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.

Is reality a simulation?

virtual reality simulationYou know I like to write on the fusion of science, self-help, and spirituality. Well I think this article pretty much spices things up a bit so try to soak it up in a light-hearted way.

The pace of development of computer technology is phenomenal. Have you heard of Moore’s Law? In 1965, Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel, predicted that “the number of transistors incorporated in a chip will approximately double every 24 months.” The law has held true for the past half century. In the early 70s, the average chip had a couple of thousand transistors. Modern chips have around 5-10 billion.

There’s more power in a pocket calculator than in the guidance computer used by the first Apollo manned lunar program, for instance; more power in a smart phone than in the first Space Shuttle.

Exponential

Computers have become smaller yet their power is increasing exponentially. For the purpose if this article, it’s important I explain what exponential is. If you know then feel free to skip this wee section. If you don’t, you might find it fascinating.

Exponential growth basically means that growth appears to accelerate to infinity in the relatively near future. Think of it this way. Linear growth is where you continue to add a number to another number, like this:

If we start with 0 and keep adding 2, we get the series: 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16,18…62 (after 30 additions)… 102 (after 50 additions)

But with exponential, we are doubling each time instead of adding. The result is very different. Starting with 1 we get:

1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024 (10 doublings), 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32786, 65536, 131072, 262144, 524288, 1048576, (i.e. about 1 million after 20 doublings)… 109 (i.e. 1 billion, after 30 doublings), 1012 (1 trillion after 40 doublings)… 1015 (after 50 doublings), which is 1,000,000,000,000,000.

Compare the number ‘102’ after 50 additions (linear growth) with ‘1,000,000,000,000,000’ after 50 doublings (exponential growth) and you can see the difference between linear and exponential growth. Computing power is growing exponentially like this and has been for the past 50 years. As you get to bigger numbers, that is, faster computing power, developments seem to accelerate. You might have noticed! Look at the pace of development of computer technology in the past decade compared to the decade before. It appears to have accelerated.

From our simple perspective of thinking of things linearly – i.e. adding one thing to another – exponential growth literally appears to ‘explode’ into infinity.

What does that actually mean for computing power and how does it relate to the question of whether reality is a simulation or not?

I don’t mean to screw with your head here so please just take what I write with a pinch of salt. Much of it is just me having some fun with ideas.

Doubling of computing power is what’s occurring every 2 years. At the moment our best technology has the computing power approximately equal to an insect brain. It sounds like we’re quite primitive! But in a few years of exponential growth, we should have surpassed the power of a rodent brain. By around 2025 we’re looking at reaching the power of a human brain. That’s where artificial intelligence (AI) should surpass us in computing power. But just 25 years later, around 2050, if exponential growth keeps up, AI should have the computing power of every single human brain combined. That kind of computing power is unimaginable to us right now. It would be like downloading the entire current Internet plus everything that’s ever been written in recorded human history into a device the size of a small molecule in an infinitesimally tiny fraction of a second.

And that power will double again just two years after that, and double again two years after that… and so on into apparent infinity.

Where will we be in by end of the century? What about by the 24th century? OK, here’s where I’m going with my playful train of thought.

We currently have technology where a pilot can fly a plane with his mind, where simple thoughts are read through activation of brain regions. We have technology that can map the brain into a kind of grid where it’s easy to ‘read’ which brain regions are activated when a person thinks a particular thought. In the piloting example, the grid is integrated into the plane’s controls. A pilot simply thinks ‘left’ and this activates, say, region C7 of the grid. Since the grid is part of the navigation controls, the computer simply reads C7 as an instruction to veer the plane to the left. The same technology is being incorporated into state-of-the-art prosthetic devices. The suggestion of this, say, 20 years ago would have seemed preposterous. A glimpse of the future would have appeared supernatural.

We also have holographic technology and virtual reality simulators that appear astonishingly real. I don’t think it will be very long at all before our computing power will give us virtual reality (VR) simulators that appear like reality. It’s just a matter of computing speed, like how the ZX-81 with its block graphics in the 80s gradually evolved into streaming live HD TV on a tablet.

All it would take to make physical objects seem completely solid in a VR simulator is an electrical current applied to regions of the body as a person ‘touches’ an object, like to the finger when a person touches something solid. There’s nothing actually there at all, but to all intents and purposes, our senses would tell us there was. Then we have VR as indistinguishable from actual reality.

At our current exponential rate of development, I predict we’ll have more than surpassed this in 50 years from now. A person could then live an entire lifetime inside a VR simulator that would appear completely real to her or him.

