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He’s not ‘the dog’, he’s family

2014 April 16
by David R. Hamilton PhD

Oscar putting his paw on my legOscar is a Labrador. He came into our lives when he was just an 8-week-old puppy, although Elizabeth and I had visited him regularly since he was 2 weeks old. We instantly fell in love with him and made the 400-mile round-trip drive to visit him almost every week until we were able to bring him home. He is now 19 months old.

Prior to Oscar, I had often heard people refer to a dog as ‘the dog’. I can’t think of Oscar as ‘the dog’. He’s family.

I’ve had this conversation with the parents of some of Oscar’s friends. They’re very much the same. I think it has to do with the depth of bonds we form with animals. I know other people have the same kinds of bonds with cats, horses, and other animals.

Oscar has completely changed my life. We’ve formed a bond of the kind that I never knew existed, only because it’s not something I’ve had the experience of before.

He loves to play. I play with him every day – a lot – and I laugh out loud at his puppy antics. Someone told me that Labradors are still very much puppies until they are 3 years old. I wonder if that also means he will still steal clothes from the clothes horse, logs from the side of the fireplace, and tissues out of the bin, until he’s 3 as well.

He’s also very affectionate. He likes to come up to us and have his head, face, or neck rubbed, and then usually moves into a tummy-tickle position. When we stop, he looks up as if to say, ‘Hey, why are you stopping’. He also has a bit of a habit of sticking his wet nose in my eye socket. I think it’s just one of the ways he shows affection.

He gets nervous from time to time and I feel such empathy for him. Prior to Oscar I never really thought of animals having personalities. I knew they did, and I’d heard people talk about animals in that way, but it’s one of those things you don’t ever think about until you’re in the situation yourself. Oscar’s personality makes him all the more human to me.

I was quite a nervous child. I got nervous going new places, mostly in case I couldn’t get home again. I was also terrified of lifts. I had claustrophobia. I was 18 years old before I got over that fear.

Oscar gets nervous going into new places too. I feel I can relate to him. He also won’t go up a flight of stairs indoors. I think it’s the fear of not being able to get back down, even though he loves running up and down stairs outside. We first saw these kinds of fears when he was a young puppy. When we got him ready for his first walk, it took us about 15 minutes to coax him out of the house with lots of tasty treats because he was so afraid to cross the threshold of the front door and go down the single step to the front path.

He’s still like that now, not with our front door, but at other peoples’ houses. He hesitates and crouches low going over the threshold of houses he’s not been in yet. It took him three attempts on three different days to go into my mum and dad’s house for the first time.

My mum cuts my hair for me. She’s done it since I was a child. One day we brought Oscar to Mum and Dads’ and he wouldn’t enter the house. Elizabeth had to play with him in the back garden while my Mum cut my hair in the kitchen. It just shows part of his personally to us. As humans, we all have our ‘things’ – the fears, and loves, that make us who we are. I can empathise with Oscar, and that, I suppose, makes the connection stronger.

One of the things that causes me to smile every day is when he decides it’s play time. He looks to me as his playmate. I wanted to be the pack leader but I guess dogs choose for themselves who is assigned to which role. He does follow me around though, everywhere. Whenever I get up and move to another room, he gets up and follows me.

He frequently brings a ball or other toy to me. He stares right at me with the item in his mouth and does a little upwards nod as if to say, ‘OK Dad. Come get the ball’. If I don’t look at him, I hear a thud as he drops the toy. It’s like he knows the sound will get my attention. Sometimes, when I’m working on my laptop in the lounge, he jumps up on the sofa and profusely licks my face. Even when I have been busy writing, I can only laugh.

For the whole time Oscar has been with us, I’ve been writing a book about self-love (it’s almost finished now). I sometimes wonder if he was always supposed to come into my life at this time as I’ve grown so much as a person in that arena and a lot of that has been due to Oscar. I feel I’ve learned much more about myself, I’ve gained confidence, which is an important part of self-love, and I’ve stretched myself in new ways.

It’s all these things and many, many more that generate a bond of the kind that I hadn’t imaged before Oscar arrived in our lives. I suspect that, if you have a dog or other animal in your life, that you will be able to relate to this.

I just couldn’t refer to Oscar as ‘the dog’. It feels disrespectful, like he’s second rate or something. He’s family.

Wired for Kindness

2014 April 3

hand holding dnaI was having a conversation recently with someone in business who told me he heard that humans are naturally selfish. He asked my opinion on the subject. I disagreed and explained why I believe we are, in fact, genetically wired to be kind.

Genetic wiring (our genome) is shaped over millions of years as humans adapt to the environment. To use a rather black and white (or pink and blue) example, say a tribe of our ancient ancestors a few million years ago had a pink gene and another tribe had a blue gene. Let’s say the pink gene is associated with kindness and say the blue gene is very much a ‘me first’ gene.

The tribe with the pink gene will help each other out in difficult times, allowing strong bonds to form. With less helping and more self-serving, the bonds in the blue tribe are much weaker.

Through millions of years of evolution, tribes with the strongest bonds thrive because when there’s danger, they work together, when there’s hunger, they share. Bonds are forged as we pool together. It’s the same today. Friendships last the test of time when they’re built around kindness, caring, compassion, laughter, and forgiveness.

When bonds are weak, relationships fracture when pressed or stressed. Without the strength of the group, individuals in the blue tribe are less likely to survive difficult times. The tribe, on the whole, is less likely to thrive.

