Congrats to Lisa May for receiving a Varela Award from the Mind & Life Institute! This award complements her Dissertation Research Award from the Greater Good Science Center to support her work on the neurobiological mechanisms of pain relief.
Lisa writes about the funded project:
The goal of this project is to explore how meditation and gratitude affect pain. Quite a few scientific studies have documented that people who have a regular habit of meditating often feel less pain or perceive pain differently than people who don’t meditate. And there are good reasons to think that gratitude might cause pain relief, too. People who live with chronic pain often report that cultivating gratitude helps them deal with pain. Also, feeling pleasure, feeling like you’ve received something of value, or feeling motivated can cause pain relief, and gratitude incorporates pleasure, perceived value, and motivation!
What’s less well understood is how meditation and gratitude cause pain relief. One possibility is that gratitude and or meditation cause the release of endogenous opioids in the brain, leading to pain relief in exactly the same way morphine does. Other mental processes such as beliefs and expectations can release endogenous opioids, so it’s plausible that meditation or gratitude might. This study will test this by giving people an opioid antagonist drug called Naloxone. If Naloxone makes people’s meditation or gratitude-induced pain relief go away, that will be evidence that meditation and/or gratitude cause pain relief by activating opioid receptors.