MIT and Harvard neuroscientists explain why the practice helps tune out distractions and relieve pain.
(May 5, 2011) Studies have shown that meditating regularly can help relieve symptoms in people who suffer from chronic pain, but the neural mechanisms underlying the relief were unclear. Now, MIT and Harvard researchers have found a possible explanation for this phenomenon.
In a study published online April 21 in the journal Brain Research Bulletin, the researchers found that people trained to meditate over an eight-week period were better able to control a specific type of brain waves called alpha rhythms.
“These activity patterns are thought to minimize distractions, to diminish the likelihood stimuli will grab your attention,” says Christopher Moore, an MIT neuroscientist and senior author of the paper. “Our data indicate that meditation training makes you better at focusing, in part by allowing you to better regulate how things that arise will impact you.”
There are several different types of brain waves that help regulate the flow of information between brain cells, similar to the way that radio stations broadcast at specific frequencies. Alpha waves, the focus of this study, flow through cells in the brain’s cortex, where sensory information is processed. The alpha waves help suppress irrelevant or distracting sensory information.