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Experientially opening oneself to pain rather than avoiding it is said to reduce the mind's tendency toward avoidance or anxiety which can further exacerbate the experience of pain. This is a central feature of mindfulness-based therapies. Little is known about the neural mechanisms of mindfulness on pain. During a meditation practice similar to mindfulness, functional magnetic resonance imaging was used in expert meditators (>10,000 h of practice) to dissociate neural activation patterns associated with pain, its anticipation, and habituation. Compared to novices, expert meditators reported equal pain intensity, but less unpleasantness. This difference was associated with enhanced activity in the dorsal anterior insula (aI), and the anterior mid-cingulate (aMCC) the so-called 'salience network', for experts during pain. This enhanced activity during pain was associated with reduced baseline activity before pain in these regions and the amygdala for experts only. The reduced baseline activation in left aI correlated with lifetime meditation experience. This pattern of low baseline activity coupled with high response in aIns and aMCC was associated with enhanced neural habituation in amygdala and pain-related regions before painful stimulation and in the pain-related regions during painful stimulation. These findings suggest that cultivating experiential openness down-regulates anticipatory representation of aversive events, and increases the recruitment of attentional resources during pain, which is associated with faster neural habituation.
The brain and the cardiovascular system influence each other during the processing of emotion. The study of the interactions of these systems during emotion regulation has been limited in human functional neuroimaging, despite its potential importance for physical health. We have previously reported that mental expertise in cultivation of compassion alters the activation of circuits linked with empathy and theory of mind in response to emotional stimuli. Guided by the finding that heart rate increases more during blocks of compassion meditation than neutral states, especially for experts, we examined the interaction between state (compassion vs. neutral) and group (novice, expert) on the relation between heart rate and BOLD signal during presentation of emotional sounds presented during each state. Our findings revealed that BOLD signal in the right middle insula showed a significant association with heart rate (HR) across state and group. This association was stronger in the left middle/posterior insula when experts were compared to novices. The positive coupling of HR and BOLD was higher within the compassion state than within the neutral state in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex for both groups, underlining the role of this region in the modulation of bodily arousal states. This state effect was stronger for experts than novices in somatosensory cortices and the right inferior parietal lobule (group by state interaction). These data confirm that compassion enhances the emotional and somatosensory brain representations of others' emotions, and that this effect is modulated by expertise. Future studies are needed to further investigate the impact of compassion training on these circuits.
Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience, which can be regulated by many different cognitive mechanisms. We compared the regulatory qualities of two different meditation practices during noxious thermal stimuli: Focused Attention, directed at a fixation cross away from the stimulation, which could regulate negative affect through a sensory gating mechanism; and Open Monitoring, which could regulate negative affect through a mechanism of non-judgmental, non-reactive awareness of sensory experience. Here we report behavioral data from a comparison between novice and long-term meditation practitioners (long-term meditators, LTMs) using these techniques. LTMs, compared to novices, had a significant reduction of self-reported unpleasantness, but not intensity, of painful stimuli, while practicing Open Monitoring. No significant effects were found for FA. This finding illuminates the possible regulatory mechanism of meditation-based clinical interventions such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Implications are discussed in the broader context of training-induced changes in trait emotion regulation.
An individual's affective style is influenced by many things, including the manner in which an individual responds to an emotional challenge. Emotional response is composed of a number of factors, two of which are the initial reactivity to an emotional stimulus and the subsequent recovery once the stimulus terminates or ceases to be relevant. However, most neuroimaging studies examining emotional processing in humans focus on the magnitude of initial reactivity to a stimulus rather than the prolonged response. In this study, we use functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the time course of amygdala activity in healthy adults in response to presentation of negative images. We split the amygdala time course into an initial reactivity period and a recovery period beginning after the offset of the stimulus. We find that initial reactivity in the amygdala does not predict trait measures of affective style. Conversely, amygdala recovery shows predictive power such that slower amygdala recovery from negative images predicts greater trait neuroticism, in addition to lower levels of likability of a set of social stimuli (neutral faces). These data underscore the importance of taking into account temporal dynamics when studying affective processing using neuroimaging.