Is expensive Nurofen better than cheap Ibuprofen?

happy peopleNow, not being a marketing person I’m really not in favour of creating different versions of the same thing and charging more for them. But given the recent news headlines, the question many people have is, ‘Is Nurofen better than Ibuprofen?’… even though they are the same thing.

I know people who swear that Ibuprofen simply isn’t strong enough for them and that they find that only Nurofen works for them. They use a similar argument for Panadol vs Paracetomol, preferring to pay several times more for the branded Paracetamol.

However, an interesting thing happens when you do pay more for the same thing. In the 1980s, a study was performed where over 800 women were given one of two versions of the same aspirin for headache pain.

One group of women received an expensive looking version in quality packaging labelled as ‘Aspirin’, and another group received a cheap looking version in plain packaging labelled as ‘Analgesic’. However they were both the exact same aspirin, merely in different packaging and with a different name.

The other two groups of women received placebos but one groups’ placebos were expensively packaged and labelled ‘Aspirin’ and the other groups’ were in plain aspirin packaging and labelled ‘Analgesic’.

Now, you’d expect both versions of aspirin to work the same, given that they are both aspirin, and both placebos to work the same, given that they are, well, sugar. But that’s not what the study found.

The expensively packaged aspirin worked better than the cheaper looking version, even though they were the exact same drug. And interestingly, the expensive looking placebo also worked better than the cheap looking placebo. And funnily enough, the expensive looking placebo was nearly as good as the cheap looking aspirin. So what’s going on?

Basically, we associate price with quality so when we pay more for something, we expect it to work better. And it turns out that what we expect or believe actually changes what happens in the brain.

It’s not psychosomatic! It’s not ‘all in the mind’! Research into the placebo effect shows us that belief changes brain chemistry. Believing that something is going to relieve pain actually causes your brain to make it’s own versions of morphine (known as endogenous opiates).

And our beliefs about how the medicine is administered matter too. In the US, an injection of a placebo for pain works about 50% better than a placebo tablet even though they are both placebos. In the UK, it’s reversed. A placebo tablet for pain works a little better (about 10%) than a placebo injection. Why the difference? Surely if they are all placebos they should work exactly the same. Again, the difference is down to what we believe.

In the US, people talk about ‘getting a shot’ and so people in the US generally believe that injections are better for pain than tablets are. On the other hand, people in the UK talk about ‘popping pills’ and so UK people tend to believe in tablets for pain. It comes down to cultural language and that language reflects what we believe.

The bottom line is that things are never ‘all in the mind’. Our beliefs change our brain chemistry (and also what’s going on all throughout the body) and that change can often produce healing effects.

Interesting though this is, and also an untapped resource in terms of our capacity to affect our own health if we learn some mental techniques, the issue that bothers people is that the relatively high pricing of branded medicine seems to be all about profit.

I can’t say for sure that pharmaceutical companies aren’t aware of how to boost the placebo effect and that they price things higher to tap into it. I left the industry in 1999 so I’m not on the ball with their knowledge base. I spent four years in drug development after my PhD in organic chemistry. Given the time since I left I really can’t comment on their motivations.

Certainly, my colleagues back then were definitely not knowledgeable about how the placebo effect works and the general opinion was that it was simply a nuisance that got in the way of achieving a true measure of how well a new drug was working in a clinical trial.

But in the words of Fabrizio Benedetti, professor of physiology and neuroscience at the University of Turin School of Medicine and world authority on the placebo effect, in a paper published in the journal Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, he wrote:

The placebo effect has evolved from being thought of as a nuisance in clinical pharmacological research to a biological phenomenon worthy of scientific investigation in its own right.”

I would say that there is definitely more to the mind than most people think. The human mind really is a relatively untapped resource in its ability to bring about changes in the brain and body. The challenge for us, really, is learning how to tap into this phenomenon and learning how to direct and control it.

That’s my motivation for studying and writing about the mind-body connection.

 

Further reading: For many studies on the mind-body connection and other mind-body phenomena, including meditation, neuroplasticity, and visualisation strategies for harnessing the mind-body connection, see my book: ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’.

