Sunday, July 24, 2011

Meditation, Pain, and Breaking Out of the Prison of Thoughts

Research continues to demonstrate the benefits of mindfulness meditation.

As described earlier this year by Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times blog Well, meditation helps change the brain in ways that improve memory, sense of self, empathy, and reduce anxiety and stress.

Earlier this month Jonah Lehrer discussed in Frontal Cortex, how scientists at Wake Forest University have shown that patients who meditated experienced a reduction in the "unpleasantness of their pain" on a par with the benefits of morphine. Meditation altered brain activity in the very same areas targeted by medications-- "as if the subjects were administering their own pain killers."

Lehrer also describes other psychological techniques that help with chronic pain, such as cognitive behavior therapy, biofeedback, and hypnosis.

These studies and techniques demonstrate that "that pain is best understood as a mental state concerning the body, an objective sensation terribly twisted by the brain. And that’s why these psychological interventions sometimes work better than scalpels: They help us to untwist our thoughts."

In other words, pain is unquestionably real (and I am not ever suggesting anything to the contrary), but our brains can make it worse-- or better. As Prince Hamlet (an admitted prisoner of his thoughts) put it: "for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
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