Mind and Weight Loss

I’ve had a few hypnotherapy sessions recently. A friend is training in solution focused hypnotherapy and is using me as one of his test subjects. I’m loving it and already feeling the benefits.

I’m not totally new to hypnotherapy. I first tried it 20 years ago when I was dabbling in amateur athletics. I loved doing the long jump. I bought a hypnotherapy tape by Paul McKenna called, ‘Ultimate Athlete’ and listened to it every day as instructed. The results were amazing. My long jump distance improved by over half a metre in just a few months.

Over the years since, I’ve been keynote speaker at several hypnotherapy conferences, where I’ve focused mostly on teaching how the mind-body connection works.

People sometimes use hypnotherapy to help lose weight. Sometimes, it can simply be a process of changing your relationship with certain foods, or to stave off cravings. One version is where the person is helped to imagine that they’ve had a gastric band fitted. I first came across this several years ago when I was researching for my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, when I read a report of Sam Alderwish, a teaching assistant from Birmingham, who underwent the therapy and then dropped 4 dress sizes.

Some people who have done this have reported that it completely changed their relationship with food. Some swear them stomachs feel tighter even after just a few mouthfuls of dinner. 

Research now shows that visualisation techniques can change our perception of food and how full we feel. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University invited some volunteers to eat sweets or cubes of cheese and others to imagine eating the sweets or cheese. Amazingly, real eating and imaginary eating impacted the brain in the same way. In both cases, appetite was supressed the more you ate or imagined eating. 

The appetite suppression mechanism is why you get full and don’t feel like eating more once you reach a certain threshold. But the team found that the brain couldn’t tell the difference between whether a person was actually eating the sweets or cheese or whether they were imagining eating them. There’s a very fine line between real and imaginary as far as the brain is concerned, and this underpins why some mind-body techniques like visualisation or hypnotherapy can be so powerful.

The Carnegie Mellon study found that you had to visualise really clearly, in that if you would normally chew ten times then you had to visualise chewing ten times. You had to make it as real as possible.

However, this is not a suggestion to visualise eating to reduce your appetite. The researchers didn’t study the effects of what imagining eating can do to things like blood sugar or anything else. They just demonstrated a concept. Plus, we have important nutritional needs, so it’s important to eat the right amounts and balance of foods. As far as research goes, a plant-based diet seems like the way to go nowadays. Similarly, I’m not recommending getting a ‘virtual’ gastric band. I just like to share studies like these because it shows how powerful the mind can be.

The idea that the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary has far reaching consequences. It’s helped athletes improve their performances, it’s helped stroke patients recover faster, and it’s even helped people to feel happie

Counting Kindnesses

There’s a lot to be said about noticing what you do. Many of us go about our days largely unconscious, in that while we do the things we do, we’re not so present as we do them.

Meditation helps us bring awareness to what we do and also to how we think. Meditation, for example, teaches us to start by noticing the breath, but then to notice that we are breathing. It’s a subtle shift but an important one. It shifts awareness to a deeper state. Rather than being the ‘doer’ of breathing, you become the ‘watcher’ of breathing. With practice, meditation helps us to notice all of our perceptions and experiences as appearances in our consciousness. In so doing, we become less unconscious and more consciously present in our lives.

Awareness is a powerful thing. Awareness of anything illuminates it. Even awareness of psychological pain can illuminate it and help to dissipate it as we find a deeper state that is not experiencing the pain, but aware that it is happening. This is not to trivialise our pains. It usually takes a great deal of awareness practice to be able to transcend much of our suffering in such a way. But there is hope to be found in awareness practices.

What about awareness of kindness?

Some research has shown that noticing that you are being kind helps to deepen some of the benefits of it. One of the ‘side effects’ of kindness, as I call them (see, The Five Side Effects of Kindness), is that it makes us happier. It leads to overall improvements in mental health and can even build resilience towards some of the stresses and strains of our lives.

In one study, scientists invited over a hundred women to notice their kindnesses; that is, to keep an approximate daily record of when they say or do something kind. The object was not to go out and intentionally do kind acts, as can be the purpose of other kindness studies, but to simply notice that you are being kind, ultimately to illuminate your intentions, words, and actions in your own consciousness.

Well, after a week of doing this, all of the women were happier than they were at the start of the study and around a third of them had experienced significantly large gains in their happiness.

One of the things this kind of awareness does is it helps us to rewrite the stories we have about ourselves. Many of us focus so much on our faults, our misgivings, our failures, our struggles, times when we did not live up to our own expectations. Many of us feel that we wear a mask as we go about our lives, but that people don’t know what’s underneath it. Sometimes we hold good ideas about ourselves underneath, but a great many people hold negative ideas about themselves underneath, whether it’s about their appearance, personality, or who they believe themselves to be. We hide our self esteem under our masks.

