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. :-)

Use your body to change how you feel

Power Pose
Leading an audience in a Power Pose at Anita Moorjani’s Being Myself workshop in London, Feb 28 2015.

If you’ve read ‘I Heart Me’ recently you’ll be very familiar with Power Posing. It’s a simple way of using your posture to change how you feel.

Research at Harvard University led by Amy Cuddy found that just a couple of minutes standing in a Power Pose, like Wonder Woman, (OK, if you’re a male let’s go for Superman) could dramatically alter your body chemistry.

Basically, your muscles are connected to your brain. Notice that when you feel happy you smile. You don’t feel happy and then remember that you’re supposed to smile. The muscles on your face do that automatically because they are connected to your brains’ emotional areas.

Similarly, when you feel stressed you don’t suddenly remember you’re supposed to frown or tense your shoulders. These things happen automatically because your muscles are connected to emotional regions in your brain.

What most people don’t realise is that it goes the other way as well. Just as a feeling causes responses in your body, so holding your body in a certain way affects how you feel. It’s one of the reasons why laughter yoga is so popular. It works! And it does so because laughter actually produces positive emotion at the neurological level.

It’s like ‘fake it until you make it’. But please note, when I say fake it I’m meaning to do it on purpose, wholeheartedly; not as a pretense that everything is hunky dory in your life.

There’s a world of difference between smiling or laughing to pretend that everything is OK when it’s not, and smiling and laughing on purpose with an awareness that doing so can actually change your emotional state.

At Harvard, Amy Cuddy found that standing in a Power Pose for just a couple of minutes increased hormones associated with confidence by 20% and lowered cortisol (a stress hormone) by 25%.

I have found that power posing is a really great way of actually ‘wiring-in’ self-love. It was one of my key practices during my self-love project.

When we find ourselves lacking in self-love, whether it’s in a testing situation, around certain people, in particular environments, or if we feel self-conscious in any way, we wear the feeling on our body. But if we practice holding and moving our bodies in a way that says, ‘I am enough’, ‘I matter’, ‘I am important’, ‘I’m worth it’, or some other version of these, the practice quite quickly affects how you feel and therefore how you function in these environments and around these people.

During my work on self-love, I found it very useful to practice it for only a couple of minutes in the morning just after I got up and before I took shower or had breakfast.

The brain is ‘neuroplastic’, which means it’s always changing. It changes in response to what you learn, what you do, what you experience, but also on account of what you think and, importantly, how you hold and move your body. Learning ‘I am enough’ body language is a sure-fire way of altering the emotional architecture of the brain, specifically in the areas that control how we feel about ourselves.

Think of the practice like going to the Self-Love Gym (that’s what I call it in the book). Just as going to the gym to exercise makes your muscles grow, so doing a regular self-love practice like power posing makes the self-love areas of your brain grow.

Have a go. Try it on for size and see if the simple exercise fits.

How meditation affects the cells of breast cancer survivors

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

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

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

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

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

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

How the study was done

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

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

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

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

The results

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

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

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

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

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

The Acceptance Paradox

caterpillar to butterflyWhatever you accept begins to change. That’s the acceptance paradox in a nutshell.

I first started thinking about it after the first deadline for my self-love book. I’d worked on the book (and on myself) for about 8 months but I’d tried to write it in the same way I’d written my seven previous books. I’d know a little or a lot about a subject and then find scientific evidence to back it up.

I’d written on the mind-body connection. I knew, initially from my time as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry, about the placebo effect and I also knew that meditation had physiological and neurological effects. I knew that people sometimes healed because of a belief or through a shift in their emotional state. So I found scientific evidence to back this up so I could reach lots of people and help them recognize their own power.

I’d also written on kindness and compassion. Again, I already knew that kindness could make us happier and that compassion was good for the heart, so I simply uncovered the research and shared it all in a book.

But writing ‘I Heart Me’ was different. Once I discovered what self-love actually was and the different ways it affects our lives, I realized that I didn’t have very much self-love at all. My self-love ‘deficit’ was having some real negative effects in my life. Writing a self-love book requires self-love and I was writing to try to obtain self-love. Working in this back-to-front way was really reinforcing that I didn’t have self-love… otherwise, why would I by trying so hard to obtain it?

Fortunately, my publisher (Hay House) recognized that I needed to do more work on myself and kindly gave me as much time as I wanted. That took the pressure off and I soon began to accept where I was in my life.

