Over the past few decades, the world has been overwhelmed by a so-called "new-age" movement that has focused on greater personal and spiritual awareness, mindfulness and the power of positive thinking.
Related books, CDs, DVDs and seminars on the subject abound as people are tempted by the prospect of manifesting riches, good health and the ideal lover but the trend also has its critics, as the concept that we create our own individual experiences based on our thoughts is not always a popular one.Many people find it difficult to accept that they could be responsible for the negative events - or positive - that occur in their lives, preferring instead to feel that such events are "fated" or governed by a higher power.
But is there any truth in it, and can such a notion be measured by credible scientific experiments?
In order to provide solid evidence, the effects would need to calculated using a tangible medium, rather than by measuring less definable resources such as "feelings of well-being" or "positive events", as the perception of these are subjective and might differ from person to person.
Researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France believe they have produced the first reliable evidence of positive thinking as a tool in epigenetics, however, by assessing specific molecular changes in the body following a period of intensive mindfulness practice.
The study used two different groups of subjects, one comprised of experienced meditators, and the other made up of untrained control subjects. The first group were asked to engage in eight hours of mindfulness practice, whereas the second group were employed in a range of calm but non-meditative activities.
The results were extremely convincing, as the meditators demonstrated a variety of genetic and molecular changes, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes. These type of physiological effects would be associated with improved recovery times after stress or illness, indicating that mindfulness could dramatically improve health outcomes.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice,” said study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs,” says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain (IIBB-CSIC-IDIBAPS), where the molecular analyses were conducted. The study, which was published in the Journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, implied a rapid cortisol recovery time when subjects were placed in stressful social situations, fast down-regulation of those genes that have been implicated in inflammation, including pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2, along with several histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes known to regulate activity in other genes epigenetically by removing a type of chemical tag. The latest results may provide more information on the possible biological mechanisms involved in the therapeutic effects.
The study authors revealed that the genes in both groups were the same prior to the test, but that variations were only observed in the meditators. It appeared that only certain regulatory pathways were affected, as some genes remained unchanged in both groups.
“Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression,” Davidson says.
“The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions,” Kaliman says. “Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions.”
Dr. Bruce Lipton PhD, a cell biologist with interests in quantum physics who has focused much of his research on exploring the link between science and spirituality, believes that your mental perceptions affect your biochemistry. Consequently, he maintains that it is possible to change your cell responses using the power of your thoughts. His research indicates that gene activity changes constantly, with a potential of over thirty thousand variable responses reacting to the messages received from your nervous system. Dr. Lipton believes that it is entirely possible to alter your genetic programming via biochemical changes initiated by your mental attitude.
Lipton says that the potential to affect outcomes in disease, including cancer, is available to each individual. After diagnosis, some oncologists are inclined to give cancer patients a projected timescale of how long they are likely to live; for some patients, this can become their sole preoccupation, with the result that their expectations inevitably manifest the predicted outcome.
“The function of the mind is to create coherence between our beliefs and the reality we experience,” Dr. Lipton said. “What that means is that your mind will adjust the body’s biology and behavior to fit with your beliefs. If you’ve been told you’ll die in six months and your mind believes it, you most likely will die in six months. That’s called the nocebo effect, the result of a negative thought, which is the opposite of the placebo effect, where healing is mediated by a positive thought.”
But almost everyone knows a valiant cancer sufferer who has still succumbed to the disease despite an apparent cheery and positive attitude, so why didn't that help them?
Dr. Lipton explained that health outcomes depend on three competing influences: the conscious mind, who maintains that it is being "positive" and wants the best outcome; external influences, such as the doctor's prognosis embedded in the subconscious mind, and the subsequent biochemical reactions which are governed by the dominant belief. In fact, our conscious mind is in constant battle with the more powerful subconscious where our deepest beliefs reside. Neuroscience has acknowledged that the subconscious portion of our mind controls 95 per cent of our existence, and it is this that most prominently affects health outcomes.
“The major problem is that people are aware of their conscious beliefs and behaviors, but not of subconscious beliefs and behaviors, said Lipton. " Most people don’t even acknowledge that their subconscious mind is at play, when the fact is that the subconscious mind is a million times more powerful than the conscious mind and that we operate 95 to 99 percent of our lives from subconscious programs."
This fact is revealed most effectively when observed in those subjects possessing split or multiple personality syndromes. Allergies can manifest in one personality, but are absent when the same individual is under the control of an alternate personality and its subconscious beliefs.
“Your subconscious beliefs are working either for you or against you, but the truth is that you are not controlling your life, because your subconscious mind supersedes all conscious control," said Lipton. "So when you are trying to heal from a conscious level–citing affirmations and telling yourself you’re healthy–there may be an invisible subconscious program that’s sabotaging you.”
The new advances in epigenetics suggest that our futures, certainly from a physical perspective, could indeed be held in our own hands, and this healing potential could also extend to our environment and culture. Unfortunately, we are conditioned from birth to relinquish control of our health and personal circumstances to external forces, leaving our health and circumstances at the mercy of acquired beliefs.
“It’s a complex situation,” said Dr. Lipton. "People have been programmed to believe that they’re victims and that they have no control. We’re programmed from the start with our mother and father’s beliefs.
"So, for instance, when we got sick, we were told by our parents that we had to go to the doctor because the doctor is the authority concerning our health. We all got the message throughout childhood that doctors were the authority on health and that we were victims of bodily forces beyond our ability to control. The joke, however, is that people often get better while on the way to the doctor. That’s when the innate ability for self-healing kicks in, another example of the placebo effect."
Putting this ability into practice may be an acquired skill, as there may be many complex factors at work in the manifestation of such complex physical outcomes, particularly if these forces are actually energies governed by the laws of physics, quantum or otherwise. Like any other ability, it may take practice and experience to achieve desired outcomes by re-training the subconscious mind as well as our conscious perception.
In his book, One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life, Mitch Horowitz explores the whys and why-nots, looking at what seems to work and what doesn't in the field of positive thought. Subscribers can catch the special interview he did recently for Unknown Country here
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