Loving kindness slows ageing at the genetic level

I’ve written a lot about the links between kindness and ageing, and part of my focus has been that kindness is the opposite of stress, at least in terms of how it makes us feel and the physiological consequences of those feelings.

Just as feelings of stress produce stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenalin), so feelings associated with kindness produce kindness hormones (like oxytocin, aka, the love drug, the cuddle chemical).

As a result, while stress increases blood pressure, kindness reduces blood pressure. This is fairly obvious, and I’ve written about it in blogs as well as in two of my books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness’.

But exciting new research has taken things further. In a 12-week randomised controlled trial led by scientists at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers measured the length of ‘telomeres’ before and after 6 weeks of daily meditation practice.

Telomeres are considered to be markers of ageing because they gradually reduce in length throughout our lives. Their length, and the rate at which their length reduces, not only gives a highly accurate indication of someone’s age but also how fast they are ageing.

They are end caps on DNA. A bit like the plastic ends on shoelaces that stop the shoelaces unravelling and thus ensure that you can thread the laces through the lace loopholes, telomeres help prevent DNA from totally unravelling. In so doing, they prolong the life of cells.

For the study, scientists compared the length of telomeres in people who practiced either, a) the ‘Loving Kindness Meditation’ (a Buddhist practice), where we think and feel kindness and compassion for ourselves and others, b) mindfulness meditation, or c) who did no meditation at all, to serve as a comparison. Blood samples were taken two weeks before and three weeks after the meditation practice.

Incredibly, while telomere length reduced in the mindfulness meditation group and in the control group (typical of 6 weeks of ageing), it did not reduce in the Loving Kindness group. The researchers wrote that, “… with participants in the LKM [Loving Kindness Meditation] group, on average, showing no significant telomere shortening over time.”

In other words, feelings of kindness and compassion seem to slow ageing at the genetic level. This offers further evidence that kindness brings about effects that are physiologically opposite to stress, because stress is one of the ways that telomere loss speeds up.

It is also worth noting that mindfulness meditation did also reduce the rate of loss of telomere length in comparison with the control group over the 6-week period, but only a little. We might expect this because mindfulness meditation is known to reduce stress, but the effect was not nearly so strong as it was for the loving kindness meditation. It is likely that longer term practice of mindfulness slows the rate of ageing, which is consistent with other research.

However, the effects of feelings of warmth, kindness and social connection, which we are encouraged to feel in practice of the loving kindness meditation (also known as metta bhavana), seem to produce much more powerful effects on ageing.

Exactly how it works is not fully understood, but it may involve oxytocin (the kindness hormone) and also the vagus nerve, which has been shown in research to increase in activity (vagal tone) due to practice of the loving kindness meditation.

Oxytocin has been shown to reduce stress and inflammation in immune cells, and thus prolong their health, and the vagus nerve controls the rest, relax and regenerate mode in the body, as well as the inflammatory reflex. Through the latter, increases in vagal tone have been shown to reduce inflammation. This has been cited as an explanation for the increased comparative health of stage 4 cancer patients with high vagal tone compared to those with low vagal tone (see article).

But regardless of how it works, the fact is that it does work. Kindness and compassion really do have powerful biological effects, and they might just have a significant effect on how long you live and how healthy you are.


Have you heard of my new Personal Development Club?

 

How searching for my lost suitcase led me to kindness

kindness is like magicI left my suitcase on a train recently. Believe it or not, I was meditating as the train approached the station. The only thing I wasn’t mindful of was that my case was on the rack above me. 🙂

I only realised this when I arrived at my hotel about half an hour later. I returned to Waterloo station in London, where my train had arrived, and a young man named Abdullah was so incredibly kind and compassionate as he took me from staff member to staff member around the station. He was so helpful, and kind, and went the extra mile to do everything he could to help me. I didn’t get my case but, as strange as it might sound, it was worth it for the time spent witnessing the kindness and compassion of another human being.

I write and speak a lot about kindness and try to quietly do my little but here and there, but I suppose maybe I’d forgotten what it’s like to need the kindness of another person.

As we were parting company, I had an intuition to offer him a copy of my book, ‘The Little Book of Kindness’, which I had on me at the time, as some way as saying ‘Thank You’. He was so genuinely grateful and then HE thanked ME … for having been so gentle, calm and understanding throughout the time we’d been trying to find my case.

It was a lovely exchange. Two males not trying to be manly, but just allowing an honest and sincere interaction to take place and honestly expressing what they felt in the moment.

