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

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5 tips for making visualisation work

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

Here are 5 tips that can be used to help you get the most out of your visualizations, whether you’re applying them to heal your body, to change your life, or to improve your sports performance.

 

Believe in yourself

This is why I write about and teach the science behind the mind-body connection. If you understand that you’re always affecting your body with your mind, and that the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary, you realise that your mind is not some floaty, ethereal, thing that only interprets life events, but something that actually causes changes in the body. This way, you develop faith in yourself, that what you imagine, hope for, or intend, does have effects.

You can only do it right

This is something I say every time I guide people through a visualization process. Many people think they can’t visualise because they think everyone else sees in high definition (HD). Trust me, they don’t. But it’s the thought that they do that makes us think we’re doing it wrong. Actually, most people just get a vague set of images. What matters most is your intention and that you’re not thinking that you’re doing it wrong. I like the word, ‘imagine’ rather than visualise, because we all imagine in our own way. When I imagine, I have images in my mind’s eye but they are rarely that clear. For me, it’s more a feeling and sensing thing.

Relax

This can be easier said than done, but a regular practice of relaxing goes a long way to reducing stress in the body, which can only be a good thing. Meditation is great, as is yoga. Physical exercise is also a good way of relaxing. Eating a good diet can also help, one free of stimulants and high amounts of sugar and saturated fat.

Lighten up

I often suggest that people add a tiny bit of humour to their visualizations. This helps get around the worry that it might not work. When we worry, we activate brain areas associated with fear and anxiety. So if we inject a little lightness into the visualization, we retain our concentration on what we’re imagining and we might even help wire our brain networks away from the worry centres so that optimism and hope are born instead of worry. I encourage people to create a ‘victory dance’ to end their visualization. Basically, you do a silly dance of victory after you finish, and you have to do it until you find yourself smiling. This helps wire lightness into the brain.

The 3 R’s – Repetition-Repetition-Repetition

Research shows that we change brain structure through repetition of imagining movements. Brain scans of people playing piano versus people imagining playing it showed the same degree of changes in the same areas of the brain. But to get the changes required repetition of the movements – real or imaginary. When we stop doing the work, the brain regions shrink again. This is why consistency is key. You don’t become Olympic champion by going to the gym once. It’s important to do consistent visualization practice to get the best results.

 

References:

David R Hamilton PhD, “How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body”. Paperback kindle

How to Think Yourself SLIM

woman at scales being weighedWhen I was compiling stories on visualization a few years ago, a woman sent in her use of visualization for losing weight.

She first started imagining pac man type beings eating all the fat cells from the bits she wanted to lose weight from. She was doing it five times a day. She began to lose weight but then was faced with a dilemma. She said, “The first part of the female body to go down during weight loss is the breasts.” She didn’t want that. She’d always been proud in that arena, she relayed.

So she adapted her visualization so that when the pac men were full, instead of just exploding they travelled up the way and deposited the fat onto her breasts. It seemed to work magic.

After 5 months she dropped 21 pounds in weight and gained half a cup size.  She said, “It’s just marvellous.”

And amazingly, she said, she didn’t have any cravings for chocolate and other stuff she was eating so much of.

In a seminar in Sweden that I taught, some of the ladies were laughing heartily through the breakout session. During group feedback on their visualizations, I asked what had been so funny. One of them said they had created the BEST EVER weight loss visualization. Now I was intrigued, as was the rest of the group.

They shared that they imagined themselves as lollypops and Brad Pitt was licking them. And as he did, they got smaller and smaller. I’ll leave that one to your imagination!

In many ways, the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imagery. If we visualize something happening then the brain can process it in some of the same ways as if it was actually happening.

Of course, you won’t turn into a lollypop, in case you were thinking of trying out that visualization, but the symbolism of the volume of fat getting smaller and smaller and smaller is what the brain might process as real.

I have come across many people who have used visualization as part of their weight loss strategy. Part of the reason it works, I believe, is that the brain is tricked into thinking that the fat is reducing and so it subtly alters our behavior, cravings, motivation, as well as, perhaps, even how the body stores fat and where it is stored.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University might be onto another novel way of using visualization to control weight.

They asked volunteers to imagine eating before they actually ate.

The study involved 51 people who were asked to imagine eating either 3 or 30 units of a particular food. The food in one of their experiments was M&Ms.

One set of volunteers had to imagine eating 3 M&Ms and they also had to imagine putting 30 coins into a laundry machine. Another set of volunteers had to do it the other way around. They imagined eating 30 M&Ms but were to imagine placing only 3 coins into the machine. A third set of volunteers just imagined placing 33 coins into the machine.

