Zen meditators are thought to be less sensitive to pain than the average person. A study at the University of Montreal seems to bear this out and also suggests that the lower sensitivity comes from a thickening of parts of the brain.
The study was of 17 Zen meditators and 18 non−meditators. A heated plate was placed against each subject's calf and the temperature required to produce moderate pain was determined. In addition, a structural MRI was taken of each subject's brain.
The MRIs showed thicker gray matter in several areas of the meditators' brains that are known to regulate pain and emotion, particularly the anterior cingulate region of the cortex.
The study found the meditators to have significantly higher pain tolerance than non−meditators. The MRIs showed thicker gray matter in several areas of the meditators' brains that are known to regulate pain and emotion, particularly the anterior cingulate region of the cortex. Even in the non−meditators, thicker gray matter in these regions meant lower pain sensitivity. And for the meditators, the more years of meditation experience they had, the thicker their cortices were.
Zen is thought to have arisen as a reaction against the teaching of Buddhism "by the book." It has a rich and colorful history filled with seemingly puzzling sayings and commentaries. Familiarity with these isn't necessary to learn how to meditate. You can enjoy the benefits of meditation without having a clue about the meaning of the sound of one hand clapping.
The researchers think that the somewhat painful posture used in Zen meditation may be part of why meditation improves the ability to cope with pain. While its most obvious use would be in pain management, the study also opens up the possibility that meditation could be helpful in preventing the shrinking of gray matter that normally comes with aging or even for improving brain function after a debilitating event like a stroke.
There's no mention of how the Zen meditators view the study and its results. Zen has a different view of mind, life and the universe than science does. One can only speculate on how the study translates into Zen.
An article detailing the study was published in the February 2010 issue of the journal, Emotion.