That’s when the real growth began. Acceptance was the key. Accept that it’s OK to not be healed, to not be a master of self-love, to not be as progressed as some other authors I knew, OK to have a lot of personal and emotional challenges, because, you know what?… that’s normal and it’s called being human.

Once I accepted myself, I began to change. The more I accepted myself, the faster I changed. It’s a version of whatever you look at disappears.

The theme has often emerged at my workshops and especially with regard to losing weight. Some people who want to lose weight and who feel they don’t have much self-love (not everyone, of course…we’re all different in our own ways) don’t want to love themselves because they fear that self-love will make them love themselves so much that they won’t want to change. Since losing weight has been such an important thing for them, the result is a resistance to doing any self-love work.

But this is where the Acceptance Paradox works. When you do accept who you are, and how you are, even make a start and try to find something good or beautiful in yourself, spontaneous change begins. This influx of self-love gives birth to inspired change. We start to make healthier choices.

Rather than self-love resulting in not losing weight through becoming so comfortable with yourself, self-love actually often leads to losing weight. But the very important distinction is that the weight loss isn’t in an attempt to be someone or something you’d love more, but originates from someone of something you’re starting to love, just as you are.

That’s how The Acceptance Paradox works.

Oh, and please know that I’m making quite a generalization here, touching on an issue that I know affects a lot of people. But I know others who would class themselves as overweight, but who are inspiring examples of self-love. I just wanted to make that distinction because overweight does not equate to low self-love. It’s simply something that is relevant to some people.

 

If you haven’t read ‘I Heart Me’ and would like a taster, you can read some of it here for free. Hopefully you’ll find something you’re looking for.

How your mind can affect your strength

meditationI’ve written quite a bit about the mind-body connection in my books and in some of my blogs. Among other things, I’ve written about strength improvements through visualisation, rehabilitation following a stroke, and even how to reduce appetite by tricking the mind into thinking you’ve eaten, so I’m always on the lookout for new pieces of research.

Well, in October 2014, researchers at the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) published a great piece of research in the Journal of Physiology that showed how visualisation can slow down the loss of muscle, say after a person has had an accident and has limited use. The research is a demonstration of the mind powerfully impacting the body.

In the experiment, 29 people wore a cast from their elbow to their fingers for 4 weeks. Around half of them (14 people) did a visualisation exercise 5 days a week during this time and the other half (15 people) didn’t.

The training sessions were as follows: They had to mentally contract their wrist, given the instruction, “Begin imagining that you are pushing in as hard as you can with your left wrist, push, push, push … and stop.” This would take 5 seconds and they would then get 5 seconds rest. They did it 4 times in a row and that would constitute 1 round. Each daily session was 13 rounds.

Of course, both groups lost strength in that time, which is to be expected when you’re not doing any exercise at all, but what was amazing was that the group who visualised lost much less strength than the group who didn’t.

The group who didn’t visualise lost 45% strength over the 4 weeks but the group who visualised only lost 24%. That’s half as much! It’s a significant difference.

I used to be an athletics coach and loved it. A few years after I stopped doing it formally, a young sprinter came to me devastated that he was to have a shoulder operation that would put him out of training for 3 months. So we devised a visualisation plan where he would go to the gym in his mind and run on the track in his mind.

He did about 45 minutes of this a day, 5 times a week, going to the gym in his mind and running on the track in his mind. He was totally committed to his mental workouts. I remember laughing when he told me he had just surpassed his bench press PB (personal best) in his mind. He said he could feel the great weight and the strain but had imagined pushing the bar up.

The mental effort worked wonders for him. Not only did he defy the odds and was back in training in half the time (6 weeks instead of 3 months), but he had barely lost any strength or leg speed at all. And his improvement from that point was dramatic. Within a few months he had improved so much that he was chosen for the first time ever to represent his country in an international competition.

The mind is far more powerful that most people assume. I love that there is now a great many pieces of credible scientific research in the area.

The key is that imagining something repetitively has a huge impact on the brain. It creates ‘neuroplastic change’, which is where the brain actually moulds around what you’re imagining, effectively not making any distinction between whether you’re doing the thing or imagining doing the thing.