The study essentially illuminated an aspect of these women that many of us tend to forget, that we’re much nicer, kinder people than we realise. Most of us do so many kind things, in the polite things we often say, in saying thank you, letting someone go in front of us in traffic, holding a door, smiling, engaging in friendly conversation with a neighbour or colleague, that we don’t even realise that these are all examples of kindness, and that they say a lot about who we are as individuals.

Many of us frequently reach out to a friend or family member who needs helps, support, or just a friendly ear. Many of us do numerous intentional acts of kindness. All of these things, we tend to give less focus to because they’re habits. But they are beautiful habits. 

And when we illuminate them, it brings who we are, this kind person, to the forefront of our consciousness. For some people in particular, the third of the women in the study who felt the biggest gains, they rewrote their personal story so much that it ultimately gave birth to greater self esteem than they had before.

So try to bring awareness to your kindnesses. Just notice that the things that you do, even the tiniest things (or tiny as they seem to you, but they may be significant to the other person(s)), say a lot about the good quality person you are!

K. Otake, et al., ‘Happy people become happier through kindness: a counting kindness intervention’, Journal of Happiness Studies 7 (3), 2006, 361–75 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1820947/)

6 ways your brain can’t distinguish real from imaginary

brain real from imaginary1) Belief
Research shows us that when a person receives a placebo that they believe is a drug, and subsequently experiences a placebo effect, it is because their brain has produced the substances necessary to give them what they expected the drug to do. For example, when you receive a placebo for pain, but you think it’s a real painkiller, you expect a reduction in pain. Thus, your brain produces its own natural painkillers to meet this expectation – ie. a reduction in pain.

2) Stress
Your brain doesn’t distinguish between whether you’re facing a stressful situation right now or imagining it happening. Your brain produces stress hormones (like adrenalin and cortisol) when you feel stressed in a stressful situation, but it also produces them when you imagine a stressful situation.

3) Kindness
When you’re kind to a person or an animal and you feel a sense of warmth or connection, your brain and heart produce oxytocin (aka, the kindness hormone, love drug, hug drug, or cuddle chemical). Oxytocin acts on your brain circuits (to create a sense of bonding), on your arteries (to reduce blood pressure) and on your immune system (to combat stress damage). But if you close your eyes and vividly imagine the same kindness, your brain will also produce oxytocin. It’s down to how you feel, and you can feel the same warmth and connection whether you’re being kind in reality or simply in your imagination.

4) Eating
Some research shows that when you imagine eating (the full process of biting, chewing, imagining the taste, and swallowing), your brain can process it in much the same way as if you were actually eating. When you eat something, there comes a point when your brain says, “I’m full” and thus the brain begins to supress your appetite (so you don’t eat until you burst). Research where people imagined eating sweets or cubes of cheese found that their brain had processed it as if they really had ate the sweets or cheese, and thus also supressed their appetite for more.

5) Movement
Research with athletes and stroke patients repeatedly show that imagining specific movements improve the ability to perform those movements. As such, imagining lifting weights makes you stronger, imagining swinging a golf club helps you hit the ball better, and imagining lifting your arm when your movement has been impaired improves your ability to lift your arm. According to brain scans, this is because imagining movements activates and builds the same brain circuits as actually moving does. Visualisation (mental imagery) techniques have subsequently helped sportspeople improve their performance as well as helping stroke patients recover more movement and much quicker.

6) The immune system
Research shows that if we imagine increasing the numbers of particular immune cells or antibodies, we can actually increase these numbers. It has even been trialled in patients undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, where one group of patients, in addition to receiving their treatment as normal, also visualise their immune system destroying cancer cells. These studies show that patients visualising their immune systems working have higher numbers of T-cells and more active killer cells than those not visualising.

Further info:
A discussion of the mind-body connection and how to harness it can be found in my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘ (Hay House, London, 2018)

I teach the mind-body connection and how to harness it in my Personal Development Club. Click on the image below to learn more.

Loving kindness slows ageing at the genetic level

I’ve written a lot about the links between kindness and ageing, and part of my focus has been that kindness is the opposite of stress, at least in terms of how it makes us feel and the physiological consequences of those feelings.

Just as feelings of stress produce stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenalin), so feelings associated with kindness produce kindness hormones (like oxytocin, aka, the love drug, the cuddle chemical).

As a result, while stress increases blood pressure, kindness reduces blood pressure. This is fairly obvious, and I’ve written about it in blogs as well as in two of my books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness’.

But exciting new research has taken things further. In a 12-week randomised controlled trial led by scientists at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers measured the length of ‘telomeres’ before and after 6 weeks of daily meditation practice.

Telomeres are considered to be markers of ageing because they gradually reduce in length throughout our lives. Their length, and the rate at which their length reduces, not only gives a highly accurate indication of someone’s age but also how fast they are ageing.

They are end caps on DNA. A bit like the plastic ends on shoelaces that stop the shoelaces unravelling and thus ensure that you can thread the laces through the lace loopholes, telomeres help prevent DNA from totally unravelling. In so doing, they prolong the life of cells.