Mind Over Matter

mirror neuronsI’ve written a lot over the years on the subject of the mind-body connection. The origin of my interest actually goes back to when I was 11 years old and I was in the school library. A book fell of the shelf beside me. It was ‘The Magic Power of Your Mind’ by Walter Germaine.

At the time my mum was suffering from depression, which had begun a few years earlier as post natal (post partum) depression. I had an instinct that the book would help my mum so I took it home.

It really helped her. It didn’t cure her in a day or anything like that, but it taught her insights and strategies and gave her hope that she could chart a course through some of the difficult times. As a teenager, I often heard my mum say things like, “I can do it,” while pumping her fist, “It’s all in the mind,” “It’s mind over matter,” and “It’s the Thought that Counts,” which incidentally became the title of my first book. These were examples of my mum’s positive self-talk that she’d learned. Today we think of these as affirmations.

Growing up, a fascination with the subject and possibilities of mind over matter gradually developed in me. Later, after I completed my PhD in organic chemistry, I took a job in the pharmaceutical industry. It was there that my interest and understanding of the mind-body connection went up a notch. My job exposed me to the whole area of drug development where I learned a bit about the placebo effect. I quickly became more interested in the placebo effect and the whole mind-body connection than in developing drugs and often spent hours of my spare time pondering and reading up on the subject.

I left the industry after 4 years to write and speak full-time. Now, 8 books later, my interest hasn’t dropped a bit but in fact has grown considerably.

When I left the pharmaceutical industry in 1999, mind-body science was in its infancy, really. Now, there is a wealth of research showing beyond all doubt that your thoughts, beliefs and emotions cause physiological, biological, and even genetic changes all throughout your body. And when I say genetic changes, I’m not meaning that we change our genes or anything like that, but that our thinking changes the pattern of ‘on’ and ‘off’ of our genes. A gene might get switched on or off, for instance, as a consequence of what you’re focusing on.

Thinking of someone or something that causes you stress, for example, switches on stress genes, the consequences of which can lead to constriction of the arteries. Thinking of someone you love, on the other hand, activates completely different genes, the consequences of which can actually dilate your arteries.

Believing a drug will help you can cause it to work better. Believing it won’t help you often negates some (or all) of its potential effect. Paying more for a simple painkiller makes it work better than a cheaper version because of your belief that more expensive equates to better.

Imagining eating can reduce appetite by signaling the brain that you’re full, imagining moving your muscles repetitively actually causes structural changes in the circuits of the brain, making those muscles stronger. Paying attention to your breathing also causes structural changes in the brain in such a way that makes it easier to find peace amid chaos.

Imagining happy things alters brain chemistry that can make you feel better. Imagining things you’re afraid of activates fear centers of the brain.

Imagining moving your arm convinces your brain that you’re actually moving it, an insight from neuroscience that has reaped benefits for thousands of stroke patients, and athletes.

A pilot can even fly a plane with his mind if the navigational controls are interfaced with a device that reads his brain activation.

There is no doubt whatsoever that your mind affects your body. The skill in making it work for you, really, is learning to control what you focus on.

And that really comes down to training, in much the same way that you learn any skill through training.

So I thought I’d give you a little insight into the mind-body connection today, enough perhaps to give you some faith in yourself, that you really do have the capacity to bring about positive changes in your health by adjusting your focus.

A matter of perspective

sunglassesI’ve always thought of myself as having a positive attitude. Not all the time, of course. I think we all have our good and bad days, the latter making positive thinking quite a bit harder, those days when if someone says ‘Think positive’, well, I’ll leave it to your imagination.

But in many instances, whether a day is a good day or a bad day is really a matter of perspective. Let me share an example of a day I had a few weeks ago.

I’d flown to Dublin on a Sunday evening for my 4th speaking event in 4 days, arriving around 10.30pm, and when I went to retrieve my case from the luggage carousel, it hadn’t arrived. I reported it at the service desk and they discovered that my case was still in London. I explained that it was full of books and that I needed them for an event I was due to speak at the next day.