So I spent the afternoon buying clothes, toiletries, etc, to keep me going for the next few days while I was in London. That’s when I received more kindness. I mentioned to the shop assistant that the reason I was buying such a mixture of stuff was because I’d left my case on a train. To my complete surprise, she briefly looked around her, as if to check if the coast was clear, then she put my purchases through on a staff discount. It was a mark of empathy for the situation I found myself in and I was incredibly touched.

So it was an interesting day. Very much enjoyable on the human connection front. I’m really not that bothered about losing my clothes; they can be replaced. But connection is invaluable. Receiving kindness and connection made it all worthwhile.

Acceptance vs Assertion

Mountain landscape with hiking trail and view of beautiful lakes Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal. (Mountain landscape with hiking trail and view of beautiful lakes Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal., ASCII, 118 compI’ve been thinking a bit recently about finding the balance between accepting things as they are and going with the flow and asserting your will or pushing for what you want. There’s a balance. There’s a time and a place for both, but the more I accept and go with the flow, the more things seem to work out better.

I was on a long-haul flight recently, flying BA from London to Sydney. During the second leg of the flight, after refuelling in Singapore, my TV screen wasn’t working. That meant I couldn’t watch the movie I was so looking forward to watching that would help pass the time over the next 7 and a half hours.

The air stewardess tried resetting the screen a few times, but it just didn’t work. I thought, ‘Oh well, a great opportunity to get on with some study and meditation’. She actually really appreciated the fact that I didn’t get upset or annoyed in the slightest. I just smiled and thanked her for trying. In gratitude for my seemingly relaxed and accepting attitude, she handed me a couple of mini-bottles of red wine. So, I got on with some studying that I really needed to do. It turns out that it was exactly the right thing as I made a few insights that I hadn’t made before that were really important.

A few hours later came meal time. They didn’t have any vegetarian meals (we were supposed to pre-order, but I hadn’t realised). The air stewardess (a different one) apologised. Again, I decided not to resist things and just go with the flow. Fasting is actually really healthy, so I accepted the fact that I’d do a kind of mini-fast. She seemed relieved that I didn’t make a fuss. Oh, and she also gave me a couple of mini bottles of red wine by way of apology.

About half an hour later, she appeared with a dish that she’d ‘borrowed’ from business class. It was really good – a tasty mushroom pasta dish that wasn’t available in economy class (coach), where I was seated. Since I had been so nice about it, she did everything she could to find me some food. Later, when we were being offered a sandwich before landing, she apologised once again, this time at the lack of vegetarian sandwiches. The first stewardess (of the TV screen) was in the opposite aisle and overheard. She quickly walked to the font of the plane and back again with a really lovely veggie sandwich for me.

Sometimes, we fight to get ourselves heard, or to get what we imagine we deserve and, granted, there are times when that is the right thing to do. I personally find, though, that when I don’t resist and look instead for the opportunity or hidden meaning in what’s happening, if I just shrug, accept, and get on with things, I find that things tend to work out better.

Acceptance in both instances brought me something better than the original thing I could have fought for. I got a lovely meal and a sandwich, great insights from my studies, accumulated 4 mini-bottles of red wine, and I brought a relieved and grateful smile to some faces due to my attitude.

Part of acceptance, for me, comes from a belief that we are always being nudged, directed, drawn (call it what you will) towards things that are best for us. That’s my belief, but it’s useful to have beliefs about what acceptance means for us, even if it’s just a belief that every cloud has a silver lining.

Some people find it useful to seek a deeper meaning in what’s happening, others find it a spiritual challenge to be able to accept and not resist; rising to the challenge of acceptance helps them shrug off seemingly challenging situations or even losses.

Acceptance can be also be about letting go of things. Buddhists talk of the law of impermanence, that all things are transient and must change. Everything must change. Everything evolves and grows, even you. People have to accept the changes in you, lest you feel pressured to remain the same for them. And so, you must also allow others to grow and change as they need to. As the Buddhists say, ‘Things come. Let them. Things go. Let them’.

Change is actually the only constant in the entire universe.

Change is inevitable … except from a vending machine.

Empathy Matters

elderly woman smiling with her caregiverEmpathy is the ability to understand and relate to other people and animals.

Empathy is being able to see the world or a situation from someone else’s perspective and also appreciate how they might feel.

Empathy can even be in walking in someone else’s shoes, so to speak.

It is the precursor to compassion and kindness. In the book, ‘Self Compassion’, Kristen Neff defines empathy as ‘I feel with you’.

Empathy then evolves into compassion, which we can think of as, ‘I feel for you’. The difference between empathy and compassion being that compassion is a move towards wishing the person freedom from their suffering.

To be honest, the difference is mostly academic and I don’t think, in most people’s everyday experience, it actually matters whether we call that sympathetic feeling (yes, we can think of sympathy in the same way) empathy or compassion. But if you wanted to recognise a difference then you may see it in brain activation.