So here’s a playful thought. Given the age of the universe (13.8 billion years) and the 300 billion or so known galaxies, each with their roughly 300 billion stars, and then multiply that by a truly astronomical number representing the estimated number of universes (if you take up-to-date cosmological theories), I think it almost inconceivable that an advanced civilization has not already reached such a place. We’re talking of VR as indistinguishable from actual reality in 50 years… the universe has existed for 13.8 billion years and other universes (again taking up-to-date cosmology theories) might have been around trillions and trillions and trillions of years.

If I were creating such technology I’d want to make it the most real it could be. I’d have us enter the simulator and experience ourselves as a single fertilized cell, so that by the time that cell has grown into a human fetus, a player’s consciousness would be fully integrated into the idea of a physical form. As it’s just been a few months, the player will remember his or her previous life outside of the simulator, but maybe they’d start to forget after living as a human for a few years with the constant stimulus around them. By the time they learn to speak as a toddler, a player would likely have completely forgotten where she or he came from; they might have completely forgotten their existence before ‘birth’ and so spend an entire lifetime living their new life.

Perhaps some players would get fragments of memories of their time before entering the simulation, where they chose where they wanted to start their ‘life’. They would have chosen lines of code to become their genetic code so they’d have certain characteristics. Maybe players would enter the simulator with some family or friends and live together in varying relationships.

And let me stretch my playful idea a little further, just for fun.

How do we even know that human form is our ‘real’ form, if we are existing in some kind of simulation where human form is simply a consequence of computer (aka, genetic) code?

Given the age of the universe, life could have evolved so that no physical body is even needed and consciousness is free to attach itself to a single atom or any particular bunch of atoms. In that sense, we would all be truly infinite. The true description of yourself would be ‘I Am’. Not ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’; ‘this’ or ‘that’ would be temporary forms. Your ‘universal’ description would be ‘I am’… and that’s it.

Computers by this time would be quantum computers (scientists are building those today) that simply involve arranging subatomic particles into patterns. And since consciousness could attach itself to atoms and particles, consciousness would control the quantum computers and, in a sense, the computers would be part of us.

If such a thing were true, the simulation we humans currently find ourselves in is merely a projection of our own consciousness and ‘life’, in many ways for us, resembles a cinematic projection in 3D but one that is controlled by our conscious and unconscious thoughts and beliefs. In human life we have no idea of who or what we are.

If I were such a consciousness, seemingly infinite, I think it would be quite fun to forget who and what I am for a while and create a simulation of ‘primitive’ human life.

Anyway, I did say I was having a play with some ideas. Don’t take this too seriously. :-)

The 4 Components of Emotion

Most of us think of emotion purely as a feeling. We might feel happy or sad, for instance, or love, joy, or grief. But there is much more to emotion than a feeling. Emotion is really smeared all over and all throughout the body.

The diagram below shows how this is so.

4 components of emotion
Reproduced from ‘I HEART Me: The Science of Self-Love’

Let me explain. When you feel an emotion, a pattern of brain chemistry follows it. For example, happiness is often accompanied by changes in serotonin, dopamine and even endogenous opiates (the brain’s own versions of morphine). If you then feel a different emotion, brain chemistry shifts to a pattern that reflects your new emotion. Brain chemistry alters in response to how you feel at any moment. So far so good.

Your emotions also affect your muscles. You smile when you feel happy while stress causes your brow to crease and your shoulders to tense. These muscle movements are not conscious choices you make. They are like reflex reactions because your muscles are in communication with emotional centres of your brain.

Emotions also play tunes throughout the autonomic nervous system (ANS). OK, they don’t actually play tunes but I like the sound of that expression. I basically mean that your ANS responds to your emotional state. This is why an emotion is technically smeared all over your body. Your ANS connects your brain to your heart and other organs in your chest, your abdomen and pelvis, and also to your eyes, larynx, and through your blood vessels and sweat glands to your skin.

Via the ANS, your skin actually responds moment-by-moment to the contents of your mind. Let’s say you have a stressful or worrisome thought, for instance. Your skin starts to sweat. It’s quite obvious when you feel really stressed and your palms become moist. But even a little stressful thought causes micro amounts of sweating. In fact, this is the basis of the polygraph (lie-detector) test. When a person tells a lie and knows it’s a lie, the tiny (or large) amount of emotional stress they feel increases sweating. This is detected by sensors that measure the electrical conductance of the skin. When there’s sweating, conductance goes up!

So you can see how emotions are connected with brain chemistry, muscles, and all throughout the autonomic nervous system. And the connection is ‘bi-directional’, meaning ‘both ways’. Just as emotions affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, so chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotions.

