How to write a book

There’s no correct way to write a book. I’ve been asked dozens of times about how to best write a book. If you ask 10 authors how they do it, you’ll get several different answers.

In terms of planning, some people meticulously plan out the book – chapter by chapter – before they put pen to paper. Then they start with chapter 1. I admire that. I do it a wee bit in that I sketch a rough outline of what I’d like to cover. But personally, when it comes to it, I sort of start in the middle, with the chapter / section I feel most inspired with at that time. 

That way, it’s easy to keep your motivation. I find that if I start with introductory chapters, since they’re not the juicy bits I really want to be writing, my writing is slow, or I just put it off. So I dive right in with the juicy stuff, then write my early chapters later, as a ‘how to get to the juicy stuff’.

I’ll give you an example. My first book was, ‘It’s the Thought that Counts’. It’s composed of 14 chapters. I started with what eventually became chapter 6. It was on research around the scientific evidence for prayer. It was the subject that I felt was most calling to me then. I think if I’d sat down with chapter 1, I’d never have written it. Chapter 1 was actually one of the last chapters I wrote.

And I say this for another reason too. Some people have easy structured time segments to write, but most don’t, especially when it’s a first book. We have to fit it into our lives. If you’re starting with a chapter that inspires you, then you’ll find the time, no matter how busy you are.

I wrote the bulk of my first book between midnight and 3am about 3 nights a week, not because it was the best time for me, but because it was the only time I could find to write, given other commitments I had at the time. I was teaching and tutoring chemistry at a college and university and those commitments were very time consuming. I had also recently begun a new relationship and wanted to invest in that. So midnight to 3am it was! 

I would light a candle, some incense, make some coffee, put soft music on, open my laptop and write. I still have very fond memories of that experience. It was helped by the fact that I was working first on the chapters that really inspired me.

I tried the same thing with my second book, but it didn’t work. The structure of my life was different. I didn’t have the same need to write through the night and kept falling asleep on my computer. It was then I discovered that I actually write better in the mornings (7.30am-12noon) while sitting in coffee shops. I’ve written most of my books in this way since.

Yet, I’m just finishing my 11th book (out in September) and, due to the pandemic, I couldn’t visit coffee shops. I struggled at first to work at home because I’ve so enjoyed the atmosphere (and nice coffee) for years. But I soon adapted, and my new book is my highest quality writing so far. 

I think the common thread for me has been writing about stuff that excites and inspires me, coupled with a desire to communicate my ideas. I can do this regardless of the context.

Anyway, I hope that helps if you’ve ever harboured thoughts about writing a book. There’s no right way. Just your way.

And don’t let a lack of confidence get in your way. I failed my English exam at high school. In my prelim exam, I got 22% for paper 1 and 36% for paper 2! I was firmly at the bottom of the class. I just didn’t get writing. I was into maths and science. The understanding of how to write just didn’t sink in for me at that time.

I taught myself to write in the process of writing. Often in life, that’s the way we learn. Most of what we learn is ‘on the job’. Ask any first time parent. If you read a dozen books on how to write, or go on a dozen courses, you might never begin because you’ll always be looking for that one more extra insight that will help you. Allow yourself to learn from the inside out! 

You don’t need to get it right. You just need to start. Don’t pressure yourself to write at a high standard either. Some people labour over a single sentence or paragraph to get it just right. Again, if you do that, you might get bored and not make much progress.

I just get the words down, even if the style and language needs (a lot of!) editing. But it’s a start. Editing comes later.

Once I’ve got a whole first draft done this way, that’s when I tidy up the writing. I print it out and take a pen, and go through the book, scoring out some sentences and paragraphs, rewriting others in tiny writing in the margin, and circling sections that need to move to other places. I enjoy this bit. It feels like creating a sculpture. 

You’re slowly beginning to reveal the image that’s contained within the granite or marble block.

Then I type in all my corrections and go through the same process again – print, make corrections in pen, type it in, print, make corrections in pen, type it in, print, make corrections in pen, type it in. For my first book, I probably did this about 20 times. No joke! I’d never written before, and my English hadn’t progressed much since High School.

Now I make about 4 iterations like this from first to final draft, but that speed only comes with experience. I say this while on the 4th and final iteration of my new book, of which I have a final deadline in a few days. I just decided to take a half hour out to write this blog since it’s World Book Day.

I hope you find this helpful. Happy World Book Day!

If you’ve ever dreamt of writing a book, make a start today, even if you only write a paragraph that will go somewhere near the middle (or end) of the book.

