How Zen Meditation Controls Pain

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Montreal scientists have discovered how Zen meditation controls pain, discovered in previous studies. Senior author Pierre Rainville, researcher at the Université de Montréal and the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal and colleagues used functional MRI (fMRI) to find meditation changes the perception of pain stimulus.

Zen Meditation Relieves Pain by Altering Brain Signals

Rainville explains, "Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we demonstrated that although the meditators were aware of the pain, this sensation wasn't processed in the part of their brains responsible for appraisal, reasoning or memory formation. We think that they feel the sensations, but cut the process short, refraining from interpretation or labelling of the stimuli as painful."

The researchers used heat to measure pain response among 13 Zen meditators and 13 non-meditators. The participants supplied feedback about pain intensity then compared to fMRI results.


The most experienced meditators had decreased activity in the the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus. They also found decreased communication between the front of the brain (prefrontal cortex) and an area of the brain responsible for pain perception.

What the study suggest is that Zen meditation allows practitioners to turn off certain areas of the brain that process pain. Joshua Grant, a doctoral student at the Université de Montréal says, "These results challenge current concepts of mental control, which is thought to be achieved by increasing cognitive activity or effort." He says the process can be achieved passively and without a lot of effort.

Grant says, The new findings that pain can be controlled through Zen meditation that teaches mindulness could have "widespread and profound implications for pain and emotion regulation and cognitive control."

Pain: doi:10.1016/j.pain.2010.10.006