Here’s a few examples. That brain chemistry affects emotions is the basis for the pharmaceutical model of treating depression and other psychiatric disorders. If serotonin can be increased, for instance, it can cause a person to feel happier. Similarly, low levels of EPA or DHA (omega-3 fatty acids) following childbirth has been linked with post-natal (partum) depression where higher levels seem to have antidepressant effects.

We can also use our muscles to affect our emotions. Straightening your spine, relaxing your shoulders and breathing comfortably can boost mood and confidence. Smiling on purpose can also improve mood. It is the basis of laughter yoga.

Changes in ANS activity affect emotion too. The ANS has two components. There’s the sympathetic strand, which is the fight-or-flight part. It’s the bit that’s active when we feel stress or worry. Then there’s the parasympathetic strand, which is the rest-and-relax part. People who are stressed or worry a lot have more activity in the sympathetic portion and less activity in the parasympathetic portion.

Conscious breathing exercises (like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi) are a good way to increase parasympathetic function, and with the increase in parasympathetic function we tend to see an increase in positive emotion, coupled with a decrease in negative emotion.

So not only does emotion affect chemistry, muscles, and the ANS, but chemistry, muscles, and the ANS affect emotion. That’s what the double arrows in the diagram mean.

You can see why we can’t actually disentangle emotion from the brain or body and that we really can think of emotion as ‘smeared’ all over and throughout the body.

In some ways, we can start to think of the body and mind as a single thing – the bodymind – where changes in the mind affect the body and changes in the body affect the mind, with neither operating independently of the other, but rather operating as a single holistic entity.

A strategy for overcoming worry, fear or anxiety

Breathe written on a pebbleEverybody has worries and fears. They can be useful because they can be warning signs of danger. They can also give us insights into the workings of our own minds. For some, understanding the source of a worry or fear helps them address a deeper issue causing it. But for most people, those repetitive bolts of worry, fear, or anxiety are nothing but a nuisance.

New insights in neuroscience offer us hope, however, in being able to change our emotional states.

During worry, fear or anxiety, brain resources tend to be flowing towards worry, fear and anxiety areas of the brain. Part of the fear architecture in the brain is the amygdala.

It’s a habit…

You might have noticed that the more we worry the more we seem to find to worry about. Worry, fear and anxiety are like habits for many people and so much so that eventually it only takes a small thing to set it off. Several years earlier, the same thing wouldn’t have had as much of an effect, if at all, and you now wonder why it is that you seemed so much stronger, more resilient, when you were younger. It’s partly because just like a muscle grows bigger and stronger through exercise, so worry, fear and anxiety brain areas grow too.

Just as a muscle becomes more powerful, so worry, fear and anxiety seem to become more powerful, in that we become more sensitive to circumstances around us and even begin to lose confidence. The phenomenon is broadly known as neuroplasticity.

This is where the hope lies though, because, a) neuroplasticity occurs in many regions of the brain, and b) it doesn’t just refer to growth but to shrinkage through lack of use. Think of what happens to a muscle if you stop using it.

The strategy I’d like to share with you uses this insight. If you stop worrying so much, you tend to find less things to worry about. That’s because you’re not using the ‘worry muscle’ as much and so it shrinks, just as a muscle shrinks if you stop working it.

Easier said than done! True! So the strategy involves bypassing the whole positive thinking thing. Instead we use simple techniques to divert resources away from the worry areas of the brain to areas associated with conscious control of our minds. It’s kind of like not letting resources flow backwards but making them flow forwards instead. Through not ‘feeding’ the worry areas so much, just like a muscle weakens through lack of use, the same happens to worry regions of the brain.

It takes a little bit of work, but it can be well worth it.

The How-to…

Here’s what you do. Each time the worry, fear or anxiety surfaces, take a comfortable breath, focusing all of your attention on the act of breathing – the sound, the sensation in your nostrils, the movement of your tummy or chest. By doing this, you interrupt the flow of brain resources towards the worry areas and instead send resources towards the prefrontal cortex (the bit above your eyes). It’s an area at the front of your brain that’s associated with conscious control. This is because you are consciously controlling something; in this case, your breath. This prefrontal cortex, among other areas, is active when we focus our attention on our breath.

It sounds easy on paper and initially the positive effect might only last a moment or two and you might find yourself having to do it 2, 3 or even 10 times in a row. This is where the work comes in. You almost need to be relentless, focusing on your breath every time the fearful thought or feeling arises. The technique is not for everyone as some might find it tiring and you might also doubt it could actually work.

But it can bring powerful results if you keep it up for a few days. Within that time, as neuroplasticity occurs to build the prefrontal cortex while at the same time shrinking the amygdala, you might notice a little letting-up of your fearful thoughts and feelings. Keeping the practice up for a few weeks might produce lasting results.