For the study, scientists compared the length of telomeres in people who practiced either, a) the ‘Loving Kindness Meditation’ (a Buddhist practice), where we think and feel kindness and compassion for ourselves and others, b) mindfulness meditation, or c) who did no meditation at all, to serve as a comparison. Blood samples were taken two weeks before and three weeks after the meditation practice.

Incredibly, while telomere length reduced in the mindfulness meditation group and in the control group (typical of 6 weeks of ageing), it did not reduce in the Loving Kindness group. The researchers wrote that, “… with participants in the LKM [Loving Kindness Meditation] group, on average, showing no significant telomere shortening over time.”

In other words, feelings of kindness and compassion seem to slow ageing at the genetic level. This offers further evidence that kindness brings about effects that are physiologically opposite to stress, because stress is one of the ways that telomere loss speeds up.

It is also worth noting that mindfulness meditation did also reduce the rate of loss of telomere length in comparison with the control group over the 6-week period, but only a little. We might expect this because mindfulness meditation is known to reduce stress, but the effect was not nearly so strong as it was for the loving kindness meditation. It is likely that longer term practice of mindfulness slows the rate of ageing, which is consistent with other research.

However, the effects of feelings of warmth, kindness and social connection, which we are encouraged to feel in practice of the loving kindness meditation (also known as metta bhavana), seem to produce much more powerful effects on ageing.

Exactly how it works is not fully understood, but it may involve oxytocin (the kindness hormone) and also the vagus nerve, which has been shown in research to increase in activity (vagal tone) due to practice of the loving kindness meditation.

Oxytocin has been shown to reduce stress and inflammation in immune cells, and thus prolong their health, and the vagus nerve controls the rest, relax and regenerate mode in the body, as well as the inflammatory reflex. Through the latter, increases in vagal tone have been shown to reduce inflammation. This has been cited as an explanation for the increased comparative health of stage 4 cancer patients with high vagal tone compared to those with low vagal tone (see article).

But regardless of how it works, the fact is that it does work. Kindness and compassion really do have powerful biological effects, and they might just have a significant effect on how long you live and how healthy you are.

Have you heard of my new Personal Development Club?


Empathy Matters

elderly woman smiling with her caregiverEmpathy is the ability to understand and relate to other people and animals.

Empathy is being able to see the world or a situation from someone else’s perspective and also appreciate how they might feel.

Empathy can even be in walking in someone else’s shoes, so to speak.

It is the precursor to compassion and kindness. In the book, ‘Self Compassion’, Kristen Neff defines empathy as ‘I feel with you’.

Empathy then evolves into compassion, which we can think of as, ‘I feel for you’. The difference between empathy and compassion being that compassion is a move towards wishing the person freedom from their suffering.

To be honest, the difference is mostly academic and I don’t think, in most people’s everyday experience, it actually matters whether we call that sympathetic feeling (yes, we can think of sympathy in the same way) empathy or compassion. But if you wanted to recognise a difference then you may see it in brain activation.

Empathy (I feel with you) activates the insula of the brain (the empathy centre). Compassion activates the insula too, but it also activates the left side of the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with positive emotion and also conscious decision making. In other words, considering brain activation, you can think of compassion as experiencing someone’s pain with them (empathy), with the addition of a conscious wishing that they be free of their suffering (I feel for you instead of I feel with you).

But, as I said, the difference is mostly academic and I don’t feel it matters whether a person refers to the feeling of feeling another’s pain as empathy, compassion, or sympathy. The intent is the same.

Mostly, the word empathy conjures up the idea of empathising with others. But it helps a lot when someone empathises with us, when they share our pain. It even helps us physiologically.

In a study of over 700 patients who attended their doctor’s surgery for onset symptoms of cold, some received a normal consultation and others received an ‘enhanced’ consultation, where the doctor emphasised empathy. The patient filled out a CARE (Consultation and Relational Empathy) questionnaire so that researchers could asses empathy levels and they had their symptoms tracked for the study.

Those who received the empathy-enhanced visit (and scored the doctor a 10/10 for empathy) had lower severity of cold, recovered faster than everyone else, and also had significantly higher immune responses. Empathy mattered … a lot!

We can interpret this as the patient feeling listened to and reassured by the doctor. This activates part of the placebo mechanism, which helps them recover faster. And note that I wrote ‘placebo mechanism’ and not ‘placebo effect’. This is intentional, lest we assume that the placebo effect is all in our heads. As I’ve written in my books and in other blogs, belief or expectation produces physical changes in the brain. Brain chemistry changes in response to a person’s beliefs or expectations. The mechanism (the biological process that occurs) differs depending on the medical condition and the treatment given.

Another factor is that when a patient is shown empathy, it reduces their stress levels, which often accompany uncertainty regarding their symptoms, and this reduction in stress also leads to an increased immune response.