Empathy (I feel with you) activates the insula of the brain (the empathy centre). Compassion activates the insula too, but it also activates the left side of the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with positive emotion and also conscious decision making. In other words, considering brain activation, you can think of compassion as experiencing someone’s pain with them (empathy), with the addition of a conscious wishing that they be free of their suffering (I feel for you instead of I feel with you).

But, as I said, the difference is mostly academic and I don’t feel it matters whether a person refers to the feeling of feeling another’s pain as empathy, compassion, or sympathy. The intent is the same.

Mostly, the word empathy conjures up the idea of empathising with others. But it helps a lot when someone empathises with us, when they share our pain. It even helps us physiologically.

In a study of over 700 patients who attended their doctor’s surgery for onset symptoms of cold, some received a normal consultation and others received an ‘enhanced’ consultation, where the doctor emphasised empathy. The patient filled out a CARE (Consultation and Relational Empathy) questionnaire so that researchers could asses empathy levels and they had their symptoms tracked for the study.

Those who received the empathy-enhanced visit (and scored the doctor a 10/10 for empathy) had lower severity of cold, recovered faster than everyone else, and also had significantly higher immune responses. Empathy mattered … a lot!

We can interpret this as the patient feeling listened to and reassured by the doctor. This activates part of the placebo mechanism, which helps them recover faster. And note that I wrote ‘placebo mechanism’ and not ‘placebo effect’. This is intentional, lest we assume that the placebo effect is all in our heads. As I’ve written in my books and in other blogs, belief or expectation produces physical changes in the brain. Brain chemistry changes in response to a person’s beliefs or expectations. The mechanism (the biological process that occurs) differs depending on the medical condition and the treatment given.

Another factor is that when a patient is shown empathy, it reduces their stress levels, which often accompany uncertainty regarding their symptoms, and this reduction in stress also leads to an increased immune response.

The bottom line in the study is that empathy was related to a better immune response and a faster recovery in the patients.

I think of empathy as a currency. In our ever-more interconnected world, the ability to understand, empathise, and relate to others is becoming increasingly more important.

Dollars, yuan, or Euros are not the currencies of the future. Empathy is the currency we all need to be investing in.

 

References:

P. Rakel, et al, ‘Perception of empathy in the therapeutic encounter: effects on the common cold’, Patient Education and Counselling 2011, 85, 390-97 (Link to study, DOI: 10.1016/j.pec.2011.01.009)

If you ever feel like you don’t make a difference

Kindness is highly contagious. It’s more contagious, in fact, than the cold.

The contagiousness of kindness is powered by what’s known as ‘elevation’, a description coined by social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. It’s a sense of warmth, satisfaction, expansion, even gratitude. It’s the feeling we feel when we do something kind, but also when we receive kindness or even witness it.

Research by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, using a business game as a model, showed that kindness is contagious to at least 3 degrees of separation.

This means that when you do something kind for someone, they will likely be kind (or kinder) to someone else (1 degree), and the recipient of that kindness at 1 degree will be kind or kinder to someone else (2 degrees), and the recipient at 2 degrees will be kind or kinder to someone else (3 degrees).

In real life, it’s much more interesting. When you are kind to someone, given the average degree of interaction we have in a typical day, that person is likely to be kind (or kinder) to around 5 people over the rest of the day, on account of how you made she or he feel. That’s 5 people at 1 degree of separation from you. Think about it. When someone last showed you kindness, didn’t you find yourself being a little kinder to others afterwards, whether in your attitude, words, or actions?

But each of those 5 people will likely be kind (or kinder) to 5 further people, which means 25 people impacted at 2 degrees of separation from you. Now, each of those 25 are also likely to be kind or kinder to 5 further people each, so that’s 125 people at 3 degrees of separation from you. Of course, the numbers aren’t exact; sometimes a person will be kind to more than 5, sometimes less, sometimes it’s more than 5 in a single act. I’ve estimated that it just averages out at about 5 per person. This is illustrated in the image above.

In case you ever wondered how much of an impact you have, let me suggest that you’re changing the world every day. Every day!

Your acts of kindness sends out ripples that impact people at 2 and 3 degrees away from you, people you won’t even meet in your life, yet whose days are a little lighter simply because of something you might have said or did for another person. You are far more important in this world than you think you are.

Real vs Imaginary in the Brain and Body

Head with colored cogs inside

The brain, in many ways, doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary.

Take a simple example of stress. Your brain responds to a stressful situation by releasing stress hormones. But your brain also releases the stress hormones when you remember a past stressful event or even when you vividly imagine one. Whether you’re really there in the stressful situation, you’re remembering it or imagining it, is all much the same to your brain. It releases stress hormones each time.