There is another fun way to do it. Instead of focusing on your breath when the fearful feeling arises, I have encouraged people to do a little victory dance – a silly, crazy set of made-up dance moves, choreographed by your good self. The key with victory dancing is to do it long enough until you smile (or laugh) – that might take 5 seconds or half a minute. That way, you’re activating positive emotion centers of the brain instead of fear areas. The same thing occurs as before – you build positive emotion areas of the brain while shrinking the worry areas and this is because you’re giving positive emotion areas a workout in instead of feeding worry areas.

You can even add a little visualization or an affirmation while you do the breath thing or the victory dance thing. For the visualization you might imagine the worry area of the brain shrinking down. For the affirmation you might say a positive statement that reflects how you intend to feel.

And if motivation to do it is a hurdle for you, a good thing to help keep you motivated is to remind yourself that you’re simply choosing to work different muscles. We all know how muscles get stronger and weaker depending on how much we exercise them. Doing this and acknowledging that there are actual changes taking place in the brain can provide just the motivation you need.

It is a vey useful strategy. It might not be for everyone and it’s also not the answer to all of our worries, fears, and anxieties. But it certainly is a useful tool.

Helper’s High

Give with heartThe term ‘Helper’s High’ was first coined by Allan Luks, in his book, ‘The Healing Power of Doing Good’. You’re probably familiar with the high. It’s that good feeling we get when we do something kind for someone or an animal.

There are loads of ways we can help each other. Giving time to someone face-to-face brings on Helper’s High. A recent study commissioned by the charity ‘Guide Dogs’ found that when we give our time in helping someone the improved feeling can last up to 24 days. It’s even more pronounced in the 18-24 age group, where effects were reported to last 34 days.

Donating money also makes us feel good. The study found that donating money can make us feel positive for round about a week.

The good feelings come because we’re wired to feel good when we’re kind, which I’ll explain below. That’s why Helper’s High is pretty universal. The Guide Dogs study was of over 2,000 people and found that 95% of those who gave their time to a good cause felt happier. This is what Allan Luks’ study found too. Questioning over 3,000 people on their charitable ways, he also found that 95% reported feeling good when they help others.

I personally think it’s important that kids and teens realise the importance of kindness and how it makes a difference. They’re the future.

In a powerful but mostly forgotten study back in the early 1970s, rather than be punished, teenagers with behavioural difficulties were asked to tutor younger children instead. The results were later published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. By helping younger kids, the ‘teen tutors’ made significant improvements themselves in maths, reading, and sentence completion tasks. Most of them also showed positive changes in their attitude towards themselves, others, education and the future. Quite a result, I’d say.

There are hundreds of studies that show how kindness makes us happier and is healthier for our hearts and immune systems. I don’t intend to list them all here. That would make this a veerrryyyy long blog. If you do want to access them, I collated a large number of them in my book ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ and reference over 250.

In the meantime, let me explain why kindness makes us happier. In short, it’s because we’re genetically wired that way. Helping each other is a behaviour that glues communities together. Thus, through evolutionary timespans, nature has ‘selected’ genes that a) make helping each other a quite natural behaviour and b) ensure that helping each other makes us feel good, so we’ll keep doing it, thus further gluing our communities together.

I would also say that deep in the human psyche, and this is a spiritual thing for many, is the sense that helping each other is basically the right thing to do. We have an intuitive sense of the rightness of helping.

What I really want to get across in this blog is that helping each other is a mark of who we are. It’s in our nature. It doesn’t mean that you have to spend every waking moment helping, else you feel guilty, nor that you respond to every call for help. We have lives to lead, families to support, jobs to do. But if we can just be a little alert to the needs of those around us, that’s a good thing.

I’d also like to address an issue some have with kindness, that it’s really selfish to be kind because we benefit from it. My view is that we help because it’s our nature to be kind. We don’t help to make ourselves feel good. Evolution has simply built a little emotional reward into our biology.

I’m saying this because I’ve read endless debates on whether there is really such a thing as altruism, given that we gain from an act of kindness. It’s the question I’m most often asked when I give a media interview on the science of kindness. My answer is always the same. “I prefer to leave the arguments to academia. In meantime I’m going to be kind.”

And in case you wondered, helping animals produces the same positive effects as does helping humans. Around a month after our dog, Oscar, passed away last year, we went to a rescue center and took some dogs for a walk. In these places dogs don’t always get the exercise they need and the staff are always looking for volunteers to help out. I remember feeling really good that we were able to provide some happiness for the dogs we walked.

And to come back to the selfish issue, we walked the dogs because we loved Oscar and we knew how much he loved to walk. We took the dogs out because we knew it would bring them some pleasure. It just so happens it gave us a sense of inner warmth as well.