As the blue tribe gradually dies out over time, the blue gene is more or less lost from the gene pool. The pink gene, on the other hand, finds its way into most of the human species because it’s a gene that helps us to thrive.

In this way, nature has ‘selected’ the pink gene as being the gene most suited to the environment. This is ‘Natural Selection’.

So it’s true to say that we are indeed born to be kind. Of course, we have a survival instinct, and we can be selfish when we need to be, but outside of immediate survival needs, our dominant nature is to be kind. It’s in our genes.

There’s strong modern day evidence that we have kindness genes. Scientists studying different variants (shades) of the oxytocin receptor gene (a good candidate for a pink gene) found that our natural tendency to be kind was related to which variant of the gene we have.

The same gene can come in several variants, or shades as I like to think of them. It fits nicely with my use of color to describe genes. You might enjoy my blog ‘Fifty Shades of Pink’, which discusses the subject. If kindness was not in our genes, there would be no connection between a gene variant (a shade of pink) and our tendency for kindness.

Another piece of evidence is that the vagus nerve is strongly correlated with compassion. People with highest vagal tone (a term a bit like muscle tone, used to imply a healthy vagus nerve) tend to be most compassionate, again a demonstration of the links between genetics and kindness.

Of course, as we all know, nothing is all in the genes. There’s always interplay between nature and nurture, that is, genetics and our experiences in life. The natural tendency to be kind can be developed and it can also be suppressed. People can learn to be selfish. Through nature and nurture, we have quite a variety of behaviors in our world, but left alone, we are born to be kind. Our nature is to care.

I’d say that the classical business model got it wrong when they promoted the idea that we’re naturally selfish and it’s all about survival of the fittest. The idea that selfishness is our nature and it’s all about competition paved the way for all sorts of unethical, profit-at-all-costs behaviors.

Evolution was misunderstood. The fittest is not the strongest or the fastest, it’s the kindest – he or she with the greatest capacity to form strong bonds.

Many have said that kindness and compassion are signs of weakness. I’d say they’re signs of strength … and intelligence, especially if we want to thrive in life.

 

RESOURCES

For references to individual pieces of research, see

David R Hamilton PhD, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You

Dacher Keltner, ‘Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life‘.

Is it the thing, or your belief in the thing?

2014 March 26
by David R. Hamilton PhD

happy face placeboWhat would happen if you were to eat something unhealthy but believe it was good for you … or something healthy but believe it was bad for you? It seems that what we believe matters more than we think.

Take the large US study that examined the connection between stress and health, for instance. Over the measured time period, there were more deaths among those who were listed as ‘high stress’ than in those listed as ‘low stress’. Fair enough. I think most people would get onboard with that.

But hidden among the numbers lay a surprising and startling statistic. The scientists had taken a note of people’s beliefs about stress as well as how stressed they tended to get. They asked them whether they believed that stress is bad for them or not.

It turned out that what they believed made all the difference. The death rate in the low stress group among those who believed stress was bad for them was actually higher than the death rate in the high stress group among the people who didn’t believe stress was bad for them – a seeming reversal of the whole stress-health thing.

In other words, it’s not the stress so much, but what we believe about the stress that seems to matter even more.

I think that’s really quite astonishing! In fact, even more so: When playing around with the numbers from the study, the scientists concluded that 182,000 people had died in the 8 years of the study from the belief that stress is bad for them. According to Dr Kelly McGonigal, who gave an inspiring TED talk on the subject, that means the 15th leading cause of death in the US in the year the study was conducted was actually the belief that stress is bad for you. Wow! A belief in the top 20 leading causes of death! That’s got to be some kind of a record.

I wonder, with many of the stress-health studies that have shown how stress is bad for us, if there was a strong nocebo effect going on – that’s the opposite of a placebo effect. Where a placebo makes people better, the nocebo effect makes people worse if they believe something is harmful for them. Believing stress is bad for you can act like a nocebo effect when you’re under stress, making the effect of the stress even worse.

What do we do with this kind of knowledge? Do we not bother about practicing stress management techniques? Do we dive into any stressful situation without a care in the world? Do we allow ourselves to get stressed and just say, ‘I’ll be OK’?

I’d caution against just allowing ourselves to get stressed. There is a difference between a thought and a belief. I don’t think getting stressed and saying, ‘I’ll be OK’ will cut it. Chances are you’re saying one thing but believing another.

At risk of swaying your beliefs, if we were to take the mind out of the equation, prolonged and consistent stress is harmful to health, and I think most people believe that. The study is powerful because it shows how the mind can sway the effects. There’s implications for all sorts of things, including self-healing, which I’ve written about in some of my books.

I think a healthier approach would be to moderate our stress levels but also remind ourselves, when we do get stressed, that occasional stress won’t do us any harm. It takes the pressure off.

I wonder how much our beliefs apply to the foods we eat. I started to eat a healthier diet around 12 years ago. Prior to this, I can honestly say that, despite being well educated (degree and PhD) and an amateur athlete at the time, I had almost no nutritional knowledge.

After attending an inspiring talk on nutrition, I made some dramatic changes to my diet. The modifications I made gave me more energy, especially in the afternoon, and a much clearer mind, which is very useful if you’re a writer. I also lost 18 pounds in weight in 7 weeks.

