Mind over Matter

Versailles, the site of which the Treaty of Versailles was signed and which was home to arguably the most talked about French royal couple, King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, is a beautifully constructed piece of art located about an hour away outside the Paris city limits.Visiting this enchanting palace was essentially number one on my Parisian bucket list and I couldn’t possibly let this opportunity pass me by. However, little did I know what I was getting myself into. Yes, I heard that this palace covered over 2,000 acres including 230 acres of gardens. And yes, I was well aware of the fact that it is recommended to take 2 days to see Versailles in all of it’s glory. However, I did not imagine that we (Beatrice, Maria, and I) would literally walk through ALL 2,000 acres (OKAY! Maybe we just explored about 35 acres). Let me not give you the wrong impression though,Versailles is by far the grandest thing I’ve ever seen in my life and perhaps my favorite landmark in France I’ve visited since my stay here in this beautiful country! However, as the day progressed, my feet grew weary and if my limbs could talk, I’m sure they wouldn’t have had anything nice to say to me.

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From Cite Universitaire to Versailles

 

When we arrived to Versailles, Maria, Beatrice and I were so fascinated by the immense beauty of the castle that we immediately pulled out our phones to snag some photos. We hardly realized that the line was growing to get inside! Once our photo-op fix was satisfied, we joined the line and waited approximately 1½ hours to get in. Once we were in, we received our maps and set out on a mission, our goal was to see the palace, mainly the Hall of Mirrors (historically where the Treaty of Versailles was signed), Marie Antoinette’s estate, and virtually everything else in between. There was so much to see! I could not believe it. The palace was huge, and the gardens were vast!

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The chateau!

 

By the time we walked throughout the palace, my feet were tired and we still had to cross from one end of the garden to the next to see Marie Antoinette’s estate! In all we walked at least 5 miles by the time we got to the estate; by this time it was around 4pm (We entered around 11AM, I blame it on our multiple photo-ops…) and my legs were crying! Maria and Beatrice however encouraged me to engage in positive thoughts and that my pain was all in my head. The art of mindfulness which is bringing attention to the state of your present being and having a nonjudgmental attitude towards it, is something that I’ve started practicing at the start of this year to help me cope with the daily stresses of life. Once I regrouped, I became mindful of the present so that I could take in the pleasures of Versailles appropriately and Voila! my leg pain vanished and my mood and energy increased.

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From left to right: Me, Maria, Beatrice

 

Interestingly enough, a study done in 2011 looked at the effects of how practicing mindfulness attenuates pain. Gard et al. hypothesized that modulation through mindfulness involves decreased activity in the brain pre-frontal cortex (PFC), and increased activation in regions involved in sensory processing of pain, such as the posterior insula and the prefrontal cortex. To perform this study, the researchers recruited experts on the practice of mindfulness and individuals who had no experience with this sort of meditation. They placed an electrode in participants left arm. Two conditions were observed, a mindfulness condition and a baseline condition. During the mindfulness condition, participants were asked to bring their attention to the skin surface underneath the electrode on their forearm and to observe the sensations related to the stimuli, making sure to be mindful of the stimuli. During the baseline condition, participants were instructed to not engage in any form of meditation. Three transcutaneous stimuli were randomly delivered. At the end of each test, participants were asked to rate the intensity, unpleasantness, and anxiety of anticipation for the stimuli.

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Pain (a) intensity (b) unpleasantness (c) anticipatory anxiety ratings for mindfulness practitioners and control.

The researchers found that experts in mindfulness had statistically significant lower reported scores for unpleasantness when they implemented their mindfulness technique as opposed to when they did not implement their technique. For controls there was no significant difference in their self-reported unpleasantness scores for baseline and mindfulness. For pain intensity, there was no observable significant difference between controls and mindfulness practitioners. This suggests that for experts they are able to perceive their pain differently which becomes their reality.

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Activation of brain due to stimulation. A) Experts B) Control

 

The researchers also found increased posterior insula activity and decreased lPFC activity when participants (both experts and control) were administered the sensation and practiced mindfulness. They proposed that focusing attention on the sensory aspects of the stimulus is related to increased activation in the posterior insula, which is thought to be involved in  sensory processing. The second component of mindfulness, the nonjudgmental and accepting attitude, could be described as cognitive disengagement, and thus an absence of cognitive control, which is why there is a  decrease in the lPFC.

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Me, being mindful.

 

My ability to be mindful of my weary feet and to accept my circumstance for what it was, allowed my perception of my pain to diminish drastically! Who knew that this coping technique I have so recently learned could positively affect my body such a way? Because of this technique, I was able to enjoy all of Versailles and felt pretty accomplished in the end. Versailles was totally worth it!

 

References

Gard T, Holzel B, Sack A, Hempel H, Lazar S, Vaitl D, Ott U (2011) Pain Attenuation through Mindfulness is Associated with Decreased Cognitive Control and Increased Sensory Processing in the Brain. Cerebral Cortex 22(11): 2692-2702.

 

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