I love that there’s such a thing as Helper’s High, that kindness benefits our health (mental and emotional health, heart, immune system, nervous system). It’s like a little reward we get. We don’t help for the reward, but it’s kind of nice when it comes anyway.

So I’ll leave you with my guiding principle in life, which you might be familiar with from some of my other blogs: Whatever you do, do it with kindness.

6 fascinating facts about the love hormone… and what that means for you

friends

I’ve written quite a lot about oxytocin, which also goes by the name of ‘love hormone’, ‘cuddle chemical’, ‘molecule of kindness’, or any other affectionate term that implies something about bonding and connecting.

If you ever wondered about those names, it’s because we produce oxytocin when we’re feeling love or connection (with a human, animal, tree, spiritual diety) and also when we hug.

So here’s a little summary of some of the healthy things that happen in our bodies when we produce oxytocin.

1) It makes people seem more attractive

One study gave people a dose of oxytocin and then showed them photographs of men and women, asking them to rate their attractiveness. A different group were given saline instead of oxytocin, as a control. The oxytocin group gave the men and women higher attractiveness ratings than did those who got the saline.

2) It makes us more generous

A study in the field of ‘neuroeconomics’ – where scientists study the brain while people make economic decisions – found that when people were given a squirt of oxytocin before they made an economic decision, where they had to decide on how they were going to share a sum of money, they were around 80% more generous than others who received a saline placebo.

3) It makes us more trusting

In an economics game known as the ‘Trust Game’, participants given a squirt of oxytocin were found to be significantly more trusting than those given saline. Of those in the saline group, 21% showed the maximal trust level, yet 45% of those who received oxytocin showed the maximal trust level.

4) It improves digestion

A little-known fact is that oxytocin and oxytocin receptors are found all throughout the GI tract. It plays an important role in the digestion of food (gastric motility and gastric emptyping). Research shows that in the absence of adequate levels of oxytocin, the whole digestive process slows down (known as gastric dysmotility).

In fact, some children with recurring tummy trouble or inflammatory bowel disease have been found to have low levels of oxytocin in their bloodstream. Oxytocin has as even been linked with IBS.

You may have heard of the old wisdom that you shouldn’t eat if you’ve just had a fight with a loved one. This is why. When we have a conflict, we reduce our levels of oxytocin, thereby making digestion a little more problematic.

Maybe if you want to improve your digestion, why not enjoy a meal with family or friends, or at least give someone a heartfelt hug before you start eating and again immediately afterwards.

5) It speeds up wound healing

Oxytocin also helps wound healing. It plays a key role in ‘angiogenesis’, which is the growth of blood vessels or re-growth of them after an injury.

Research shows that wounds take longer to heal when people are under stress or amid an emotional conflict, which is associated with lower oxytocin levels. In one study of couples, physical wounds of those who showed the most conflict behaviour healed 40% slower than wounds in those who weren’t in conflict. Other studies show that skin wounds heal even faster when we enjoy positive social interaction, which are times when we produce more oxytocin.

6) It’s good for the heart

It’s also very good for the heart. Oxytocin is a cardioprotective hormone, in that it protects the cardiovascular system. Oxytocin dilates the blood vessels, thereby lowering blood pressure, and also helps sweep free radicals and inflammation out of the arteries. FYI, free radicals and inflammation can cause cardiovascular disease.

How to produce oxytocin

We produce oxytocin every day. It flows when you show empathy or compassion, when you are kind or genuinely pleasant, when you show affection, when you hug. Love is not the only thing we make in the intimate act. We also make oxytocin.

I find it amazing that this simple hormone, that we generate through really any heart-centred display of gentleness or affection, produces all of the above effects.

Animals, and especially dogs, help us produce it too. Research shows that when we play with dogs, oxytocin levels shoot up in both the human and the dog.

This is probably why studies show that having a pet hugely benefits the heart. In one study, in patients who had spent time in a cardiac unit, after discharge, the chances of survival in those who had a pet was 400% higher. In fact, among many ways to improve heart health, Dr Mimi Guarneri, founder of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine and author of the book, ‘The Heart Speaks’, recommends having a dog.

Those of you who have been following some of my blogs will know that my beloved dog, Oscar, passed away at 2 years of age just 5 months ago. I enjoyed a very strong bond with Oscar. Before he arrived in my life, I never would have thought we could actually fall in love with animals, but Oscar’s presence in my life changed that.

I love the fact that dogs, and in fact all animals that we bond with, help us produce oxytocin and we, in turn, help them produce it. There’s something beautiful in this, in how we need each other, and in that the bond we create actually moulds our biology. It reminds me of why we need to see all humans and all animals as our family. It also adds a wee bit of fuel to my guiding principle in life: whatever you do, do it with kindness.

