How to slow ageing

happy elderly ladies playing with a ball

My friend Skip told me recently that he met a 98-year-old man in Bali who challenged him to a race to climb a tree. Skip is a very physically healthy and fit person – an ex-British champion gymnast – yet the 98-year-old nearly matched him.

I spent 6 months of last year nearly full-time renovating our new home. I clearly remember my first building job. My Dad and I had to remove the floorboards in one room, then get rid of all the large rocks underneath (typical in a very old cottage), so that a new floor could be laid.

Lifting the floorboards and removing the joists wasn’t so hard. We did that in less than an hour. It was lifting the heavy rocks for disposal that was the hard bit. When I woke up the following morning, I could barely get out of bed. Muscles I didn’t even know existed were hurting. Walking to the shower, and then downstairs for breakfast, was painful.

I phoned my Dad to see how he was, worried. He is 73-years-old, after all.

“Fine, Son!” was his reply when I phoned him, in an astonishingly (to me) upbeat voice.

He didn’t hurt at all. How could that be? I’m in my mid-forties and no stranger to exercise. I regularly work out. Dad was completely fine. I felt … wrecked … I think that was the word I used that morning.

These kinds of examples of older people demonstrating physical fitness that we only expect in people much younger remind me of how much attitude plays a role in ageing.

For a start, there is no standard rate of ageing. Yes, we have biology. Yes, we have genetics that predispose the human body to an approximate lifespan. But how that biology and those genetics work has a lot to do with attitude.

Back in the 80s, Harvard professor, Ellen Langer, ran a study of a group of senior citizens, some of whom were struggling with arthritis, who were asked to pretend they were 20 years younger. They arrived at the residential centre, where they would live for the next week, and immediately felt transported back in time. Langer ensured that the house was decorated like the 1950s, that daily newspapers each day were from 1959, that the radio played ‘live’ from 1959. Even the TV ran 1959 shows.

They were also asked to converse with each other like it was 20 years ago, discussing their family as if they were all younger. In other words, they were to completely immerse themselves in the mindset that they were 20 years younger. Importantly, they were also encouraged to do things for themselves – carry their own bags, walk up the stairs, etc, without Langer’s team treating them like they weren’t capable.

Astonishingly, when their physiological readings before and after beginning the study were taken – physical strength, eyesight, hearing, gait, manual dexterity, taste sensitivity, memory, mental cognition – they had grown younger. Interestingly, four independent volunteers were asked to look at ‘Before’ and ‘After’ photographs and stated that they believed the ‘After’ photos were two years younger.

In her book, ‘Counterclockwise’, Langer wrote that on the last day at the centre, men, “who had seemed so frail… ended up playing an impromptu touch football game on the front lawn.” 1 week!! This was after just 1 week of holding a younger attitude.

We have two ages. There’s our chronological age, which is the number of years we’ve lived, which of course only goes in one direction. Then we have our physiological age, which is the age of the body, and that depends to a large extent on diet, exercise … and attitude. It can go backwards.

The food we eat, the exercise we take, our attitude to life, ageing, other people, all make a difference to our physiological age. A poor diet, lifestyle and attitude generally takes its toll on the body, prematurely ageing it. A healthy set, on the other hand, keeps the body younger.

One study of 999 Dutch people aged between 65 and 85 quizzed them on their attitudes to ageing. They were asked whether they agreed or disagreed to statements of the sort, “I often feel that life is full of promises,” “I still have positive expectations about my future,” “There are many moments of happiness in my life.” Those whose responses showed them to have higher levels of optimism had a 77% lower risk of death from heart disease and 45% lower risk of death from any cause.

A similar study, conducted at Yale University, asked 660 people for their responses to questions like, “As you get older, you are less useful. Agree or Disagree?’ Those whose responses showed the most positive attitude to ageing lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those with the least positive attitude.

The study also concluded that attitude was more influential than blood pressure, cholesterol levels, smoking, body weight and even exercise levels in how long a person lived.

Attitudes to other people and social contact make a big difference too. People with a poor attitude to others typically don’t make friends as well and neither do they have a broad social network. People who tend to be aggressive, hostile, or even bullies towards others are more prone to cardiovascular disease. People who are more understanding of others, are kind and compassionate, on the other hands, tend to make friends more easily and tend to have better quality relationships. They also tend to have more social contact.

And social contact is highly important. It turns out that social contact is one of the most important factors, in fact, in living to 100. Social contact, as well as helping keep stress down by providing friendships where we can discuss our worries and challenges, also helps produce oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps maintain the health of the cardiovascular system.

The bottom line in research of all of the above types is that attitude affects ageing and it does it by affecting, not just our minds, but our biology and physiology.

One of the key attitudes to adopt is to actually act younger. It’s easy to surrender to what we think we should be doing, or be able to do, given our age. But outside of a bit of common sense regarding our physical state, most people are capable of more than they believe they should be.

