A Proposed Physiological Basis For Mindfulness Meditation

Jason Pierce, MSN, MBA, RN for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online

Research shows that training in mindfulness meditation techniques can decrease chronic pain and improve depression. A paper recently published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience by scientists at Brown University may shed light on the physiological reason why. The study proposes that training in mindfulness meditation enhances control over how the brain processes and filters sensations and memories.

Training in mindfulness techniques begins by focusing attention on breathing patterns and the body´s sensory input. Beginners are taught to return their focus to the sensation of breathing whenever their mind begins to wander. The researchers claim that it is this repeated localized focus on sensory input that enhances control over the portion of the brain where sensations from various body parts are received.

In essence, training in mindfulness allows meditators to control what body sensations they pay attention to, and to tune out input related to pain and discomfort. The meditator learns to regulate attention away from negative physical sensations such as chronic pain.

“We think we´re the first group to propose an underlying neurophysiological mechanism that directly links the actual practice of mindful awareness of breath and body sensations to the kinds of cognitive and emotional benefits that mindfulness confers,” said lead author Catherine Kerr, assistant professor (research) of family medicine at the Alpert Medical School and director of translational neuroscience for the Contemplative Studies Initiative at Brown.

Experiments previously published by Kerr and neuroscientist co-authors Stephanie Jones and Christopher Moore use magnetoencephalography (MEG) brain imaging technology to map brain waves, called alpha rhythms, associated with sensory input. The ability to regulate these alpha rhythms was more pronounced in subjects with standardized mindfulness training.

In another previously published experiment, they showed that subjects who focused attention to sensations in their left hand had a change in alpha rhythms suggesting that the brain was no longer filtering out those sensations. When the subjects shifted focus away from the left hand the filtering effect returned.

In 2011 the researchers also conducted experiments using subjects randomly assigned to eight weeks of mindfulness training and a control group of subjects with no training. The alpha rhythms of the subjects trained in mindfulness suggested an ability to shift focus quicker and to more effectively filter sensory stimulation.

In the newly published paper the authors propose that chronic pain patients trained in the mindfulness technique of focusing on and then focusing away from pain should demonstrate similar improvements in alpha rhythms control. “By this process of repeatedly engaging and disengaging alpha dynamics across the body map, according to our alpha theory, subjects are re-learning the process of directly modulating localized alpha rhythms,” they wrote. “We hypothesize that chronic pain patients trained in mindfulness will show increased ability to modulate alpha in an anticipatory tactile attention paradigm similar to that used in [the 2011 study].”

In addition to Kerr, Jones, and Moore, the paper´s other authors are Matthew Sacchet of Stanford University and Sara Lazar of Massachusetts General Hospital.