 

Footnotes:

The links above are references for the source scientific papers or articles or books where a study was cited. All references and full explanations, as well as references to many more studies, can be found in my book, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’, which shares hundreds of pieces of research showing how kindness, empathy, compassion, and love are healthy for us, as well sharing some inspirational short stories of kindness.

It’s funny how things work out sometimes

connectedHave you ever wondered if things happen for a reason? A very unusual thing happened in my life a few years ago. I still chuckle to myself when I think about it today. :-)

Between 2001 and the end of 2002, I had been director of a charity (Spirit Aid Foundation) that a few friends and I had set up. I had many roles within that charity, as is often the case when budgets are limited and so volunteers have to learn to turn their hands to many different tasks.

One of my roles had been to build the charity’s website. At the end of 2002, I stepped down from my work with the charity so that I could start work on writing my first book (It’s the Thought that Counts). A few days after I left, I received a call from a volunteer (Pat) who had assumed responsibility for the website. She excitedly told me that a local IT company had agreed to create a new website for free but that she would need all the original files for the site asap. Could I get them to her by tomorrow? No problem, I told her.

I got out my laptop, opened up the files, popped a CD in the drive and pressed ‘Save’. Nothing happened. I hit ‘Save’ again and again and again. Still nothing. I tried a different CD and the result was the same. I actually went through a whole pack of CDs and none of them worked either.

I decided I needed some new CDs so I jumped in the car and drove to the nearest town where I could purchase some new CDs. I entered the shop and immediately came face to face with a large display of cheap floppy discs. I made my way around them, chuckling to myself that floppy discs are ‘so yesterday’. Being tech savvy, I told myself, I would be using CDs as they are the ‘in thing’. This was 2002, around the time when floppy discs were being phased out and replaced with CDs, which could store much more data.

Everywhere I looked for CDs in the shop, I kept finding floppy discs. Eventually I had to ask a store assistant where to find them. When I took them to the counter to pay, the assistant even then attempted to sell me floppy discs on special offer. I think they had an excess of stock they wanted rid of. Affirming how tech savvy I was, I even gave the assistant a little lecture on the differences in storage capacity between a floppy disc and a CD and why it’s much better to use CDs.

Proud of my new purchase of a pack of five shiny new CDs, I made my way back home. I popped a CD in the drive and pressed, ‘Save’. Nothing! I went through all five of my new CDs and none of them worked.

Not being one to allow myself to get too stressed, I had concluded at that time in my life that if I started to feel stressed, a good exercise was to do the exact opposite from what was stressing me. So naturally, knowing that I really needed to get the files onto a CD and to the post office by around 5pm, I decided to take the rest of the day off instead.

I phoned Elizabeth and she collected me in her little Fiat Cinquecento. We decided to go for a drive to somewhere nice where we could have lunch. Once in the car, Elizabeth asked me where we were going. I hadn’t a clue. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. So I opened up the AA Road Atlas (this was 2002, long before we had a sat nav) and found the large double page that covered central Scotland, where my small village of Banknock could be found. The page spanned quite a large area of cities, towns, villages about 250 by 250 kilometres, so I randomly selected as our destination a small town neither of us had ever visited, which was about an hours’ drive away.

When we got there, we drove into a large car park that was utterly deserted so we had our choice of parking spaces. Elizabeth selected one, parked and switched the engine off. As I stepped out of the car, a little box right in the centre of the adjacent parking space caught my attention. I moved closer to examine it and was quite taken by surprise when I learned that it was a box of ten floppy discs!

I decided not to touch them, just in case somebody had dropped them and was maybe on their way back for them. So we went for a walk and stopped into a pub to get some lunch, where we stayed for the next hour or so before returning to the car. We had swiftly concluded that perhaps one of the reasons why we’d never visited that town, nor had heard of family of friends visiting it, was because there really wasn’t much to see or do.

Back at the car park, still there, sitting ‘parked’ in its very own space, was the box of floppy discs. This is when I had the thought that maybe they were meant for me, so I took them and we drove back home again.

It’s a useful strategy for managing stress and boosting your creativity, to do something completely different from what is causing you stress. Back at my laptop I decided to once again attempt to save the web files onto CDs. I figured that I probably did something in error earlier in the day. Now that I felt refreshed I had a feeling I’d spot my error. And spot it I did. My error was that I didn’t actually have a CD Writer so I couldn’t possibly save onto a CD.

I had a CD Reader. Computers nowadays (the ones that still use CDs, that is) have the ability to read a CD (i.e. open what’s on it) and write a CD (i.e. burn files onto it). In 2002, you needed to buy a CD Writer, which was a little box you plugged into the side of your computer. I didn’t have one, despite my proclaimed tech savvyness. This was the point I felt a little pang of regret at having lectured the shop assistant about all my knowledge of technology. I had needed floppy discs all along.