A person who is 80 and who believes that the body is mostly worn out at 80, that no improvement is possible in their physical condition regardless of what they do, that their memory, eyesight, physical strength, etc, are set for decline, will live according to this belief, and it will influence what they actually do, how much they move, how they speak, and how their body responds to life.

Let’s say another person has grown up with the belief that humans live until they are 150 years old and that 80 is ‘middle age’. Such a person would likely find that their attitude and the lifestyle, exercise and movement they adopt, would lead to improvements in their physical condition.

Attitude counts! The same holds true when we’re 30, 40, 50, 60, 70… I think you get my drift. If we have a negative preconceived idea of limitations of age, then we tend to live according to these limitations, whatever age we currently are, and don’t stretch our minds and bodies in the way that they are able to be stretched. As such, we age according to our mindset.

Enough said! I’m off to play on the swings. 🙂

The power of a hug

hug illustrationA hug is wonderful when you feel sad, stressed, tired and even when you feel good.

I love what the Free Hugs people do when they stand in a city centre holding a ‘Free Hugs’ sign. Their hugs produce human connection, vulnerability, smiles, laughter, positive emotion, and even sometimes tears, especially if it’s the first hug a person who has been suffering has experienced in a long while.

Hugs are also good for the heart. They increase our levels of the hormone ‘oxytocin’, which as well as being known for its role in trust, childbirth, and breastfeeding, is also a powerful ‘cardioprotective’ hormone. This basically means it helps protect the cardiovascular system.

From what? You might ask. From the negative side-effects of poor dietary and lifestyle choices and also from mental and emotional stress.

Oxytocin works by producing nitric oxide in our arteries, which then widens (dilates) our arteries. Nitric oxide helps our arteries stay flexible and also helps reduce blood pressure.

So, ultimately, hugs are cardioprotective too. And I’d say so for more than simply their oxytocin-and-therefore-nitric-oxide-inducing power, but because they make us feel relaxed, cared for, even loved. Hugs are medicine for the soul.

I remember crying in front of my mum and dad when I found out our beloved dog, Oscar, had osteosarcoma and was unlikely to live beyond a few months. Mum hugged me and I melted, collapsed in her arms. I felt like a child again, being loved by and tended to by my mum.

I think we have that memory of being tended to by our parents as children, where we were upset or in pain and we knew that ‘everything is going to be OK’, ‘the pain will go soon’, or ‘it’s OK, Mum (or Dad) will fix it’. It’s a memory held deep in the unconscious but whose emotions are released in our adult lives when we receive a hug.

So hugs are medicine for the heart and they are medicine for the soul. If we could bottle hugs, we would take our daily dose without question.

Here’s the thing, you can have a daily dose. You don’t need to wait to be hugged. You can hug others.

As a typical Scottish male (OK, I’m not really able to speak for my entire nation but I’ll make a generalisation based on my 45-year-old observations), hugging didn’t come naturally to me. To be honest, I felt like a sissy if someone hugged me. I’d do the whole, awkward, chest-held-back-not sure-about-touching thing, followed by a little pat on the back, secretly hoping that the hug would end soon.

But I learned to enjoy hugs. I think it happened when I was in my late 20’s and Mum (again to the rescue) looked after me for a week while I suffered a bout of depression. It was the first time in my adult life I opened up to someone. I think something shifted in me then, a willingness to open up to others that I’d not showed before. I then became an initiator of hugs.

Even in the bar on a Thursday night after work (that was our standard weekly visit), I’d say goodbye to my friends at the end of the night with a hug. At first, some of them were a little awkward but soon got the hang of it too. It came natural to some others. But within a month or two, a hug was the standard goodbye for us after a few drinks in the bar.

So I’d add that hugs are also contagious. As we hug others, we share a connection. It opens us a little. It feels good. And that makes it contagious.

So given the medicine that hugs carry, that they are free, and contagious (in a good way), it might be a good idea to see if you can add a few more hugs to your day.

You’d be doing yourself a favour, but each time you hug you also deliver a gentle dose of medicine to the heart and soul of another person too.

And that is the power of a hug.

The art of self-correction

daisies growingSeveral years ago, I spent time as an athletics coach, coaching young people in the long jump and triple jump. It was one of these things that just kind of happened.

I had no previous coaching experience, and certainly wasn’t a technical expert in the logistics of jumping, but the existing coach was moving on and asked if I’d take over. I’d been training in the long jump myself but mostly got by on raw speed. So without a great deal of know-how, I decided to do it my way.

During each training session I led the athletes through basic routines – things I’d done myself. But throughout each training session, my strategy was mostly about lifting the spirits of each athlete in the squad by saying positive things that helped them feel good about themselves. I’d noticed that my chemistry teacher at school did that with me.

