An experiment in interconnectedness

IntegratingScienceExperimentJune15You know that I write mostly on subjects like the mind-body connection, self-love, my dog Oscar who passed away last year, as well as kindness and compassion and the science of how they affect our health. But also, from time-to-time, I write on more ‘out there’ topics, like synchronicities, the nature of consciousness, and interconnectedness, as I have covered all of these subjects in some of my 8 books.

OK, so this is one of those. It’s an experiment in interconnectedness – how we are connected through space.

Quantum Physics has shown us entanglement, where the state of one particle is correlated with the state of another, irrespective of distance (and now time, it seems). Numerous studies have also show correlations between the physiological or neurological states of two people even if they are separated in space.

In June, I unexpectedly participated in such an experiment. I was running my annual 5-day ‘Integrating Science’ event, where I show people how to integrate science into their own practices. I host the event at my favourite holistic centre, Lendrick Lodge, in the Scottish countryside. As well as mainstream topics like the placebo effect, meditation, visualisation, emotional contagion, the effects of compassion and kindness on the brain, heart, and inflammatory process, I also cover more ‘out there’ subjects.

On the third evening of the course we (the participants and I) were having a discussion about the interconnectedness of life and discussing some of the scientific evidence of it. We discussed experiments that seemed to show the connections using MRI or EEG. These experiments note correlations between the neural states of people who are separated by a distance; that is, as one person’s state changes, it seems to correlate with a change in state of the other person at precisely the same time. We discussed how these correlations tend to be strongest when two subjects (people) in an experiment share an emotional bond.

One of the participants (Ann) suggested that we try our own experiment, given that by this stage of the course, the group had emotionally bonded really well. I happened to have my heart monitor with me, a device called ‘emWave’, by Heartmath, so Ann suggested we connect one of the participants to the device and then the rest of the group would ‘send’ loving and kind intentions from another room.

Another of the participants (Rebecca) volunteered to be connected to the device. I sat with her in the teaching room while the group gathered in the dining room where they would then ‘send’ their intentions to Rebecca.

When we first decided on the experiment, we had simply discussed seeing if the group could collectively focus on Rebecca and we’d see if this correlated with a change in Rebecca’s heart rhythms (as measured by the heart monitor), so I assumed they were going to focus on Rebecca within a minute or so. Unknown to me, Ann suggested to the group that they modify things.

She later told me, “I reckoned you were too attached to the outcome of the experiment so opted to try something different from what you thought we were going to do.”

So they decided to do an ‘on-off-on’ kind of experiment, where they would ‘send’ loving-kindness to Rebecca – then stop – and then start again. Ann spent some time (9 minutes) going through the set-up with the group, explaining they that would do a loving-kindness meditation directed towards Rebecca, or whichever each individual felt most comfortable with, and they’d do it for 2 minutes. The loving-kindness meditation is a Tibetan Buddhist meditation also known as ‘metta’ that has been shown to have a whole range of positive health benefits.

Following this they would do a 1-minute disconnect, where they would withdraw their focus from Rebecca and focus on something stressful in their own lives for a period of 1 minute. Following a short 15-second calm period to refocus, they would again focus on sending loving-kindness to Rebecca for another 2 minutes. So, all in, they would do 2 minutes on – 1 minute off – followed by 2 minutes on, hence ‘on-off-on’.

Throughout the whole time, Rebecca simply closed her eyes and relaxed. I sat beside her and did the same. At the end of the time the group came back into the teaching room.

We were all stunned by the results. As you can see from the charts below, the rhythms of Rebecca’s heart correlated extremely accurately with the state of the group. At the point when they first ‘sent’ loving kindness, there was an immediate and dramatic increase in the coherence of Rebecca’s heart rhythms.

OK, first a wee bit about what the heart monitor shows. It measures Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is the difference in your heart rate as you breathe in and out. Mostly, your heart rate should increase a little as you breathe in, as the sympathetic branch of your autonomic nervous system (ANS) kicks into gear, and then it should decrease a little as the parasympathetic (vagus) branch of your ANS kicks in, initiating the ‘rest and relax’ mode. The difference between the high (on the increase) and the low (on the decrease) is called heart rate variability. When HRV is very ordered and stable (or smooth) it is referred to as coherence.

IntegratingScienceExperimentJune15At the precise moment when the group sent loving-kindness to Rebecca (at 9 minutes), there was a huge increase in the coherence of Rebecca’s heart rhythms. If the group were indeed affecting her then their collective intentions were actually affecting Rebecca’s ANS and her heart rhythms!

The group sharply withdrew their loving and kind focus on Rebecca after 2 minutes (at 11 minutes on the chart), and as you can see from the chart, this correlated with a sharp decrease in the coherence of Rebecca’s heart rhythms.

