Can we see dead people?

can you see the face of a dog?
can you see the face of a dog?

How long would the human species last if we could all see and converse with deceased loved ones?

And let’s set aside for now whether it is even a valid question, whether such a thing is at all possible, or even whether life could possibly exist after ‘death’. Allow me to have a play with a few ideas for now and see where the question takes us.

It’s a question I asked myself when I was thinking about how some people have reportedly witnessed deceased loved ones appear.

When she was unwell a number of years ago, my Mum saw her mother and father appear beside her on two separate evenings. She was bedridden after having suffered a nervous breakdown. Her Mum, my Gran, had passed away two years earlier and showed up as solid as any human person. The following night, her Dad, my Papa, appeared more as a photographic negative. He had only been deceased for around a year. Papa told my mum not to worry, that everything was going to be ok. His words gave her hope and that hope carried her into wellness again.

My Mum never told anyone for years, lest they would think she had ‘lost her marbles’. It’s not the kind of thing anyone she knew had ever discussed. She only told me when I was an adult, when she knew that I had become interested in the subject. Over a cup of tea, I remember us wondering why Granny appeared solid yet Papa was more ethereal. We wondered if Granny was solid because she’d been gone longer, maybe she’d learned more and was consequently more skilled in making herself appear.

We will likely never have a scientific proof (or disproof) of the existence of life after death but I have gathered a few of my own thoughts over the years. One of them derives from asking a version of the question I posed at the start of this blog, ‘How long would the human species have lasted if our ancient ancestors could see and converse with deceased loved ones’? The short answer is ‘Not very long!’

The fear of death is one of the reasons why we live so long. It underlies the survival instinct that is much more than just an emotional fight to survive, but something that is wired so deep into the body that most people feel its effects almost every day as the stress response.

If early humans, say a few million years ago, routinely witnessed deceased loved ones appearing to them, it would take away much of their fear of death. Many would be more cavalier about their lives, knowing that death is not the end, that we’re still very much alive and even able to come back and hang with loved ones. Some might even crave death if they learned that life goes on and might even be easier on the ‘other side’, especially if their deceased loved ones seemed wiser or even smiled a lot.

Much of our fear of death comes from the fear that it is the end, that our existence is over. That’s it. Nada. Take away that fear and they’d be less cautious, more willing to put themselves in the way of danger, and therefore more likely to have a shorter life.

Thus, their genes would gradually be lost from the gene pool, including the genes that allowed them to perceive the deceased. For now, I’m going to call this perception, ‘Spirit Vision’, for the sake of not repeating ‘deceased loved ones’. Like all genes, genes that allowed our ancestors to have Spirit Vision would come in all shapes and sizes (known as polymorphs or variants). Some people would have clearer Spirit Vision than others, just as some people are naturally more altruistic than others (see my blog, ‘Fifty Shades of Pink’).

Those with the genes that gave them the clearest vision would be the ones less fearful of death and thus more likely, as a consequence, to have shorter lives than those with less clear vision. And so genes for clear Spirit Vision would gradually be lost from the gene pool, over evolutionary timescales of millions of years, yielding humans today who are more fearful of death and more likely to do whatever it takes to save their skin.

But, of course, the genes would not be entirely lost from the gene pool. Evolution doesn’t quite work that way. There will still be some of those ancient gene variants spread throughout the human race today. Thus, there would be people today whose genetics, and thus biology and brain chemistry that arises from their genetics, allows them to see deceased people at times.

This is not an endorsement of all psychics and mediums of course. I don’t know them all. Based on my reasoning, I suspect some really do see deceased people and perhaps others don’t. I don’t have any personal experience in this area, but I do have a couple of friends who do and I have no reason to doubt their testimony.

And when I say deceased people, I am understating their reality quite a bit, if they have a reality, that is. If their consciousness (being, essence, spirit) is no longer wedded to the physical form, what form would it exist in? Without reiterating what I’ve written in the occasional blog where I’ve touched upon this subject (see, ‘The Invisible Landscape‘ and ‘my visit from the other side’), it would be quite literally infinite. And thus the form we would ‘see’ would be based on what we’d expect to see, like the Spirit Vision version of the placebo effect, I suppose. And I presume they would also want to show us a form that we would most recognise.

Before I finish this blog, I want to offer that this is by no means a real scientific investigation into the reality of life after death, evolution, or genetics. I merely wanted to offer some of my personal thoughts on the subject.

Some might say that if a person did see a vision of a deceased loved one that it would merely be an illusion created by their brain chemistry. But following my reasoning, their genes could have created a brain chemistry that allows them to perceive what is really there?

I must confess that part of my motivation to write this piece is because I have given it a lot of thought since Oscar (my dog) passed away in November last year. I want to believe that he still exists in some form and that he is happy, that maybe even he’s looking out for me. If you look again at the image above, can you see the face of a dog with a stick in his mouth?