He always made me feel good about myself, pointing out how well I was doing, that I had potential, expressing joy when I’d got an answer correct. As a result, I loved being in the chemistry class, excelled in it, went on to university and finished up with a PhD in the subject. I wondered if the athletes would excel in their own ways if I did for them what my chemistry teacher did for me.

It seemed to work. The athletes made great improvements. So much so, in fact, that every single one of them became medallists in their age groups at the year-end national club finals.

The athletes would often notice by themselves where they could improve in the technical aspects of the event. That’s what happens when you’re enjoying something. They also learned by observing each other. Then they made many of their own adjustments accordingly. By coming from inside themselves rather than just from my instruction, they seemed to take more responsibility for their training and more pride in the event. Success, for them, was an inside job.

I call this kind of thing, where we make adjustments by ourselves, ‘Self-Correction’. It’s where we identify where we can improve and make corrections when necessary. It’s an aspect of self-awareness, but where we then act on what we become aware of.

We can apply it to all manner of things. If you’re learning mindfulness, for example, because you need to manage your stress levels, you can self-correct simply by noticing when you’re not feeling calm and doing something about it.

I apply it to personal growth work. I used it extensively when I was working on my self-love (self-esteem) project. Regular awareness of how I was feeling and how I was acting in particular environments helped me a lot to make useful adjustments.

It seems like a no brainer, pretty obvious stuff. And it is, but you’d be surprised at how little we actually do what we know. That’s why I shared my story of athletics coaching. As simple as it sounds, just knowing that you can make big improvements through self-correction helps enormously. If you’re trying to reduce stress, for example, knowing that self-correction can help will actually cause you to notice times when you need to relax.

A simple awareness of the power of self-correction generates a feeling of hope. And that hope shifts the centre of gravity away from seeking solutions in other places, and into yourself.

And that makes all the difference.

Find yourself vs reveal yourself

homeless - travellerIt can be hard to be yourself. In fact, what does it actually mean?

It can mean a lot of things to different people. We sometimes think we need to ‘find’ ourselves in order to ‘be’ ourselves. But finding yourself can actually feel stressful to some people because it conjures up the idea of a long and challenging journey, one beset with obstacles along the way to test your mettle and commitment to the journey.

One of the things I’ve discovered is that an important part of being ourselves is actually a lot about removing the masks of who you are not; like stopping pretending that you are always positive or happy, or that you always have the answers, that you have everything figured out, or letting go of the pretence that you don’t get scared even, or that people’s comments don’t hurt you … etc … and there are many more.

We pretend because we want to be liked, accepted, to belong. We are prone to hide our ‘wobbly bits’ from others because we want to present our best side to the world. We want the world to see us as what we consider to be our most desirable, most talented, most intelligent, strongest, wisest, funniest, (etc, etc) self.

This is because, deep in the human psyche, not being liked by others feels like a threat to our very survival. You see, millions of years of evolution have ingrained in the human psyche (and biology) the need to form connections with others because these connections are what created community that ultimately helped our species thrive. The need for connection has become as much part of our biology and psychology as has the need for air to breathe.

It’s why connection stimulates the production of growth hormones and oxytocin, both which play key roles in the growth and repair of the human body. An infant deprived of connection grows at a slower rate than an infant shown an abundance of connection, mostly due to lower levels of growth hormones and oxytocin.

It’s also why a lack of connection is associated with depression in adults as well as a weaker immune system and poorer function of the cardiovascular system.

In centuries past, one of the worst punishments was banishment, where a person could never again return to their community. It was not uncommon for those banished to make multiple (and eventually fatal) attempts to get back into the village or town again. They simply could not live without connection.

In the modern world, the need for connection creates, for many, an inbuilt, unconscious desire to please people, to need them to like us, because we believe that being liked will help us bond and form connections. That’s why we try to show our best bits and hide our seeming weaknesses. We fear that if we show our weaknesses, vulnerabilities, insecurities, that people won’t like us and thus we won’t be able to form connections. Of course, this is mostly going on unconsciously.

But we have it a bit back to front. In holding back our real selves, in only showing up as part of ourselves (the shiny bits and not the wobbly bits), we don’t really form the quality of connections our biology and psyches need. We erect artificial barriers, built upon the fear of people seeing our seeming shortcomings, barriers that actually block authentic connection.

On the other hand, having the courage to show our wobbly bits – our vulnerabilities, our insecurities, our seeming weaknesses – actually makes authentic connection more likely. It helps us forge deeper connections because we let go of pretences.

We give up the idea of being who we are not. We knock down these internal barriers. We show up as we are. We move away from wanting specific people to like us, give us approval, love us, even, and move towards knowing that if people don’t like us as we are then they will simply drift out of our lives, making space for people who like, approve, love us for who we are. In effect, we become more comfortable in our own skin.

So perhaps, rather than try to find yourself, have a go at ditching who you are not. And as you let go of these false ideas of yourself, who knows … you might just find the person you were looking for.

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. 🙂