. "It teaches people to cope with the pain. The emotional reaction to pain makes the feeling of pain worse."
If the MRI can show Zeidan and his colleagues how meditation helps us cope when we hurt, doctors and patients can find a better way to treat pain, especially in chronic suffers for whom medication does not work.
"We can start to pinpoint how, using our minds, we can self-regulate," he said. "If it has to do with reducing your anticipation, regulating your emotions, or increasing relaxation - if you know why, you can figure out the best method to teach people to deal with pain."
Zeidan and his colleagues will present initial findings from the MRI study at the 13th World Pain Conference in Montreal in August.
Just a little meditation
Zeidan's is the first line of research to examine how much a very brief course of meditation can change the way humans react to stimuli. Previous research, though prolific, has looked at Buddhist monks or people who have spent dozens of hours and, in many cases, hundreds of dollars studying meditation at retreats in far-flung locations.
The impracticality of that bothered Zeidan. So he set out to determine the benefits of meditation for people living in a go-go culture.
"I felt that, especially as an American, we want things quick and easy," he said.
Mindfulness meditation is an often nonreligious practice based on developing a discipline of the mind and body. Typically, practitioners sit comfortably in a quiet room and focus on the changing sensations of breath and body. When a thought or a disturbance in the room distracts them, they learn to acknowledge the distraction and then let it go by returning focus to the breath.
"You can do this a million times in your practice," Zeidan said. "Your brain becomes not only aware of its body and mind, it becomes more aware of your environment in a less stressful way."
He first learned about meditation during a high school philosophy class, when a teacher showed his students the basics. He has practiced mindfulness meditation ever since. So the results of his research into how meditation affected people who had never practiced it (and, in some cases, knew nothing about it) did not completely shock him.
But the extent of the results did.
In his first study, on pain perception, research volunteers were asked to rate their reaction to small but painful electric shocks. Each volunteer was tested before and after the shocks, but between baseline and subsequent testing, they were instructed to do one of several things: practice mindfulness meditation; relax and read; relax and breathe deeply; or complete a "math distraction" exercise, counting backward from 1,000, subtracting seven each time.
Feeling less pain
The meditation group, which received about seven minutes of instruction on each of three days and then practiced for a little more than 10 minutes, reported a much lower perception of pain across the board. Those research volunteers showed less sensitivity to both low and high pain, even though they did not meditate during pain stimulation.
The only other group to show significant decreases in pain perception was the math distraction group, in which volunteers did the counting exercise during pain stimulation. They reported less sensitivity to pain at the high end but not the low end of the spectrum.
Zeidan suspects mindfulness meditation curbs pain because the practice teaches the brain to prioritize what's important at the moment. It's the breath, not the pain.
That focus becomes even more vital in Zeidan's second study, the results of which suggest that studying mindfulness meditation for a few days can help you power through your to-do list more quickly, perform better at work or juggle a hectic schedule with grace.
Research volunteers practiced mindfulness meditation for 20 minutes on each of four days or listened to an audio recording of a book, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit." Both groups scored better on cognitive tests compared with baseline results. But only the meditation group showed notable improvement.
The meditation group soared on a timed, computerized "n-back test," a new technique that measures working memory and the ability to focus. The test asks the subject to learn the next item in a series while remembering the previous item. It gets faster with each correct answer.
On average, those who meditated got 10 correct answers in a row. They ranged from tripling their improvement in performance to demonstrating a statistically significant difference when compared with the control group.
"Both groups did about the same on non-timed tests, but the mindfulness meditation group did significantly better with all the timed tests, which suggests they were better able to sustain their attention more efficiently," Zeidan said. "Being in control of your emotions will probably help you do better on an attention task."
He said the results suggest that everyone should try a little mindfulness meditation.
Leslie Rawls, who teaches meditation at the Charlotte Community of Mindfulness (www.charlottemindfulness.org), has practiced mindfulness meditation for 17 years as part of her study of Buddhism. Many benefits she has experienced mirror those that Zeidan reports.
"Stronger focus and concentration, the ability to let go of stories that my mind tells me about what's going on," she said. "A great sense of peace most of the time. The ability to better listen to others and be present for other people."
Zeidan's current research will use the MRI to determine how the brain reacts to that practice.
"We're starting to see how meditation, after brief training, alters the conscious experience, how the mechanisms relieve pain," he said.
Pain is intrusive; it takes over your consciousness and attention.
Zeidan is using MRIs in hopes of understanding the brain mechanisms involved in the self-regulation of pain with techniques such as meditation. For instance, focus and attention are regulated by one area of the brain, while emotional response to physical pain is regulated by another.
If he can pinpoint those mechanisms, he and his colleagues are on the path to a better treatment for pain sufferers.