But once I was a healthier eater, I remember being worried about eating anything deemed unhealthy. I went through a phase of unintentionally (and frustratingly) imagining fat going onto my stomach any time I ate some bread, chips or chocolate. My first thought was, ‘This is bad’. But was it as bad as that or was it my belief that was ‘bad’?

My mind obsessed when I ate any of the things I used to eat. In some of my books and workshops I teach how visualization can be used a positive tool to heal the body. I was using it in the opposite way.

Before I became knowledgeable, I didn’t really think of my previous diet as bad for me. In fact, I actually believed that the things I was eating were good for me. I believed they gave me strength and energy. Now I was thinking of those kinds of foods as energy sapping, acid-forming, sugar-laden crap. Were they really all those things?

In the news, we’ve recently learned that butter isn’t the enemy after all. In fact, it’s quite good for us. But I wonder how many people experienced negative effects of butter in their diet because they believed it was bad for them.

How much do our beliefs about foods affect how the foods affect us? If we were to take the mind out of the food equation, chemistry still plays out. I’m a trained chemist. Chemistry happens by itself in test tubes. The thing is, if you put human consciousness in a test tube, it will modify the chemistry to an extent. That’s what the placebo (and nocebo) effect tells us. Some foods enhance our health in the long-term and some are, well, not so good in the long-term, but our beliefs will sway the effect either way.

In a mirror of the stress study, I suspect that eating a healthy diet but believing even the smallest slip-up is bad will have some negative consequences and eating an unhealthy diet but believing it is good for you will have some positive consequences. The question is how much of an effect the mind exerts.

To be honest, I’m not sure how much. Over the years I’ve cultivated what I think is a healthy approach. At least it brings me some peace of mind. I go for a healthy, balanced diet, rich in fruits, greens, and salads, and I eat mostly natural, unprocessed, things. But I also have a belief that occasional ‘treats’ won’t do me any harm. I believe this is a good approach. I know it’s just my belief, but I’m OK with it for now.

So long as I believe in it, I guess it’s doing me some good. :-)

Why Children Need Love to Grow

2014 March 14
by David R. Hamilton PhD

Little girl smilingIt’s pretty obvious that babies need love, but did you know that their actual physical and biological growth requires love?

Research shows that the early growth of at least one part of the brain (the orbitofrontal cortex – behind the orbits of the eyes) is almost wholly dependent upon the environment an infant is born into? The first 24 months is crucial in that it is during this time the building and shaping of this part of the brain sets the child up for life.

If an infant is born into an environment lacking in love, emotional warmth, and responsiveness, the growth of its brain is hugely affected.

But if an environment changes, the brain changes too. Research for the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) has tracked the growth and development of children adopted internationally or fostered from Romanian Orphanages and indeed shown that if a child in such an institution is adopted or fostered within its first 2 years of life, growth and development return to normal. In fact, one of the most encouraging pieces of research related to the project contains, in the title, ‘… Evidence for Massive Catch-up Following International Adoption’.

If the child is left too much longer, hope is not lost but it does take a more skilled set of adoptive or foster parents to help the child emotionally adjust to life.

The problem with the orphanages was that infants weren’t getting the emotional warmth or physical contact that they need. But the research teaches us an important lesson for society in general. All babies, infants, and children fundamentally need love!

A lack of love, emotional warmth and physical contact basically slows down the growth mechanisms in the brain and body. For instance, human growth hormone is produced in smaller amounts when there’s not enough love around.

It’s like the genetics of the children quickly adapt to their environment. If there is insufficient emotional richness and stimulus to grow into, the body sees no need to waste energy in growing into such an environment, and so the growth genes shut down.

And it’s not just growth genes that respond to the environment. The ‘love hormone’ or ‘hugging hormone’, oxytocin, plays a crucial role too. Oxytocin contributes to the growth of many of the body’s cells.

Research in 2010 found that when there’s insufficient oxytocin present, which an infant gets from emotional warmth and warm physical contact, the rate of growth of heart muscle cells is significantly reduced. Evidence seems to suggest that oxytocin makes a similar key contribution to the early growth of numerous cell types in the body.

Such is the stunting of growth, in fact, when a child is deprived of love that UNICEF even use a statistic from the BEIP, that “For every 3 months a child spends in an institution, it loses a full month of growth.”

Of course, having a smaller child than average in society does not mean that the child is not being loved. All children have a different genetic potential based on the genes they inherit from their parents. My mum’s brothers are all over 6-feet tall, and my Dad is around that size too. It’s not too surprising, then, that I’m also a shade over 6 feet tall. But if I had grown up in an institution where I did not receive enough love and attention, I might have been 5 or 6 inches shorter and have much lower body weight. We’re talking about the reaction of a child’s growth genes to its environment. Children deprived of love often don’t grow to their full genetic potential.

And it’s not just humans that experience these effects. Evolution has ensured that nurturing care and attention are crucial for the survival and thriving of most warm-blooded species. In a study in the late 90s, scientists observed that the growth genes in rat pups shut down when the pups were removed from their mother, and switched right back on again when the mother returned, like the pup’s genes were simply responding to their mothers’ presence.

So what do we do with all this understanding? Importantly, I think teenagers could be educated in parenting while at school, and taught about the importance of love and care for the growth of children. It can be taught as a science, giving them even a basic understanding of how the brain grows and how growth responds to the environment. That would help.

But there is still the big problem of children all around the world living in institutions or without available caregivers.

