“Altered Traits”: Seasoned meditators and pain

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Imagine now you hear a soft rumble as a five-gallon tank of water starts boiling and sends a stream of fluid through the thin rubber hose that runs through the two-inch square metal plate strapped tight on your wrist. The plate heats up, pleasantly at first.

 

 

But that pleasantness quickly heads toward pain, as the water temperature jumps several degrees within a couple of seconds.

 

 

Finally, you can’t take it anymore—if this were a hot stove you had touched, you would instantly pull away.

 

 

But you can’t remove that metal plate.

 

 

You feel the almost excruciating heat for a full ten seconds, sure you are getting burned.

 

But you get no burn; your skin is fine.

 

You’ve just reached your highest pain threshold, exactly what this device, the Medoc thermal stimulator, was designed to detect.

 

Used by neurologists to assess conditions like neuropathy that reveal deterioration of the central nervous system, the thermal stimulator has built-in safety devices so people’s skin won’t be burned, even as it calibrates precisely their maximum pain threshold.

 

And people’s pain thresholds are nowhere near the higher range at which burns occur.

 

That’s why the Medoc has been used with experimental volunteers to establish how meditation alters our perceptions of pain.

 

 

Among pain’s main components are our purely physiological sensations, like burning, and our psychological reactions to those sensations.

 

In Zen, for example, practitioners learn to suspend their mental reactions and categorization of whatever arises in their minds or around them, and this mental stance gradually spills over into everyday life.

 

“The experienced practitioner of zazen does not depend on sitting quietly,” as Ruth Sasaki, a Zen teacher, put it, adding, “States of consciousness at first attained only in the meditation hall gradually become continuous in any and all activities.” 13 Seasoned Zen meditators who were having their brains scanned (and who were asked to “not meditate”) endured the thermal stimulator. 14

 

While we’ve noted the reasons to have an active control group, this research had none. But that’s less an issue here, because of the brain imaging.

 

If the outcome measures are based on self-reports (the most easily swayed by expectations) or even behavior observed by someone else (somewhat less susceptible to bias) then an active control group matters greatly. But when it comes to their brain activity, people have no clue what’s going on, and so an active control matters less.

 

The more experienced among the Zen students not only were able to bear more pain than could controls, they also displayed little activity in executive, evaluative, and emotion areas during the pain—all regions that ordinarily flare into activity when we are under such intense stress.

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