Posts Tagged ‘cytokines’

Mind, Body, & Genome

December 4, 2017

The title of this post is identical to the title of a chapter in a book by Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body.” None of the many forms of meditation studied in this book was originally designed to treat illness. Nevertheless, today the scientific literature is replete with studies assessing whether these ancient practices might be useful for treating illnesses. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR; see the healthy memory blog post “Improving Selective Attention” for more information) and similar methods can reduce the emotional component of suffering from disease, but not cure the maladies. But mindfulness training— as short as three days—results in a short-term decrease in pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are the molecules responsible for inflammation. With extensive practice this seems to become a trait effect, with imaging studies finding in mediators at rest lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, along with an increased connectivity between regulatory circuitry and sectors of the brain’s self system, especially the posterior cingulate cortex.

For experienced meditation practitioners, a daylong period of intensive mindfulness down regulates genes involved in inflammation. The enzyme telomerase, which slows cellular aging, increases after three months of intensive practicing of mindfulness and loving-kindness (Go to the healthy memory blog post SPACE to find a description of loving-kindness meditation).

Long-term meditation may lead to beneficial structural changes in the brain. Current evidence is inconclusive as to whether such effects emerge with relative short-term practice, like MBSR, to only become apparent with longer-term practice. Taken together, the hints of neural rewiring that undergird altered traits seem scientifically credible, although further studies for specifics are needed.



July 29, 2017

This post is based on an article by Jo Marchant in the Features section of the 29 July 2017 edition of the New Scientist titled, “Awesome awe: The emotion that gives us superpowers.”

The feeling of awe is something that hopefully most, if not all, of us have experienced. It has only recently become a topic for scientific investigation. In 2003 Dacher Keltner and Jonathan  Haidt published the first scientific definition. They described awe as the feeling we get when confronted with something vast, that transcends our frame of reference, and that we struggle to understand. It’s an emotion that combines amazement with an edge of fear. Wonder, by contrast, is more intellectual—a cognitive state in which we are trying to understand the mysterious.

We might think that investigating such a mystical experience would be a challenge, but Keltner insists it’s not so hard. He says, “We can reliably produce awe. You can get people to go out to a beautiful scene in nature, or put them in a cathedral or in front of a dinosaur skeleton, and they’re going to be pretty amazed.” Then a numerical scale is used so people can report how much awe they are feeling. A physiological measure, the appearance of goosebumps, is second only to cold temperatures as a source of the goosebumps.

Keltner and other researchers have found that even mild awe can change our attitudes and behavior. People who watched a nature video that elicited awe, rather than other positive emotions such as happiness or pride—were subsequently more generous and described themselves as feeling more connected to people in general. Gazing up at tall eucalyptus trees left others more likely to help someone who stumbled in front of them. After standing in front of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, people were more likely to describe themselves as part of a group. Although it might seem counterintuitive that an emotion we often experience alone increases our focus on others, Keltner thinks it’s because awe expands our attention to encompass a bigger picture, thus reducing our sense of self.

In a large study Keltner found that after inspiring awe in people from the US and China, they signed their names smaller and drew themselves smaller, but with no drop in their sense of status or self-esteem. Neuroscientist Michiel van Elk found that people who watched awe-inducing videos estimated their bodies to be physically smaller than those who watched funny or neutral videos.

At the annual meeting of the Organization of Human Brain Mapping in Vancouver, Canada, in June, van Elk presented functional MRI scans showing that awe quiets activity in the default mode network, which included parts of the frontal lobes and cortex, and is thought to related to the sense of self. Keltner says, “The voice in your head, self-interest, self-consciousness, disappears. Here’s an emotion that knocks out a really important part of our identity. As a result we feel more connected to bigger collectives and groups.”

Keltner’s team has found that feeling awe makes people happier and less stressed, even weeks later, and that it assists the immune system by cutting the production of cytokines, which promote inflammation. A team from Arizona State University found that awe activates the parasympathetic, which works to calm the fight or flight response. Researchers at Stanford University discovered that experiencing awe made people feel as if they had more time—and made them more willing to give up their time to help others.

Awe also seems to help us break habitual patterns of thinking. The Arizona team discovered that after experiencing awe, people were better able to remember the details of a short story. Usually, our memories are colored by our expectations and assumptions, but awe reduces this tendency, improving our focus on what’s actually happening. Increases in curiosity and creativity have also been reported. In one study, after viewing images of Earth, volunteers came up with more original examples in test, found greater interest in abstract painting and persisted longer on difficult puzzles, compared with controls.

Given all these benefits, the question is how to obtain awe experiencing materials. This topic is not discussed in this article. There seems to be business opportunities here. Are there any additional benefits from virtual reality? There is much work to be done.

HM envisions that in the future flat panels will be placed on the walls of our homes, where we have the option of displaying different subjects. Of course, paintings are a likely subject. But consider wrap around flat panels that could place us in the middle of a Redwood Forest, or in the Grand Canyon.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.