For the next 1 minute, the group did a ‘disconnect’, where they focused on something (or someone) stressful in their lives. During this time (from 11 minutes to 12min 15 seconds), Rebecca’s heart coherence dropped significantly, as you can see in the chart.

What about that extra 15 seconds? At the end of the 1-minute disconnect, the group paused for about 15 seconds to gather their focus before beginning a second 2-minute period of loving-kindness focusing on Rebecca (at 12min 15seconds). Again, this correlated with an increase in Rebecca’s heart coherence.

I find the timing up to this point really quite astonishing. The synchronisation between the intentions of the group and the changes in Rebecca’s heart rhythms is to within a few seconds.

The final 2-minute period didn’t correlate quite as well, although Rebecca’s heart rhythms remained coherent for one and a half of the two minutes (from 12min 15 seconds through until 13min 45seconds). If we were indeed seeing a connection between Rebecca and the group, which I believe we were, then there could be any number of reasons for this. Only repeats of the experiment, perhaps with more ‘on-off-on’ periods would prove for sure what we were seeing.

So assuming we are seeing true interconnectedness, what does this tell us? It tells us that we are far more connected that most of us assume. It suggests that maybe we can have health-giving effects on our loved ones even when we’re not in their presence, simply by holding an idea of them in our hearts and minds and filling this idea with love, kindness, and compassion.

On the contrary, how often do we lose ourselves in the frustrations of life? Could we be having subtle negative effects on people we mentally focus our frustrations on? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m not so sure, to be honest. We didn’t measure the negative side of things. The group didn’t send any negative intentions towards Rebecca. That would not have been right. Instead, they simply removed their positive intentions.

My gut feeling is that loving intentions are more powerful than ones based in fear. If it were the other way around, I doubt our species would have survived this long.

Connections also seem to be stronger when there is an emotional bond present, and I’d suggest that bond needs to be a warm bond, infused with empathy, compassion, love, kindness. From my reading of other experiments, I’d say empathy is key as it’s from empathy that other positive and loving intentions arise.

So I personally think people in our lives would benefit more if we tried to think of them in their best light. It can be difficult, especially when we have a lot going on and when we have issues with some people, but then almost everything can be improved with practice. Perhaps, believing that our intentions can help others could serve as motivation to practice.

And the positive emotions benefit you as well. Heartmath say that, “When you intentionally shift to a positive emotion, heart rhythms immediately change. A shift in heart rhythms, from chaotic to coherent, creates a favourable cascade of neural, hormonal, and biochemical events that benefit the entire body. The stress-reducing effects are both immediate and long-lasting.”

So here’s my advice. It’s pretty simple, really. Here it is: Try to see the best in people.

You never know what’s going on in a person’s life (or has happened in their past) that causes them to behave in the way they do. Let this simple idea guide you to at least trying to see the best in people.


Big thanks to:

Rebecca Ryder, Ann Hutchison, Ann Ayton, Julie Barbour, Hazel Bridgewater, Millicent Grant, Anne Hainan, Tracy Harrison, Joe Hayes, Debbie McLeod, Leslie Moultrie, Sandra Paterson, Annie Pownall, Heather Salter, Adargoma Sanabria, Carrie Sanderson, Jo Sawkins, Rosie Stevens, Sian Withers.

Thanks, also, to Lendrick Lodge, and Stephen & Victoria Mulhearn.

How meditation affects the cells of breast cancer survivors

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

I have written about the benefits of meditation on several occasions, from how it slows ageing, can make us happier, helps us develop and maintain and calm state, and even how it impacts our genes.

So I just couldn’t wait to tell you about an amazing new study that can give hope to people who have or have had breast cancer.

Scientists at the University of Calgary, led by Dr Linda E. Carlson, clinical psychologist and professor of psychosocial oncology, measured telomeres (I’ll tell you a bit more about them in a mo) in breast cancer survivors who did a Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery (MBCR) program or who attended Supportive-Expressive Group Therapy (SET).

OK, telomeres first. They’re the little end-caps on DNA that help stop it unravelling. They’re a bit like the little plastic caps on shoelaces that help stop them unravelling. Gradually, as we age, through the effects of stress, lifestyle and ageing, telomeres get shorter. Once they get too short, the cells expires, just as your shoe laces are pretty much done when the plastic cap is gone. Telomere research seems to suggest that longer telomeres help protect us from disease and that telomere length is correlated with the likelihood of surviving diseases, including breast cancer and cellular ageing. In other words, if our telomeres stay healthy, our cells stay healthy, we stay healthy, and we live longer.