Oh, and the above image is of my book, ‘I Heart Me: The Science of Self-Love’. To celebrate World Book Day, my publisher have the e-book version on sale for 71p (yes, £0.71) in the UK and 99 cents all around the world where it is available (US, Australia, Canada, Europe, etc) for the whole of March. 🙂

Visualise illness becoming wellness (and the science of why it works)

I’m often asked what the ‘right’ visualisation is for certain conditions. The truth is, there’s not ‘the’ right visualisation, just the one that’s right for you. So long as what you’re imagining is wellness, then you’re doing it right.

And before I go further, visualisation isn’t a substitute for healthy lifestyle or taking recommended medication. It’s something that we do in addition to these things, like how you don’t meditate instead of sleeping, but in addition to it.

There’s loads of ways to visualise wellness. Some people imaging cleaning diseased cells, picturing them in their mind’s eye becoming clean and healthy. Some people imagine their immune system destroying cancer cells. Some people focus on changing a disease colour into a colour that represent health for them. Some people create a symbol that represents how they feel. For example, one man suffering from depression and feeling ‘broken’, pictured his brokenness as broken mirror. He then visualised making it whole again.

In each case, a person begins with their awareness of what their condition is and then turns it into what they imagine wellness to be. Illness into wellness is the main strategy.

In time, people’s minds tend to go all the way to wellness and from then on they don’t even turn illness into wellness, but instead just ‘see’ wellness in their mind.

And they key is also repetition. Repetitively visualising wellness or illness into wellness. Most people do it for 10 minutes or so a day, some longer and some shorter, but that’s about a ballpark.

It seems to me that visualisation works because the brain doesn’t distinguish all that much between real and imaginary. When you picture something happening, much of the time the brain mobilises its natural resources as much as it can to deliver what you imagine. This is the basis behind the placebo effect. Believing a drug (when it’s a placebo) will relieve pain actually mobilises the brain’s natural resources to reduce pain. Here, the brain produces its own painkillers, known as endogenous opiates.

Through this process, or something similar, scientific studies have shown that visualisation has helped stroke patients regain movement, elite athletes and sportspeople to enhance their performances in specific areas, novices to learn new sporting skills. It’s helped people to increase physical strength when they imagine lifting objects, it’s supported the immune systems of women receiving treatment for breast cancer, and it’s even tricked people’s brains into thinking that they have eaten real food when they just imagined it. And right out of sci-fi, it’s even helped people turn lights on and off in their homes and pilots fly planes … with their minds.

Yes, you read that correctly. When you visualise somewhere in your body, this activates the region of the brain that processes that part. For example, if you visualise moving a finger, the finger region of your brain lights up. Researchers have connected the brain to a BCI – Brain Computer Interface – which effectively reads where your mental activity goes by noting which areas get activated. They can connect the other end to lights in the home or even to the navigation controls of an airplane, so that when a person focuses on their right hand, the BCI reads it as an instruction to veer the plane to the right, or turn on the light, depending on what the BCI is hooked up to.

It works because the brain isn’t distinguishing real from imaginary. This is the basis for using visualisation practices in our lives, whether to assist our healing or even to shape our lives.

It’s been said that if you imagine something and then believe it, you can achieve it. This is why I’ve included the science of how it works. 

It helps you to believe in yourself. Happy visualising.

Mind and Weight Loss

I’ve had a few hypnotherapy sessions recently. A friend is training in solution focused hypnotherapy and is using me as one of his test subjects. I’m loving it and already feeling the benefits.

I’m not totally new to hypnotherapy. I first tried it 20 years ago when I was dabbling in amateur athletics. I loved doing the long jump. I bought a hypnotherapy tape by Paul McKenna called, ‘Ultimate Athlete’ and listened to it every day as instructed. The results were amazing. My long jump distance improved by over half a metre in just a few months.

Over the years since, I’ve been keynote speaker at several hypnotherapy conferences, where I’ve focused mostly on teaching how the mind-body connection works.

People sometimes use hypnotherapy to help lose weight. Sometimes, it can simply be a process of changing your relationship with certain foods, or to stave off cravings. One version is where the person is helped to imagine that they’ve had a gastric band fitted. I first came across this several years ago when I was researching for my book, ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, when I read a report of Sam Alderwish, a teaching assistant from Birmingham, who underwent the therapy and then dropped 4 dress sizes.

Some people who have done this have reported that it completely changed their relationship with food. Some swear them stomachs feel tighter even after just a few mouthfuls of dinner. 

Research now shows that visualisation techniques can change our perception of food and how full we feel. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University invited some volunteers to eat sweets or cubes of cheese and others to imagine eating the sweets or cheese. Amazingly, real eating and imaginary eating impacted the brain in the same way. In both cases, appetite was supressed the more you ate or imagined eating. 