Another thing to consider is that a stressful event is not absolutely a stressful event. All you can be certain of is that it is stressful for you. The same event might be experienced differently for someone else. So, the event itself is not stressful. It’s how you think about it that’s stressful and that results in your feelings of stress. And it’s your feelings of stress that produce the stress hormones. So, you produce stress hormones because of how you feel, regardless of whether you’re there (in the stressful situation) in person or there in your mind.

In other blogs and in my books, I’ve written than kindness is the opposite of stress. Most people assume that peace is the opposite of stress. Peace is an absence of stress, not it’s opposite. In physiological terms, the feelings associated with kindness produce opposite effects to the feelings associated with stress. So, does the same type of real vs imaginary effect apply to kindness?

It seems so. The feelings associated with kindness, what social scientist Jonathan Haidt has called elevation, are produced regardless of whether you’re having a direct experience of kindness (as the giver or receiver or even as a witness to it), or whether you’re remembering an experience of kindness, or even whether you are vividly imagining one. The same feelings are produced in each instance. And just as with stress, it’s the feelings that produce the hormones. In the case of kindness, it’s kindness hormones.

The main kindness hormone is oxytocin, otherwise known as the love drug, the hug drug, the cuddle chemical, or any other similar affectionate name. It’s the feelingsof warmth and connection that produce oxytocin.

So, whether you’re being kind, receiving kindness, or witnessing kindness in a real or imaginary setting, you feel the same feelings and therefore produce the same kindness hormone. Just as with stress, your brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imaginary.

Can the same be said with other systems of the body? It seems so. Numerous studies have shown that imagining touching or moving a part of the body activates the corresponding brain region as if we really did touch or move that body part. For example, researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed that when a person imagined moving fingers, toes, or even their tongue it activated the fingers, toes, and tongue regions of the brain as if they really were moving their fingers, toes or tongue.

The famous ‘piano study’ is an excellent example from neuroscience. Researchers at Harvard University, led by Alvaro Pascual-Leone, compared the brains of people playing a sequence of notes on a piano with the brains of people imagining playing the notes. The region of the brain connected to the finger muscles was found to have changed to the same degree in both groups of people, regardless of whether they struck the keys physically or mentally.

It is this phenomenon – the fact that the brain processes imaginary as if it were real – that allows sports people to benefit from visualisation practices. Several studies have shown that players can improve on their golf shots, tennis strokes, net shots in basketball, ice skating, football, or just about anything. Studies have shown people increasing their muscle strength by imagining themselves flexing muscles or lifting weights. In a study, for example, at the Lerner Research Institute in Cleveland, imagining flexing the little finger for 15 minutes daily for 3 months was shown to increase muscle strength by 35% … and the volunteers hadn’t even lifted a finger. 🙂

The technique has also allowed people who have had a stroke to recover faster, as has been demonstrated in several studies that compare patients receiving physiotherapy with patients doing visualisation of movements as well as the physiotherapy. According to these research studies, those who do the visualisation practices recover faster than those who do physiotherapy alone. A 2014 meta-analysis of the use of ‘mental imagery’ in stroke rehabilitation noted this compelling evidence and concluded that it could be a ‘viable intervention’ and that it renders ‘unlimited practice opportunities’.

The benefits rely on the fact that when a patient visualises movement, the brain processes it as if they really are moving, and so imagined movement becomes like extra physical practice as far as the brain is concerned.

We can even extend the idea onto eating. In a study led by Carey Morewedge, at Carnegie Mellon University, volunteers either ate or imagined eating small sweets. Some volunteers were asked to imagine eating several sweets and others were asked to imagine eating only a small number. When given the chance to eat real sweets later, those who imagined eating the most had less appetite for more. It was concluded that imagining eating impacted the brain like real eating does and actually supressed the appetite for more, just as real eating does. It was as if the brain were saying, “OK, that’s enough. I’m full now” even though the person hadn’t actually eaten anything but had just imagined it.

In other words, in some ways the brain processed imagining eating as if the person really was eating. A word of caution here, though. Research hasn’t investigated whether imagining eating affects the body in other ways, like perhaps without actual food a person might deprive their bodies of needed nutrition. But the point is, again, that the brain isn’t making a noticeable distinction between real or imaginary.

How far does this go?

Studies even suggest that the immune system responds in a similar way. Volunteers asked to imagine increasing levels of certain antibodies, or immune cells, were able to increase their numbers. Furthermore, in a randomised controlled trial of breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, around half of the patients were asked to also imagine their immune cells like piranha fish and to imagine them destroying cancer cells. In those who visualised, immune system activity was higher than it was in those who didn’t visualise. In fact, the immune systems of those who visualised were showing high levels of cytotoxicity even after the fourth (and final) cycle of chemotherapy.

So, generally speaking, insofar as the above examples go, it seems to be that the brain and body don’t distinguish between whether something is real or whether we just imagine it as real.

The question now becomes: what does that mean for us?

 

References

All references and more complete discussions can be found in David R Hamilton PhD, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘, (Hay House, 2019). Individual references are below.

Fingers, toes and tongue study
H. Ehrsson et al., ‘Imagery of voluntary movement of fingers, toes, and tongue activates corresponding body-part-specific motor representations’, Journal of Neurophysiology, 2003, 90(5), 3304-3316. Link to study

Piano study
Pascual-Leone et al., ‘Modulation of muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of fine motor skills’, Journal of Neurophysiology, 1995, 74(3), 1037-1045. Link to study

Little finger strength study
K. Ranganathan et al, ‘From mental power to muscle power – gaining strength by using the mind’, Neurophysiologia, 2004, 42(7), 944-956. Link to study

Stroke rehabilitation meta-analysis
Y. Kho et al., ‘Meta-analysis on the effect of mental imagery on motor recovery of the hemiplegic upper extremity function’, Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 2014, 61(2), 38-48. Link to study

Immune system visualisation for cancer study
O.Eremin et al., ‘Immuno-modulatory effects of relaxation training and guided imagery in women with locally advanced breast cancer undergoing multimodal therapy: A randomised controlled trial’, The Breast, 2009, 18, 17-25. Link to study

Nature’s Catch 22

Image from Wordswag

I’ve written a lot about the “side effects” of kindness. There’s five of them: Kindness makes you happier, it’s good for the heart, it slows ageing, it improves relationships, and it’s contagious.

There’s talk sometimes where people say there is no truly altruistic act, that if you benefit from kindness then you’re being somewhat selfish and you’re therefore not doing it for the right reasons. It’s almost as if for a kindness to be pure, we have to suffer by doing it.

To be honest, I try not to get too weighed down with the academic debates about altruism. My opinion is that nature has built into us, that is, we have evolved, a system that encourages us to be kind for the right reasons, because being kind is the right thing to do.

I call it Nature’s Catch 22.

Here’s what I mean. The health-related side effects of kindness only occur because of how being kind makes you feel. That’s the key. It’s the warm feelings that come with kindness that release the kindness hormone, aka, the cuddle chemical, the hugging hormone, the love drug, or formally, oxytocin, a 9 amino acid-long hormone. It impacts not only brain circuits that make us feel connected, trusting, and happier, but it also acts on blood vessels to lower blood pressure and serves as a potent anti-oxidant too.

Therefore, you can only benefit from an act of kindness if you mean what you do. Why? Because you have to mean it to feel it! I’ll say that again. You have to mean it to feel it. And only by feeling it do you release oxytocin. To generate the kindness hormone and receive its benefits, your act of kindness must be real, honest, heartfelt.

It’s the feelings that generate the positive effects. Just as feelings of stress create negative effects in the body (and produce stress hormones), so feelings associated with kindness thus create positive effects.

So, a person trying to make themselves happier or improve their cardiovascular health by doing some half-hearted acts of kindness is futile. Of course, on one hand it still benefits the other person so that’s a good thing regardless, but there is no benefit to themselves because they didn’t mean what they were doing.

Perhaps I have side-stepped some of the altruism debate, but I believe that most of us are genuinely moved by the pain or suffering of others, and this makes our acts of kindness genuine.

I believe we have evolved to feel compassion, we have evolved to care, and as a result, we have evolved to be kind.

Nature’s Catch 22 has ensured it.

Our ancient ancestors who were kind for the right reasons derived more health benefits and were therefore more likely to survive and pass their genes onto the next generation.

So, we have evolved to mean it when we’re kind and to feel how it feels when we’re kind. And as a result, we receive the side effects of our kindnesses.


My new book, ‘The Little Book of Kindness’ (Gaia, Feb 2019) is due to be published on 7th Feb. I’m offering a FREE 4-lesson online course (on The Biology and Contagiousness of Kindness) to everyone who pre-orders the book before 7th Feb (pre-order quantities are used by booksellers to make decisions whether to stock a book or not). You can check out the free course HERE.

And you can pre-order the book from:

Amazon UK (Flexibound) Amazon UK (Kindle)
Amazon.com (Flexibound) Amazon.com (Kindle)
Amazon.ca (Flexibound) Amazon.ca (Kindle)
Amazon.com.au (Flexibound) Amazon.com.au (Kindle)
Barnes and Noble (Flexibound) Barnes and Noble (Nook)
Waterstones

Kindness on the curriculum

I spent some time in New York City last weekend. I’m writing a series of pieces for Psychologies Magazine called ‘The Kindness Conversation’ where I basically have, well, conversations about kindness. In New York, I had my kindness conversation with Cynthia Germanotta, mother of Lady Gaga.

Cynthia is president and co-founder (with her daughter) of Born This Way Foundation, a charity whose mission it is to create a kinder and braver world. They focus much of their efforts on inspiring kindness in young people.

After our conversation (which will be in Psychologies Mag in a few months’ time), we headed out to Baldwin High School, a school on Long Island, to participate in a kindness project that the kids there have been involved with. These kids had bought over 400 Christmas presents for children whose families are homeless.

When we arrived at the school, all of the presents had been gathered together in a large hallway in the school before the kids took armfuls each and carried them out to a school bus. They literally packed the bus full of presents. Once filled, the bus was then driven to Bethany House, which provides emergency and transitional housing for homeless families in Long Island.

As part of their ‘Multiply Your Good’ campaign, Born This Way Foundation matched the number of presents with gifts of clothing for the children from one of their partners, thus doubling the volume of donations and so that the children of Bethany House would receive toys and clothing at Christmas.

As I write this, I am in awe of the kindness I witnessed at the school. It touched me deeply. Similar to my last experience in a school (see My Day Talking Kindness to Young Children), I found myself blown away by what I witnessed. People have often remarked that I am a kind person because I write and speak about kindness. In some ways, I am trying to use my skills to spread kindness, which is why I write and teach. But I cannot help but feel that there is a difference from writing and speaking about it and actually being on the front line doing it, like these kids were. It was a real humbling experience.

The teachers at the school deserve a special applause too for having the vision and desire to involve the school kinds in such a rewarding programme where, at their young age, they could have first-hand experience of kindness, what it means, and how it makes a difference. I think it’s a great idea to involve kids in kindness projects like this, so that they can learn about kindness through experience at a young age and also, through further school work, can explore the consequences of kindness, the impact it can have on people’s lives.

Surely, learning about kindness while at school is as important as learning to read and write, as important as maths, science, music, art and languages. Kindness is fundamental to our interactions with each other. It’s a way of being, a way that colours the nature of these interactions. It is fundamental at all levels of society. It is fundamental in building and maintaining healthy communities.

Kindness is getting more column space in newspapers and magazines now than at any other time I can remember. Perhaps it’s an antidote to some of the aggression and division we see so much of in the world at the moment, especially on the political scene. Perhaps we subconsciously seek to counterbalance division with kindness, because kindness unifies.

Kindness brings people together. It dissolves disagreement and hatred. Or as philosopher, Albert Schweitzer, wrote, “Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the Sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding and hostility to evaporate.

Kindness is like glue that holds us all together. What would we be without kindness? Where would we be if we all sought to look out only for ourselves? Kindness includes others.

I think kids should be learning what kindness is in school; how it matters, why it matters, its consequences. Kindness should be on the curriculum of all schools.

I was bullied at school when I was 16-17 years old. I often wonder if things would have been the way they were for me if kindness had been on our school curriculum. Would I still have been bullied? Perhaps! Perhaps not! But I do believe that, in general, a curriculum that included studies on kindness, with opportunities for further study in later school years, would result in a noticeable drop in bullying and a significant increase in tolerance and unity and perhaps even academic performance.

Kids could be learning why kindness matters, how it impacts our health, how it spreads by inspiring ‘pay it forward’ behaviour in others. They could be learning how to actually be kind, the multiple forms it can take, from saying thank you, to paying a compliment, to listening, to being there for a friend or family member, to volunteer work, to helping people in the community, to refraining from bullying.

They could learn about the science of kindness and how it impacts our health, from how it makes us happier, can reduce risk of depression and anxiety, how it helps build resilience by counteracting stress, to how it impacts the heart and arteries, the nervous system and immune system.

The curriculum could involve practical experience of volunteering in the community, with a written report that encourages the kids to reflect on the impact of the work they did. Older kids studying kindness may even, as part of their own projects, help tutor younger kids in some of their school subjects.

Perhaps kindness as a compulsory subject on the school curriculum would have further reaching consequences too, as kids move on after school and take what they have learned into the wider world. Perhaps it would have knock-on effects in business, in how business is conducted, on the reasons why business is conducted.

Many kids who learned kindness at school may become business leaders and influence how business is done. Many could find their way into politics and their knowledge and experience of kindness may influence decisions taken at national and international levels, which surely will benefit all of us. I think we may then see the world coming together in greater ways as we recognise and embrace our common humanity, as we celebrate our similarities instead of squabbling about our differences.