The scientists compared the telomeres of patients doing MBCR or SET against a control group of patients.

How the study was done

Breast cancer patients (stages I – III) who had completed treatment at least 3 months earlier were randomised into 3 groups.

One group attended MBCR sessions once a week for 8 weeks, which involved meditation and gentle yoga. The sessions were 90 minutes long and the women were also given CDs for doing the meditation and yoga at home.

One group attended 3 months’ worth of weekly 90-minute SET sessions. Each session encouraged openness and emotional expression and helped cultivate a group emotional support system. Some describe these sessions as ‘emotional detox’.

A third group – the control group – simply attended a 6-hour stress management seminar, which represented standard treatment.

The results

The scientists found that while telomeres had shortened in the control group, telomeres didn’t shorten at all over the 3-month period in the groups who did MBCR or SET. In other words, meditation, yoga, and emotional expression seemed to have a protective effect on cells.

Think about what this means! Basically, meditation, yoga, and emotional support are having a positive effect at the cellular level on breast cancer survivors.

I wanted to share this because there are so many people in the world these days affected by cancer, whether themselves, or it’s someone in their family, one of their friends or colleagues. As you may know, I lost my beloved dog, Oscar, to cancer just over 3 months ago. I think the more ways we know how to deal with cancer the better.

I love studies like this because they are empowering. The give hope where sometimes hope is very low. They show us that this is something that we can do. It’s something that we can take control of.

If you want a little more info or guidance on how to do MBCR or SET, here’s a link to the scientific paper. Here’s also some links to a book written by Linda Carlson called ‘Mindfulness-Based Cancer Recovery: A Step-by-Step MBSR Approach to Help You Cope With Treatment and Help You Reclaim Your Life’ (Amazon UK that also gives info on how to use MBCR.

Can loving-kindness slow down ageing?

happy people

You might have heard of telomeres! They’re the little end-caps on DNA that stops it unraveling, a bit like the little plastic caps on shoelaces that stop them from unraveling.

Telomeres have become popular because they’re closely linked with the age of the body. Short telomeres tend to mean faster ageing.

Lots of research has now shown that meditation can slow ageing. I’ve written about some of the research in some other blogs. See: (Harvard Study Finds that Meditation Impacts DNA) (Can Compassion Beat Botox in the Anti-Ageing Stakes?)

One of my favourite meditations is the Buddhists’ Loving-Kindness Meditation. It helps you cultivate a sentiment of love, kindness, and compassion for yourself and others. It always leaves me feeling warm inside.

I am pleased to learn that scientists have now studied the effect of the Loving-Kindness Meditation on the length of telomeres. Fifteen practitioners of the Meditation were compared with 22 people in a control group. They were all around the same age. Each person had their telomeres measured.

The study found that the practitioners of the Loving-Kindness Meditation had longer telomeres than the control group. Basically, it meant that even though they were all around the same age, the people who practiced loving-kindness were physiologically younger.

And if you’re a female reading this, you’ll be very pleased to know the following: Female Loving-Kindness Meditation practitioners had the longest telomeres of all! The meditation seems to effect women more than men.

You have two ages. There’s your chronological age, which is your actual age. So if you were born in March 1960 your chronological age is 54 (I’m writing this in August 2014). Your physiological age, on the other hand, is the age of your body and it is affected by diet, lifestyle, stress, attitude … and clearly love, kindness, and compassion.

An unhealthy diet, lifestyle, or lots of stress, all tend to age the body faster. A person whose chronological age is 54 but who leads a very unhealthy lifestyle might have a physiological age of 68. Another person with the same chronological age but who leads a very healthy life might have a physiological age of 37.

The length of your telomeres is a good estimate of your physiological age.

So the Loving-Kindness Meditation basically reduces physiological age. You really can grow younger! You can’t become chronologically younger, but it’s your physiological age that ultimately matters.


How to do the meditation:

You can use the following set of statements:

May ____ be filled with loving kindness, be well, peaceful and at ease, happy, and free of suffering.

Where I’ve put a ____, insert first yourself and repeat it three times, then choose a loved one, and again repeat three times, followed by someone emotionally neutral to you, again three times, then a difficult person in your life; that’s someone from the present or past who causes or has caused you stress and you still have a negative emotional charge towards. Again you wish them the sentiments three times. Then you finish by wishing the sentiment to all sentient beings, again three times. That’s one cycle.

You can do as many or as few cycles as you wish. Some people like to do a few so that they can focus on their closest loved ones. Some people focus on the same difficult person on all of their cycles. There is no rule that says you have to do it in any particular way. What matters most is the sentiment of love, kindness, and compassion.