I find myself reflecting on the unimaginably huge amount of cash injected into propping up the banking system, and to stabilise failing economies, and I can’t help but feel we’re not giving the same importance in society to the upbringing and wellbeing of children, who are, quite frankly, our future.

A fraction of this money could make an astronomical difference to the care and wellbeing of children around the world. According to UNICEF, there are over 100 million children around the world living without available caregivers. That is absolutely astonishing! This is 2014! That is 100 million too many!

What can we do as individuals? Start by telling people about this. Share this information with them. Most people are stunned when I share it. When knowledge gets to people who are in a position to make a lot of changes, things can get done. We can also lobby our politicians.

And at risk of sounding soft or idealistic, I think we each have to individually try to spread more love in the world. It sounds a bit corny, we’ve all heard it before, but why not? We’re living in a socially connected world. Ideas and behaviours ripple out like stones dropped in water. Each of us can make a difference.

Lots of small acts can shift mountains!

 

References

All research quoted in this blog is taken from David R Hamilton PhD, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ (Hay House, 2010). Click here to view

Click here to view some information on the Bucharest Early Intervention Project. The link takes you to a downloadable PDF from UNICEF.

5 More Things I’ve learned from my Dog

2014 February 27
by David R. Hamilton PhD

Oscar 18 months oldOscar is 18 months old today. We’ve had him since he was 8 weeks old and he’s completely changed our lives. Dogs have a habit of doing that. I have learned so much from him in just that short time, some of which I’ve written about in previous blogs. I feel like I’m always learning so here are some of my most recent insights:

1) I can be a child any time I want

Oscar & I walked by the river this morning, close to where we live. The level was higher on account of recent rain, such that the path we often take along the river was flooded. So we had to climb up a steep bank and through some trees to get to a field.

As I clambered up the bank, getting filthy from the mud, holding onto tree branches to pull myself up, a loud ‘Yippeeeee’ burst out of me. I felt like a child again. I used to have adventures like that all the time as a child. I could have stayed there all morning. What’s the rush, I thought? I then actually went back down a bit and chose the steepest part of the bank, just so that I’d need to climb a tree to get back up again. It was so much fun.

I was reminded that we can play like children any time we want. We just need to find a tree, or a ball, or a skipping rope or hula hoop. As adults, we have this idea that we have to always behave like adults. Who said we need to? I think it would do us all some good if we let our inner child have a play from time to time.

It set my up for the day. I am feeling great right now as I type this. :-)

2) It’s important to listen to my body

If Oscar goes on a long walk or has a lot of play time with his friends, he comes in and slumps on the floor and sleeps. He just knows what his body needs and acts on it.

Even when I feel really tired, I have had a habit of continuing to work because I have things I need to finish. But what I’m doing is putting my work before my health instead of the other way around. If we don’t have our health then we can’t work. It’s as simple as that.

Oscar reminds me to listen to my body more. If I feel tired I can sleep, hungry I can eat, light-hearted I can play. If I don’t feel hungry, I don’t need to eat (that’s never the case with Oscar). It doesn’t mean we have to just down tools every time we’re tired, but it wouldn’t do us any harm just to pay a little more attention to the needs of our bodies.

3) It’s important to take regular breaks (and make them fun if I can)

Oscar broke my laptop screen a few weeks ago. The Apple Store repaired it for me for free (Go Genius Bar!) so no harm done. If he’s been sleeping and then wakes up, and I happen to be using my laptop on the sofa (we have a lovely log fire so I prefer the living room to the office during the winter), he jumps up on the sofa and pushes my laptop out of the way, while his tail ferociously slaps me on the side of the head as he wags it with excitement. I think it’s his way of saying “You can’t choose that silvery thing over me.

I always end up bursting out laughing as I stretch my laptop out with my hand so it doesn’t drop on the floor (failed that one time), while he then licks my face as I laugh.

It’s funny, but when Oscar wants to play, even if I’ve been feeling under pressure with my workload, the stress disappears in an instant. I stop what I’m doing and we play with his ball, ring, or one of his other toys; or we just have a play-wrestle.

It reminds me that we have a capacity to make ourselves smile at any time. We just don’t recognize how important it is or we’d do it a lot more.

4) Walking is very good exercise

Before we got Oscar, 16 months ago, I used to go to the gym 3 or 4 times a week and jog at least once a week. I convinced myself that it was the only way to stay fit. Now I don’t go to the gym nearly so much, yet I’m about 8 pounds lighter.

I hadn’t thought about it until I worked it out, but I walk around 20 miles a week on average. And it’s the consistency that matters. Many people like to walk but are not consistent enough to feel the real benefits. I’ve been like that in the past, full of good intentions but only keeping up the practice sporadically.

Having Oscar forces me to be consistent … like every day. The result has been weight loss and a healthier cardiovascular system to boot.

And another thing: I thought that by not running as much I’d have lost fitness. That was until I took part in a charity 5k and ran it in not much over 20 minutes, having not been out for a jog in several months. Walking consistently really is great exercise.

5) Love needs to be unconditional

I think we’ve all heard it somewhere. We’ve read it, heard it at a talk, or maybe we’ve seen it in a quote, or even one of our friends proclaimed it in a conversation. But have you ever really thought about what it means? Or witnessed it in action?

