Zen & Pain

Have you ever watched the movie Johnny English Reborn where Agent English (played by Rowan Atkinson or more popularly known as Mr. Bean) trained in a Tibetan monk monastery? There he learned the technique Balls of Steel. Quite simply, it turns your balls into steel! That is, hitting him in the balls won’t affect him as much. He did this by attaching a rock to his balls and dragged it  with him (ouch!) He also trained to become a fire walker!

But in reality, is there really balls of steel? What is it about meditators that makes them withstand much pain? Researchers from the University of Montreal had similar questions in mind. Grant, Courtmanche, Duerden, Duncan, and Rainville (2010) investigated structural MRI scans of non zen meditators (control) and zen meditators. The structural MRI scans were performed and the temperature required to produce moderate pain was assessed in 17 meditators and 18 controls and found out that indeed, zen meditation is significantly associated with low sensitivity on both the affective and the sensory dimensions of pain. They specifically observed that there is thicker cortices among zen meditators related to pain such as the  anterior cingulate cortex, bilateral parahippocampal gyrus and anterior insula. They found out, too, that thickening depends on the year of training of zen, and that the longer they train, the thicker these brain regions become. Moreover, hours of experience predicted more gray matter bilaterally in the lower leg area of the primary somatosensory cortex as well as the hand area in the right hemisphere.

Brain regions associated with pain

Ohm....          Such findings reveal that there is a connection between cortical thickness and pain sensitivity, something we know little about today. It also highlights experience-related plasticity of the brain.  Training such as zen meditation apparently affects brain morphometry and will thus have various impacts in the way we perceive the world. A take home point here I guess is that we are never too old to learn something new and that will change our brain. Our brain is truly a wonderful structure holds many mysteries just waiting for us psychologists and neuroscientists to unlock 🙂


Grant, J., Courtmanche, J., Duerden, E., Duncan, G., & Rainville, P. (2010). Cortical thickness and pain sensitivity in zen meditators. Emotion10(1), 43-53.


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