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The Mind Really Matters

The mind’s frontiers are barely visible on the horizon of human understanding. Our preoccupation with the external, the frontiers of matter, means that most of us have barely glimpsed the majesty and magnificence of the mind. This section of the website aims to introduce those who are willing to open their minds to the enormous power that lies within. We are merely scratching the surface here in the hope that as you read the contents of this page they will inspire you to plunge deeper into inner space. Below are a variety of insights supported by credible research that illuminate the mind’s capacity. This we believe is the tip of the enormous iceberg called self and we hope that the whole website will give you glimpses of your beauty and untapped power……
1. In 2007 a study carried out by a group of Harvard scientists looked at the effects of emotional vitality. This was defined as a sense of positive energy, an ability to regulate emotions and behaviour and a feeling of engagement in life. Their study involved 6265 volunteers. It found that those who have higher levels of emotional vitality were 19% less likely to develop coronary heart disease. This research was in line with earlier studies conducted by both John Hopkins University and the Duke University Medical Centre. Both these earlier studies found that patients who routinely felt more positive emotions, e.g. happiness, joy and optimism, had about a 20% greater chance of being alive 11 years later than those who experienced negative emotions. All three studies concluded that a positive attitude was the best prevention against heart disease and that this would be true with regard to other illnesses too. Winston Churchill’s adage comes to mind: ‘a pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty’.