I’m not so sure I’d ever really thought about it until Oscar arrived. Dogs have this knack of showing you unconditional love – love without anything attached to it … not “I’ll love you if you take me for a walk” or “I love you because you feed me” or “I’ll stop loving you if you do that.” It’s just, well, “I love you” … and that’s it. There’s nothing attached. It’s just pure, simple, complete love. And it feels fantastic. It really gets you thinking.

There’s a sense of freedom in it that makes me love him even more. I don’t have to love him back, which allows the natural bond to form unimpeded with conditions. That’s the thing with unconditional love. When there’s nothing riding on it, the love is unimpeded and is super strong.

 

Here are some of my previous blogs about my experiences with Oscar:

4 Reasons Why Dogs are Good for Your Health

5 Lessons I Learned from my Dog

How My Dog Being Attacked Reminded me to Live in the Moment

How Dogs are Good for Your heart

A Lucky Escape – Premonition, Guidance, or Both?

An Intuitive Search for my Lost Dog

The Amazing Power of the Placebo

2014 February 18
by David R. Hamilton PhD

placebo pills(Repost)

Nearly everyone has experienced a placebo effect!

The fact that you take a medicine tells me that on some level you must believe in it or expect it to work, or you believe in the doctor who prescribed it, or even in the improvement you’ve heard about in other people.

This belief, or expectation, activates the placebo effect. Of course, the drug works too but your mind can enhance it….. or suppress it.

The same placebo can do opposite things, for instance, depending on what the person believes it is for. If patients are given a placebo and told it will relax their muscles then it will, but the same placebo can cause muscular tension if the person believes that’s what it does. Similarly, believing that it is a stimulant will increase heart rate and blood pressure, but thinking that it is a depressant gives it the opposite effect – reducing heart rate and blood pressure.

Some people who are given alcohol placebos, thinking they are drinking real alcoholic beverages, even get drunk.

And placebos can enhance athletic performance. In a 2007 study, non-professional athletes had been given morphine during a pre-competition training phase. On the day of a competition the morphine was secretly swapped for a placebo but the athletes still experienced an increase in pain endurance and physical performance that would be expected from taking morphine.

I wonder if they would have been banned from competition if they’d been caught taking performance enhancing placebos (PEP). As an ex-athletics coach myself, all athletes really need is a PEP talk! :-)

In another study, 40 asthmatics were given an inhaler containing a placebo that was just water vapour, but they were told that it contained allergens that would restrict their airways. Nineteen of them went on to suffer considerable constriction of their airways. Twelve of them actually experienced a full-blown asthma attack. When they were given a different inhaler and told it would relieve their symptoms, it did, even though it was also a placebo. One person in the study developed symptoms of hay fever too after being told that the inhaler also contained pollen.

Colour can matter with placebos, because of what the colour represents to us. A University of Cincinnati study tested both blue and pink stimulants and sedatives on students, although unbeknownst to the students the stimulants and sedatives were placebos.

But the blue placebo sedatives were 66% effective, compared with 26% for the pink ones. Blue placebos were around 2.5 times more effective for relaxation that pink ones. This is because blue is generally considered to be a calming colour.

Where you live also affects the power of placebos. In a US study of migraine treatments, placebo injections were 1.5 times more powerful than placebo pills. But a European trial found that placebo pills were about 10% better than placebo injections. The reason for the difference? It’s in our cultural language. US patients tend to speak of ‘getting a shot’ so they believe in it more, but Europeans talk of ‘popping pills’, or at least they do in the UK.

On a kind of similar note, in trials of Tagamet, the anti-ulcer drug that was popular in the 80s, the placebo was 59% effective in France but the drug itself was 60% effective in Brazil – a difference of 1%. The placebo in one country was as good as the drug in another!

Studies like these strongly hint that we have far more ability to affect our health through our thinking than we might have believed in the past.

How a placebo is packaged and sold also makes a difference to its power. In a UK study, 835 women were given one of four different pills for headaches. One group received a well-known branded aspirin tablet. A second group received a simple tablet labelled ‘analgesic’, which was typical of a cheaper mass-market brand. A third group received a branded placebo, while the last group received a basic ‘mass-market’ placebo labelled ‘analgesic’.

It turned out that the branded aspirin worked better than the unbranded one, but amazingly the branded placebo worked better than the unbranded placebo – even though they were both made of sugar.

The placebo effect might even lift the power of Viagra beyond its basic pharmacological effect, at least according to psychiatrist Aaron K. Vallance, who suggested in a 2006 paper that the medicine might be enhanced because the name ‘Viagra’ is similar-sounding to the words, ‘vigour’ and ‘Niagara’. This might create a perception of vigorousness and power. I wonder if it would work so well if it was called ‘Flopsy’! :-)

Of course, the drug works extremely well. Drugs are built to carry out biological functions in the body. I know this for a fact. My PhD was in building molecules, or organic chemistry as it’s officially known, and I spent 4 years in cardiovascular and cancer drug development in the pharmaceutical industry. But there is no question that the mind impacts the body. Imagining something, for instance, can even physically impact brain structure.

The challenge is in tapping into this latent power within us. Doctors can help or hinder, even when they don’t know they are doing it.

We know this because some of the variation in placebo effects simply comes down to the communication between medical staff and patient. For relatively common ailments at least, a doctor or physician who shows confidence or optimism about the patient’s recovery is much more likely to see the patient recovering than one who is unsure or pessimistic.