The reason for the coins in a machine was because the muscles used are similar to lifting food into your mouth and it was important that the volunteers all imagined the same number of hand movements.

After they did this, they were invited to eat some M&Ms from a bowl in preparation for what they were told was going to be a ‘taste test’. But it wasn’t really a taste test. It was really so that the experimenters could secretly record how many M&Ms they ate.

Incredibly, they found that those who imagined eating the most M&Ms (30) ate much less from the bowl than the other two groups.

The conclusion of the study was that imagining eating the M&Ms suppresses the appetite to eat more of them, just as if we had physically ate them. It kind of makes sense. It’s almost as if the brain thinks, “OK, I’ve had enough now. I’m full,” even though the person hasn’t actually eaten anything at all.

This is known as habituation. As we eat more, after a point our appetite reduces otherwise we’d keep on eating. It’s amazingly that the same thing seems to happen when we just imagine eating.

So if a person actually imagines the full process of eating – i.e., repetitively chewing and swallowing the food – it produces a similar effect in the brain to actually eating the food.

To the brain, the difference between real and imaginary is a thin line. In fact, in the words of Carey Morewedge, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University who led the study, “The difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed.”

It might be that we can imagine eating a meal, bite for bite, before we eat and then find that we don’t feel like eating as much and therefore weight loss is a natural side-effect. However, the research is still in its infancy and there is no data yet on whether imagining eating affects any of the body’s other systems, like blood sugar, for instance, or even whether it causes us to eat so much less that the body lacks the nutrition it needs.

There’s a lot of as yet unanswered questions so I’d caution against imagining eating a meal before eating without first speaking to your doctor. I think that’s just being sensible. If in doubt, show her or him this article.

But it certainly does show us another powerful use of the mind. It’s certainly something to think about…or imagine.

 

Visualizing the Perfect Performance

Andy Murray wins US Open

Now that the Olympics and the Paralympics are over, I wanted to write a short piece on how the mind can improve athletic performance.

Setting aside mental strength, which was clearly demonstrated by Andy Murray when he won the US Open Tennis the other day (I’m writing these words the following morning after having stayed up to 2am to watch the game), visualization – or mental imagery as some call it – can have a huge impact on performance.

The technique is to imagine yourself running the perfect race, or hitting the ball perfectly, or jumping or throwing perfectly. And the key is to do it not just once, but over and over and over again.

I’m forever telling people that thoughts are not impotent. I think we grow up believing that thoughts are just inert, floaty things that once we have them they just disappear into the ether. Not so! Every thought alters brain chemistry. The same kind of thought repeated often actually shapes brain structure and has a chemical impact around the body.

Studies into brain plasticity, for instance, show us that imagining something over and over again is just as good a actually doing it. Harvard researchers had volunteers play piano notes each day for 5 consecutive days. They were compared to volunteers who imagined playing the notes. After the five days, there were significant brain changes in the brains of both groups. The brain had grown millions of new connections in both those who had actually played the notes and those who just imagined it. If you mixed up the brain images, you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. Indeed, in many ways, the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary.

And the effect extends throughout the body. Visualizing moving a muscle actually impacts that muscle as well as the brain region linked to it. One study saw volunteers gain 53% strength by moving their little finger for 15 minutes a day. Other volunteers imagined moving their fingers instead. They gained 35% strength. OK, it wasn’t 53% but, hey, they didn’t even lift a finger to gain their 35% strength. Who needs the gym? 🙂

The technique has now helped stroke patients, those with spinal cord injuries, and even people with Parkinson’s disease.

Most top sports performers use visualization. After breaking the 100 metres world record with a time of 9.58 seconds, Usain Bolt was quoted as saying, “I just visualized and then executed my plan.”

My first attempt at visualization was in 1996, a few months before I joined Sale Harriers Athletics Club in Manchester as an amateur athlete. I spent a few months listening to a visualization tape 3 times a week. At the same time I’d started training down the track on my own. After impressing the head of the club, I was invited to join as a long-jumper. When I did my first competition for the club a few weeks later, I increased my PB (personal best) by over half a metre – at the time, increasing from 5.94 metres to 6.66 metres. I was hooked on visualization after that.

I turned team manager and coach a few seasons after that and helped many athletes to be the best they could be and win medals at National Junior League level.