This is great, because if you’re not yet able to do something perfectly, you can certainly imagine yourself doing it perfectly. And to your brain, that’s really the same thing. Your brain then affects how your muscles perform, whether that’s in running, jumping, swinging a golf club or a tennis racket, or even whether it’s speeding up the healing process following injury or disease, which of course I’ve written a great deal about in my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, so I don’t want to regurgitate it here.

So never doubt your ability to do something. If you can imagine it, you can do it!

A hug a day … boosts your immune system

hug illustrationI’ve written about hugs in some past blogs and books, in particular about how they produce the hormone oxytocin, which is good for the heart. I coined the term, ‘A hug a day keeps the cardiologist away’. I love hugs so I couldn’t wait to share some exciting new research about how they can protect you from the common cold.

The research was led by Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University. It was a simple study. His team asked 404 people how many hugs they received over a two-week period before exposing them to the virus that causes the common cold and monitoring them in quarantine.

It turned out that those who had the most hugs had lowest severity of cold symptoms.

There was a little more to the study. As well as hugs they monitored how much social support each person received. Those who felt most supported in their lives and relationships were most protected from the cold. Hugs accounted for a third of the overall effect.

It’s well known in science that when we’re involved in ongoing personal conflicts with people we’re less able to fight off colds and other infections. Have you noticed that? It’s presumed that the stress involved in the conflict can suppress the immune system. So the hug study was looking at the opposite effect – emotional, social support; i.e. support and closeness instead of conflict and distance. While conflicts suppress the immune system, the study implied that hugs boost it. Generally speaking, you can think of it as emotional support and closeness is good for us while consistent conflict and emotional distance isn’t so much.

I love this kind of research. It motivates me to keep spreading the word that we should be nice to one another, help each other, and of course hug each other. Hugs are easy to do. You just, well, give someone a hug. That’s it. Who would have imagined it can be so good for health.

I’ve previously written about the effects of hugs on the heart (in ‘Why Kindness is Good for You‘). Research has shown that hugs produce the hormone oxytocin, which is cardioprotective. That means it protects the heart. Oxytocin, and therefore hugs, reduces blood pressure and helps sweep arteries clear of free radicals and inflammation.

So this new research compliments the overall health-giving effect of hugs. Not only are they good for the heart, they are also good for the immune system.

So, I guess, we might as well make sure we give out a few hugs today, and of course welcome those offered to us too.

How thinking of ‘bendy time’ might help deal with loss

time - melting clockAs you know from my previous newsletter, my beloved dog, Oscar, passed away last month. Up until now I’ve not wanted to write too much about it but I now want to share an insight his passing gave me into the nature of time.

Oscar passed peacefully with Elizabeth & I by his side, stroking his ears and kissing him on the side of the head. We lay by his side for a while afterwards.

During this time I had a moment of utmost clarity. It was a sense that we were there with him on the ‘other side’. It all had to do with bendy time. Bendy time?

For us, on Earth, time runs forwards as a series of moments. Our experience of time, in large part, has to do with the way our brains process information as a series of moments. But the reality of time may be something quite different.

Over the past few years, physicists have succeeded in seemingly changing the past. They have shown that choices made in the present seem to affect what happened in the past. If you want more understanding of this and how it relates to us, I wrote about it in my book, Is Your Life Mapped Out? Unravelling the Mystery of Destiny vs Free Will. The experiments are known as, ‘Delayed Choice’ experiments, based on the theories of the physicist, John Archibald Wheeler.

Ultimately, the experiments show that time is interconnected – the past, the present, and the future seem to be all rolled into one and that movements are being made all the time from future to past, past to future, present to future and present to past.

Think of time like a piece of paper. To get from one side to the other you have to move across the paper, which takes time. But say you pierce a hole in each of the two ends of the page and then take those two ends and bring them together so that they’re touching. You can now move instantly from one side of the page to the other simply by passing through the hole.

Space and time both work like that. Such a thing is known in cosmology as an Einstein-Rosen bridge. It’s the idea that Star Trek ‘Warp’ engines are based on.

But how does this relate to our experiences?

In my books and in some of my blogs, I have made no secret of the fact that I believe our consciousness is not constrained inside our heads as a side-effect of brain chemistry. To this end, I also believe that our consciousness survives after we pass away. And I believe the same is true for animals. In fact, I believe that consciousness animates all matter and all life.