What is said and, importantly, how it is said can make a big bit of difference. But ultimately, it’s what then goes on in the patient’s mind that leads to the health-giving effects.

I personally believe that we have far more ability to affect our health and, dare I say, to heal ourselves, than we have ever thought possible. The question is how to tap into this ability.

I believe we can make a start by doing something active with our minds and believing in it. This is why I explain the science of how the mind impacts in the body in my talks and books - so that people can understand how their thinking affects their health. That way, when they apply visualization strategies, they tend to believe in themselves, and in so doing they are tapping into this ability.

Of course, this is not to be done instead of medical advice, but in addition to it. That is just being intelligent. We might as well get the best of everything.

And that includes the best use of the mind too!!

 

Further Reading

David R Hamilton PhD, How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body - For examples and explanation of the placebo effect, other mind-body phenomena, and various visualization strategies for different ailments. UK paperbackUS paperback,  UK Kindle,  US Kindle

Daniel Moerman, Meaning, Medicine, and the Placebo Effect - for heaps of research on the placebo effect. UK paperbackUS paperback

 

How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body – UK & Ireland Speaking Tour

In these workshops, I’ll share all the ways that the mind impacts the body, from the placebo effect, to how meditation impacts the brain, to how attitude affects the heart and ageing, even to how visualisation can physically impact brain structure. You’ll also learn how people around the world have used mind-body interventions (visualisation strategies) to help facilitate recovery from illness and disease, learn the principles involved, and learn and practice a few visualisation techniques.

Dates:

GLASGOW – 22nd March 2014

LONDON – 29th March

NORWICH – 5th April

KINROSS – 6th April

DUBLIN – 12th April

MANCHESTER – 26th April

NEWCASTLE – 3rd May

US dates to follow … will be announced on my newsletter

7 Ways that Love is Good for Your Health

2014 February 13
by David R. Hamilton PhD

Painted heartLove feels good. I think we’d all agree on that. But it also has some surprising health benefits. Here’s a list of 7 of them:

 

1) Love is good for your heart

I think we all expect this. Biologically, love produces the hormone ‘oxytocin’. It’s why it’s often referred to as the ‘Love Hormone’ or even ‘Cuddle Chemical’ (yes, hugs produce it too). Research also shows that it is a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. Simply put, it protects your cardiovascular system: it reduces blood pressure, helps clear your arteries of free radicals and inflammation, and even helps repair damaged blood vessels.

2) Love makes you happy

Emotionally, love makes us feel euphoric. We even feel tingling sensations in our hearts. In the brain, love elevates levels of both dopamine and serotonin, which contribute to this effect.

3) Love improves general health

Some research that compared couples whose relationship was close with those whose relationship wasn’t so much, found that couples who were in a close relationship reported their health as ‘very good or excellent’. The health reports were poorer in the other couples.

4) Love is good for your immune system

Every couple has arguments. That’s to be expected. But research shows that couples who argue in a more loving, positive way, were measured to have higher immediate immune function compared to couples who showed more negative behaviour. I guess, even when we argue, we should remember to be kind.

5) Love can help you get fit

OK, this might be obvious in the sense that regular sex is good for the heart, but there is another way that love can aid fitness. We all know that many people who start on an exercise program quit within 6 months to a year (you’ve probably been there yourself – seen it, done it, got the t-shirt), but did you know that when you work out with a romantic partner, not only do you work harder (perhaps you’re trying to impress) but you are also more likely to keep the program up?

6) Love can help you live longer

Research that compares married couples (in happy marriages) with single people shows that married people lived longer. And the good news for men is that the effect is especially pronounced in us. Seems we benefit from all that nagging good advice. Married men are less likely than single men to over indulge in drinking and smoking, which is better for health in the long term.

7) Love can lessen physical pain

Researchers who measures pain perception typically ask volunteers to place their hands in ice-water or receive electric shocks. Electric shock pain-perception-studies have shown that the experience of pain is lessened when we hold someone’s hand. And it’s even better news for females – pain decreases most in women in happy marriages who held their husbands’ hand.

My experience with a homeless man

2014 February 7
by David R. Hamilton PhD


blue plant up close
I met a homeless man in London one Sunday morning a few months ago. Our brief exchange has had a lasting effect upon me.

I had just left a hotel with the intent to travel to Kings Cross station to catch a train home to Scotland following a lecture I gave the previous night. I passed him in the street. He was carrying what seemed to be his worldly belongings in a cluster of carrier bags, two or three to each hand. He looked so very sad, and tired, and walked slowly.

I walked on but part of me couldn’t forget him. When I reached the street corner, I looked into a café, where people sat in the warmth, protected from the cold. I thought of going in to grab a coffee. As I stood there, about to open the door, I glanced and watched the man shuffle slowly across the street. I felt like I was looking in two windows. In one was the warmth of the coffee shop and the taste of freshly ground coffee. In the other was the homeless man, alone on this cold, damp, Sunday morning, with nowhere to go to keep warm.

I went back. I crossed over the street and found him sitting down in a shop doorway. I had thought he was around 60 years old. Up close, he looked about the same age as me, only aged by loneliness and cold. I placed £10 in his hand. What happened next has left an imprint on my soul.

He had piercing blue eyes. He looked at me with the deepest gratitude I have ever known. It was like an unexpected wind that knocked me over. He made a prayer sign with his hands as he looked at me. But it was his eyes. Never before have I witnessed such raw, honest, gratitude in a person’s eyes.