The bottom line in the study is that empathy was related to a better immune response and a faster recovery in the patients.

I think of empathy as a currency. In our ever-more interconnected world, the ability to understand, empathise, and relate to others is becoming increasingly more important.

Dollars, yuan, or Euros are not the currencies of the future. Empathy is the currency we all need to be investing in.



P. Rakel, et al, ‘Perception of empathy in the therapeutic encounter: effects on the common cold’, Patient Education and Counselling 2011, 85, 390-97 (Link to study, DOI: 10.1016/j.pec.2011.01.009)

Real vs Imaginary in the Brain and Body

Head with colored cogs inside

The brain, in many ways, doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary.

Take a simple example of stress. Your brain responds to a stressful situation by releasing stress hormones. But your brain also releases the stress hormones when you remember a past stressful event or even when you vividly imagine one. Whether you’re really there in the stressful situation, you’re remembering it or imagining it, is all much the same to your brain. It releases stress hormones each time.

Another thing to consider is that a stressful event is not absolutely a stressful event. All you can be certain of is that it is stressful for you. The same event might be experienced differently for someone else. So, the event itself is not stressful. It’s how you think about it that’s stressful and that results in your feelings of stress. And it’s your feelings of stress that produce the stress hormones. So, you produce stress hormones because of how you feel, regardless of whether you’re there (in the stressful situation) in person or there in your mind.

In other blogs and in my books, I’ve written than kindness is the opposite of stress. Most people assume that peace is the opposite of stress. Peace is an absence of stress, not it’s opposite. In physiological terms, the feelings associated with kindness produce opposite effects to the feelings associated with stress. So, does the same type of real vs imaginary effect apply to kindness?

It seems so. The feelings associated with kindness, what social scientist Jonathan Haidt has called elevation, are produced regardless of whether you’re having a direct experience of kindness (as the giver or receiver or even as a witness to it), or whether you’re remembering an experience of kindness, or even whether you are vividly imagining one. The same feelings are produced in each instance. And just as with stress, it’s the feelings that produce the hormones. In the case of kindness, it’s kindness hormones.

The main kindness hormone is oxytocin, otherwise known as the love drug, the hug drug, the cuddle chemical, or any other similar affectionate name. It’s the feelingsof warmth and connection that produce oxytocin.

So, whether you’re being kind, receiving kindness, or witnessing kindness in a real or imaginary setting, you feel the same feelings and therefore produce the same kindness hormone. Just as with stress, your brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary.

Can the same be said with other systems of the body? It seems so. Numerous studies have shown that imagining touching or moving a part of the body activates the corresponding brain region as if we really did touch or move that body part. For example, researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed that when a person imagined moving fingers, toes, or even their tongue it activated the fingers, toes, and tongue regions of the brain as if they really were moving their fingers, toes or tongue.

The famous ‘piano study’ is an excellent example from neuroscience. Researchers at Harvard University, led by Alvaro Pascual-Leone, compared the brains of people playing a sequence of notes on a piano with the brains of people imagining playing the notes. The region of the brain connected to the finger muscles was found to have changed to the same degree in both groups of people, regardless of whether they struck the keys physically or mentally.

It is this phenomenon – the fact that the brain processes imaginary as if it were real – that allows sports people to benefit from visualisation practices. Several studies have shown that players can improve on their golf shots, tennis strokes, net shots in basketball, ice skating, football, or just about anything. Studies have shown people increasing their muscle strength by imagining themselves flexing muscles or lifting weights. In a study, for example, at the Lerner Research Institute in Cleveland, imagining flexing the little finger for 15 minutes daily for 3 months was shown to increase muscle strength by 35% … and the volunteers hadn’t even lifted a finger. 🙂

The technique has also allowed people who have had a stroke to recover faster, as has been demonstrated in several studies that compare patients receiving physiotherapy with patients doing visualisation of movements as well as the physiotherapy. According to these research studies, those who do the visualisation practices recover faster than those who do physiotherapy alone. A 2014 meta-analysis of the use of ‘mental imagery’ in stroke rehabilitation noted this compelling evidence and concluded that it could be a ‘viable intervention’ and that it renders ‘unlimited practice opportunities’.

The benefits rely on the fact that when a patient visualises movement, the brain processes it as if they really are moving, and so imagined movement becomes like extra physical practice as far as the brain is concerned.

We can even extend the idea onto eating. In a study led by Carey Morewedge, at Carnegie Mellon University, volunteers either ate or imagined eating small sweets. Some volunteers were asked to imagine eating several sweets and others were asked to imagine eating only a small number. When given the chance to eat real sweets later, those who imagined eating the most had less appetite for more. It was concluded that imagining eating impacted the brain like real eating does and actually supressed the appetite for more, just as real eating does. It was as if the brain were saying, “OK, that’s enough. I’m full now” even though the person hadn’t actually eaten anything but had just imagined it.

