Researchers at the University of Michigan have combined the ancient tradition of meditative breathing with modern technology, namely a virtual reality headset. The result, according to a new study from the team, is a reduction in pain perception, offering patients a way to reduce their use of painkillers. In contrast to meditative breathing on its own, however, the VR-based breathing method triggered pain relief in an entirely different way.
Mindfulness meditation and breathing have been studied extensively and linked with various benefits, including a reduction in pain. This new study differs by introducing a new method that combines the practice with virtual reality and a system that generates an immersive environment.
Users wear the VR headset and are guided through the breathing process while watching a virtual replica of their lungs, which inflate and deflate in sync with the participant. Both varieties of mindful breathing provided some pain relief, but different mechanisms were at play.
The pain relief effect is caused by modulating a part of the brain called the somatosensory cortex, which is where pain signals are processed. Mindful breathing on its own works by interoception, which involves focusing one’s attention inward, reducing the cortex’s ability to process pain.
The immersive audio and video-based breathing protocol, however, works by exteroception, where the auditory and visual brain regions are focused on the external simulations, reducing pain processing in the brain. The researchers note that the VR-based method may be easier and more approachable for beginners, whereas traditional mindful breathing requires a level of focus and attention that many may struggle with.