The appetite suppression mechanism is why you get full and don’t feel like eating more once you reach a certain threshold. But the team found that the brain couldn’t tell the difference between whether a person was actually eating the sweets or cheese or whether they were imagining eating them. There’s a very fine line between real and imaginary as far as the brain is concerned, and this underpins why some mind-body techniques like visualisation or hypnotherapy can be so powerful.

The Carnegie Mellon study found that you had to visualise really clearly, in that if you would normally chew ten times then you had to visualise chewing ten times. You had to make it as real as possible.

However, this is not a suggestion to visualise eating to reduce your appetite. The researchers didn’t study the effects of what imagining eating can do to things like blood sugar or anything else. They just demonstrated a concept. Plus, we have important nutritional needs, so it’s important to eat the right amounts and balance of foods. As far as research goes, a plant-based diet seems like the way to go nowadays. Similarly, I’m not recommending getting a ‘virtual’ gastric band. I just like to share studies like these because it shows how powerful the mind can be.

The idea that the brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary has far reaching consequences. It’s helped athletes improve their performances, it’s helped stroke patients recover faster, and it’s even helped people to feel happie

3 ways to practice Kindfulness

I’ve talked a lot about benefits of kindness in other articles. For example, I’ve talked about the impact of kindness on mental health, through how kindness feels as well as how it induces changes in brain regions, plus how kindness impacts the heart, immune system, and even aspects of the ageing process. I’ve even described how kindness is highly contagious.

Outside of the physical act of kindness, we obtain many of the above ‘side effects’ when we do kindness in our minds. I call this, ‘kindfulness’. It’s like mindfulness, but where instead of being mindful of your breath, you be mindful of good things about people.

Here’s three simple kindfulness practices:

1) Loving Kindness (metta).

This is a Tibetan Buddhist practice. The idea is to think and feel compassion and kindness towards yourself and others. It’s built around a few key phrases:

May you be happy

May you be well

May you be safe

May you be at peace

There are quite a few variations, like swapping on of the above for, ‘may you be free of suffering’, or ‘may you be at ease’, ‘or may you be healthy’, or even, ‘may your hopes and dreams be fulfilled’. Or you can even personalise it for someone in particular with something like, ‘may you get that promotion’, or ‘may you come to realise how beautiful you are’. Whatever the words, the sentiment is always the same – rooted in kindness and compassion.

The practise usually starts with yourself, so ‘May I be ….’ Etc.

Typically, it’s three times for yourself, then three times for each of a number of people – from loved ones, friends, neutral people, even people you have challenges with. And many who practice it like to end it by swapping, ‘you’ for ‘all sentient beings’, so, ‘May all sentient beings be happy… etc’.

2) Send a ball of light.

This is a practice I created when I first set out to create a range of kindfulness practices (there are many – I’ve just listed 3 in this article to keep it short).

Think of someone you care about. I can even be someone who is no longer on Earth.

Imagine a ball of coloured light emanating from the area of your heart, and let its colour represent your feelings for the person.

Imagine throwing the ball through space and let it arrive with the person, wherever they are.

Imagine the light being absorbed into the area of their heart. Imagine it being wilfully accepted.

Now imagine you are with the person and either recall and indulge in a memory of a time well spent with the person – recalling the place, time, the experience you had, what was said and done – or if you prefer, imagine saying something to the person that you wish to say, and let it be coloured with gratitude, compassion and kindness.

Do this for a few minutes. Then thank the person for being in your life and imagine returning to your starting place, and to your breath. 

Now do the same thing for two more people, one at a time. Let the colour of the ball of light represent what you feel for each person.

After the third person, return your attention to your breath and to the area of your heart.

3) What I appreciate

This is a quick and simple practice where you focus on a different person each day.

On the first day, choose someone in your life. It can be a loved one, a friend, colleague, neighbour, a delivery person, someone seemingly random that you are aware of, even someone you’ve had challenges with. It can be anyone.

Now, make a mental list (or you can write it down in a journal if you prefer) of everything that you appreciate about the person. For example, you might think of things the person has said or done, or you might appreciate their nature, the kind or person they are. You might even include how they dress, how they do their hair. It could be the way they talk. It can be anything that YOU appreciate. Your list might not be the same as someone else’s list, but this is an exercise for you, in building your appreciation.

See how many days you can do, while focusing on a different person each day. You might just surprise yourself how many days this daily practice can run to. Do you think you could go a month? 3 months? 6 months? A year?

Channel Kindness

What does channel kindness mean to you? There’s a few ways you can think of it, I suppose. You can be a channel for kindness. That is, whatever you say, say it with kindness and whatever you do, do it with kindness. In other words, let kindness be like a gentle wind that helps nudge your course as you go through life.