In other words, in some ways the brain processed imagining eating as if the person really was eating. A word of caution here, though. Research hasn’t investigated whether imagining eating affects the body in other ways, like perhaps without actual food a person might deprive their bodies of needed nutrition. But the point is, again, that the brain isn’t making a noticeable distinction between real or imaginary.

How far does this go?

Studies even suggest that the immune system responds in a similar way. Volunteers asked to imagine increasing levels of certain antibodies, or immune cells, were able to increase their numbers. Furthermore, in a randomised controlled trial of breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, around half of the patients were asked to also imagine their immune cells like piranha fish and to imagine them destroying cancer cells. In those who visualised, immune system activity was higher than it was in those who didn’t visualise. In fact, the immune systems of those who visualised were showing high levels of cytotoxicity even after the fourth (and final) cycle of chemotherapy.

So, generally speaking, insofar as the above examples go, it seems to be that the brain and body don’t distinguish between whether something is real or whether we just imagine it as real.

The question now becomes: what does that mean for us?



All references and more complete discussions can be found in David R Hamilton PhD, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘, (Hay House, 2019). Individual references are below.

Fingers, toes and tongue study
H. Ehrsson et al., ‘Imagery of voluntary movement of fingers, toes, and tongue activates corresponding body-part-specific motor representations’, Journal of Neurophysiology, 2003, 90(5), 3304-3316. Link to study

Piano study
Pascual-Leone et al., ‘Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of fine motor skills’, Journal of Neurophysiology, 1995, 74(3), 1037-1045. Link to study

Little finger strength study
K. Ranganathan et al, ‘From mental power to muscle power – gaining strength by using the mind’, Neurophysiologia, 2004, 42(7), 944-956. Link to study

Stroke rehabilitation meta-analysis
Y. Kho et al., ‘Meta-analysis on the effect of mental imagery on motor recovery of the hemiplegic upper extremity function’, Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 2014, 61(2), 38-48. Link to study

Immune system visualisation for cancer study
O.Eremin et al., ‘Immuno-modulatory effects of relaxation training and guided imagery in women with locally advanced breast cancer undergoing multimodal therapy: A randomised controlled trial’, The Breast, 2009, 18, 17-25. Link to study

How belief can drive recovery

When I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, the placebo effect was frequently dismissed as ‘all in the mind’ or ‘psychosomatic’. It wasn’t a real improvement, it was believed, merely that people ‘think’ they’re feeling better.

This was conventional wisdom at that time and is still a widely held belief today. When a mother kisses a scrape or graze on their child’s knee, the pain seems to reduce. Sometimes, an adult will feel better once they arrive to see the doctor. We tend not to imagine that some physical change in the brain has actually caused the improvements.

The truth is, physical changes do occur in the brain and they are caused by what the person believes or expects will happen.

Take research into what is known as placebo analgesia, for example, the reduction in pain that occurs when a person receives a placebo that they believe is a real painkiller. The analgesia occurs because the person’s brain produces its own painkillers. They don’t just ‘think’ they’re feeling less pain. They actually DO feel less pain.

A similar kind of thing has been observed with research into Parkinson’s Disease. Fabrizio Benedetti, a neuroscientist at the University of Turin School of medicine and who runs the most advanced placebo research lab in the world, identified production of dopamine in the brain of Parkinson’s patients who received placebo injections.

He even measured activation of individual neurons that fired according to the how much placebo they’d received. The net gain in movement and reduction in tremors wasn’t just ‘all in the mind’ of the patients, nor did the patients just think they could move better but really they couldn’t. The improvements were real and they were due to real physical changes in the brain driven by what the patients believed or expected would happen.

In another of Benedetti’s experiments, he enlisted volunteers to receive an injection of capsaicin (aka chilli peppers) into their hands or feet. The volunteers thought they were participating in a trial of a new and powerful local anaesthetic, but the anaesthetic was really a placebo. They had the placebo cream applied to one of their hands or feet but not to the other and then the chilli pepper was injected into both. So, they might have the cream applied to the left hand but not the right, but the chilli pepper would be injected into both hands so that a comparison could be made.

Upon injection, the pain was substantially less in the hand or foot that had the placebo anaesthetic cream applied but there was maximum pain in the other hand or foot. When Benedetti examined the brains of the volunteers, he found that the brains of the volunteers had produced their own natural versions of morphine, known as endogenous opioids.

But even more impressive was that these opioids were produced only in the specific region of the brain governing the specific region of the left hand or foot that had the placebo cream applied.

In other words, the person expected to have no pain in one specific region of their hand or foot and, as a consequence, endogenous opioids were produced in the necessary region of the brain required to deliver that precise result. As Benedetti noted, the entire brain was not flooded with endogenous opioids, only the specific region governing the hand or foot that had the placebo applied. In some ways, the human mind acts with surgical precision.