A few years later, after I’d left athletics, I decided to alter my visualization strategy. I was using a hilly circuit of around 1k to train to keep fit and would run it 4 times with a 3 minute recovery in between each. I’d never tried visualization for training before and had an idea to visualise increasing my stride length. My mental strategy was to imagine being inside my muscles and feeling them stretch massively and effortlessly, as if I was an Olympic gymnast. As I did that, I imagined a longer stride that was effortless. My average lap time in that session went from 4 min 30 to 4 min 10, and it felt much easier than my previous sessions. At the end, I felt I could have run another 2 or 3 laps. For me, flexibility was clearly a big thing.

Visualization can be used to increase strength, flexibility, mental strength, calmness, or technical ability.

So how to do you actually visualize?

Here’s the steps:

1. Sit or lie down, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Do this for about 1 minute.

2. Imagine yourself doing your thing – running, jumping, hitting a ball, etc. Spend at least 5-10 minutes doing this. You can do it over and over again over the time period if you wish. See yourself doing it perfectly, gracefully.

Some people find it easier to see themselves in the 3rd person (looking at themselves), others in the 1st person (seeing through their own eyes). Use whichever technique is easier for you. Some research suggests that 1st person visualization is slightly better, but the jury is out on that one. You could try both techniques and eventually work with the one that brings you best results.

3. After 5-10 minutes or more, bring your attention back to your breathing and then open your eyes.

 

How often?

It depends upon how serious you are about your event. I’d recommend you do it every day as the neuroscience research shows that repetition is the best formula.

Your mind is a powerful tool. Don’t underestimate it!!

 

How to switch on a light with your mind

chemicals in headCan you imagine being able to switch on a light with your mind? Or adjust the volume on the TV by just thinking about it? Or even drive your car by imagining yourself driving? These things sound like they’re straight out of a Sci-Fi movie, but in reality we’re not actually that far from it.

It is well known that brainwaves change depending upon what we’re thinking about and that brain areas are specifically activated when we focus our minds on different parts of our bodies. This means that if a person imagines moving a finger then we get activation in the finger area of the brain, but if they imagine moving a toe then there’s activation in the toe area instead.

What if scientists could record the brain activation and channel the activation signals into a computer. And what if the computer was programmed to link each different signal to different things around the household, like lights, TV’s, and other appliances? A finger command could turn on the light, a toe command could adjust the TV volume. A ‘nose’ command might even boil the kettle.

The reality is that we’re almost there with the technology. In pioneering research published in the scientific journal, ‘Nature’, in 2006 a tetraplegic person had a tiny chip inserted in his brain (known as a BCI – Brain-Computer Interface) that recorded activation of specific brain areas associated with simple imagined movements. He was able to move a cursor on a computer screen and even open an e-mail with his mind.

And not only that, he played a computer game, controlled a robotic arm, and adjusted not only the volume of the TV but changed the channel as well, all by thought.

I have personally played a ‘heart’ game created by the Institute of Heartmath that uses heart rhythms to move computer images. After some practice, I was able to adjust the height of a hot air balloon on a computer screen by altering my heart rhythms through relaxed breathing.

Using a BCI, Researchers from Graz University in Austria even helped a paralysed person control a character in a virtual reality simulator by thought alone. The research paper they published was called, ‘Walking from Thought’ as the person could make the character walk down a street simply by imagining himself walking. The next logical step in the research is to create prosthetic devices that move just as arms and legs do – according to intentions.

And more recently this kind of brain technology is being experimentally adapted to see if it can give the scientist Stephen Hawking the ability to communicate. He has been suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease (motor neurone disease) and has greatly outlived the predictions of doctors who, when he was diagnosed at 21 years of age, predicted he would only live a few years. He celebrated his 70th birthday in January of this year.

Up until now he has been able to create vocal commands on a computer by making tiny, controlled twitches of a muscle in his cheek. But he is now losing the use of that muscle and with it the ability to communicate.

Professor Hawking has been working with neuroscientist Philip Low, CEO of NeuroVigil, based in San Diego, who is adapting a piece of technology called ‘iBrain’ (a BCI device) to record brain waves that are associated with some of Prof Hawking’s thoughts. The data can then be fed into a voice synthesizer to recreate the words. If it works out it will be a massive breakthrough.

So perhaps it might not be so long before we’re able to do a lot of things around the house and at work just by thinking about them. Imagine being able to activate cleaning programs in your house just by thinking about cleaning (oh, the joy), and selecting musical tracks to play just by singing a few notes in your head, or even selecting a movie to watch by just recalling a single scene.