The girl at the desk sent an email to BA to explain that my case was a priority. She then informed me that there was a flight due in from London at 8am the next morning and that she’d try to get BA to put my case on that flight. If so, she’d then arrange for it to be couriered to the venue.

I was really grateful because she seemed really determined to help me. I also received a text from BA at 4.19am the next morning to tell me that my case was now on the plane. I decided then that I’d just collect the case myself off the 8am flight rather than have it couriered to the venue. After all, I was staying at an airport hotel just a few minutes away. Plus, I had an odd feeling that something might go wrong with couriering my case to the venue.

Arriving at the airport, I was led through the staff security area, which was quite cool. I’d forgotten that I had a bottle of water in my bag so they had to take it off me, but the guy said I could come back and collect it once I’d retrieved my case, which I thought was a nice gesture.

Case in hand I then had to make my way into Dublin. I didn’t know until then that this was the day of the Dublin marathon, the annual 26-mile 385 yards race. It turned out that many of the roads were closed and therefore cars, buses, and taxis couldn’t get into the part of the city I was travelling to.

The bus driver only discovered this himself when we reached the point of a road closure. He said I’d need to get off and walk the rest of the way, which was one and a half miles (2.4km). So I did, dragging my two cases with me (I had a carry-on case as well). Oh, and there was a light drizzle of rain, the kind of rain that soaks you right through, and I didn’t have a hood or an umbrella.

Despite my walk, I arrived early and the venue hadn’t opened yet so I sat in a lovely coffee shop nearby, which was also nice and warm, ideal, in fact, for drying my hair and clothes.

The day went well. I chatted with loads of nice people, delivered a 1-hour talk and taught a 2-hour workshop, having to make a swift exit afterwards to get back to the airport to make the last flight home. With the traffic situation due to the marathon, I just made it!

When I got back home later that evening, I received a lot of ‘Goodness, what a day!’, ‘What bad luck, what with the case, then getting soaked’, etc, ‘especially after all the travel you’ve done recently’. I understood. I’d have said the exact same things if it had been someone else. These kinds of reactions are motivated by empathy.

But you know what? Until that moment, it actually never occurred to me that the loss of my bag following by getting wet while dragging my cases over a mile and a half in the rain was a negative thing.

That really struck me! Until that moment, it really hadn’t dawned on me at all that I could have viewed it all as negative.

Instead, I remember that my main feeling at Dublin airport was gratitude that the girl at the service desk was so kind and helpful in tracing my bag. I also felt gratitude towards BA for texting me to let me know my case was onboard the early morning flight, even though they texted me in the middle of the night. In fact it was moments after I received that text that I had the intuitive insight to collect the case myself rather than let it be couriered. Had it been couriered it would never have reached the venue due to the road closure situation. So I was grateful for the text in two ways: one, because I knew my case was in transit, and two, because it inspired the intuition to collect it myself.

I also recalled how much I enjoyed not having to go through the customer security process but going through the staff one instead. I enjoyed chatting with the staff, and even remember high-fiving myself that I got my bottle of water back. After all, I’d only just bought it and hadn’t even opened it yet. A small thing, perhaps, but it was a first and I was in quite a good mood.

I also appreciated that the bus driver, upon learning of the road closure, helped me to find the venue on the Maps app on my iPhone and showed me that the road I had to walk was actually a straight road, leaving little chance of getting get lost. I also enjoyed the walk. It was a lovely part of the city and I recall looking at many of the lovely houses and imagining how people probably loved living here. I also loved that the coffee shop was warm and cosy where I could dry off.

I recalled, also, that I really enjoyed the day, chatting with people, catching up with one or two friends who were also there, and that my talk and workshop had gone really well (and the audiences laughed at my jokes), and my relief that the taxi driver got me to the airport on time afterwards.

Reflecting on all this made me think of how much our emotional responses to things depend upon our perspective.

For example, two people could arrive for a night at a hotel and stay in identical rooms. One person could label it a bad hotel and another might consider it a lovely hotel. It’s the same hotel. All that differs is their perspective, which might be a consequence of past experience. It’s a person’s perspective that runs the show.