Perhaps we should rebrand the placebo effect as ‘The specific impact of expectation or belief on the brain and body’ … or maybe that’s a bit of a mouthful and ‘placebo effect’ is just easier. The point is that the word placebo, for many, conjures up the idea that nothing is actually happening, that improvements really are just ‘all in the mind’. But that is simply not so.

Expectation or belief produces real changes in the brain and body, often consistent with what the person expects or believes will happen, and these changes drive physical effects throughout the body.

Of course, there are limits and we shouldn’t automatically think that belief will instantly cure disease. It is wise to follow medical advice. But as more research is undertaken into the placebo effect, we’re learning that some systems of the body previously thought inaccessible to the placebo effect are accessible after all. It just takes a little longer.

Researchers have shown that placebos can be used to suppress the immune system, for example, and an active line of research is ongoing into PCDR – or Placebo Controlled Dose Reduction – where a dose of a drug is gradually lowered and replaced by a placebo over a number of days. It’s called conditioning,

The patients get a result each time they take their meds. As the mental association between taking the drug and the result strengthens, some of the drug can be replaced by a placebo and the patient’s growing conditioned belief compensates by generating its own physical effects.

Scientists believe this might be helpful for patients who take immunosuppressant drugs, like organ transplant patients and even those who have particular autoimmune disorders. The reduction in volume of drug required as it is gradually replaced by a placebo would surely be a cost saver for society and that money could be put to other uses. And perhaps side effects would be minimised.

We are living in an exciting time for placebo research and for research into the broader mind-body connection. We’re now learning that the contents of our minds can deliver real consequences in the body.

The skill for harnessing the effect, perhaps, is in believing that this is actually true and also learning to be more in control of the contents of our minds.



This article is based on Chapter 2 (The Power of Believing) of, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘, by David R Hamilton, PhD. All references are listed at the back of the book.

The vagus nerve and cancer

DNA with light shining behind itI recently read a scientific paper, published this year in the Journal of Oncology (see paper), with great interest. It linked the activity of the vagus nerve with cancer prognosis.

Why is this important?

I’ve written quite a bit about the vagus nerve in some of my blogs and books (The Five Side Effects of Kindness), mainly because the vagus nerve produces an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. I’ve also emphasised how this effect is even amplified by the experience of compassion.

That’s why I found the paper so exciting because it reviewed 12 scientific studies, involving 1822 patients, and suggested a link between high vagus nerve activity and better cancer prognosis. The effect, the authors wrote, was most likely due to an anti-inflammatory effect created by the vagus nerve.

I’ve summarised the main findings of the paper below.

The authors pointed out that three main biological factors contribute to the onset and progression of tumours. These are: oxidative stress (free radicals), inflammation, and excessive sympathetic [nervous] activity (stress).

Amazingly, the vagus nerve seems to inhibit all three.

Many of the studies measured heart rate variability (HRV), which is the main index of vagus nerve activity. Briefly, when we breathe in, heart rate quickens a little, only to slow down again when we breathe out. The vagus nerve is responsible for the slowing down, and thus the difference between this increase and decrease (high and low) of heart rate – heart rate variability (HRV) – is considered an indicator of vagus nerve activity.

Generally, the paper found that the higher a person’s HRV, or vagus nerve activity (also known as vagal tone), the slower the progression of cancer, and this was true for all cancers studied. The effect was especially pronounced in late stage, metastatic cancers.

The authors suggested that in early stages of cancer, the treatment a person receives is the overwhelming positive factor and so swamps out any observable effects of the vagus nerve, but at later stages, when treatments are often less effective, the vagus nerve’s workings are far more apparent and the vagus nerve becomes the main determining factor.

So much so, in fact, that the authors found that survival time in patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) was 4 times greater than in patients with low HRV (or vagus nerve activity).

The effect of the vagus nerve on inflammation was suggested as the main factor. It is known as the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’. The vagus nerve basically turns off inflammation at the genetic level by turning down a gene that produces TNF-alpha (Tumour Necrosis Factor), which is an inflammatory protein in the body that sets off a cascade of inflammation. Thus, the vagus nerve can effectively control inflammation in this way. Therefore, higher vagus nerve activity usually means lower inflammation.

In one study of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, for example, patients with high HRV (or vagus nerve activity) survived longer and had lower inflammation levels than patients with low HRV (vagus nerve activity).

The study authors wrote that, the vagus nerve “may modulate cancer progression by inhibiting inflammation.”

The study also showed that tumour markers in other cancers (like PSA – prostate specific antigen – for example) were also lower in patients with highest vagus nerve activity.

So, the question is: can we increase our vagus nerve activity?

The answer is yes.

There are a few ways, in fact, that include:




-practice of compassion

I’d like to draw your attention to the latter because I’ve written about this before and it demonstrates a powerful link between mind and emotions and physical health.

Studies have shown a link between compassion and vagus nerve activity, an idea first put forward by Stephen Porges, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now widely known as polyvagal theory.

