Open any magazine and you’ll find that mindfulness has gone mainstream. You’ll also notice there are studies that purport to show meditation’s benefits on just about everything, from kids’ math scores and migraine length to HIV management and bouncing back after a crisis. Now, an elaborate new forthcoming study looks at how the brains of meditators respond to pain, to be published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
Dr. Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, has studied mindfulness for 15 years and has observed improved health outcomes as a result. “But what if this is all just a placebo?” he wondered. “What if people are reporting improvements in health and reductions in pain just because of meditation’s reputation as a health-promoting practice?” He wanted to find out, so he designed a trials that included a placebo group.
Zeidan recruited 75 healthy, pain-free people and scanned their brains using an MRI while they experienced painful heat with a 120-degree thermal probe. Then, the researchers sorted them into four groups and gave them four days of training. Everyone thought they were getting the real intervention, but most of them were getting a sham treatment.
“I want to be restrained about the efficacy of mindfulness, and the way to be restrained about it is by making it harder and harder to demonstrate its effectiveness,” Zeidan says.