I’m so excited….getting a bit ahead of myself. 🙂

 

References:

For the research where the person opened an e-mail with his mind, see: L. R. Hochberg, et al, ‘Neuronal ensemble control of prosthetic devices by a human with tetraplegia’, Nature, 2006, 442, 164-171

For the ‘Walking from Thought’ research, see: G. Pfurtscheller, et al, ‘Walking from thought’, Brain Research, 2006, 1071(1), 145-152.

For more information on BCI’s, see chapter 6 of David R. Hamilton PhD, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, (Hay House, 2008)

For more info on how different brain areas are activated depending on where we put our attention, see chapter 6 of David R. Hamilton PhD, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, (Hay House, 2008)

 

It’s not just food – it’s also how we think about food

Head with colored cogs inside
creative brain
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’ve made an observation that when people learn a lot about health and nutrition, even though they enjoy better overall health when they act on their knowledge, they tend to get more colds.

Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone but you might spot yourself if it does apply.

And I have to admit, I went through that phase myself.

Why is this?

Personally, in the past I only had positive associations about food. When I ate some chocolate, my main thought was that I was getting energy from it. Cheese, for me, meant protein. Milk was calcium.

But back in 2003, my life changed in many ways as I learned a lot about good nutrition. As I put my knowledge into action, I lost 18 pounds in weight in around 7 weeks, my skin tone even improved and I felt fantastic compared to how I’d always felt.

But I also started getting more colds and sore throats. To be honest, I’m one of those people who, up until that point, rarely got sick. In fact, the headmaster at my school announced my name on the tannoy system when I was 17 as one of only 2 people who’d gone 6 years of high school without missing a single day through illness. Actually, that wasn’t so cool for a 17 year old. 🙂

Now, I don’t personally think the colds had anything whatsoever to do with my new diet. My new diet was excellent. So what was the cause? I think the root was the fact that now I was acutely aware of all the foods that were ‘bad’ for me.

Eating chocolate no longer meant energy for me. Now it meant sugar (bad) and saturated fat (bad). So when I ate chocolate (which I find hard to resist), I was really telling myself that I was taking stuff that was bad for me into my body, whereas in the past I was affirming it’s good qualities. The shift was in my mind and it was creating stress.

Similarly, I found myself obsessively reading labels for sugar and fat contents and feeling guilty when I ate something that had high contents of sugar, salt and fat. Funnily enough, I was actually imagining the internal damage they were doing to my body – like a negative visualization. That’s OK if we avoid the foods but it’s not so handy if we eat them anyway.

I’ve been wondering if this could have created a negative placebo effect (a nocebo effect) that resulted in me getting more colds. I think it did. The solution was to change what I told myself about foods.

Of course, it is important to eat a healthy diet. Diet is crucial for health. A healthy diet can reduce the likelihood of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer, as well as a number of other illnesses, and it can increase mobility as well as mental clarity.

But we also need to think wisely about food. It would make more sense to think of the positives we get from all foods and then just choose the ones that we know to be better for us in the long-term.

When we have a slip-up day from our diets (which I think most of us do), then we might simply remind ourselves that there is actually energy and nutrients to be obtained from whatever we are eating – unless of course you’re tucking into a plastic bag or something like that, in which case I’d be concerned anyway!

And, of course, I don’t think it would be wise to test the power of food beliefs by eating typically high sugary, salty, and fatty foods and just telling ourselves that we’re getting good nutrition from them.

I’m talking about a sensible balance, where we eat wisely and healthily, but merely observe our minds a little, catching ourselves when we think negative about what we are eating.

Eating healthy is a choice. But choosing to eat healthy foods is different from cutting out unhealthy foods. On the surface it’s the same, but the difference is in the mind. Cutting out unhealthy foods labels unhealthy stuff as bad, while choosing to eat healthy focuses, instead, on what is healthy. The difference is in the mind.

As we go through life, learning new things, we needn’t always dismiss what we knew or believed in the past, swapping it for new knowledge. Oftentimes, the wisest thing to do is to build on what we have learned up until then. That way, life doesn’t have to be black and white, new instead of old, but can take on many textures and shades along the way. We can take in the new, but also retain what was good about the old.

That’s how I think of things anyway.

So that’s just some of my thinking about food. As I said, it might not apply to you but I’d hazard a guess that it applies to more people than we’d imagine.

Mental Training vs Physical Training – how we get stronger by doing a mental workout

brain with neuron firingIn my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, I wrote about gaining strength by using our minds to imagine exercising and I have spoken about the subject in many talks and workshops.

