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Buddhadharma : Fall 2010
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly fall 2 0 10 38 Creswell has some indirect evidence for this from a brain imaging study he conducted to test how mindfulness affects emotional pain. Creswell used a metric called the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. It measures how pre- disposed a person is to focus on the present, based on answers to a series of questions such as, “I find myself listening to someone with one ear, doing something else at the same time.” Volunteers who were measured on this scale then had their brains scanned as they played a computer game designed to be emotionally distressing. Those more predisposed to be mindful rated the experience as less upsetting. Furthermore, the brain scans showed they had less activity in a subregion of the cingulate associated with suffering. This is likely the target area where mindfulness has its impact on the second arrow, the aversive reaction to physical pain. Creswell is currently involved in a study to look at pre- cisely this by testing people’s reactivity to physical pain before and after they complete an MBSR program. It might seem like bare attention is too passive to affect our emotional reactions, but the brain is very active when we’re paying attention. “Just by simply observing and noticing how you’re responding, you are actually enlisting resources to regulate that response,” Creswell says. Creswell attended a December 2008 meeting in Toronto that brought together about thirty-five clinicians and neuroscientists to discuss future directions for mindfulness research. Among those in attendance was Har- vard Medical School neuroscience researcher Catherine Kerr. While Cre- swell sees mindfulness as protective against the second arrow of emotional suffering, Kerr thinks that mindful awareness of the body may have some impact on the first arrow, the pain sensations themselves. She’s done a pilot study that takes brain images of subjects as they mindfully shift awareness from one part of the body to another. One of the techniques taught in an MBSR program is the body scan method. This practice involves progressively bringing attention to the individual parts of the body, from head to toe. “When you’re doing the body scan you focus on the toes and then you release the toes and you focus on the ankle or the bottom of the foot and you release it, and so on,” Kerr says. “The critical thing there is that you’re taking up the body part and then you learn to let it go. What you’re learning to do is to focus, maybe amplify the body part, but you also learn to inhibit it. The inhibition might be just as important as the amplification, especially for people with different types of chronic pain.” Depending on our attitude and expectations, we can filter out pain before it reaches our consciousness. When we pay fearful attention to pain, however, we feel it more intensely. ➤ JuliefRaSieRHugHo’neill Participants in the Mindful Way Stress Reduction program at Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Desert, California