But it’s funny how things work out. I just happened to have a new box of floppy discs that I had found in a car park a few hours earlier. I used them instead. And I actually needed all ten of them as there were so many files.

Once it was done, I packed them up and just made it to the post office as it was closing for the day, thereby ensuring that, as promised, Pat received all of the website files the next day.

I often wonder how weird stuff happens. Being scientifically minded, I have difficulty leaving things be. I have to find an explanation. Statistically, the chances of finding a box of ten floppy discs in a car park an hours’ drive away, where I could have selected anywhere in the same radius, when I actually needed floppy discs, is round about zero, I would think. If I thought I could do it again, I think I’d have more success betting on winning the lottery two weeks in a row.

I have written in some of my blogs (see: A Cluster of Synchronicities and Do You Have a 6th Sense?) and in one of my books (Is Your Life Mapped Out?) about how we’re all connected and, in fact, how everything is connected to everything, and that if we play with the idea that consciousness is not inside the head but is spread out over the universe, then that might provide part of an explanation for why we seem to sometimes attract who and what we focus our attention on.

In this case, my larger (subconscious) awareness knew all along that I needed a box of floppy discs and, as everything is connected, was also aware of exactly where I could find such a box. At first, it drew me to a shop where I was given numerous opportunities to purchase them, but where I instead elected to let my ego have its say as I explained the merits of CDs to the shop assistant who, for the sake of good customer service, feigned some interest.

My subconscious must have had a sense of humour that day as it then seeded the idea of choosing a place nearly 100 kilometres away where I would have no choice but to accept the floppy discs that I had needed all along.

That’s my explanation anyway. I do think it’s funny how things work out sometimes.

Can we see dead people?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magic of vulnerability

Oscar, my labrador dog
Oscar

I have found myself crying on stage a few times recently. One of these times was a couple of weeks ago in front of an audience of around 400 people at Hay House’s ‘I Can Do It! Ignite!’ conference in London.

I was speaking about my latest book, ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love’ and that having the courage to show our vulnerabilities is a big part of self-love.

I was sharing how I had learned about vulnerability from personal experience last year, from when Oscar, my beloved 2-year-old Labrador, was diagnosed with cancer through until he passed away in November. I had known about the academic research around vulnerability but life sometimes has a way of giving us a more personal experience of what we think we know.

I was sharing with the audience what had happened following Oscar’s diagnosis, about how my pain had deepened my relationships with the people around me. I shared a particular example involving my Dad, of how he opened up in a way I hadn’t known before as he witnessed my raw pain. But as I spoke about Oscar on stage that day, the raw pain of losing him rose to the surface of my mind and I began to cry.

My old self would have found crying in front of so many people highly embarrassing so I would have gulped down some deep breaths, maybe cleared my throat and pretended to look at the ceiling, all to hide my emotion. I would have tried to ‘Man up’.

But I’ve learned not to hide who I am any more. It’s a legacy of having had Oscar in my life, of having had the privilege of being his Daddy for those two short years. He taught me so very much, including the importance of being myself regardless of what anyone thinks.

It’s funny how, through my tears, while I tried to teach about the importance of vulnerability and the magic it produces, the audience were given a practical demonstration. What I most remember was the overwhelming empathy from the audience members. Some leaned forwards. Some also welled up with tears as they shared my pain as if it was theirs. Many spoke with me afterwards and offered their own experiences of loss, and in our conversations we found some common ground.

What I was trying to explain during my talk was that vulnerability not only opens us up but it opens others up too. It gives them permission to share what’s in their hearts. It gives them permission to be themselves, without any pretence. What I could see was that my own vulnerability had helped others to show their natural selves, that part of us that, no matter what is going on in our lives, we still reach out and help someone in pain, and we realise that doing so feels oh so right, that this is who we are, this is what it’s all about.

On that stage, I was privilege to a display of the kindness of empathy that I am deeply grateful for and that I will never forget.

In moments of vulnerability, people don’t judge us. They support us. The fear of being judged, or embarrassed, derives from feeling that we will be exposed, alone, rejected. To move past this fear, vulnerability takes courage.

Humans have a biological need to connect with each other. It’s a legacy of our evolution, where our ancient ancestors learned that to survive and thrive we needed to form strong bonds with each other. Over time, genes that make connecting with other people healthy and feel good found their way into the human genome. It’s nature’s way of ensuring the continuance of life. Nowadays, we simply need to connect with other people. It is a biological need. It lies deep in our genes and deep in the human psyche.