I was taking a video of the solar eclipse that happened over the UK on Friday 20th March and what seemed like the face of a dog (Oscar?) appeared for around 10 seconds of the 23 second clip. The photo above is a screenshot of the video.

I think in some ways it brings me comfort to believe that Oscar is still here and that I can speak with him in my prayers. If there are any leaps of faith or wild assumptions in my blog then that’s probably the reason. But, for the record, I do believe that we continue to exist after we pass away.

Fifty Shades of Pink

pink rose backgroundAre we wired to be kind? Absolutely! Although I think some would disagree.

It seems that the business model that’s operated for the past hundred years or so has been based on ‘survival of the fittest’, with the idea that humans are inherently selfish. But I would say the concept has been widely misunderstood.

The fittest is not the strongest, the toughest, or the fastest. The fittest is more about whether we can form strong relationships. This fittest is often he or she who shows most compassion or kindness.

What ‘fittest’ actually means is being most suited to the environment. It’s having qualities that allow us, as a species, to thrive. Being selfish does not. It fractures relationships. It is helping others, forming strong relationships through compassion and kindness, that help us, as a species, to thrive.

Several pieces of research clearly show us that we’re genetically wired to be kind. There’s a gene known as the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) and scientists studied one section of it.

What most people don’t know is that each of our genes have several ‘shades’ or versions. So let’s say the OXTR gene was pink; so there would be several different shades of pink, ranging from light (baby) pink through to a deeper pink that’s close to red.

It turns out that the shade of pink a person has is actually related to their tendency to be kind. So people who have a lighter shade of pink, for instance, tend to be kinder than those who have a deeper shade.

The point of me telling you this is to help you understand that we have kindness genes. It also doesn’t mean that if you happened to have a deeper shade of pink you’re stuck not being a kind person. Genetics generally doesn’t work that way. We make choices every day that overrule how our genes behave.

Other pieces of evidence that I believe show we’re wired for kindness are those that show we are healthier when we’re kind. Kindness benefits our emotions and also the heart.

For instance, research clearly shows that kindness makes us happier. You’ve probably noticed this in your own life. Don’t you feel good when you help someone?

Kindness also benefits the heart. Oxytocin is produced through emotional warmth, something kindness delivers. Research now shows that oxytocin dilates the arteries, reducing blood pressure, and it also helps clears our arteries of free radicals and inflammation, the precursors to cardiovascular disease. For these reasons, it’s known as a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone.

In other words, through improving our health, kindness helps us thrive as individuals and, collectively, as a species. Through millions of years of evolution, nature has ‘selected’ kindness as something that has aided the survival of our species and, thus, as something that is crucial as we move forwards as a species.

I have an ulterior motive for writing this article. Cue rubbing of hands and deep theatrical laugh!

I believe that kindness can change the world and so we need, as a species, to understand that it is actually wired in us, that it is good for us, that it is essential for our species to thrive, especially, yes, especially, in these difficult times. It is who, actually, what we are. I would say we are that which is kind.

I’m hoping that you’ll share this information with others so that we can finally start to change the way we do business, the way we make decisions that affect others, the way we think of others, and so that we even make little tweaks to the way we live our lives.

Each of us has responsibility for improving the world. We don’t all need to do big things. A little act of kindness today, a comforting shoulder, a warm embrace for someone who needs it, helping someone who feels they’re alone to not feel alone, a heartfelt compliment, a smile, gratitude, even making someone a cup of tea  – all these things make a difference.

Imagine how our lives, our communities, our businesses, our governments, our societies, our world, would be if there was, say, 10% more kindness! Can you picture it?

OK then, what are we waiting for?

 

RESOURCES

Free World Summit 1-10th June. I discuss kindness.

Here’s a link to my TEDx talk on ‘Why Kindness is Good for You

My book Why Kindness is Good for You contains all the research into the emotional and physical benefits of kindness. (Amazon.com paperback) (Amazon.com kindle) (Amazon.co.uk paperback) (Amazon.co.uk kindle)

Some other articles you might enjoy:

The 5 Side-Effects of Kindness

How Kindness is Contagious

How Dogs are Good for Your Heart

 

 

 

Can your mind influence your genes?

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

Yes!

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.

 

Resources:

Some good books on the mind-body connection are:

Mine 🙂 ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘ & ‘It’s the Thought that Counts

I’d also recommend, Lissa Rankin MD, ‘Mind over Medicine‘ and Bruce Lipton, ‘The Biology of Belief‘.

I also have some mp3 audios: How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body (live lecture) and ‘6 Principles of Mind-Body Medicine

Video image - PrePromotionBanner300x250

So how DOES your mind affect your body?

DNA against lightMost 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’.