That’s mostly how I think of it.

Channelling kindness is good for mental health. Lots of research shows that it boosts happiness and can even protect against depression. It can also neutralise fear. Kindness is the opposite of stress in terms of how it feels and the physiological effects of it. But it can be an antidote to fear. Have you ever noticed that in the moment of an experience of love or deep compassion, that you don’t feel fear? It’s why parents can sometimes do extraordinary acts to protect their children, moving past things and people that would ordinarily scare them. Kindness has similar effects.

There’s a biological basis for it. Kindness creates the kindness hormone, which also happens to be the love hormone, oxytocin. It’s produced because of how kindness feels. One of the things the kindness hormone does is that it turns down activity in the fear centres of the brain, like the way you can reduce the light by turning down a dimmer switch. With the feelings that accompany the experience of kindness, the kindness hormone flows into fear centres of the brain and simply reduces activity there.

Channelling kindness also means to be kind to yourself as well, channelling it for the sake of your own wellbeing. Not instead of others, of course, but as well as others. Most of us miss the ‘as well as’ part. We give so freely of ourselves at times, but often forget that we need topping up too. Like a phone that’s run out of battery and can no longer function, we’re a bit like that. Too much doing and giving can leave us low in energy, which can degrade our mental health and affect the quality of our day to day life.

And so even though being kind to others is good for our mental health, too much can be detrimental. This can be seen from a study that examined the quantity of time people spent volunteering. At low levels, once or twice a week for a short time, volunteering had a positive effect on mental health, but once a person got to around the 16-20 hours a week (approximately – it varies from person to person so this was an average) of giving their time freely, there were no longer health gains, but overall the effect became negative. Why was this?

There’s a few reasons. One is that beyond this threshold, it didn’t feel so much as giving their time to help others, but began to feel like a job and something that was expected of them. I have experience of this. Some friends and I founded a charity about 20 years ago. What began as a heartfelt mission to help others, eventually became stressful as the number of hours we volunteered exceeded normal full-time hours. With those demands of time, I personally sometimes lost the sense of purpose that initially fuelled me as the needs of the job became all consuming.

Another reason is that many had other full time jobs that earned them their wage, so they were trying to squeeze time to volunteer into an already busy schedule, such that volunteering a large number of hours became physically and mentally tiring. 

Another reason, one that is relevant to those who have to care for people due to health situations, is that it can be stressful – the concern for your loved one and fear for their situation, plus the emotional demands of caring while also maintaining a household.

The moral of the story is that always be kind when and where you can, but if you notice that it is taking a toll on you, then step back and do what you need to do to recharge your physical and emotional batteries. Plug yourself into a charger, so to speak. Take some time in nature, if you can. The human nervous system is adapted to green spaces so trees, grass, and flowers, have a calming effect. Or treat yourself to something nice or by doing something you enjoy or that matters to you.

So channel kindness towards others and also channel it towards yourself.

Channel Kindness is also the title of a new book by Lady Gaga and young reporters from the digital arm of her charity, Born This Way Foundation, a charity all about helping young people be kind, create more kindness, and that supports their mental health. The digital arm is called, ‘Channel Kindness’, as in ‘Channel 1’ or ‘Channel 2’, but also as a suggestion that we try to channel kindness in our lives.

I told Lady Gaga’s team I’d mention the book. It’s packed with inspiring stories of kindness and community from young people. It’s a really heartwarming and inspiring read. I’ve done some work with Born This Way Foundation. I met with Cynthia, Lady Gaga’s Mum, who co-founded Born This Way Foundation with her daughter, and we went with some of the team to a high school in Long Island that they were involved with. The kids had bought Christmas presents for the children of women staying in a local temporary homeless shelter. Over the following week, they would discuss the impact of their kindness, write about it, and learn how and why kindness is important in the world and the difference it can make in the lives of others.

I said I’d tell people about the book because I truly love the work they are doing with young people around kindness and mental health.

For me, kindness is the ingredient we need to use more in the world right now. It’s why I write and speak about it so much. Just like you might sprinkle some herbs over a meal, channel kindness and sprinkle some of it everywhere you go. 

7 ways to develop your self love

1) Know it’s OK to not be OK

It’s OK to not be OK, or have a bad day, or to fail at something. It happens to everyone. Failing at something doesn’t mean you’re a failure, only that you didn’t manage to do something you intended. If you realise that it’s OK to fail or to not be OK, that’s a success!! Well done!

2) Love thy selfie

Say, “I love you” or “I am enough” every time you see your reflection in a mirror. Say it when you brush your teeth, do your makeup, dry your hair, and even when you catch your reflection in a shop window. Repetition like this will eventually wire the idea into your brain.

