Posts Tagged ‘Jo Marchant’


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.



Some Additional Notes on Cure

February 29, 2016

That is the outstanding book by Jo Marchant, “Cure:  A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body.”  There is much in this book that I am not covering.  Meditation and the relaxation response have received extensive coverage in previous posts.  Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) has received perhaps more attention in previous posts than is deserved.  The importance of he Vagus nerve and Vagal Tone was discussed in the healthy memory blog post “The Importance of the Vagus Nerve in Relieving Stress.”

Marchant devotes a chapter to Rethinking Pain.  Another chapter on the importance of talking and caring.  A chapter on thoughts that kill.  A chapter on the importance of friends. And a chapter on the role of religious beliefs.

In her concluding chapter, she writes how she was hoping to end the book.  She was hoping to write that a new paradigm had been opened in medicine and that the mind would have a significant role in health and healing.  She concluded, however, that such a conclusion was not justified.  One problem still to be overcome is that too many physicians are held captive by their Cartesian mindsets.  By that I mean that the body and the mind are separate entities that do not interact.  Marchant’s book provides ample proof that such is not the case.  Over time as physicians die, retire, and increasing information keeps coming in regarding the importance of the mind in health and healing.

However, a more serious problem is economic.  The money is in drugs.  The drug companies benefit financially, and physicians are offered treatments that are quick involving minimal personal time.   I am continually amazed when I hear or see advertisements for most drugs.  Fortunately, the law requires drug companies to list possible side effects.  My amazement comes from thinking that people would still take these drugs given the possible side effects.  In the end the result in the United States is that we are an overmedicated society with health statistics approximating those of a third world country.

My guess is that the possible revolution will turn into an evolution.  In the meantime, seek out physicians who take the mind into account in their treatments.  And if there is no treatment, ask for a placebo or purchase one on your own.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. 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.

Pavlov’s Power

February 26, 2016

Pavlov’s Power is the third chapter in Jo Marchant’s “Cure:  A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body.”  Remember Pavlov the Russian physiologist who discovered classical conditioning?  Pavlov is the one who discovered that by pairing a stimulus, a bell for example, with the presentation of food caused the dog to salivate when the stimulus alone, called the conditioned stimulus, was presented.  Classical conditioning is one of the fundamental paradigms in psychology.  The question is, does this procedure have any practical uses.  The subtitle of this chapter, How to Train Your Immune System, provides the answer.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) describe children who are inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive.  They are constantly  talking and fidgeting.  unable to wait for their turn, and are unable to focus in school.  Medication helps them to control their symptoms, but still causes problems from irritable outbursts when the drug wears off  to weight loss and stunted growth.  A researcher name Sandler wondered whether a placebo might help these children to manage their symptoms on a lower dose of the drug.  He hoped that the honest delivery of placebos as part of a regime that would harness the power of both expectation and conditioning.   He employed seventy ADHD patients aged six to twelve in a two month trial.  These children were split randomly into three groups.  One group underwent a conditioning regime in which they received their normal medication, but also swallowed a distinctive green and white capsule along with their drug.  For the second month they received half their usual drug along with the placebo capsule.  There were two control groups, neither of which received any conditioning.  One group received their full dose of medication for the first month and a half dose for the second month.  The second control group received the full dose of medication for two months.

Sandler published his results in 2010.  The symptoms of the half-dose control group got significantly worse in the second month of the trial.  However, the conditioned group remained stable, doing just as well as the full dose patients.  There were even hints that the children in this group did even better, suffering fewer side effects than those on the full dose of the drug.

Bob Ader, a psychologist at the University of Rochester was doing research on taste aversion.  He gave a group of rats several doses of water sweetened with saccharin.  Normallt this would be a treat but he paired the water with injections that made the animals feel sick.  Later when the rats are given sweetened water on its own, they associated the sugary case with feeling ill (classical conditioning) and refused to drink it.  Adler then forced-fed them using an eyedropper to see how long it would take to learn to forget the negative association.  Rather than forgetting the negative association they died, one by one.

The drug that was used to make the rats feel sick was cytoxan.  In addition to causing the feeling of sickness, it also suppresses the immune system.  So conditioning reaches far behind normal responses, it can also affect the immune system.  This is a rather dramatic conclusion to draw, and it was not accepted at first.  David Felten, a neuroscientist working at the University of Indiana used a powerful microscope to look at the body tissues from dissected mice.  When Felten followed the different branches of the autonomic nervous he found nerves running right into the hear of immune organs such as the spleen and thymus.

Many scientists found Felten’s results difficult to accept.  However, one who did not was Dr. Jonas Salk, the creator of the Salk vaccine.  Salk wrote, “This research area could turn out to be one of the truly great areas of biology in medicine.  You’ll meet some opposition.  Continue to swim upstream.”

Felten did and stated a collaboration with Ader and his colleague Cohen and moved them to the University of Rochester.  These three are now broadly credited with founding a field of research known as psychoneuroimmunology.  This group went on of discover a complex web of connections.  They found receptors for neurotransmitters—messenger molecules produced by the brain— on the surface of immune cells, as well as new neurotransmitters that could talk to those cells.  The lines of communications went in both directions.  Psychological factors can trigger the release of neurotransmitters that influence immune responses, while chemicals released by the immune system can influence the brain.  For example drowsiness, fever and depressive symptomjtr that confine us to bed when we are well.

So Pavlovian conditioning can go way beyond making dogs drool!

Types of Placebos

February 25, 2016

When people think of placebos, people tend to think of pills.  Placebos can also be injections, operations, acupuncture, and so forth.  The anthropologist Moerman says that the active ingredient in placebos is meaning.   The meaning of placebo is positive.  However, there are nocebos whose meaning is negative.  Nocebos can be an effective weapon for terrorists.  Were terrorists to spray a gas over an area, people would likely get sick., even if the gas was harmless.  Or they could claim that water had been poisoned and sicknesses would likely result.  There is one theory that adverse side effects of medications are a type of nocebo.

Placebos are available for sale on the internet.  You can even find them at  And given their effectiveness, you might want to try some of these yourself.  Remember that a placebo can work even you know it is a placebo.  There are also ways of making a placebo more effective.  Size, larger being more effective, and number, more being more beneficial, are also effective.  The effects of color are more complicated with different colors being more effective for different outcomes.

This post is based on content from “Cure:  A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body” by Jo Marchant,