The brain acts more like a receiver, just as a TV aerial or a radio receives signals. The movie that you watch on TV is actually smeared out over the atmosphere as electromagnetic information. Your TV simply tunes to the signal and it then appears on your screen.

What you are – your nature, your essence, your being – is smeared throughout the universe. You are infinite in time and space. It only feels like you’re ‘in’ a body because you ‘have’ a body right now. When earthly life expires for them, people who pass away are free of the constraints of the brain and are able to experience themselves as more expanded and not limited in time or space. For them, our future is their present.

When Oscar passed, I had a sense that in some ways he didn’t even notice. That on the ‘other side’ he met Elizabeth and myself. He was freed from the constraints of time. It was as if the paper bent so that the time of Oscar’s passing was the same ‘times’ as our individual passings.

Freed from the constraints of the brain and its experience of time-as-a-series-of-consecutive-moments, our loved ones when they pass are free to move from one side of the page to the other, from one time to another, from the ‘time’ of their passing to the ‘time’ of yours. To them it’s the same ‘time’.

I sensed that Oscar wasn’t missing his Mummy and Daddy because he is with his Mummy and Daddy, even though that ‘time’ for each of us hasn’t occurred yet. Maybe when our time is up on this Earth, we are met not just by deceased loved ones, but by those who are still on earth. Perhaps as families we all enter the Earthly realm at the same ‘time’ and we all leave at the same ‘time.

Maybe my thinking around all this is just my way of coping with the pain of losing Oscar. Who knows? We all try to find a way to feel peace, to be happy. That’s what many self-help strategies are all about. They’re not just about changing your life, earning lots of money, getting your dream job, meeting the ideal partner, etc, but about helping you to find ways to emotionally navigate a course through your life.

Maybe that’s what I’m doing. Believing that Oscar is safe and well and with us on the other side brings me some comfort. I also know that many others see things differently, in ways that bring them comfort. Who is to say that one way is more correct than another?

It’s a little like religion. Who is to say that one path is better than another, or more ‘right’ than another. Each of us need to find paths that put us at ease, that help us to get the most enjoyment out of life.

I think this is why we can get so heated at times about our beliefs. Once we have the experience of a way of thinking working for us, we believe it is The way, that others are missing something. Yet others find enjoyment in different ways, through different ways of looking at life. Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist. There are happy people who call themselves by any of those names.

Personally, I find comfort and happiness by taking a spiritual view of life. Mine is not particularly associated with any religion. I also find comfort in science and thus my views fuse spirituality with science.

Therefore, whether anyone agrees with my view and how I cope with Oscar’s passing doesn’t matter so much to me. I simply felt like sharing my thought process, partly because writing about things brings me greater clarity, and comfort, and a sense that Oscar is OK, and also in the hope that these insights might help some others to find a little comfort when they lose a loved one.

Does your brain distinguish real from imaginary?

piano study brain scansJudging by the brain scans in the image, it doesn’t seem so. The scans are from one of my favourite pieces of research.

Volunteers were asked to play a simple sequence of piano notes each day for five consecutive days. Their brains were scanned each day in the region connected to the finger muscles. Another set of volunteers were asked to imagine playing the notes instead, also having their brains scanned each day.

The top two rows in the image show the changes in the brain in those who played the notes. The middle two rows show the changes in those who simply imagined playing the notes. Compare this with the bottom two rows showing the brain regions of the control group, who didn’t play nor imagine playing, piano.

You can clearly see that the changes in the brain in those who imaged playing piano are the same as in those who actually played piano. Really, your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary!

It’s pretty obvious when you think about it. The stress response evolved in humans to give us the ability to fight or flee when faced with danger. Chemicals including cortisol and adrenalin help kick start the body, pushing blood towards the major muscles to give you strength.

But the exact same stress response kicks in when you imagine danger, also producing cortisol and adrenalin and pushing blood around the body. The same chemistry is produced regardless of whether the danger is real or imagined.

What does all this mean in real life? It means that what you imagine to be happening is actually happening as far as your brain is concerned.

Earlier this year I spoke at a corporate conference, something I enjoy doing as I get to share science that gives extra credibility to self-improvement strategies. Sally Gunnell spoke first. She won the 1992 Olympic Gold medal in the 400m hurdles. Sally explained that winning gold was 70% mental. After failing to win at the 1991 world championships she started practicing visualisation. She did it every day, imagining sprinting, hurdling, and even having the strength to hang on in the home straight.