3) Strike a “Power” Pose

You smile when you’re happy and frown when you’re stressed because the brain’s emotional circuitry is connected to your muscles. But it’s a 2-way street. Your feelings show up as smiles, frowns and muscle tensions, but how you choose to hold and move your body feeds back to the brain and creates the way you want to feel.

So find a way of holding and moving your body that says, “I’ve got this” or “I have an inner sense of worthiness and value” or something similar, and do it as often as you can remember to.

4) Visualise your highest self

Your brain doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. Frequently imagine yourself as your best self – with confidence and self love – speaking and interacting with people in the way you’d like. Don’t just imagine the end result though, but give important mental attention to the way you’re holding and moving your body as you create the result. 

5) Celebrate your uniqueness

Don’t try to be like everyone else. Be like yourself, however you are. Conforming to an idea of what you think people want only feeds the thought that, ‘I am not enough as I am’. Make a decision to celebrate what it is about you that makes you You. As they say, ‘Be Yourself. Everyone else is taken’.

6) Be kind to yourself

Treat yourself with the same kindness and care that you show others. Treat yourself, take some time for yourself, practice saying ‘No’ (or at least, ‘Not yet!’) instead of always saying yes. Let your hair down once in a while. You deserve it.

7) Stretch out of your comfort zone

The greatest gains in self love often lie just at the edge of our comfort zones. Knowing this actually makes it a little easier to stretch yourself because you know what the self love reward can be. Try not to be afraid of rejection or failure. Whatever the outcome, you stretched, and that’s a declaration of self love.

Counting Kindnesses

There’s a lot to be said about noticing what you do. Many of us go about our days largely unconscious, in that while we do the things we do, we’re not so present as we do them.

Meditation helps us bring awareness to what we do and also to how we think. Meditation, for example, teaches us to start by noticing the breath, but then to notice that we are breathing. It’s a subtle shift but an important one. It shifts awareness to a deeper state. Rather than being the ‘doer’ of breathing, you become the ‘watcher’ of breathing. With practice, meditation helps us to notice all of our perceptions and experiences as appearances in our consciousness. In so doing, we become less unconscious and more consciously present in our lives.

Awareness is a powerful thing. Awareness of anything illuminates it. Even awareness of psychological pain can illuminate it and help to dissipate it as we find a deeper state that is not experiencing the pain, but aware that it is happening. This is not to trivialise our pains. It usually takes a great deal of awareness practice to be able to transcend much of our suffering in such a way. But there is hope to be found in awareness practices.

What about awareness of kindness?

Some research has shown that noticing that you are being kind helps to deepen some of the benefits of it. One of the ‘side effects’ of kindness, as I call them (see, The Five Side Effects of Kindness), is that it makes us happier. It leads to overall improvements in mental health and can even build resilience towards some of the stresses and strains of our lives.

In one study, scientists invited over a hundred women to notice their kindnesses; that is, to keep an approximate daily record of when they say or do something kind. The object was not to go out and intentionally do kind acts, as can be the purpose of other kindness studies, but to simply notice that you are being kind, ultimately to illuminate your intentions, words, and actions in your own consciousness.

Well, after a week of doing this, all of the women were happier than they were at the start of the study and around a third of them had experienced significantly large gains in their happiness.

One of the things this kind of awareness does is it helps us to rewrite the stories we have about ourselves. Many of us focus so much on our faults, our misgivings, our failures, our struggles, times when we did not live up to our own expectations. Many of us feel that we wear a mask as we go about our lives, but that people don’t know what’s underneath it. Sometimes we hold good ideas about ourselves underneath, but a great many people hold negative ideas about themselves underneath, whether it’s about their appearance, personality, or who they believe themselves to be. We hide our self esteem under our masks.

The study essentially illuminated an aspect of these women that many of us tend to forget, that we’re much nicer, kinder people than we realise. Most of us do so many kind things, in the polite things we often say, in saying thank you, letting someone go in front of us in traffic, holding a door, smiling, engaging in friendly conversation with a neighbour or colleague, that we don’t even realise that these are all examples of kindness, and that they say a lot about who we are as individuals.

Many of us frequently reach out to a friend or family member who needs helps, support, or just a friendly ear. Many of us do numerous intentional acts of kindness. All of these things, we tend to give less focus to because they’re habits. But they are beautiful habits. 

And when we illuminate them, it brings who we are, this kind person, to the forefront of our consciousness. For some people in particular, the third of the women in the study who felt the biggest gains, they rewrote their personal story so much that it ultimately gave birth to greater self esteem than they had before.

