Zeidan et al. offer these interesting results on possible consequences of a form of mindfulness meditation called Shamatha, or focused attention, which is a cognitive practice of sustaining attention on the changing sensations of the breath, monitoring discursive events as they arise, disengaging from those events without affective reaction, and redirecting attention back to the breath. Slightly edited clips from the abstract:
The subjective experience of one's environment is constructed by interactions among sensory, cognitive, and affective processes. For centuries, meditation has been thought to influence such processes by enabling a nonevaluative representation of sensory events. To better understand how meditation influences the sensory experience, we used arterial spin labeling functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess the neural mechanisms by which mindfulness meditation influences pain in healthy human participants. After 4 d of mindfulness meditation training, meditating in the presence of noxious stimulation significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to rest... Meditation reduced pain-related activation of the contralateral primary somatosensory cortex [note: the noxious stimulus was a thermal stimulator placed on the rear right calf, and thus would be reported to the left (contralateral) somatosensory cortex]...Meditation-induced reductions in pain intensity ratings were associated with increased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula, areas involved in the cognitive regulation of nociceptive (pain) processing. Reductions in pain unpleasantness ratings were associated with orbitofrontal cortex activation, an area implicated in reframing the contextual evaluation of sensory events. Moreover, reductions in pain unpleasantness also were associated with thalamic deactivation, which may reflect a limbic gating mechanism involved in modifying interactions between afferent input and executive-order brain areas. Together, these data indicate that meditation engages multiple brain mechanisms that alter the construction of the subjectively available pain experience from afferent (incoming) information.