References:

For mind-body explanations and references to scientific journal articles, see David R Hamilton PhD, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’ (paperback) (UK paperback) (Kindle) (UK Kindle)

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)

Can the Brain Allow us to See Psychic Auras?

Many people have reported that they can supposedly see psychic auras around others, like a coloured hue that surrounds the person.

This kind of anecdotal report has largely been dismissed by the scientific community, but new evidence suggests that this ability may actually be a form of synaesthesia.

At a 2010 presentation at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, Luke Miller discussed results from his research team, lead by eminent Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, where they studied a 23-year old male, known in the study as RF, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

When RF was a child he had difficulty perceiving people’s emotions, which is mostly typical of children with autism spectrum disorder. So his mother asked him to try to match his emotions with a colour. After a few years, this practice actually evolved into a full-blown ability to see ‘auras of colour’ around people, which changes with different emotions, which is something that some people with supposed psychic ability say they experience.

Ramachandran’s team have hypothesised that RF’s ability to actually see colour around people might be due to a link-up between the area of the brain responsible for our perception of colour, known as V4, and an area known as the Insula, which is involved in our ability to perceive emotion in others.

We perceive emotions in people largely by their facial expressions. We have a circuit in the brain known as the ‘Mirror Neuron System’, which causes our brain to mirror the facial expressions and actions of people we see. Part of this system is the insula, which gives us a subjective sense of the emotion that accompanies that expression.

When we see facial expressions, our mirror neuron system stimulates our own facial muscles in a similar way to those we are looking at and brings about a similar emotion. Through this, ‘emotional contagion’, we can feel happy when we are around happy people or sad when we are around sad people.

Children with autism spectrum disorder often have difficulty perceiving people’s emotions and this is thought to involve problems with the mirror neuron system. RF had this problem and so his mother taught him to associate his emotions with a colour.

This inevitably led to brain wiring changes where his brain most likely began to link facial expressions with colour and emotions, establishing RF’s particular form of synaesthesia.

There are many examples of synaesthesia, which is a sort of cross-wiring in the brain from the normal. It causes some people to be able to smell colour, experience touch when they see someone else being touched, and even perceive emotion from paintings. Some people even see numbers as distances, where the year 1999 might appear farther away than 2010. It might even explain the abilities of some people with autism spectrum disorders to be able to recite pi to thousands of decimal places, where some report seeing the number series as changing landscapes.

Perhaps there are more people in the world who have the same type of synaesthesia as RF. It is estimated that as much as 1 in 23 people have some form of synaesthesia.

Seeing colours around people due to synaesthesia doesn’t necessary mean that a psychic aura actually exists as a physical emanation around others. But it does suggest that some people really can perceive others’ emotions in colour, and as the emotion changes, reflected in the facial expression, synaesthetes might see this as changing colours, which is precisely what some people who say they have psychic ability report that they experience.

*****

Endnotes: To read more on emotional contagion and the mirror neuron system, read my book ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking‘.

Harvard Study finds that Meditation Impacts DNA

A Harvard University study published in 2008 found the first compelling evidence that the Relaxation Response (RR) – the physiological response to meditation, yoga, tai chi, Qi Gong or repetitive prayer – affects our genes.

Nineteen adults were long-term daily practitioners of various RR techniques, 20 were trained in RR eliciting techniques (breathing, mantra and mindfulness meditation) for 8 weeks, and 19 served as controls.

By analysis of blood samples, the study found that 2209 genes were differently expressed (switched on or off) between the long-term meditators and control group. Specifically, 1275 were up-regulated (their activity was increased) and 934 were down-regulated (their activity was reduced). It also found that 1561 genes were expressed differently between the group who did the 8 weeks meditation training, who were considered novice meditators, and the control group. Specifically, 874 were up-regulated and 687 were down-regulated.

In other words, meditation – short or long term – causes hundreds of genes to turn on or off.

Many of the genes were involved in cellular metabolism and in the body’s response to ‘oxidative stress’. Oxidative stress is one of the biological products of mental and emotional stress. It produces free radicals and is known to be involved in a host of disease processes, including atherosclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. It also accelerates aging at the cellular level. Ideally, we want a good response to oxidative stress so that we can prevent the negative effects.

In the study, blood analysis found significant changes in cellular metabolism and response to oxidative stress in the two meditation groups relative to the control group.

The scientists proposed that the Relaxation Response – whether it is induced through meditation, yoga or prayer – may counteract cellular damage due to chronic psychological stress.

People have meditated for years and enjoyed better health (and a slower aging process) but many others have been skeptical as to its benefits. Now, we have solid scientific proof of the positive genetic effects of meditation in that it affects genes that positively influence cell metabolism and the response to oxidative stress.

Here’s the link to the article. You can download the PDF free: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0002576