It’s why research shows that connecting with others is good for our hearts, our minds, our immune systems, and it even helps us live longer.

But in the human psyche, the need to be connected gives birth to a deep fear… the fear of not being connected, of being rejected, shunned, alone. This is why we’re afraid of showing our vulnerabilities. It’s not just that we’re afraid of being judged or embarrassed, deeper than that is the fear that we will be rejected, because if we’re rejected we won’t be connected.

Being rejected is like a threat to our very survival. It’s why it feels so scary and hurts so much.

This is the underlying reason why we hold back from showing our vulnerabilities, even of letting people see our true selves. How often do we just show our good sides and avoid any reference to our ‘wobbly’ bits?

The truth is, though, so long as we’re holding back from being our true, authentic selves, it is not actually possible to service our deep biological need for connection. The only way we can truly service the biological need for connection is to be ourselves, our whole selves, and that often means to find the courage to show our vulnerabilities, or at least let them surface and don’t bury them inside.

It’s a no-brainer, really. Think about it. Do you feel more connected to the people who know you best, who know about your successes and failures, your delights and your tantrums, your ups and your downs, who know you when you’re happy and also when you’re sad, who have witnessed some of your vulnerable moments, or to the people whom you hide most of this from and only show your ‘best side’ to?

The thing is, vulnerability is our best side. It’s our human side. Everyone has fears, worries, concerns, everybody feel insecure at times, everybody worries whether they will be liked or accepted.

Vulnerability takes courage, but the courage returns connection. And, of course, there is always the risk of rejection. But it’s more important that we express ourselves than hide ourselves.

The courage to be vulnerable is a massive statement of self-love. It says, “This is who I am, World, just as I am. Right now, in this moment, I don’t need you or anyone else to like me or even to approve of me. This is me, as I am, and I know that I am enough.”

Vulnerability doesn’t call for you to be an open book, of course. It only asks that you not be afraid to be yourself, just as you are, and that you understand that being yourself is most definitely, absolutely enough.

A laugh before bedtime

Oor Wullie and The Broons
Oor Wullie and The Broons

I love to read before I go to sleep. It is something I very much look forward to each night. It usually makes me feel calm.

But a big part of this is down to what I read. I love to read ‘Oor Wullie’ (that’s ‘Our William’, if you’re not Scottish) and ‘The Broons’ (or The Browns, if you’re not Scottish). They’re Scottish comic strips. They appear every Sunday in The Sunday Post, one of the best-known Scottish Sunday newspapers.

I’ve been getting an Oor Wullie or The Broons Annual every year at Christmas, from my Mum and Dad, for as long as I can remember. Christmas Day just wouldn’t be the same for me without one. I actually look forward to getting one. I have loads of them stretching back, well, a few decades now, and I always have two or three lying beside my bed at any one time.

Very often I’m smiling, chucking, or laughing out loud right before I go to sleep.

I decided to write about this in a blog because I find that so many of us go to sleep stressed, either running over the day in our minds or worrying about tomorrow, or maybe we’re watching the news on TV, reading the news on our smart phones or tablets, or even answering work emails. The last thing we need to be doing before going to sleep is watching the news or answering work emails, especially when the news is rarely proclaiming to us all the good that’s happening in the world, and work emails make us feel that we’re, well, still at work.

Before I say any more on the subject, of course Oor Wullie and The Broons are not the only things I ever read at night. I sometimes read novels (I’ve currently reading Taming Amy, by Seth Gardner, and before that I re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows… I have quite a diverse taste. :-)) but, with the odd exception, I mostly avoid anything that is too mentally taxing or stimulating late at night unless it’s something that inspires me or is clearly helpful in my life.

And even if I do read something mentally stimulating (I recently devoured ‘Human Universe’ by Brian Cox), when I feel myself getting tired I lay that book down and pick up a trusty old Oor Wullie or The Broons for the last 10 or 15 minutes, just to quieten my mind and help ensure I get a peaceful nights’ sleep.

It’s good to go to sleep in a good mood and I find that reading something light and funny always helps, no matter what’s been happening recently. Reading about Wullie or Maw and Paw Broon is like a comfort blanket for me.

I’d suggest you find a light-hearted reading comfort blanket at bedtime, especially if you find yourself stressed or depressed a lot of the time, or if you find difficulty unwinding at the end of a day… just something that can help gently nudge your attention towards lightness and ease.

If your material makes you laugh then even better. Several studies show that laughter boosts happy chemicals in the brain, it strengthens the immune system, it’s good for the heart, and most definitely good for mental health. It even helps us improve our relationships.

And if you do happen to pick up a copy of Oor Wullie or The Broons, I hope you find it just as entertaining as I do. :-)