I jokingly suggest that we can lie in our beds instead of going to the gym and just do the workout in our minds. So I was excited to learn of some very recent scientific research that showed just how much we can replace actual training with training in our minds. The research was carried out the Institute of Sports Science at the Justus Liebig University Giessen in Germany and led by Mathias Reiser and published in Frontiers in Psychology in August 2011.

They compared 5 groups of people. One did 100% of a training program physically, one group did 75% of it physically and 25% of it in the minds, another did 50% physically and 50% mentally, yet another did 25% physical training and 75% mental training, and the last group did no training.

The training consisted of 12 sessions where they did 4 sets of 2 maximal isometric contractions – physically or mentally.

Incredibly, there was only a very small difference in strength gains between doing 100% of the training in the gym and doing just 25% in the gym and doing the extra time mentally. You really could lie in your bed on a cold, wet morning instead of going to the gym. They thing is, though, you’d need to do the whole session in your mind. But research of this sort really does show the incredible potential of the human mind.

The authors concluded that ‘high intensity strength training sessions can be partly replaced by mental strength training sessions.’ Is that a loud cheer I hear from those who love the feel of a warm bed on a Saturday morning?

This is meaningful for people who are not able to do any physical exercise, perhaps through illness or injury, because they can offset some loss in strength by working out in their minds. Neuroscience research shows that the same areas of the brain are activated regardless of whether a person does actual training or simulates it in their minds. And, incredibly, the amount of force produced by the muscles is directly proportional to the degree of activation of the brain area. In other words, the more you activate the brain through mental work, the stronger the muscle.

Research of this type is highly encouraging, for people with illness or injury, for people in competitive sports, but also for most people who do recreational exercise to keep fit.

It lays to rest any ideas of the mind as an impotent ghostly thing, whose only role is to think thoughts and to analyse life circumstances.

It is time we recognised the power of the mind and put it to good use in our lives.

 

References:

David R Hamilton PhD, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’ (Hay House, 2008). UK paperback. US paperback. Kindle.

For the Justus Liebig University research paper, see: M. Reiser, D. Busch, and J. Munzert, ‘Strength gains by motor imagery with different ratios of physical to mental practice’, Frontiers in Psychology, 2011, 2, article 194. Click here to view a PDF.

 

Top 5 Mind-Body Tips for Healthy Living

girl relaxing in the grass1) Meditate to calm your mind and stay young

Meditation helps calm the mind and reduce stress. Regular practice helps us meet many of the routinely challenging situations in our lives with less effort, and we achieve better results.

Few people realize that meditation also slows the aging process. One study associated meditation with higher levels of the ‘anti-aging hormone’, DHEA, implying that meditation slowed aging. A Harvard study showed that it even impacts us at the genetic level, affecting around 2,000 genes, some of which counteracted damage to the body from free radicals, thus potentially slowing the rate of aging.

A simple way to meditate is to sit down and listen to the sound of your breathing for about 10 minutes a day.

 

2) Believe that your mind can help you to heal

Studies of the placebo effect – where people get better in medical trials while taking dummy drugs – reveal that belief can make us well from many different ailments. When you believe in a medicine, or in the physician prescribing it, it is likely to work better for you. We have a powerful capacity to affect our own health with our minds.

One interesting placebo study saw volunteers in a pain study have placebo cream applied to one of their hands or feet, although they thought it was a local anaesthetic. Then they had extract of chili (capsicum) injected into their hands and feet. Incredibly, the pain selectively reduced where the cream was applied but not on the other hands and feet.

A simple way to build belief like this is to tell yourself regularly that the mind can help heal the body. Read up on scientific evidence of mind over matter (there’s lots around) and this will help you to believe in yourself.

The most common methods people use to visualize healing are where they imagine inside the body at the site(s) of illness and imagine changing it from illness to wellness. They imagine cleaning, clearing, scooping, melting, or even sending love and affection, or any other method they can think of. And they do it regularly.

Of course, using visualization is not a substitute for medical advice. It is something that you would use in addition to medical advice. That’s the intelligent approach.

 

3) Show compassion and kindness to people

Compassion physically impacts the brain, building up empathy centers and areas that help us to feel more positive and emotionally balanced. It is also linked with the vagus nerve. Some studies show that compassion is associated with the fitness of the vagus nerve in how it reduces inflammation in the body.