“We look for a glorious dénouement [end result],” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu in the film and book, Choice Point (which I’m also in), “when we will discover that we are actually members of one family.” I think kindness on the curriculum might really help us with such a goal.

This might sound idealistic or even fanciful thinking, but I think it’s already happening. There are pockets of this happening everywhere, even if not formally, not least at Baldwin High School, but also in the school that my friend John teaches at, where he teaches young kids on the ASD spectrum. Their whole school did a kindness project. Some of the kids in John’s class wrote letters to me a few weeks later to tell me the sorts of acts of kindness they had been doing and what kindness their classmates had shown them. I know there are many more schools making kindness a fundamental part of children’s education and experience.

Kindness matters. Kindness makes a difference. Being kind also inspires kindness in others. It is contagious. That is a fact. I think it’s spreading through schools now. And at a time of year when we worry about catching a cold or flu, kindness is one ‘bug’ that I think we would all do well to catch.

How belief can drive recovery

When I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, the placebo effect was frequently dismissed as ‘all in the mind’ or ‘psychosomatic’. It wasn’t a real improvement, it was believed, merely that people ‘think’ they’re feeling better.

This was conventional wisdom at that time and is still a widely held belief today. When a mother kisses a scrape or graze on their child’s knee, the pain seems to reduce. Sometimes, an adult will feel better once they arrive to see the doctor. We tend not to imagine that some physical change in the brain has actually caused the improvements.

The truth is, physical changes do occur in the brain and they are caused by what the person believes or expects will happen.

Take research into what is known as placebo analgesia, for example, the reduction in pain that occurs when a person receives a placebo that they believe is a real painkiller. The analgesia occurs because the person’s brain produces its own painkillers. They don’t just ‘think’ they’re feeling less pain. They actually DO feel less pain.

A similar kind of thing has been observed with research into Parkinson’s Disease. Fabrizio Benedetti, a neuroscientist at the University of Turin School of medicine and who runs the most advanced placebo research lab in the world, identified production of dopamine in the brain of Parkinson’s patients who received placebo injections.

He even measured activation of individual neurons that fired according to the how much placebo they’d received. The net gain in movement and reduction in tremors wasn’t just ‘all in the mind’ of the patients, nor did the patients just think they could move better but really they couldn’t. The improvements were real and they were due to real physical changes in the brain driven by what the patients believed or expected would happen.

In another of Benedetti’s experiments, he enlisted volunteers to receive an injection of capsaicin (aka chilli peppers) into their hands or feet. The volunteers thought they were participating in a trial of a new and powerful local anaesthetic, but the anaesthetic was really a placebo. They had the placebo cream applied to one of their hands or feet but not to the other and then the chilli pepper was injected into both. So, they might have the cream applied to the left hand but not the right, but the chilli pepper would be injected into both hands so that a comparison could be made.

Upon injection, the pain was substantially less in the hand or foot that had the placebo anaesthetic cream applied but there was maximum pain in the other hand or foot. When Benedetti examined the brains of the volunteers, he found that the brains of the volunteers had produced their own natural versions of morphine, known as endogenous opioids.

But even more impressive was that these opioids were produced only in the specific region of the brain governing the specific region of the left hand or foot that had the placebo cream applied.

In other words, the person expected to have no pain in one specific region of their hand or foot and, as a consequence, endogenous opioids were produced in the necessary region of the brain required to deliver that precise result. As Benedetti noted, the entire brain was not flooded with endogenous opioids, only the specific region governing the hand or foot that had the placebo applied. In some ways, the human mind acts with surgical precision.

Perhaps we should rebrand the placebo effect as ‘The specific impact of expectation or belief on the brain and body’ … or maybe that’s a bit of a mouthful and ‘placebo effect’ is just easier. The point is that the word placebo, for many, conjures up the idea that nothing is actually happening, that improvements really are just ‘all in the mind’. But that is simply not so.

Expectation or belief produces real changes in the brain and body, often consistent with what the person expects or believes will happen, and these changes drive physical effects throughout the body.

Of course, there are limits and we shouldn’t automatically think that belief will instantly cure disease. It is wise to follow medical advice. But as more research is undertaken into the placebo effect, we’re learning that some systems of the body previously thought inaccessible to the placebo effect are accessible after all. It just takes a little longer.

Researchers have shown that placebos can be used to suppress the immune system, for example, and an active line of research is ongoing into PCDR – or Placebo Controlled Dose Reduction – where a dose of a drug is gradually lowered and replaced by a placebo over a number of days. It’s called conditioning,

The patients get a result each time they take their meds. As the mental association between taking the drug and the result strengthens, some of the drug can be replaced by a placebo and the patient’s growing conditioned belief compensates by generating its own physical effects.