I suddenly felt shame: He seemed holy in that moment, completely vulnerable, special. I, on the other hand, felt insignificant, and small.

He saw himself as beneath me, that I and others could somehow decide his fate, and choose to bestow upon him money or food as we see fit.

I walked away, fighting back tears with gulps of breath. I angrily thought, “No, you are not beneath me, dear sir. You are not beneath anyone! You have a right to happiness.

I said a prayer for him and imagined him knowing his worth and finding happiness. It made me feel a little better, even though I still wish I could meet him again and do more for him. I was reminded of his piercing blue eyes.

When we show our vulnerability, we invite others to see our greatness! As I blended back into the crowd, not showing mine, hiding among the hundreds of faces going about their lives, many also pretending, I felt small, and weak. In that simple exchange, the homeless man was most definitely the better man.

You see, I have come to measure greatness in the courage to bear one’s soul. He showed his. I hid mine behind my wallet and my nice clothes. I chose not to show any emotion as I offered that small sum. I chose not to say anything else. My soul so wanted to speak, to say something that might make him feel less lonely, it even urged me to hold his hand for a while, but I was embarrassed by how I was feeling in that instant. I simply smiled, touched his hand lightly, stood up and walked away.

I think we should listen to our souls, or hearts, if you prefer that word, more. Life becomes so much more full when we listen and have the courage to act. It’s not easy.

I didn’t show the courage that Sunday morning. But perhaps I’ll show more courage next time my soul shouts out like that. At least I’m a little more familiar, now, with what it feels like.

10 Reasons Why Gratitude is Good for You

2014 January 29

smiley face stickyI think many people nowadays have heard that gratitude is good for us, but if you haven’t, or want a recap on how and why, here’s 10 reasons below. Please share them with others so that more people enjoy the benefits of gratitude.

 

1. It’s good for mental health

Studies show that a regular gratitude practice (like keeping a daily or weekly gratitude journal) boosts happiness. Research that compared people who were asked to count blessings with people asked to count hassles and annoyances found that the gratitude groups were around 25% happier.

2. It helps counter stress

We get stressed when we put all of our attention on hassles, frustration, and problems. Gratitude takes our minds away from these things, thereby relieving the stress that they bring. And gratitude as a practice improves our ability to switch our focus in the moment and also helps us notice more of the good things in life that we wouldn’t normally pay as much attention to.

3. It inspires us to exercise more

We feel better when we practice gratitude and many people who do so are then inspired to do things that are good for them, including exercise. One of the findings of a 2003 research study was that people who kept weekly gratitude journals exercised more than those who kept hassles journals.

4. It helps us achieve our goals

Over a measured 2-month period, research also showed that people making gratitude lists were found to be more likely to make progress towards important personal goals. Not only do we feel more motivated when we feel good but we are also more creative and more likely to spot solutions to our problems.

5. It makes us kinder

One finding of gratitude research is that people keeping daily gratitude lists are more likely to help someone in need, when compared with people making lists of hassles.

6. Makes you feel less lonely (more connected)

Making us more kind also improves our relationships and connections with others. Some participants in gratitude studies indeed report feeling more connected to people. Some people practicing gratitude also feel more connected and part of life as a whole. It increases their sense of belonging in the world.

7. It helps us sleep better

In his inspiring book, ‘Thanks: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier’, Robert Emmons, the world’s foremost gratitude researcher, encourages us to “count blessings, not sheep” if we can’t get to sleep. Moving the mind away from worries and stresses and towards good things helps relax us, making dropping off to sleep much more likely.

8. It makes you feel more in control of your life (more optimism)

After observing that gratitude is having a positive effect on life and emotions, we begin to feel more optimistic and in control of our lives, rather than being bounced around by life events. With renewed optimism and strength, gratitude can even help us to turn our lives around.

9. People like you better

Some gratitude practices involve thinking of people we’re grateful for and the reasons why. A side-effect of this is that it improves the quality of our relationships with them. It also helps us see the best in people and therefore bring out the best in them. Overall, it make us warmer towards others. People tend to like people like this.

10. Better Health

It’s good for our overall physical health and cardiovascular health. As well as making exercise more likely, some research shows that gratitude gives us better immune systems and even lower blood pressure.

Gratitude is a practice, and like all practices we need to be consistent to get best results. I recommend you make a big deal of your gratitude practice so that you are encouraged to be consistent. Get a nice journal and draw or paint the words, ‘My Gratitude Journal on It’. I like to use a journal with nice paper and also use a pen that feels nice.

You can keep it beside your bed or carry it around with you in your bag. You can keep note of things that occur daily that you’re grateful for, and even jot down reasons why you’re grateful for particular people in your life. I’d also recommend that you also include things you’re grateful for about yourself – your personality, your strengths, your talents, who you are, the way you are with people, animals, etc … anything, really, that reminds you that you are enough!

Happy journaling. :-)

 

Notes and recommended reading:

Many of these points are from my own personal observations and from feedback from workshop participants.

All research quoted above can be found in the following two books:

David R Hamilton PhD, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ (Hay House, 2010). In particular, see Chapter 11, “Counting Blessings” (Amazon UK paperback) (Amazon UK Kindle) (Amazon.com paperback) (Amazon.com Kindle)

Robert Emmons, ‘Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier’ (Mariner Books, 2008) (Amazon UK paperback) (Amazon.com paperback)

Moving from vulnerability to confidence

2014 January 15
by David R. Hamilton PhD

saplingMany of us are afraid to be ourselves – to admit how we feel: that we get scared, that we feel insecure, that we are often consumed by self-doubt.