For example, vagus nerve activity has been shown to increase through regular practice of a compassion meditation (the Buddhist’s metta bhavana or ‘Loving Kindness’ meditation). Here, we consistently cultivate a feeling of kindness and compassion for ourselves and others.

The same meditation has also been shown to lower a person’s inflammatory response to stress, presumably via increasing vagus nerve activity.

So, yes, we can increase vagal tone!

For me, this research is extra evidence that exercise, meditation, yoga, and even compassion, offer us far more protection from illness than we have imagined up until now. Now we are beginning to see the underlying biological mechanisms that explain why these practices are so beneficial.

Of course, exercising, meditating, doing yoga or being a nice person doesn’t mean a person will be immune to cancer. We all know that’s not true. But it might mean that they offer us a degree of protection, perhaps lessening the impact of some of the factors that do cause cancer.

How kindness can reduce wrinkles

mother showing kindness to daughterYes, you read correctly!

Have you ever cut an apple in half and left it on the table? If so, you’ll have noticed it quickly goes brown. This is oxidation, or oxidative stress, as scientists prefer to call it.

Oxidation occurs in skin too, and it can be a side-effect of lifestyle, diet, stress, even sunlight. It doesn’t happen as quickly in our skin as it does in a sliced apple left on a table, so don’t worry, but it happens nevertheless. It’s caused by what are known as free radicals.

Here’s a simple way to think of free radicals. Think of what Harry Potter’s spectacles look like: two ‘O’s and a little bridge between them. His spectacles are actually the exact shape of oxygen, the stuff we breathe. Oxygen – O2 – has two ‘O’ atoms and a bond (bridge) connecting them as in, O-O.

Now imagine Harry gets hit by one of Draco Malfoy’s spells and it snaps the bridge of his spectacles. So now he has two single lenses that are no longer bonded to one another. When this happens to oxygen, not due to one of Draco’s spells but to some kind of stress, the two ‘O’s are said to be free radicals.

Once bonded, they are now separate. Instead of being in a relationship, they are single. And they simply hate being single. They’ll do anything to be back in a relationship.

Unfortunately, such is the strength of a free radical’s desire to bond that it will happily covet its neighbour’s wife, so to speak: it will pinch any nearby atom. This isn’t so great for the body, especially if the atom pinched is part of the cells of our skin, or even the cells that line our arteries, or our immune system, or even a brain cell. Once the free radical has taken an atom, these cells can begin to fall apart.

The body has natural ways of dealing with free radicals, though. It uses anti-oxidants. An anti-oxidant is anti (against) oxidation. It is a willing partner for a free radical, thereby eliminating any further damage to cells.

We get anti-oxidants from many fruits and vegetables, salads, teas, olive oil, cinnamon, dark chocolate, and many other foods. It’s one of the reasons why doctors encourage us to eat those foods. We also have natural anti-oxidants in the body.

But when free radicals are produced more abundantly than the body is able to mop them up, that’s when we get oxidation / oxidative stress.

In the skin, it contributes to the formation of wrinkles.

So, what has kindness got to do with it?

It’s probably easier to think of it the other way around. You’ve probably noticed that stress speeds up ageing. This is partly because stress increases free radicals.

On the other hand, kindness generates the hormone, ‘oxytocin’ (see ‘Molecules of Kindness’), which reduces free radicals.

Scientists publishing in the journal, Experimental Dermatology, were studying two types of skin cells: keratinocytes, which make up 90 per cent of the outer layer of skin, and fibroblasts, which are the cells that make collagen.

They found that free radical levels are much lower in both the keratinocytes and the fibroblasts when there’s plenty of oxytocin present, and higher when there’s not much oxytocin present. In other words, oxytocin actively reduces free radicals.

Now, you cannot get oxytocin from your diet. You cannot eat it or drink it. The only way to get oxytocin into your skin is to produce it naturally. And the way to do that is through your behaviour!

Oxytocin production is a side effect of kindness (see ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘). Just as feeling stressed produces stress hormones, the feelings of warmth or connection that accompany acts of kindness generate oxytocin in the body.

This oxytocin reduces free radicals all throughout the body. Not only does it reduce free radicals in skin but studies show it reduces them in the arteries too, producing a ‘cardioprotective’ effect; that is, protecting the heart and arteries.

So, you want to reduce wrinkles? Be kind.

Someone once said to me, “That can’t be right because I am kind and I have wrinkles.”

Of course, being kind doesn’t mean you won’t age. But it does mean that being kind can slow the process down … just as stress speeds it up.

It simply comes down to the feelings that kindness and stress produce because these feelings generate substances in the body.

As I mentioned above, feeling stress generates stress hormones, and they contribute to the production of free radicals.

Feelings of warmth, connection, affection, gratitude – feelings that accompany kindness – generate oxytocin and oxytocin reduces free radicals.

In other words, stress speeds up ageing, kindness slows it down.

So, yes, as unlikely as it might sound on first reading, kindness really can reduce wrinkles.


