All artwork by Ken Blackman

Pain vs. suffering — what can be learned from studying the brains of meditators

When tested for resistance to pain, Zen meditation practitioners showed a higher pain threshold than non-meditators.

Researchers studied their brains in an MRI to see what was going on.¹

There are two groupings of brain regions that tend to work together. There’s the “experiential brain” — the areas of the brain that are involved in experiencing the world.

Then there’s the “evaluative brain,” which is constantly thinking about the past and future and giving a running commentary on everything that’s happening. All. The. Time. This is known as the “default mode network,” or the “narrative brain,” or simply “monkey mind.”

Normally these two sets of brain regions are strongly coupled. But meditation practice slowly trains the brain to decouple them.

In the experiment, when long-time practitioners were exposed to intense physical sensation, their experiential brain lit up even more strongly than is typical, while the evaluative brain, along with the areas associated with experiencing pain, remained quiet.

Think about this. They were more attentive to the sensation than the average person, while suffering from it less.

This held for emotional pain, too. They brought more awareness to the feelings they were having while experiencing less pain or suffering from them.

This was seen only in experienced practitioners. When relatively new meditators were tested, they didn’t show the same degree of resilience.

And they tended to use almost the exact opposite strategy. Those who managed to raise their pain threshold were trying to block out the experience itself, by distracting themselves or otherwise avoiding or ignoring the experience.

Their brains had not yet developed the ability to decouple the experiential mind from the evaluative mind.

Long-term meditators show us a path to partaking of life more fully while feeling less anguish. This comes directly from the ability to quiet the monkey mind.

And this is what Pema Chödrön meant when she said, “It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it’s what we say to ourselves about what happens.”

Notes:

  1. Kelly McGonigal — What Science Can Teach Us About Practice: The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

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