As an author, the more books I wrote, the more I felt a pressure to maintain the expectations of people who read my books and came to my talks and workshops. As a self-help author, you’re supposed to be Whole, Healed, and have all the answers, otherwise, how can you justify lecturing people about how to improve their lives?

It was hard to admit that I, too, get scared, often feel insecure, am often filled with self-doubt, and that there are many times when I don’t know what to do nor where to turn.

I started to really think about this in September 2012. I was due to speak at Hay House Publishers’ I Can Do It conference in Glasgow, Scotland. The ‘I Can Do It’ events are exciting conferences, often attended by thousands of people, and feature many bestselling authors in the self-help and mind-body-spirit fields.

The first speaker of the day was Dr Wayne Dyer. I was up next. I was on home turf. This was the first I Can Do It event in Scotland, in the city where I did my own very first public talk 12 years earlier, shortly after I’d left my job as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry. It was in 2000 as I led my very first one-day workshop called, ‘Create Your Own Life’.

I was so incredibly nervous before I spoke. I was lucky that just as I was about to open my mouth, my phone rung loudly in my pocket. At that point, I said “Oh, please remember to switch off your phones.” I hadn’t meant it to be funny but everyone laughed. It broke the ice and relaxed me … although when I say ‘everyone’, I’m meaning the thirteen people there, nine of whom were family and friends, three who I’d met in a café a week earlier who had agreed to come if they didn’t have to pay, plus the one person who had actually responded to my 8-week running advertisement in ‘The Big Issue’, the UK’s magazine created by and sold by homeless people.

The event was a financial failure. It had cost me the equivalent of a month’s salary from my previous job. But I was proud of myself that I’d had the courage to follow a dream of inspirational speaking and that I felt I’d communicated really well in the workshop. Even though I’d lost a lot of money staging the event, I was determined to make things work.

So here I was, twelve years later, standing at the side of the stage ready to speak to a crowd over sixty times bigger than the one on that first day, ready to follow one of the biggest selling authors in the world. You would think I’d be proud of myself for how far I’d come. I was now an author of 7 books and had spoken live to thousands of people around the world, and I was now doing a home gig to this mostly Scottish audience, many of whom were proud to have a fellow Scot among the line-up of international bestselling authors.

But I didn’t feel proud. I felt really insecure. I could have curled up beside the curtain and had a cry.

Growing up, I often felt like an outsider. I showed off a lot at school – academically, at sports – and talked about my achievements, all to get attention. As a child and teenager, I thought that if I could impress people they’d like me. But all that happened was that I earned the nickname of ‘Big Head’. I was trying to be liked by the cool people because it would make me feel a sense of belonging, but all it did was make me feel isolated.

I felt like an outsider in that moment standing at the side of the stage. The feeling suddenly appeared. It was like my childhood and teenage years all over again. In my mind, the other authors were the cool people – they all belonged to a gang – and I was striving to get noticed again.

We all have fears and insecurities, but we’re afraid to admit them. We think other people don’t have any. It’s just us. We fear we’ll look stupid, or small, or less than we were before, or worse still, that people won’t like us any more, or even that loved ones will start looking elsewhere for someone who is much more Whole, complete, and strong.

Deep inside we all crave belonging. To feel connected is an ancient human need. The fear of being cut off, to not belong, to not be connected is one of our deepest worries. It’s why being banished was one of the worst punishments dealt out in human history.

We hold back from being ourselves, from letting our guards down, from being vulnerable, because we fear that we’ll lose our connections. It’s more than just being worried whether people will like us or not if they see us for what we are. That’s on the surface. Beneath, is that deep need to belong. If people don’t like us any more, we won’t belong.

Pretending allows us to be as good, Whole, Healed, or as perfect, as everyone else. It lets us stay in the fold.

But we’ve got it the wrong way around. The only way to really be connected, to belong, and for love, then, to grow, is if we take off our masks, stop pretending that we’re perfect, and just be ourselves.

When we do this, we find that the connections we were afraid of losing actually become stronger. Deep or meaningful bonds are only forged when we show up as ourselves, when we allow ourselves to be seen for who we really are. All of us, without exception, have fears, insecurities, and self-doubts – about how we look, our abilities, our age, our intelligence, our sexual performances, our parenting skills, and so on.

Yes, it can be a scary thing to show up as yourself. There is an element of risk involved. Vulnerability raises to the surface these deep fears of being kicked out and no longer belonging. But it’s through being vulnerable that we obtain the connections and belonging that we so deeply crave.

It’s a lot of what self-love is. Having the courage to be vulnerable, to be yourself regardless of the risk involved, is one of the greatest acts of self-love you will ever make. Self-love takes courage, but it starts with being yourself.

I find that when I show vulnerability, like in admitting how I felt at the side of the stage, it doesn’t invalidate what I write about and teach. I used to fear that. But it enhances it. I have a much deeper experience of what I’m talking about and I feel stronger inside … like I really do belong.

And that’s because I remember that we really are all just the same.

 

Related Speaking Events

I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love (3-day intensive). Click here for info

Transition to Love. Click here for info