Through visualising like this, her brain would have undergone changes that improved her muscles, giving her body the capacity to do what she had been imagining.

You can apply the exact same technique in your own life to improve your ability in sports, and even in rehabilitation after illness or injury should you need to. Several studies on stroke patients, for instance, have shown that visualisation speeds up recovery.

Even if you imagine eating, the brain thinks you are eating and there is evidence to suggest that it turns on the ‘I’m full’ signals afterwards. In a simple experiment, scientists showed that if a person imagined eating, if they imagined the entire chewing and swallowing sensations as clearly as they could, they had less appetite for more food afterwards, just as the same would be true if you had actually eaten. This has obvious implications for weight loss strategies. (See my blog, ‘How to Think Yourself Slim‘)

People all around the world also use visualisation to imagine themselves healed or healing from illness and disease. The strategy involves focusing on wellness instead of illness.

You can even use visualisation to give you extra confidence. You can imagine yourself in a situation where you would usually be lacking but see yourself acting with confidence, conveying the body language of confidence.

Whatever you apply visualisation to, you have more of an ability to shape your brain circuits and the physiology and health of your body than most people think.

The 3-Degree Ripple Rule

image from istockphoto
image from istockphoto

You probably know that when you do a kind act, the impact goes farther than the person whom you have helped. But I suspect you hadn’t considered that each simple act of kindness you do might actually be affecting around 16 people.

So how do I come up with that number? Well, it’s based research into kindness contagion, aka – the ripple effect of kindness.

Research suggests that an act of kindness spreads out through 3 social steps.

That means that when you help a person, that person then helps other people, and these people, in turn help other people. I call it the ‘3-Degree Ripple Rule’. It’s Pay it Forward in real life.

So let’s do a wee bit of maths. Say you help a person out who’s struggling in some way. You raise that person’s spirits. Chances are that person will help a few other people out, even if it’s a simple thing like a few words of encouragement, holding a door open, letting a person in front in a queue or even letting a person in front in traffic. Often, they will do more. Let’s say that person, through the sheer number of interactions they have throughout the day, shows kindness to 4 people as a consequence of feeling lifted by your kindness to them. That’s a bit of a conservative estimate, but we’ll go for 4 to make it easy. That’s 4 people and we’re at 2-degrees.

So to continue with the same rate of kindness, each of these people are kind to 4 others. That’s 4 times 4 equals 16 and we’re at 3-degrees. Chances are many acts of kindness go farther.

And suppose you did 4 kind acts one day. You’d have impacted 64 people!

This, to be honest, is a very conservative estimate. Social networks are quite complex and many people have a lot of interactions throughout any given day, from family members to people at work, people in shops, and even with random strangers. And it’s unlikely that acts of kindness stop at 3-degrees. That’s just what some research shows where it averages over a number of people. In practice, a single act often ripples farther.

In fact, there’s evidence of ‘kidney donor chains’ that stretch the length and breadth of a country, altering the lives of several families. It’s where a Good Samaritan walks into a hospital and makes a donation of a kidney to whomever needs it.

With donor chains, a potential recipient will register along with a family member who wanted to donate one of their kidneys but wasn’t a match; for instance a man might need a kidney and his wife wants to donate one of hers. If she’s not a match for her husband she pledges to donate one of her kidneys to someone else as soon as one is found for her husband, in a ‘pay-it-forward fashion. Once a recipient is found for hers, that person’s partner or other loved one then donates one of theirs, and so on.

The longest kidney donor chain so far recorded involved 30 donors and stretched throughout 17 hospitals in the United States.

It began with a Good Samaritan who donated a kidney at Riverside Community Hospital, in Riverside, California, zig-zagging across the country and eventually finishing in Loyola, in Illinois, forever altering the lives of 30 families.

So don’t ever underestimate the effects you have each day. I’m not suggesting you go out and donate a kidney, although if you feel drawn to you will be saving lives, but each of us makes a difference even with the small acts of kindness we do.

Imagine how many people you could be positively affecting every day. I think it’s quite empowering to know that we can make a difference in more people’s lives than we think. Random acts of kindness every day can set a lot of balls of kindness rolling.

You are affecting the world in many more ways than you think. Most kindness is inexpensive but the net gain to the world is breathtaking.

It’s the simplest of my philosophies for life: Be kind!