Study supports the mental benefits of yoga and meditation

A new study explains how mediation and yoga can reduce the perception of pain (Photo:Shutterstock)

Yoga practitioners know firsthand the physical and mental benefits the activity produces, as meditation is often embedded in yoga sessions. Now, yogis have got science to back their claims of well-being and focus, as new research shows more clearly how yoga-induced mindfulness has an impact on pain perception.

The findings come from research carried out by PhD student Tim Gard at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He started with recent findings showing that mindfulness can attenuate pain, and set out to discover more about the underlying brain mechanisms that are involved.

To do that, he carried out an experiment that involved applying unpleasant electric stimuli to a group in a meditative state and to a control group with a similar healthy lifestyle, each group comprising 17 volunteers. All test subjects were in an fMRI scanner when the stimuli were applied.

The experiment produced surprising results, as it revealed that mindfulness practitioners were able to reduce pain perception by 22 percent and anticipatory anxiety by 29 percent during a mindful state.

The reduction of pain was associated with decreased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and increased activity in the right posterior insula during stimulation. During the anticipation of pain, the study noted increased activity in the rostral anterior cingulate cortex. These findings unveiled a unique mechanism of pain modulation, comprising increased sensory processing and decreased cognitive control. Gard says this pattern is the opposite of what happens in the brains of people who don’t meditate. He concluded that members of the meditation group could reduce their pain by tolerating the sensation of pain, instead of exerting mental control over it.

The fMRI scans helped the researcher shed new light on how the brain works, more precisely the unique neural systems in the area of pain processing. Apparently, veteran dedicated practitioners of yoga and meditation present better organized and sturdier brain networks, as the images showed.

The brain scans also measured mental faculties in the form of fluid intelligence, which is the ability to reason in new situations. They showed that older practitioners of both yoga and meditation had a smaller decrease in fluid intelligence than the control subjects.

As human populations get increasingly older, this new knowledge could be useful for healthcare providers administering treatment mixes for chronic pain, and as a basis for mental health maintenance.

"It’s fascinating to see how yoga and meditation can positively influence our brains and our psyches, and thus can lead to increased well-being," said Gard, who defended his PhD dissertation, The neural and psychological mechanisms of yoga and mindfulness meditation, in March.

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