Scientists believe this might be helpful for patients who take immunosuppressant drugs, like organ transplant patients and even those who have particular autoimmune disorders. The reduction in volume of drug required as it is gradually replaced by a placebo would surely be a cost saver for society and that money could be put to other uses. And perhaps side effects would be minimised.

We are living in an exciting time for placebo research and for research into the broader mind-body connection. We’re now learning that the contents of our minds can deliver real consequences in the body.

The skill for harnessing the effect, perhaps, is in believing that this is actually true and also learning to be more in control of the contents of our minds.

 

References

This article is based on Chapter 2 (The Power of Believing) of, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body‘, by David R Hamilton, PhD. All references are listed at the back of the book.

Can you visualise drugs working?

I recently chatted with a girl who has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was a child. Now in her late 20s, she’s taken painkillers for years.

When she was first diagnosed, a nurse instructed her to imagine her painkillers travelling to her joints and then dissolving into little particles and spreading out over the joints, soothing them and reducing swelling and pain. After a moment or two, the nurse would ask, “Can you picture it?” And when she said she could, the nurse would add, “Can you feel it? Can you feel it dissolving into the joint and taking the pain away?” And she could! She believed that the visualisation really helped her and has been using it regularly for over 20 years now.

Even as an adult, she spontaneously does the visualisation every time she takes a painkiller, closing her eyes and visualising for a moment or two right after she swallows the tablet with some water.

It’s a terrific way to use visualisation. I’ve written about visualisation and how it works in other blogs, and also teach it in my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’. Mostly people use visualisation to imagine a state of illness changing into wellness, or to imagine their immune systems working to destroy bacteria or viruses, but like the girl above, some people visualise their medicines doing their jobs too.

Some people who take antibiotics imagine them destroying infection. From the moment they put the tablet in their mouth and take a sip of water, they imagine antibiotic particles travelling inside their body and going straight to where they need to go, neutralising infection there. The visualisation only takes a moment but is done consistently each time they take a pill.

Common among cancer patients is to visualise chemotherapy drugs as piranha fish or pac men chomping on cancer tells or tumours. In their minds’ eyes they imagine the cells being destroyed or tumours shrinking smaller and smaller until they vanish. Rather than thinking of the drugs as poison, then, which a number of people do and which can make them feel stressed as a consequence, they picture the drugs doing what they are supposed to do and only destroying the cancer while leaving everything else intact. It gives them a sense of control and seems to reduce stress.

Similarly, people undergoing radiotherapy imagine the radiation as bolts of lightning burning tumours and leaving all other areas intact.

A friend once had to take the chemotherapy drug ‘carboplatin’ as a treatment for lung cancer. She asked me to help her think of something to visualise. I explained that carboplatin is shaped like a square with an atom of platinum at the centre. I explained that it works by sitting across the strands of tumour cell DNA, essentially grabbing hold of the individual strands (the technical term is ‘bonds’ to), thus interfering with the DNA and preventing cancer cell replication.

I drew a little diagram (above) showing how the platinum rigidly holds the DNA strands. She loved it and used that visualisation through her treatment. She’d never tried visualisation before, but she told me that it gave her something positive to do with her mind.

Could these visualisations be helping? I don’t know of any research specifically around visualising drugs working, so any conversations I’ve had with numerous people who’ve visualised in this way might only be considered anecdotal. But I feel it’s worth knowing what some people do because at the very least it gives a person something positive to do with their mind while they take medicines, which might be a welcome replacement for worry or stress.

Perhaps, as some believe, any benefits are simply due to a reduction in stress or the person gaining a more optimistic attitude. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Given the overwhelming amount of evidence for the different ways that the mind impacts the body, my hunch is that visualising like this does add something extra a lot of the time.

Maybe it’s something to do with the action of imagining the physical condition improving. In other blogs, I’ve shared that the most common use of visualisation that I know of is where a person thinks of the site of injury, illness or disease, and imagines it being repaired or healed. And they do this repetitively. Perhaps this repetitive visualisation of the drug doing its thing is producing a real effect.

Some research has shown that repetitively visualising the immune system working can enhance the immune system and this technique has now even been shown to be beneficial in randomised controlled trials of patients undergoing treatment for cancer. In these trials, patients who visualised experienced a higher clinical response to their treatment than patients who didn’t visualise.

We also know through placebo research that some drugs work better when a person believes in them, or believes in the doctor who prescribed them, so the mind certainly seems to deliver an effect.

So, I’m inclined to believe, just like the girl who has imagined her painkillers working since childhood, that visualising medicines working might well have beneficial effects over and above the action of the drug alone – some, or even a lot, of the time.

 

The above piece is based on research and content from my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’.