Mindfulness and meditation have long been associated with positive health benefits. Now, a small new study suggests such benefits can emerge even after just a short period of meditation, - and even if you've never tried it before.
The study involved 17 people, so we can't make any sweeping generalisations from it, but the volunteer participants coped better with both physical pain and negative emotions when they applied techniques given to them in a short 20-minute mindfulness exercise beforehand.
None of the study participants had practiced meditation before, which isn't often the case with experiments like these. Hence, the results suggest that the brain can quickly get to grips with the state of mind brought on by meditation.
"The findings support the idea that momentary mindful-acceptance regulates emotional intensity by changing initial appraisals of the affective significance of stimuli, which has consequences for clinical treatment of pain and emotion," write the researchers in their published paper.
In the study, the volunteers were put through two sets of tests: one where something warm or hot was put on their forearm, and one where they were shown negative or neutral images. A negative image might be something like a mutilated body, for example, while a neutral image could be something like a chair.
During these tests, half the time the participants were told to act naturally, and half the time they were told to try and apply the ideas from the mindfulness crash course they had been given; when applying mindfulness, the participants reported less pain and fewer negative emotions.
While this was happening, the researchers were also using fMRI scans to see how the brains of the people being tested were reacting. This revealed something interesting: a significant drop in brain activity associated with pain and negative emotions when volunteers were trying to be mindful.
In the case of the physical experiment, when the highest temperatures were used, it was "as if the brain was responding to warm temperature, not very high heat", says neuroscientist Hedy Kober from Yale University.
What's more, these neurological shifts weren't happening in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the bit where conscious and rational decision-making is processed – that suggests that deploying some mindfulness techniques can alter our brains on a subconscious level, without any deliberate effort in willpower.
Previous studies have demonstrated how lower brain activity and meditation practices can boost our health in numerous ways, but what this study shows – limited in scope as it is – is that the benefits can be relatively quick.
That in turn could give doctors new ways to try and treat physical and mental issues, though more research is going to be needed to see how these ideas play out in a bigger, more diverse group of people.
"The ability to stay in the moment when experiencing pain or negative emotions suggests there may be clinical benefits to mindfulness practice in chronic conditions as well – even without long meditation practice," says Kober.
The research has been published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.