So try to bring awareness to your kindnesses. Just notice that the things that you do, even the tiniest things (or tiny as they seem to you, but they may be significant to the other person(s)), say a lot about the good quality person you are!

Reference
K. Otake, et al., ‘Happy people become happier through kindness: a counting kindness intervention’, Journal of Happiness Studies 7 (3), 2006, 361–75 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1820947/)

How Your Mind Can Impact Your Immune System

PCDR stands for Placebo Controlled Dose Reduction. It is where a drug is gradually replaced by a placebo by making incremental reductions in the drug while making incremental increases in the placebo.

One of the most successful demonstrations was by Fabrizio Benedetti at the University of Turin School of Medicine. Over the period of 5 days, he was able to swap the anti-Parkinson’s drug, apomorphine, for a saltwater placebo. On the first day, the placebo had no effect, as measured by tremors, changes in muscle stiffness and activation of individual neurons in the brain. But by day 5 of incremental dose reductions of apomorphine, topping up with placebo each time, the placebo on day 5 generated a clinical and neurological effect equivalent to a full dose of the drug.

What happened in those 5 days?

Each day that a patient receives their injection, they gain experience that, “When I receive this injection, the following things happen.” That is, a reduction in tremors and muscle stiffness, plus the neuroscientists observe corresponding activation of neurons in the brain. Each day strengthens their experience and thus strengthens their belief.

One of the most important advances in the neuroscience of the placebo effect is that in studies so far, belief, or expectation, shifts biochemistry, causing the brain to produce what it needs to produce to deliver the result the person believes is supposed to happen. Experience strengthens beliefs, so with PCDR, the weight of their experience is enough to allow the complete replacement of the drug with the placebo.

The same kind of thing has been done with the immune system. With the goal in mind of supressing the immune system for the potential treatment of organ transplant patients or people with autoimmune conditions, scientists have been able to completely replace an immunosuppressant drug with a placebo over about 4 or 5 days.

This shows us that the mind can impact the immune system. In this case, supressing it. Can the mind also boost the immune system?

The Mother Theresa Effect is the name given to the observation where over 100 volunteers watched a video of Mother Theresa on the streets of Calcutta carrying out acts of compassion and kindness. Our state when we observe compassion and kindness is often referred to as elevation, in that compassion and kindness induce an elevated state.

Scientists measured levels of an important immune system antibody known as secretory immunoglobulin A (s-IgA) before and after. At the end of the video, levels of s-IgA had increased by around 50% and stayed high for a time afterwards as the volunteers continued to feel elevation as they discussed what they had witnessed in the video. Feeling elevated seemed to elevate the immune system.

Research by the HeartMath Institute in Boulder, Colorado, showed something similar. Asking volunteers to generate and hold feelings of care and compassion for about 5 minutes, they found that s-IgA levels also increased significantly and stayed elevated for about 5 hours, before they gradually returned to baseline levels.

Some of the effect is due to the fact that feelings induced by compassion and kindness are opposite to those of stress, insofar as they generate many opposite psychological and physiological effects. I describe this more fully in my books, The Five Side Effects of Kindness and The Little Book of Kindness.

As we replace stress with kindness, we take some of the pressure off of the immune system, allowing it to operate more efficiently. But these positive feelings themselves may be having direct physical effects.

In a study of over 700 patients attending their doctor for symptoms of the common cold, those given an ‘empathy enhanced visit’, where the doctor spent more time listening to the patient, such that the patient scored the doctor 10/10 on a CARE questionnaire afterwards (Compassion and Relational Empathy), recovered almost 50% faster than those who received a ‘normal’ consultation, and their immune response to the cold was also significantly higher. This has been interpreted as the positive feelings the doctor induced in the patients then impacting their immune systems.

But scientists have been exploring the link between the mind and the immune system in more direct ways. People visualising increasing levels of s-IgA were found to be able to increase them quite substantially.

The visualisation involved spending 5 minutes relaxing before spending 5 minutes imagining s-IgA levels increasing, before doing another 5 minutes of relaxation. Critics suggested that the increased levels of s-IgA were not due to visualisation, but due to relaxation simply taking pressure off the immune system, as I described above. 

A repeat of the experiment then compared people relaxing for the full 15 minutes with people doing the 5 minute section of visualisation embedded within the relaxation session. Levels of s-IgA increased in both groups over the first week, but then those who did the immune system visualisation started to increase their s-IgA levels at a faster rate than those only doing relaxation. At the end of 3 weeks, those who visualised their immune systems had increased their s-IgA levels significantly more than those only doing relaxation, demonstrating that while relaxation can improve s-IgA levels, visualisation is doing something differently and impacting the immune system in a different way.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows that in many different ways, the brain (and body) doesn’t distinguish real from imaginary. When comparing making simple finger movements with imagined movements, scans show brain changes in the same regions and to the same extent in those who do the real movements and those who do the imagined movements. As far as the brain was concerned, real and imagined movements were the same thing.