This is a good thing because too much inflammation plays a major role in heart disease, some cancers, and possibly the majority of diseases we know of.

Kindness is also good for your health. The bonding hormone, oxytocin, is released through warm emotional contact, which is something that kindness cultivates. Great research on oxytocin shows that it is cardioprotective – it helps protect your arteries from agents of disease. So kindness is cardioprotective. I love that because everyone is familiar with the idea that kindness (and love) is good for the heart (and soul). Science is saying the same thing.

Kindness can also make a real difference in someone’s life. We shouldn’t do kindness because we are trying to gain. We are kind because it’s the right thing to do. But the gains are real; they are side effects, written into our genetic code through the millions of years of caretaking behaviour of our ancestors.

 

4) Be Positive

OK. We’ve all heard this before, but it is important from a health perspective. A good dose of positivity can help us navigate some of the difficult situations in our lives with less stress. And stress, as we know, plays a role in illness and disease. Less stress can equal longer life.

Some studies on positivity show that it is associated with better health. One 30-year study found that optimists had around a 50% lower risk of early death than pessimists and a few others show that a positive attitude is associated with a longer lifespan.

Of course, there are always exceptions. We all know positive people who die young and very pessimistic people who outlive their entire families. That’s a statistical thing and will always be true. But take a sample of several thousand people and you will see that positivity is associated with longevity.

 

5) Cultivate a heart of gratitude

Counting our blessings is good for our mental and emotional health. One 3-week study compared those counting blessings with those counting their hassles. It was called a ‘Blessings vs Burdens’ study. The blessings group kept a daily diary of some things that they were grateful about while the burdens group kept a diary of their daily hassles. After the 3 weeks, those in the blessings group were 23% happier than those in the burdens group.

A few simple methods that you might use are, a) Write a daily list of 5-10 things that you are grateful for that have happened in the last day (it’s good to do this just before going to bed), or b) Choose a different person each day and spend a few moments thinking of all the reasons why you are grateful for their presence in your life.

Gratitude is a tasty ingredient in food for the soul

 

Think Yourself Positive

The brain’s circuits are not fixed.

Our experiences constantly change the wiring in our brains, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. The more we do something, the more the brain physically changes as it wires it in.

A study of London taxi drivers showed neuroplasticity. It found that the hippocampus of the brain, which is involved in learning new routes as well as with spatial awareness, grew larger the more time they spent driving their taxis.

In another study, conducted by scientists at the University of Regensburg, volunteers learned to juggle three balls over a 3-month period. When MRI scans were taken of their brains, the area that processed visual movement had grown larger.

But it’s not just our physical experiences that cause neuroplasticity. Our thoughts do the same thing. In the first instance, thinking changes brain chemistry, but if we think the same thought repetitively we actually get neuroplasticity in the area of the brain that processes what we are thinking about.

So with meditation, for instance, we get changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the area that controls concentration. When we imagine moving our body, we get changes in the motor cortex of the brain, which is the area that controls muscular movements.

What does this mean for us in daily life?

It means that our thoughts and attitudes become wired into our brains. But it also means that we can change our habits. They are not fixed.

For some people, a negative emotional response is typical when faced with life’s challenges. But it can be changed.

Even when this is a habit, neuroplasticity means that it can be overturned. As we make a conscious effort to adopt a different attitude, the brain circuits that processed our old way of thinking begin to fade, like the way a muscle atrophies if you stop using it. In a sense, the brain doesn’t want to waste energy maintaining the circuits if they are not needed as much.

In the juggling study mentioned above, after the first scans, the jugglers stopped practicing for 3 months and new scans then revealed that the area that had grown earlier had now shrunk. It’s a case of ‘use it or lose it’.

As we work on our new attitude, and the old circuits dissolve, new circuits are created in the brain that ‘wire in’ our new way of thinking so that the healthier positive attitude becomes the habit.

As we change our minds, we really do change ourselves as the neurological level. In the past, before research into neuroplasticity, many people might have though that their way of thinking was their nature. But a leopard can change it’s spots, so to speak.

You can think yourself positive, should you want to of course!

If you do, here’s a simple tool that can help. It’s called a Gratitude Intervention.

This is where, each day, you list about 5 or 10 things that you are grateful for. It gradually shifts focus away from stuff that annoys us or gets us down onto things that are pleasing. We start to see people differently, noticing and appreciating sides of them we hadn’t paid much attention to before. We also see some of the situations we find ourselves in, in a new light.

In a true sense, it changes the way we look at things and, of course, the things we look at then change.

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.

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