Just a brief introduction to mindfulness helps people deal with physical pain and negative emotions, according to a new study. The effect of mindfulness was so pronounced, they found, that even when participants experienced high heat on their forearm, their brain responded as if it were a normal temperature.
“It’s as if the brain was responding to warm temperature, not very high heat,”
says Hedy Kober, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at Yale University and corresponding author of the study.
Mindfulness — the awareness and acceptance of a situation without judgment — has been shown to have benefits in treating many conditions such as anxiety and depression. But Kober and colleagues wanted to know whether people with no formal training in meditation and mindfulness might benefit from a brief 20-minute introduction into mindfulness concepts.
Researchers tested participants in two contexts while undergoing brain imaging scans — one for assessing response to physical pain from high heat on the forearm and another for gauging their response when presented with negative images.
In both contexts, researchers found significant differences in brain signaling pathways when they asked participants to employ mindfulness techniques compared to when they asked participants to respond as they normally would.
Specifically, participants reported less pain and negative emotions when employing mindfulness techniques, and at the same time their brains showed significant reductions in activity associated with pain and negative emotions.
These neurological changes did not occur in the prefrontal cortex, which regulates conscious or rational decision-making, and so were not the result of conscious willpower, the authors note.
“The ability to stay in the moment when experiencing pain or negative emotions suggests there may be clinical benefits to mindfulness practice in chronic conditions as well — even without long meditation practice,”
“The findings support the idea that momentary mindful-acceptance regulates emotional intensity by changing initial appraisals of the affective significance of stimuli,"
the authors conclude.
 Hedy Kober, Jason Buhle, Jochen Weber, Kevin N Ochsner, Tor D Wager, Let it be: Mindful-acceptance down-regulates pain and negative emotion, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, , nsz104, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsz104