It’s doing it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s impossible, actually, to disentangle your mind from your genes.
When you learn something new, or think the same thing over and over again, the brain lays down neural pathways. But they don’t just spring out of thin air. They are the consequence of a series of events that result in the activation and deactivation of hundreds of genes. But here’s the thing – these events are set in motion by something you’re thinking about!
Setting aside the details for a moment, what we’re left with is that thinking leads to the activation and deactivation of genes. This is what I call the mind-gene interface.
We see the same thing with meditation. Consistent meditation has been shown to bring about structural changes in the brain. With meditation it is mental focus on something – an idea, perhaps, or breathing – that brings about theses effects. An 8-week meditation study at Harvard even showed that meditation impacted 1,561 genes in novice meditators and 2,219 genes in experienced meditators. In the novices, 874 genes were switched on and 687 were switched off.
Some people might wonder why this is important to know.
It’s important because we grow up believing that the mind is impotent, something that we only use to think with and to analyse life events. But this is disempowering. It leads us to think that we can’t do anything to help ourselves or to change anything.
A good friend of mine spent some weeks in hospital over the past year. Being a proactive person with a determination to do what he could to facilitate his own recovery, when he asked what he could do to help himself, he was told, ‘nothing’.
But this response is only a habit of thinking that’s based on the notion that the mind is impotent, and I’d probably have given the same response myself if I was wedded to that notion. Actually, the mind can be thought of as a force, in that the mind’s focus can bring about biological and physiological effects in the brain and body. Knowing this, there is never nothing that a person can do. We have to think, so how about we learn what to think about?
On a totally obvious level, for instance, if a person is sick, thinking about stressful things is not going to help. Chemicals of stress can be produced and circulate around the body. So thinking about calming things can help. Similarly, thinking affectionately is good for the heart. Thinking hostile and aggressive thoughts isn’t.
We’re all chemists in a way. The chemistry of the brain and body responds to what we focus on and how we feel. If we learn what to focus on we can, to an extent, switch on and off different chemistry. We then take our chemistry skills onto a new level. I see this as the next great development in mind-body medicine.
I believe we have a much greater ability to affect our health than we think. We just need to get over the notion that the mind has no effect on the body. If anyone ever tries to tell you that the mind has no effect on the body, ask them if they’ve ever had a sexual fantasy.
The reason I explain the science of mind-body medicine is to give people faith in themselves. I believe that this faith can make a real difference.
Believing in a medicine or in a doctor leads to better outcomes than not believing, so clearly belief has effects. So how about we learn to believe in ourselves? Not at the expense of medical advice, of course, but in addition to it.
Your mind is more powerful than you think. And you are the one who directs it.
How about we learn to focus on things we’re grateful for? How about we learn to feel empathy and compassion more? How about we learn to cultivate thoughts of love and affection? You are a chemist and that would be some nice chemistry.
It’s a start. And at the very least we’re doing something positive with our minds.
Some good books on the mind-body connection are:
For centuries, learned people have searched for the mystical philosopher’s stone, believed to be the elixir of life and give immortality to he or she who owns it.
But what if the philosopher’s stone isn’t actually a stone? What could it be then?
One of the ‘major agers’ of the human body – those phenomenon that play key roles in ageing – is a phenomenon known as inflammation.
Most people have heard of inflammation. It’s the redness and swelling that occurs at the site of an injury. But what most don’t know is that inflammation can also occur on the inside of the body, in the blood vessels for instance, and as a side-effect of lifestyle and stress. As well as ageing, it plays a key role in heart disease, some cancers, and in a number of other diseases.
Its role in ageing is so significant that some gerontologists believe that if science could develop a powerful body-wide anti-inflammatory drug then the average person would live until they were around 150 years old.
Enter, now, the vagus nerve!
We now know that the vagus nerve controls inflammation, so already you might guess that it could play a role in ageing. This discovery was made by Kevin Tracey, director of the Feinstein Institute and Professor and President of the Elmezzi graduate school of molecular medicine in Manhasset, New York. He described the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’ as the process where the vagus nerve actually shuts down the chemistry of inflammation.
Some research into prolonging lifespan is studying exactly how the vagus nerve does this. It’s interesting to drug companies because they want to develop drugs to do the job.
But maybe the wonder drug isn’t necessary. Maybe what we need to do is train our vagus nerves in much the same way that we train our bodies at the gym. Could this be possible?
It seems so, but the training is not physical. It is more spiritual. It is training in compassion.
According to research by Berkley professor of psychology, Dacher Keltner, the association between the vagus nerve and compassion is strong. People who have high ‘vagal tone’ tend to be highly compassionate.
Vagal tone is a term a bit like muscle tone. Someone who exercises regularly might have good muscle tone. Similarly the person might also have good ‘vascular tone’. Vagal tone is used in a similar capacity to indicate the health, fitness, activity, etc, of the vagus nerve.
Could training ourselves to be more compassionate – and we can indeed train ourselves because compassion is only partly innate but mostly learned – improve vagal tone and also reduce inflammation, thus slowing the ageing process?
In a word: Yes!
Scientists have indeed recently studied the link between compassion and inflammation.
In a 2009 study, researchers at Emory University School of Medicine trained 33 people in a compassion meditation, which involved the structured generation of feelings of compassion on a daily basis, and compared them with a group of 28 people who didn’t do the meditation.
After 6 weeks those who did the compassion meditation had much lower levels of inflammation than those who didn’t. Drawing on the link with ageing, we can say that their bodies were also ageing more slowly too.
I attended a workshop recently that was led by Sharon Salzberg, an author and globally recognized authority on ‘loving-kindness’. She is a teacher of the ‘loving-kindness meditation’, where we cultivate a sentiment of loving kindness and compassion for ourselves, our loved ones, neutral people, difficult people, and for the whole world. It is her daily ritual, which she has been practicing for decades. The first thing I noticed about Sharon was that she absolutely does not look her age.
I was stunned to learn that she is 60 years old. I would have estimated, perhaps, mid to late 40s. Although my observation is by no means an exhaustive scientific study, it was an interesting observation given that I am very much aware of this phenomenon because I studied it so that I could write about in my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’.
It’s a no brainer, really:
-The vagus nerve reduces inflammation.
-The fitter the vagus nerve, the better its ability to do this.
-Compassion tones up the vagus nerve.
-So more compassion equals fitter vagus nerve, therefore equals lower inflammation, therefore equals slower ageing.
-ie. More compassion = slower ageing!
Could compassion even beat botox? You decide!
Could it be that the philosopher’s stone that many have searched so long and hard for has always been right in front of our eyes? Well, actually, in our hearts? Could it be that simple?
History has taught us that things usually are that simple. Maybe it’s called the Philosopher’s stone because it takes a philosopher to actually consider compassion to be the elixir of life.
Some might ask why it is that compassionate people everywhere aren’t living until they’re over a hundred? Firstly, some of them are, but we also counter the effects of it with other lifestyle choices we make and with stress. Genetics also comes into the equation. But all things considered, I’m quite convinced that compassion slows ageing. I’m told that I don’t look 93.
So here’s my healthy formula for a long life:
Eat well, sleep well, exercise regularly, laugh often, think well, be kind, and show people that you care about them!
Perhaps this formula is the mystical philosopher’s stone. Perhaps the stone is not a stone, but a Way, the philosopher’s Way.
And that way is compassion!
May you be filled with it!
Here’s a link to a short video where I talk about compassion and ageing.
Here’s a link to a workshop that might interest you, where I’ll be teaching the loving-kindness meditation.
Here’s some audio downloads that might interest you where I explain more about the mind-body connection
Here’s a link to my book, Why Kindness is Good for You.
Here’s Sharon Salzberg’s website
Oscar is our puppy. He’s a yellow Labrador Retriever and is almost 8 months old. He arrived in our lives last October, as a cute, 8-week old bundle of love and play.
He’s completely changed our lives for the better. My life is so much richer than it used to be. Not that it wasn’t before, it’s just there seems to be more of it now.
1) Live in the now
Dogs don’t regret the past or ruminate about the future. They just live here, now, in this moment, doing whatever they are doing, responding to whatever is happening around them.
How much time do we spend in the past or the future? How much ‘now time’ do we waste by going over what happened yesterday, last week, last month, last year, or by worrying about what might happen tomorrow? When we do this, we lose some of the precious moments that are happening now because we’re really just in our heads most of the time.
2) It’s good to play
As humans, I think we forget this. In the modern, fast-paced world, it seems to be all work and very little play. Some people forget how to laugh because playtime is not regular enough.
I’ve learned to laugh a lot more since Oscar arrived. Even though I have lots of work to do, I do it with a much more relaxed attitude, which is far healthier.
It’s also good for the heart. Playing with a dog generates oxytocin, a cardioprotective hormone that helps to widen our arteries and clear them out of free radicals.
3) I’m worthy of love
Oscar loves to be in contact with us. If he’s sleeping at my feet in the lounge, if I get up to make some tea, he gets up too and follows me into the kitchen before continuing his sleep on top of my feet as I’m boiling the kettle. I feel so bad when I have to move back into the lounge, because he gets up again and follows me, back through to take up his former sleeping position.
Once, when he was a puppy and wanted to snuggle up beside me on the sofa, I had a strange thought: “Why does he love me so much? How could he? I’m nothing special.” It was one of the first times that I realised I had a self-love deficit going on, but his presence encouraged me to learn that I am worthy of love, as are you, dear reader! He was one of the reasons I wrote the book, ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self Love’, (Hay House, October 2013).
4) Most of our problems are in our heads
Dogs just deal with whatever is happening. We tend to analyse and try to work out what it all means. OK, we do have problems in our lives, but the same situation can be felt and dealt with in different ways by two different people. This tells us that it’s not so much the problem itself, but our thinking about the problem that makes it worse.
5) Our greatest teachers are closer than we think
Many readers of this blog most likely have an interest in the self-help/mind-body-spirit/science fields, especially if you’re familiar with my writings, because I span all three.
Many of us are workshop junkies or read dozens of these kinds of books a year, absorbing the teachings of the speaker or author, looking for the final pieces of the puzzle that can make us whole.
I now understand why some people are always saying, ‘Did you know that Dog is God spelled backwards?’ I get it now. It’s so simple, yet profound. It’s a little reminder that the answers to many of our problems are closer than we think.
I feel that I have gently and gradually grown in wisdom and spiritual awareness over the past decade, but being with Oscar has led to a quickening of the pace, to more breakthroughs in my life in this small segment of time than I’ve had in the previous decade. It’s not intellectual, but experiential, as I’m often forced to search inside myself for more self-love and more love to give, for more courage, for more tenderness, and to simplify my life by simplifying my thinking.
One of the questions they asked me was about the ripple effect of kindness and what that means for us. Since I was very young I’ve had a strong belief that a small group of people with compassion and kindness in their hearts can change the world.
Some of that I picked up just by watching my Mum. She has always been the kindest person I know and I used to see how her kindness would bring a smile to people’s faces, and then I’d notice how it would effect them enough that they would spread their good cheer onto others.
I guess I was always destined to be involved in science in one way or another.
As a child, I just intuitively held this idea that if more people were kind we could make the world happier. As an adult, one of my driving forces has been to find compelling scientific evidence that shows us just how amazing we all are and how we really can change the world through kindness.
Think of the ripple effect of kindness like dominos all lined up. If you push the first domino it sets off a chain reaction and the rest of them fall down too. Acts of kindness are like that. When you are kind to one person, they really do carry your good act forwards.
It’s funny how we look for scientific evidence of this kind of thing to confirm its truth when the truth is, in fact, right in front of you, in the laboratory of your own life.
How do you feel when someone helps you out of a sticky situation? Relief, perhaps? Happy? Upbeat? It’s most likely a positive feeling of some kind. You’ll feel in good cheer. And it’s almost certain that you pass that good cheer on.
I’d hazard a guess that many of you reading this right now, when someone has helped you out, have helped someone else out shortly afterwards.
I believe that we’re wired for kindness. It’s embedded in the human genome, this tendency to care for each other, to look out for each other, to help make life that little bit more comfortable for each other. Yes, there are always exceptions. We can also be selfish. We can be both things. But I’d say that it’s mostly life experiences, social environment, and stress that cloud our natural tendencies to be kind.
Elizabeth, my partner, once pointed out to me as our flight took off on a very cloudy day, that eventually the plane will rise above the clouds to a place where the sun always shines. She was also making reference to a conversation we’d had about kindness and whether people are naturally warm-hearted or not. We agreed that storm clouds can obscure people’s natural self. They have certainly obscured my natural self at different, difficult times in my life. Perhaps the challenge we all face at various times it to see through these clouds and notice the real person inside, just as if we’d hope that others could extend the same to us when we’re not quite ourselves.
I’ve noticed that when I do this, quite often the person swiftly changes their behavior. It’s like you tease another aspect out of them just by noticing what’s on the inside.
My friend David Hayman (The Scottish actor) comically put it another way. It was in reference to someone who worked in the charity office of ‘Spirit Aid Foundation’, a charity that David & I and a few other friends co-founded back in 2001. The girls in the office had described this person as a ‘chaos agent’, someone who seemed to bring chaos and conflict everywhere he went. I had bought into this description one day when I observed some emotional carnage in the office.
David immediately set me straight and instructed me that I was to remind myself that this person was, indeed, an angel of God. I held my head in shame as I realized how I’d lost my own compassionate center of focus, before David added, “He’s just cleverly disguised as an a**hole.”
The question is, though, which part are you willing to see when you are confronted by such an ‘angel’? Because the part you focus on is the part that you’ll get most of.
I’m not suggesting that everything will be healed by this simple shift of focus. Let’s have a little common sense. But I am saying that there are far more times than you’d think that such a shift in focus can, and will, make a positive difference.
You can be a kindness domino without actually having physically done anything, just by changing your mind.
You can also be a kindness domino as you help those in need around you, or carry out small acts of kindness throughout your day. And I can guarantee that with each kind act you do, even those that seem simple and almost insignificant to you, many other dominos will fall and you’ll never even know.
The repercussions of each act of kindness travel far and wide; multiple lives can be touched from what started as a simple heartfelt compliment, or a small helping hand, or even for the price of a cup of coffee.
Every day of our lives gives us numerous opportunities to be the first domino. Please don’t underestimate how many dominos fall after you help someone out.
We each make positive waves in the world every day! We just generally don’t notice. So take a breath, straighten yourself up, then go out and change the world.
If you’d like to learn more about Spirit Aid Foundation, or even make a donation to help with the humanitarian work, then please visit the website, www.spiritaid.org.uk Spirit Aid commits 100% of all donations to humanitarian aid.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Many of our deep-help beliefs and assumptions drive our behaviour, and as a consequence, much of what happens in our lives.
What if many of us have a deeply held belief that in order to experience peace or enlightenment we need to have a crash first – that we need to ‘break’ before we can have a breakthrough.
Some probably don’t even think of this as a belief but as a fact. But I think there are less facts than we think, and more beliefs that seem to be facts.
In our world of duality, yes we do need to know what down is so that we can experience up, but this doesn’t mean that we need to experience down again and again and again and again in our lives. Maybe once is enough.
Part of the belief for many of us who read self-help and mind-body-spirit books perhaps stems from reading books by enlightened people who have experienced deep suffering but awoke from the illusion they had been living in and were enlightened. One of my favorite books where this happened in the authors’ life is ‘The Power of Now’, by Eckhart Tolle.
We are so moved by the author’s experience and wisdom that we make the assumption that their life path has to be the same for us. It really is a wonderful book and I remember just feeling at peace for days after I read it, such was the impact it had on me.
But does this mean that the only path to enlightenment is through suffering first? I’m sure those who are enlightened would say no. I wouldn’t say I was enlightened myself, so what do I really know? I can only go on intuition and what makes sense to me.
Here’s what I think: What if the belief that we need to suffer first is actually pulling many people into suffering because, on some level, they felt it was necessary for them to reach a true space of peace.
I don’t doubt that it is a path to enlightenment, but I don’t believe that it is the only path.
So what if we didn’t believe this?
I don’t, and interestingly, I remember very clearly the moment when I had that realisation. I felt at peace. Strange! And it lasted for weeks. The sense of peace wasn’t from the resolution of all that I was struggling with at the time, but from the realisation that I didn’t actually need to suffer. The capacity to experience peace was with me all along, and only required a change of thought.
And it’s funny because the breakthrough I experienced – that we don’t need to suffer – was created via suffering. And I now wonder if I needed to suffer in order for me to realise that I didn’t need to suffer in the first place. Ahhhhh….. maybe that’s a bit too deep for this short article.
The mind is a strange thing indeed!
The belief that I needed to suffer was actually pulling some of the strings in my life, leading me into difficult personal situations where I was suffering. When I let go of this assumption, I felt different, somewhat lighter, and life seemed to work a little better for me.
I can’t say that’s how it is for everyone, but of the many, many people I meet around the world as I give lectures and hold workshops, I’d hazard a guess that there’s quite a few people who hold that belief.
My affirmation after that was the title of this article but written for myself:
“I don’t need to break to have a breakthrough.”
How about trying that one on for size and see if it fits? It might work or it might not. Worth a try though, I think, if it could at least spare a little suffering for some people.
Have a great day!
Most people learn from an early age that the mind is just something that we use to think with and that it interprets life events. Any ideas that the mind could somehow affect the body have traditionally, in the West at least, been written off as fantasy or some mysterious and unexplained mind-over-matter effect.
Actually, it’s not mysterious at all and evidence shows that there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the mind impacts the body. Try to think of a sexual fantasy without having a physical impact or causing hormonal fluctuations in your body!
Your mind is affecting your body right now. It affects it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Most of the time we just don’t notice.
We’re all chemists, you see. I’m a trained chemist. I have a PhD in organic chemistry, which involves building up molecules by sticking atoms together. For this, I earned a place developing drugs for heart disease and cancer in a large pharmaceutical company.
To be honest, though, my interest was really on the people in medical trials who improved on placebos, and so accelerated my interest in the mind-body connection.
Yes, we’re all chemists. If you had to think of someone who causes you stress then you’d produce stress chemistry in your brain. You’d also elevate levels of cortisol and adrenalin in your bloodstream, and cause increased blood to flow to your major muscles. If you think in this way consistently, then there’s a fair chance that you could produce higher levels of free radicals and chemicals of inflammation in your bloodstream too.
Or you could think of someone you love or feel affection towards. This time, you’ll produce love chemistry in your brain, which will involve dopamine, serotonin, the brain’s natural versions of morphine and heroin, known as endogenous opioids, and the love hormone, oxytocin.
Oxytocin will also be produced around the body and will quickly dilate your arteries and lower your blood pressure. It’s called a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone – it protects the heart. It might even initiate labor if you’re heavily pregnant. With consistent thinking in this way, the elevated oxytocin levels will neutralise free radicals and inflammation in your blood vessels. Not bad at all, I think, for something you’re doing with your mind! Yes, we’re quite the chemists.
Again, bear in mind that this is stuff you’re doing with your mind!! Your mind is not some impotent instrument that just interprets the world, where your thoughts, intentions, hopes, and your dreams simply float off into the ether. You can think of your mind as a force, because it does actually bring about effects all throughout your body.
You could take your chemistry prowess a little farther and use your mind to change the physical structure of your brain. You could impress your friends at dinner by giving them a demonstration. It might be a little boring for them, though, as they’d have to watch you with your eyes closed, paying attention to your breathing for about an hour or two (it’s called meditation, to the uninitiated). But, hey, if you had a portable scanner with you then you could show them the scans by the time they finished their second course. They’d see changes in the bit above your eyes. And you could really impress them by specifically making changes to the left side of this bit. All you’d have done was to infuse your meditation with thoughts and feelings of love and compassion.
You could even do a little magic trick and ask them to choose any body part and you could then stimulate that part with your mind without even moving it.
Say they chose your big toe, for instance. All you’d do is focus your attention on your big toe and they could measure electrical and chemical changes there. If this sounds far-fetched, simply thinking about a body area and immediately stimulating the corresponding brain area governing it is actually central to new emerging prosthetics technologies. Thinking of moving a paralysed limb, for instance, stimulates the area of the brain connected to it, which is linked to a computer device that can then move a prosthetic device, or even a make a character take a step forward in a computer game.
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are potentially the next big step in computer gaming, actually. It’s all made possible because the brain doesn’t really distinguish between whether you’re doing something or whether you’re just imagining it.
Yes, things have come quite far in the whole mind-body field in the past decade. It’s funny but had I suggested, a little over a decade ago, that any of the above could be possible, I’d probably have been laughed out of any lab. It’s funny how things change, isn’t it?
I was actually asked, a little over a year ago, to give a lecture on the mind-body connection to medical students, so it’s great to see that some areas of mind-body science are now beginning to be taken seriously. And may it just keep getting better and better! Ripples!!
If you’re interested, here’s a link to a download of a recent lecture I gave entitled, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’.
For information on the connection between love, kindness, compassion, and oxytocin and how this impacts the heart, see David R Hamilton PhD, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ (paperback) (UK paperback) (Kindle) (UK Kindle)
Here are 5 tips that can be used to help you get the most out of your visualizations, whether you’re applying them to heal your body, to change your life, or to improve your sports performance.
Believe in yourself
This is why I write about and teach the science behind the mind-body connection. If you understand that you’re always affecting your body with your mind, and that the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary, you realise that your mind is not some floaty, ethereal, thing that only interprets life events, but something that actually causes changes in the body. This way, you develop faith in yourself, that what you imagine, hope for, or intend, does have effects.
You can only do it right
This is something I say every time I guide people through a visualization process. Many people think they can’t visualise because they think everyone else sees in high definition (HD). Trust me, they don’t. But it’s the thought that they do that makes us think we’re doing it wrong. Actually, most people just get a vague set of images. What matters most is your intention and that you’re not thinking that you’re doing it wrong. I like the word, ‘imagine’ rather than visualise, because we all imagine in our own way. When I imagine, I have images in my mind’s eye but they are rarely that clear. For me, it’s more a feeling and sensing thing.
This can be easier said than done, but a regular practice of relaxing goes a long way to reducing stress in the body, which can only be a good thing. Meditation is great, as is yoga. Physical exercise is also a good way of relaxing. Eating a good diet can also help, one free of stimulants and high amounts of sugar and saturated fat.
I often suggest that people add a tiny bit of humour to their visualizations. This helps get around the worry that it might not work. When we worry, we activate brain areas associated with fear and anxiety. So if we inject a little lightness into the visualization, we retain our concentration on what we’re imagining and we might even help wire our brain networks away from the worry centres so that optimism and hope are born instead of worry. I encourage people to create a ‘victory dance’ to end their visualization. Basically, you do a silly dance of victory after you finish, and you have to do it until you find yourself smiling. This helps wire lightness into the brain.
The 3 R’s – Repetition-Repetition-Repetition
Research shows that we change brain structure through repetition of imagining movements. Brain scans of people playing piano versus people imagining playing it showed the same degree of changes in the same areas of the brain. But to get the changes required repetition of the movements – real or imaginary. When we stop doing the work, the brain regions shrink again. This is why consistency is key. You don’t become Olympic champion by going to the gym once. It’s important to do consistent visualization practice to get the best results.
Mirror neurons do what they say on the tin, so to speak. They are brain cells (neurons) that are involved in mirroring what you perceive.
So if you’re watching me flex my fingers, your brain thinks you’re flexing your fingers. These cells mirror what you see me doing so in some ways your brain doesn’t distinguish between whether you’re watching someone doing something or doing it yourself.
Research has shown that the MNS can be utilized to help speed the recovery from a stroke. In one study, stroke patients were given a month-long course in physiotherapy but half of them also watched able bodied people make simple hand and arm movements – like eating something or turning the pages of a book.
Their mirror neurons kicked in and now their brain was thinking that they actually were moving their hands and arms, even though they were watching someone else doing it. So as far as their brains were concerned they were doing extra movements.
At the end of the study, those who watched the able bodied people (it was described as ‘Action Observation’) had recovered more than those who only had the physiotherapy.
The effect is really far-reaching. In one piece of research, volunteers stretched open an elastic band between their index and middle fingers. They did 25 reps of this every two days until they had done the ‘training’ six times.
They had their strength tested at the start and after the sixth training session. The average gain in strength throughout the pool of volunteers was 50%. So far so good! What I didn’t mention was that while each person did their training, someone else sat opposite them just watching their fingers open and close. Sounds a bit daft, I know. But they had their strength tested too.
Incredibly, they were 33% stronger. If you really couldn’t be bothered exercising, you could actually go to the gym and just sit in the café, providing there was a window that you can watch people training through.
At a talk I once gave, there was a woman who just couldn’t accept this. She pointed out that her husband had sat in front of the TV, watching football, almost every evening for the past 20 years.
“If what you’re saying was true,” she said, “then my husband would be a great footballer, and as fit and athletic as David Beckham, so I’m sorry, I just don’t buy this as he’s put on about 2 stones in weight around his waist and is definitely not more athletic.”
I said I understood her reasoning but that she kind of gave an answer to her own quandary. I asked, “When he watches the football, does he watch the mechanical movements of the players’ muscles? Or does he watch the ball?”
I then pointed out, “Because if he was watching the ball, and the mirror neuron system really does mirror what you watch, then he’ll look more like a ball. And you just said that he’s put on 2 stones in weight.” That was when a ripple of laughter went round the room.
But all joking aside, mirror neuron research has received a great deal of research dollars over the past few years. In my opinion, one of the most exciting pieces of research has been with Alzheimer’s patients.
Scientists studying Alzheimer’s disease have identified areas that are most susceptible to plaque formation. You could plot them as a little map. But other scientists studying the mirror neuron system have also created a map of the mirror neuron system from studying the brains of people watching simple open and close hand movements.
Amazingly, the maps overlap quite a bit. So some researchers had the novel idea to take the brain to the gym, so to speak, by stimulating the mirror neuron system in Alzheimer’s patients through having them watch simple hand movements. This would, in effect, stimulate the areas of plaque in their brains.
So they worked with a care home containing 44 residents who had the disease and split them into two groups. One group watched 30-minute documentaries five days a week for six weeks and the other group just watched videos of simple hand movements. It doesn’t sound very exciting, especially when the others were watching ‘March of the Penguins’. But when they were all tested after six weeks and again six weeks later, those who watched the hand movements had significantly improved on an attention test and on facial recognition.
Incredibly, taking the brain to the gym, so to speak, was benefitting these patients. As far as I know, this is the only research of its kind.
I’m very hopeful that more research dollars will find their way towards this exciting area of research so that, perhaps, some simple exercises could soon be recognized around the world that can help sufferers of this disease and their families.
In my talks I quite often explain how we catch emotion from people. It’s facilitated by an interconnected network of brain cells known as the mirror neuron system. If you’re with someone who is happy, your brain actually mirrors the activity of their smile muscles (zygomaticus major and orbicularis oculi), signaling your muscles to do the same. And this feeds back into your brain, causing you to feel happier!
A few years ago, while watching my sister attempt to get food in my niece, Ellie’s’ mouth, who was just a baby at the time, the whole family were watching intently….. it had been quite an ordeal. I noticed that just as Ellie’s mouth finally opened, so too had everyone else’s’. The mirror neuron system at work!
So we can catch a person’s good mood by just hanging out with them. Of course, it’s also to do with what they say and the things they do, and also what they say to you. But the mirror neuron system plays a large role.
But what about negative emotions? Recently, while giving a business presentation called, ‘Mood Contagion in the Workplace’, I was asked how to NOT catch negative emotions.
Actually, there’s a very simple trick involved. Outside of what a person says, you catch negative emotion through mirroring activity of their facial muscles that carry negative emotion, in particular the muscle between the eyebrows (corrugator supercilli). It’s purely an unconscious process. You’re not actually trying to do it. It’s a wired reflex reaction that some psychologists refer to as the, ‘chameleon effect’. At the same time, you also mirror their body language and even the way they’re breathing.
So how do you not catch negative emotion? I think you might have figured it out already! DON’T mirror their expressions! The moment you catch yourself doing it, just stop!
What I do is I scramble my facial muscles to interrupt any flow of signals to my brain’s emotional regions through the mirror neuron system. OK, it might look fairly odd if you start to make contortions to your face, but you can always pretend you’re rubbing your eyes and do it while your hands are over your face. Or you can be subtle and just massage your currugator supercilli (just to remind you, that’s the frown muscle between your eyebrows).
Then bring your attention to your breathing. Now sit up straight and straighten your back, or stand up straight and ensure your back is straight and you’re not hunched forward. Bring your shoulders back to open your chest, and b-r-e-a-t-h-e.!!!
Keep your attention on your breathing for a few minutes while you are sporting your new body language. With your body and nervous system now conveying positive emotion and confidence, you’re sending new data into your brain’s emotional regions. It usually only takes a few seconds for a quick change in how you feel, but after a few minutes of doing it you will be feeling much better and more in control of yourself.
It works really very well and I have used it on numerous occasions.
OK, like anything, it’s not 100% effective as sometimes it matters what a person is saying to you, the intensity of the emotion on display, and also how you feel about yourself, but it does work a lot of the time so it’s definitely worth a try.
And now that you’re in a positive state you can start to infect people with your emotion. Instead of being on the receiving end of emotion you can project it out. That’s what I do!
Then you create ripples of positive emotion. It’s kinda cool!
If you want to read more, I explain the process as well as how to project positive emotion, plus many more aspects of the contagiousness of emotions, in my book, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking’. To my pleasant surprise, it’s becoming quite a hit in corporations recently now that business people are finally coming to understand how the emotions of some individuals can disrupt or enhance team performance.
Stress can have many causes but one that applies to many of us is in how we look at and deal with life situations. Positive coping strategies help keep stress low but having a negative outlook or expectation about things can cause us no end of stress.
Given that stress is linked with illness, it might be no real surprise to learn that a positive outlook can have health-giving effects. At the very least, positivity spares us some stress but it seems to also have immune-boosting effects, as you can see below.
I’ve collected together 5 of my favourite pieces of research that link attitude and happiness with health and even lifespan. Here they are:
1) A Positive Outlook is good for the heart
Optimists are less likely to get heart disease than pessimists. A study of 999 people over the age of 65 found that optimists had a 77% lower risk of heart disease than pessimists.
Much of this is because of the way in which we mentally and emotionally process daily events in life. People with a more positive attitude generally get less irritated and stressed with the challenges of life. Due to the impact of stress on the cardiovascular and immune systems, learning to cultivate a sense of optimism can add years to a person’s life.
2) Happiness helps us get over the cold
People who are happy, lively and calm have better immune systems. One study saw nasal drops of the cold and flu virus given to 193 people between the ages of 21 and 55 and discovered that those who were happier and more positive (defined as a positive emotional style) got less sick and recovered faster.
How we feel affects the immune system and therefore our ability to fight off a cold or even our risk of catching one in the first place.
3) Counting blessings improves happiness
If you wanted a simple tool to increase your happiness then look no further than counting blessings. People who count their blessings tend to be happier than those who don’t. A study compared people keeping a list of blessings with people listing their hassles and found that the blessings group were 25% happier than the hassles group.
A simple exercise that I use is to catch yourself a few times a day and ask, ‘what am I grateful for right now?’ It helps to create a habit of counting blessings. Happiness is a side-effect.
4) A Positive outlook about ageing helps us live longer
A positive attitude can add years to our lives. One study examined 660 people and found that those who felt positive about getting older lived seven and a half years longer than those with a negative outlook about ageing.
Whether we can think of ageing in a positive way or a negative way matters. Even how we act – whether we act younger or older than our real age – also plays a part in how quickly we age. Mindset gives us far more control over the ageing process than most people realise.
f) Smiling helps us live longer
Research shows that people who genuinely smile (who use the muscles beside their eyes – known as the orbicularis oculi) are more likely to live past the age of 80 than people who don’t genuinely smile.
Despite what many people think, you can train yourself to smile more. One ‘laughter yoga’ exercise is to take a deep breath in and then laugh on the exhale. Of course, you will be faking it at first but in time you will start to properly laugh. Doing this a few times a day exercises the orbicularis oculi muscle, training ourselves to smile more easily and genuinely.