This has now been extensively tested in mechanics and sports, where similar gains in strength have been shown when people lift real objects compared with imagining lifting them. Studies even show athletes can recover faster from injury when they visualise attending the gym while they are in recovery. When returning to training after the injury period, they have lost less muscle strength than those not visualising and so are better able to ‘hit the ground running’, so to speak.

Studies with stroke patients show something similar. In several studies, patients received physiotherapy for several weeks, but half were taught to imagine making repetitive movements that they are familiar with after the physio sessions, while the other half did relaxation sessions for the same duration. Those who did visualisations recovered more and faster than those who didn’t visualise.

Studies on eating have even suggested that imagining eating activates part of the brain that senses when a person has eaten enough and so supresses appetite for more.

Studies have extended the idea of imagining the immune system to patients with cancer. In a randomised controlled trial (RCT) published in the journal, Breast, scientists invited women receiving treatment for newly diagnosed large or locally advanced breast cancer (chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy, and hormone treatment), to use visualisation as well.

Half of the women visualised their immune systems destroying cancer cells while the other half didn’t. The women were shown cartoons depicting the process but were also encouraged to make up their own images. They rated the clarity of their visualisations on a 1-10 scale. Blood samples were taken 10 times over 37 weeks and several immune substances were analysed.

In the women who visualised, immune activity was elevated compared with the women who didn’t visualise. Specifically, T-cells, activated T-cells, and LAK cells (lymphokine activated killer cells) were higher in the blood of those who visualised. In addition, the women who reported the highest visualisation clarity had much higher levels of NK (natural killer cells) activity during, after treatment, and again at follow up. The researchers noted that, “Guided imagery beneficially altered putative anticancer host defences during and after multimodality therapy.”

This pattern of observing elevated immune system activity when visualisation has been used in addition to cancer treatment has been shown in three other studies. 

To be clear, visualisation was not used instead of medical treatment, but in addition to it. Visualisation is something that we practice in addition to treatment, not instead of it, just like we don’t meditate instead of sleeping, but in addition to sleeping, and the meditation tends to enhance our sleep. Similarly, in these cancer studies, visualisation seemed to be enhancing the effect of the treatment by supporting the activity of the immune system.

It may well be that visualisation can be used to positively impact a larger number of conditions, especially if we target the immune system with our visualisations. But visualisation can target other systems too. In a study of total knee replacement, visualisation of healing speeded up the healing for some patients. Similarly, asthmatics have gained benefit from imagining reduced bronchospasm and inflammation, and women with interstitial cystitis experienced reduced pain when they visualised healing the bladder, relaxing the pelvic floor muscles, and quietening the nerves.

There is no question that the mind impacts the body. Research now clearly shows that the mind can impact the immune system, in ways that increase activity and in ways that decrease activity. With more research and practice, it may be that we can learn techniques that can help us to maintain our health much better by optimising our immune systems, or develop techniques for selectively targeting different systems of the body for speeding recovery from injury, illness and disease.

References

All references can be found in ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, by David R Hamilton PhD (Available on Amazon in all countries)

You are made of stardust

subatomic particles in atom smasherEvery atom in your body was made in a star!

That means those that make your heart, brain cells, skin, hair, teeth, bones, even the air you breathe, plus those that compose the trees, dogs and cats, rabbits and horses, lions, tigers, and bears, Oh my!; plus the insects, birds, fish, roads, buildings, and cars. The basic components of everything within you and around you were made in a star and you are deeply connected to all of it. Your body is the remnants of a star after it took its last breath.

Stars begin their lives as invisible clouds of mostly hydrogen. The atoms of hydrogen are gradually pulled together under gravity and squashed together to form helium, the stuff that makes balloons go upwards and that makes your voice squeaky. This is nuclear fusion. It releases vast amounts of energy; so much, in fact, that the star essentially ignites, like a large cosmic match being lit.

But while it burns, more and more atoms are squashed together, eventually forming heavier elements like carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, and iron, and even larger stars produce gold, silver and platinum.

And just as a log fire goes out when it uses up its fuel, so stars do the same. They burn for usually millions or billions of years, and when all of their fuel is expended many of them blow up (a supernova) and the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, iron, gold, silver, platinum, and all the other elements are blasted into space as stardust.