Want to learn more?

There has been a great deal of recent research into the internal physiological products of being kind and compassionate. I have collated much of this research, including the different ways that kindness impacts cells, the immune system, nervous system, arteries, and brain in my book, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’. Available from all major booksellers. Here’s a few Amazon links. Amazon.co.uk  Amazon.com  Amazon.com.au  Amazon.ca  Audiobook

The Science of High Performance in Sport

tennis player abstract

Whether you’re playing tennis, golf or even running the 100 metres, there are certain things you can do that can help you to achieve high performance.

Here’s 7 of the most important ones:


How good do you want to be? One of the most important things to know is that practice lays down neural pathways in the brain. Whether it’s a cross-court winner in tennis, an approach shot at golf or even the start in a 100 metres sprint, practice is key to laying down these pathways that make you improve at these movements.

Practice creates habits in the brain and therefore the muscles, which not only helps you improve but also means that your body will know what to do in those all-important moments when you only have a split second to think.

Mental practice

Almost every elite athlete does mental practice. Neuroscience research shows that the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. In one piece of research, the brains of volunteers carrying out repetitive movements over 5 days were compared with volunteers imagining the same movements. Amazingly, the new brain pathways were identical in both groups.

So, to harness this fact, visualise yourself doing your sport, but see yourself doing everything just right. Due to the feedback between the brain and the muscles, this ensures that your muscles also learn to work in the way you’re imagining.

You can also use mental practice to play shots you find especially difficult, thus speeding up the learning on the court, green, or track. One important thing to keep in mind with mental practice is that you’re not just necessarily imagining the winning result, but the physical movements you’re doing in creating that result.

Repetition is key

The 3 rules of physical and mental practice are: Repetition! Repetition! Repetition!

High performance requires well defined neural pathways in the brain that connect with the muscles. The only way to build such neural pathways is repetition of the movements. And remember, the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. Use mental practice as well as physical practice.

In one-to-one competitive sports, if someone repeatedly beats you with the same shot or manoeuvre, practice countering it repetitively – both on the field and in your mental practice. Repetition wires neural pathways and thus habits into the brain.

Doing it once or twice is unlikely to get your breakthrough, but doing it a few hundred times might make a real difference. Many people don’t get the breakthroughs they seek because they don’t realise how much repetition is required. It’s all about your mind and body learning what to do, and this occurs through repetitively laying down neural pathways in the brain.


Stay focused, especially at the higher levels of your sport. Loss of focus for even a moment can turn a game of tennis, leave you 2 or 3 shots to catch up in golf or mean the difference between a gold medal and fourth in a race. Focus is as much a key to building a habit of winning as is training your body.

A simple focus exercise when practicing is to give every shot your 100% attention. Keep your eye on the ball at all times. This is not just something you do in competition, but essential in practice so that mental focus becomes a habit.

Mindfulness practice also helps because it develops the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the front part of the brain, above your eyes, that controls concentration.


If a tennis ball is flying at you at over 200kph, tension will only slow your reaction time. Similarly, tension before an important golf shot will chop away some smoothness from the shot, introducing an error of a few to several metres. Tension in a race tightens muscles and slows speed of movement.

Practice being highly alert and focused, yet relaxed at the same time. Many people think these are things you do at different times – alert one moment and relaxed in another – but it is important that you learn to do them at the same time. Focused doesn’t mean grimacing and holding your eyes and muscles rigid.

Relaxing helps your trained neural pathways take over. If you’ve practiced enough then your wired habit should do the rest – i.e., your body knows what to do. A good tip is to practice conscious breaths several times a day in a variety of different conditions and contexts. It will help you stay relaxed, yet focused, regardless of what is happening around you.

Body language

How you hold and move your body affects your focus and how you feel. There’s what’s called a ‘bi-directional relationship’ between your brain and muscles. It’s why you smile when you’re happy and tense your muscles when you worry. People mostly think it just goes that one way – from the brain to the muscles – but it goes the other way too, from the muscles to the brain.

To harness this, practice holding and moving your body in a way that conveys self-belief and quiet confidence. Do it on the court, green or track, but also practice it all throughout the day as you go about your life. You’re looking to create a body language habit and wire it into the brain, and this requires repetition while you practice, compete, and throughout your daily life.

Will to win

A will to win can be that edge that makes the difference in the latter stages of any game, when one or two points or one or two centimetres make all the difference. A will to win helps maintain high focus but it also activates trained neural pathways that ensure that your body does what it needs to do to win.

Winning becomes a habit when you have a well-developed will to win.


About the author

david-headshotDr David Hamilton is author of 9 books, including ‘The 5 Side Effects of Kindness’, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, and ‘I Heart Me’. He is a former athletics coach and also a former scientist within the pharmaceutical industry. He left the latter to study the placebo effect and teach people how to harness the mind-body connection for health, wellness, and high performance in sport.




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