Meditation, Cortical Thickness, and Pain Sensitivity

There’s a small but growing body of research literature showing that meditation practice is associated with greater cortical thickness in the brain (i.e., Grant et al., 2010; Lazar et al., 2005; Pagnoni & Cekic, 2007). All three studies used MRI scans to examine brain structures. In Lazar et al. (2005), a group of Insight meditation practitioners, regions of the brain associated with attention and sensory processing exhibited an increased thickness compared to a control group matched for gender, age, race, and years of education. Interestingly, the average thickness in the prefrontal cortex in 40-50 year-old meditators was similar to the average thickness of 20-30 year-old meditators and controls. This suggests that practice may slow age-related degeneration of brain tissue. Pagnoni & Cekic found a similar pattern in Zen practitioners.

More recently, Grant et al. (2010) examined the relationship between cortical structures and pain sensitivity in meditators. The researcher first compiled a list of 68 meditators willing to participate. In order to have a more homogenous sample, they chose Zen practitioners, who both made up the largest tradition in the list and reported more than 1,000 hours of meditation experience. Of the 19 Zen practitioners, 17 participated; these were matched against 17 non-meditators for age and gender.

A computer controlled increase in temperature, which was designed to create a moderate level of pain, was applied to the inner left calf of each participant. Cortical size was measured using MRI scans.

Zen practitioner exhibited lower pain sensitivity than controls. On average, Zen practitioners required an increase to 50°C in order to report a moderate level of pain; controls required an average of 48°C. Lower pain sensitivity was also related to greater cortical thickness, particularly in the dorsal anterior cingulated cortex, right anterior insula, and bilateral hippocampal formation. Greater thickness in these areas was related to greater meditation experience. Because this was a cross-sectional study and not a true experiment, we can’t be certain that there is a causal relationships between meditation experience, cortical thickness, and pain sensitivity. Taken together, the authors suggest that long-term meditation practice may lead to changes in the brain structures, which in turn may lower sensitivity to physical pain. The full article can be read in the most recent edition of the scientific journal Emotion. Interview excerpts with the first author about this study can be found at Science Daily.

This article, along with more information, can be found at

The citations for the articles are:
Grant J.A., Courtemanche J., Duerden, E.G. Duncan G.H., & Rainville, P. (2010). Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in zen meditators. Emotion, 10(1), 43-53.

Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., et al. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport, 16(17), 1893-1997.

Pagnoni, G., & Cekic, M. (2007). Age effects on gray matter volume and attentional performance in Zen meditation. Neurobiology of Aging, 28(10), 1623-1627.

About EssentialYoga Studio

Roberta Dell'Anno E-RYT 500, Certified Yoga for Scoliosis Trainer Owner EssentialYoga Studio. Roberta has been practicing yoga since 1988 and teaching yoga since 2004. She has studied extensively under master yoga teachers Patricia Walden, Zoë Stewart, Sri Arun H.S., Elise Browning Miller, and others. She completed a two year Iyengar Yoga Teacher Training program with Sr. Iyengar Teacher, Peentz Dubble in June 2017. Roberta has studied yoga at the Ramamani Iyengar Yoga Memorial Institute in Pune, India during June 2011, February 2014, attended Abhijata's 2-week intensive in Pune, India, December 2016 and BKS Iyengar's Centenary 10-day intensive taught by Prashantji & Geetaji, December 2018. She completed training and certification with Elise Browning Miller as a 'Yoga for Scoliosis' instructor in 2014, completed a 500 hour Hatha Yoga Certification program with AURA Wellness Center in 2005 and is registered with Yoga Alliance as an E-RYT 500. She has been a Certified Meditation Teacher since June 2007 and an Usui Reiki Practitioner since 1989. The studio provides individual & specialized privates, semi-privates, group private sessions, and yoga workshops. Roberta conducts local and out of town workshops. She specializes in yoga for scoliosis and back care. She uses props to help students and teachers of all levels transform their backbends, twists, standing and seated postures, as well as inversions like sarvangasana (shoulderstand). She also works with individuals who have physical challenges, specifically individuals with Multiple Sclerosis, CMT, Parkinson's Disease, scoliosis, and amputees in private, semi-private and group sessions.​​​
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