Eventually gravity draws this stardust together to form planets like the Earth. Everything on Earth, from rocks, stones, water, crystals, to all living things like people, animals, insects, birds, fish, grass, trees and flowers, is made of this stardust. Every atom of your DNA is stardust. Every atom in your skin, blood, and bones is stardust. Every atom of the oxygen you breathe is stardust.

You are an intimate part of the whole universe. You are made of stars. The universe gave birth to you and you contain its essence within yourself. You might say that you are a form that the universe is currently taking.

And you are deeply connected with the whole universe in another way. The phenomenon known as entanglement shows that when two particles or fields interact, they remain connected no matter how far apart they are. This is also true of particles and fields that were created at the same time. Cosmologists believe that all particles and fields were created about 14 billion years ago in the big bang and thus all particles and fields are connected today.

That is, although it doesn’t look like it or feel like it, you are connected to – entangled with – the entire universe.

In the deepest way, you are connected to a leaf on a tree, a stone in a garden, a raindrop, other people – your loved ones, friends, colleagues, and even your enemies – to animals, plants, insects, birds and fish, to a crystal of ice on one of Saturn’s rings, and even to a piece of dust on the surface of a planet in a galaxy far, far away.

Anyway, just something light to ponder. 🙂

Three ways that kindness impacts the brain and body

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, I’ve found myself speaking and writing a lot more about kindness recently. You can catch loads of my videos on my social media pages, plus I share lots in my Personal Development Club monthly live talks and in my free online course, ‘The Biology and Contagiousness of Kindness‘.

One of the things I’ve spoken much about is how kindness produces many beneficial effects in the body, mind, and spirit, some of which is the opposite of what stress does. In many ways, we are helping to counter some of the stress and worry during these times by the kindness and care we show each other. So as a summary, I thought I’d share three of the important healthy consequences of kindness.

1) Kindness supports the immune system

Research shows that kindness (due to how it feels when you’re kind) boosts levels of an important immune system antibody known as ‘secretory immunoglobulin A’ (s-IgA for short). One of the most amazing facts of this research is that the effect is turned on simply by watching kindness. Yes, ‘watching’ kindness. It works because the immune boosting effect is due to how kindness feels, which is the same whether you do kindness or witness kindness. The opposite is in how stress supresses immune function and, similarly, that’s due to how stress feels, whether you experience something stressful or whether you’re feeling stressed from watching negative online content.

So, in addition to being kind, why not reduce your exposure to negative online content, or even reduce how much News you watch! Increase the amount of inspiring content you watch instead. Watch and share videos and clips showing acts of kindness and compassion. Follow social media accounts that lift you.

This isn’t just a psychological feel good. It has immune boosting consequences.

2) Compassion reduces inflammation

Compassion is close to kindness. It’s the feeling that usually motivates a kind act. Amazingly, compassion has anti-inflammatory properties. It rests on the fact that compassion stimulates the vagus nerve, also known as the ‘caretaking nerve’. Since human infants are born technically premature compared with the young of other animal species, human parents have to care for their babies for long periods of time before they are able to fend for themselves. Just as the nervous system has evolved to respond to stress and so protect us in times of danger, over millions of years of evolution, a portion of the human nervous evolved in concert with the caring and compassionate feelings of parents such that, today, we have a portion of the nervous system that responds quickly to compassion. It turns out, that this portion also controls the ‘Inflammatory Reflex’, which helps control inflammation levels in the body.

Modern research confirms that compassion stimulates this portion of the nervous system (the vagus nerve) and also reduces inflammation.

3) Kindness supports mental health

Lots of research shows that kindness increases happiness. Studies that compare people asked to do more kindness versus people acting as normal show that those doing more kindness usually feel happier as a consequence. Other research shows that kindness offers some protection against depression. Studies comparing people who do regular volunteer work with those who don’t show much lower rates of depression in the volunteers.

The happiness-boosting and depression-countering effects seem to have their roots in the neurological effects of how kindness feels, but in addition kindness taps into something deep and spiritual in us.

Brain imaging studies indicate that kind and compassionate feelings cause physical changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, biased to the left-hand side. That’s the portion of the brain behind and above the eyes. This left hand portion is known to be an area associated with positive emotion. With kindness and compassion practice, the area grows much as a muscle grows when we exercise it. The result is that anything that area is used for becomes easier to access, just as anything that a muscle is used for becomes easier if it’s been strengthened through exercise. And so kindness and compassion build this brain region, making positive emotion easier to access.

But kindness can be a spiritual act too. Being kind taps into something deep inside of us, a knowing that what we are doing is the right thing to do. Perhaps that is the real root of why kindness feels good and perhaps, on some deep level, the physical effects on the body are nature’s reward to us for expressing the best in us.

References
All studies mentioned can be found in my two kindness books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness‘ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness‘.