Depending on our perspective, we can view the same event in multiple ways, making us feel good or bad. One of the insights in life, I believe, is being aware of this, and one of the skills in life is using it to our advantage.

I suddenly realised that the gratitude exercises I’d been doing recently had kind of worked wonders. From time to time I make a point of working on gratitude. I don’t do it all the time, lest I get bored with the exercise, but I do it, as I said, from time to time. I basically spend a few moments a day listing all the things, people, circumstances, events, aspects of nature, etc, that I’m grateful for at that time. I had been doing it for a couple of weeks prior to this eventful day.

The exercise seemed to have created a habit in my way of thinking regarding what I focused on and how I interpreted events. Instead of focusing on negative things – I could easily have been frustrated that my case didn’t arrive off the carousel, especially as it was so late at night and that it would likely take at least a half hour to go through the process of reporting it lost, and that I was wakened by a text message in the middle of the night, and that I had to walk for over half an hour in the rain while dragging a heavy case – but my mind seemed to settle on other things, aspects of the situations that made them seem lighter.

That’s the power in gratitude exercises, when we’re consistent with them, that they create habits of thinking that alter the way we experience things.

Now, I’m not saying that gratitude will always work this way. It hasn’t always been that way for me. And it’s not like gratitude teaches us to ignore difficult or painful things. It really just seems to be that, in everyday life, the effect of a gratitude practice is that the detail that our minds settle upon in the landscape of the day contains more light than dark. That’s all.

For me, what really struck me was the degree to which the practice I’d been doing had done this. It had spared me a lot of frustration, which I might have experienced instead.

7 ways to help you take your time

woman reading book by windowI’ve had to remind myself of it recently, to take my time. We bought a house in May, an old cottage that needed a lot of renovating. Our plan was to do the renovation work and move in by the end of June. It was a deadline that we were working towards.

It didn’t quite work out that way and we’re still living with in-laws. Renovations often take longer than planned. We’ll be ready to move in soon but the whole experience has helped me look at how I do things and reminded me of the importance of not doing everything in a hurry.

Here’s 7 ways to help you take your time:

1) It’s healthy

Hurrying all the time creates stress. Decide that your long-term health is more important than getting something done quickly.

2) Start earlier

If there’s somewhere you need to be, either leave earlier or contact the person you’re meeting and give them a realistic E.T.A. If you’re regularly late for things, ask yourself, honestly, how late you typically tend to be. Next time, leave early by that amount… plus an extra 10 minutes.

3) Meditate

Practice daily meditation. A regular practice of meditation trains you in new habit of having a quieter mind. The result is that you are more focused in the moment and also less likely to get stressed. Neurologically, this is because meditation causes physical changes in the concentration and focus areas of the brain and also those that affect positive emotion.

4) Reorganise your To-Do list

Make a To-Do list and create two columns. In one, list your priorities, and in the other list things that you have to do but that it wouldn’t be the end of the world if you didn’t manage them. Sometimes, just having things a little clearer relieves stress and helps you take your time with the things that are more important, thereby ensuring that you do a better job.

5) Learn from nature

Observe that nature takes its time. You don’t see a tree hurrying to grow or the sun rushing to get out. Take a walk in nature and simply notice that it does what it does when it does it. There’s no urgency with nature. Let yourself be inspired by its pace.

6) Should your deadlines be guidelines?

Be flexible with your deadlines. OK, having deadlines can be good because they help focus us on our goals. But are you one of those people who give everything a deadline? Look for some middle ground. Decide which things are better with a strong deadline and where your deadlines should really be more like guidelines. Working to a deadline can be good and small amounts of stress can also be good, but making everything a deadline is not so good as it can create too much stress too much of the time.

7) Focus on the present moment

A nice stress-relieving trick is simply to give whatever you’re doing your complete focus. If you’re walking fast to get somewhere, listen to the sound of your footsteps instead of reminding yourself that you need to hurry. If you’re washing dishes, become aware of the feel of the water. If you’re stuck in traffic, listen to the sounds around you. Do it with an open, curious mind. When you focus on the present moment, it quietens your mind and often produces an influx of positive emotion.

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.