2. Attitudes affect how rapidly we age. Scientists at Yale University studied the responses of 660 people through a series of questions about attitude. The focus of their research was to examine how the individuals felt about getting older. So amongst their questions were: ‘as you get older do you feel less useful?’ They were asked to agree or disagree. What they found is that those who generally agreed with these types of statements had the most negative attitudes about aging and as a result lived about seven and a half years less. Their research concluded that attitude does not only affect the heart but impacts significantly on blood pressure, cholesterol levels, body weight and therefore on longevity. Essentially if you have a positive attitude and strive to keep your body active, you’ll almost certainly remain healthier for longer and if you do become ill then you will recover more swiftly. So aging like most things is a state of mind. It’s our perception and attitude that most influence outcome.
3. This whole subject of aging and our attitude and approach to it has gone even further in illustrating that we can actually not only halt mental decline but reverse it. So much of what happens to both our brains and our bodies is dictated by how we use or in many cases abuse them. The more we treat our brains and bodies with respect the greater their response and efficiency. The mental and physical decline that undoubtedly takes place in aging can be managed in such a way that we remain youthful our whole lives in spite of aging. A recent study by scientists from the Posit Science Corporation, which specializes in brain training, used volunteers aged between 60 and 87 who took part in an 8-10 week auditory memory programme. This involved listening to a variety of sounds for one hour a day for 5 days a week. At the end of the programme their memories had improved so much they were performing like adults aged 40-60. On average their mental abilities had improved by around 20 years. The point of this research was to demonstrate neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to grow. The brain is very much like a muscle. The more it is used in the right way, the more refined and effective it becomes. Our faculties and abilities work very much on a ‘use it or lose it‘ basis. All the research really demonstrated is that inviting senior citizens to use their brains in ways they were not being used before expanded the range of what they were capable of. So you really are as old as you feel. Age is a number that need not define us. Neuroscience is unveiling new discoveries at a rate almost greater than our ability to consume them. Recent research around this whole area of renewing the brain and keeping it young has shown that one of the best ways to do that is for adults to learn a new language. So why not use it in order to ensure you don’t lose it.
4. Fabrizio Benedetti, a neuroscience professor at the University of Turin’s School of Medicine, is considered to be one of the world’s authorities on the placebo effect. He’s also a member of the Placebo Study Group of the mind/brain/behaviour initiative at Harvard University. He said ‘The placebo effect has evolved from being thought of as a nuisance in clinical pharmacological research to a biological phenomenon worthy of scientific investigation in its own right’. There’s far too much research to document here about the overwhelming evidence of the part belief plays both in the healing as well as the disease process. Let’s however look at a few examples to illustrate the point. Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease arise from impaired production of a neurotransmitter called dopamine which affects movement. Research has clearly shown that Parkinson’s patients who have been given a placebo but are told it is an anti-Parkinson’s drug, find that their movement improves. But this research goes even further. Brain scans have even shown that the brain is activated in the area that controls movement and that dopamine is actually being produced…Wow! So the improvement is not just a psychological thing, it is accompanied by an actual physical release of dopamine and yet an anti-Parkinson’s drug is not being taken. The patients simply ‘believe’ they are taking one. This production of chemicals generated by belief was first proven in 1978 when scientists at the University of California showed that placebo analgesia (when a person gets pain relief from a placebo) actually occurs because the brain produces its own natural analgesics (painkillers). What was discovered then is that the body produces its own opiates like morphine but these are the body’s own natural versions and therefore not synthetically constructed. However these endogenous opiates, as they came to be known, did the job certainly as well and arguably better than conventional medication. So, the brain produces its own natural painkillers. Similar studies that have looked at depression illustrate that the brain produces its own natural antidepressants. What we’re seeing here is the power of belief, the power of the mind. When the individual believes that something can and will make a difference, they kick start their own unlimited pharmaceutical factory that produces the necessary drugs to address the presenting problem. This is mind over matter at the molecular level. Science is just beginning to understand a subject that the spiritual masters have been explaining through the vehicle of their experience over the last two and half thousand years.
5. The mounting evidence of the power of the placebo effect does not mean that the disease or the condition one is afflicted by is not real. What it is really helping us to understand is that we have the ability to develop a state of mind that can both transcend pain and participate in the healing of an affliction. In 1988 the trial of a drug Acyclovir was tested as possible treatment for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). The research was conducted by scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the USA. The results speak for themselves: 46% of people improved on the drug and 42% improved on the placebo. Similar research took place in 1996 where the steroid Hydocortisone was used as a possible treatment for CFS. 50 % of the people in that study improved with the placebo. These kinds of improvement are not rare and a closer inspection of the literature shows that this is a matter to be taken very seriously. The lesser documented nocebo effect (which is where one’s belief works against the self) also illustrates how pivotal the mind is in the body’s responses and behaviour. In 1969 a paper published in Psychosomatic Medicine tells the tale of how 40 asthmatics were given an inhaler containing a placebo (merely water vapour) but they were told it contained allergens that could cause broncho-constriction (constriction of the airwaves). 19 of them (48%) then suffered considerable constriction of their airwaves. 12 of the 19 went on to experience full blown asthma attacks. When they were then given another inhaler (also a placebo) and told it would relieve their symptoms, it did. Although this is not a piece of research we would support, it illustrates the point that what we, you, I believe, can never be discounted because the body is always listening.
6. In 1987 the British Medical Journal published a paper entitled General Practice Consultations: is there any point in being positive? 200 patients were given a positive consultation or a negative one (for minor ailments). In the positive consultations patients were told what was wrong and they would be better in a few days. In contrast those who had a negative consultation the doctor told the patients they weren’t certain what was wrong and by implication therefore did not know how long their symptoms would last. 2 weeks later 53% of all the patients had got better but 64% of those who’d had positive consultations reported that they were better compared with only 39% who’d received negative consultations, thus demonstrating the point that the power of positive consultations is almost twice as good as the power of a negative one. This power of positive consultation arguably goes back to the beginning of time but certainly a point we can trace it back to in our recent history is 1890 when William James, one of the pioneering Fathers of Psychology spoke of his switch from medicine to psychology/philosophy as being out of recognition that the best prescription one could write was the one of hope. He also believed that medicine could be ineffectual if not delivered in the right way. Current research clearly shows that he was right, that authority delivered with empathy and warmth as well as enthusiasm and confidence has a considerable effect. Herbert Benson, a Harvard medical professor and author of the best seller ‘Timeless Healing’, studied angina drugs that were well known and effective in the 1940s and 1950s. They helped 70-79% of those who took them. When they were later retested using more rigorous trials they were found to be less effective. From then on they stopped working so well for people despite their early success. Benson suggested that this was mostly because the doctors now prescribing them did not believe in them in the same way and therefore were unlikely to be as enthusiastic in their recommendation as previously. Daniel Moerman, author of ‘Meaning, Medicine and the Placebo Effect’, and other commentators have stated that sceptics can heal 30-40% of their patients with inert medication while enthusiasts can heal 
70-90% with the same drugs. So it really matters who you talk to. Although more research is needed in this area I think most of us agree that common sense tells us this is true.
7. The brain contains trillions of neural circuits that are linked to every part of the body. When we condition our neural circuits to fire over and over again by taking a pill or having an injection, even though it is a placebo, the same circuits fire as when we are actually taking the drug because our unconscious awareness associates the pill or injection with immune or hormonal changes. This is known as conditioning which boosts the power of the placebo effect by as much as 100%. It allows us to change systems in the body that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to. Studies suggest that the longer the conditioning is carried out, the more powerful the effect. Let us take a closer look at this conditioning. Scientists at the University of Cincinatti tested blue and pink stimulants and sedatives on 57 students. Both ‘drugs’ were actually placebos though this was unknown to the students at the time. The blue ‘sedatives’ were found to be 66% effective when compared to the pink ones, which were only 26% effective. The blue pills proved to be two and half times better than the pink for creating a relaxing feeling. It’s reasonable to assume, given the research in other areas, that blue is generally perceived to be a calming colour. However, this is influenced by society and culture. Some research done in Italy along the same lines shows a very different picture. The blue placebo sleeping tablets tested there worked well for women but not for men. In men, the blue placebos actually worked as stimulants. It was interesting to note that blue for women in Italy was associated with peace because of the Virgin Mary’s cloak but for men it was associated with the Italian football strip, which for men is a very big deal and certainly wouldn’t be associated with sedation! Here we see that culture and perception can and do shape our experience which in turn influences our belief. These factors help us to understand the complexity of the human condition because there are so many variables that are affecting the way we’re interacting with the world (see Story of Health 1, 2 and 3 )
8. ‘To think is to practice brain chemistry’. Everything we see, hear, touch, taste and smell changes our brain and every thought causes subtle, microscopic changes in its structure. It could be said that thoughts leave physical traces in the brain in the same way as our feet leave footsteps in the sand. The very act of thinking engages millions of brain cells (neurons) which reach out and connect with each other, shaping and moulding the fabric of the brain in the way an artist may sculpt a piece of clay. The connections between brain cells are called neural connections and as referred to in an earlier point (when we spoke about neural plasticity), as we think the neural connections expand and deepen, shaping our every mood, perception and our very personality. In 2002 scientists from Liverpool University showed that years of being a musician had expanded an area of the brain known as Broca’s area, which is an area associated with language and musical abilities. When compared with people who weren’t musicians, this area of the brain was found to be much bigger in the musicians. Once again highlighting that ‘use it or lose it’ principle.
In 2006 scientists at the University of Regensburg in Germany, followed 38 medical students while they studied for their medical exams and discovered that areas of the brain that processed memory and abstract information actually grew thicker. So you can see the brain is not a static lump of organic matter which merely delivers genetically programmed instructions to the body. It is a constantly changing network of neurons and connections which responds to our thoughts, feelings, beliefs as well as to biological data it is absorbing and processing. It’s time we understood the powerhouse we inhabit and start to make better use of its immense resources…..So you can see, the mind really does matter!
Also see: The Three Aspects of Consciousness and The Experiencing Self

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