The Christmas miracle of expectations

expectations

Image by Kate Brady via Flickr

It’s Christmas Eve today, for those who celebrate the holiday, and at this time of year, there’s often talk of miracles. I don’t generally go in for that sort of thing, but I do go in for wonder, curiosity, and the excitement that discoveries having nothing to do with the supernatural can bring. This week, in a season when expectations can have an awful lot of power, I want to draw your attention to an episode of Invisibilia, a show that investigates the invisible forces that shape our lives.

In this episode, titled “How To Become Batman,” our hosts follow a man who has been blind since the age of three, who nonetheless learned to ride a bike and indeed navigates the world just as a sighted person would. It’s his belief that the way sighted people treat the blind – they ways in which they expect blind people to be helpless – take away an incredible amount of functionality they could have if they were shown alternatives.

The section that really caught my attention was the opening, in which they introduce the idea of how profoundly expectations affect outcomes.

It starts with an experiment with rats, in which a scientist labeled basically identical rats as smart or stupid, then let lab techs work with them on mazes. To a rat, the ones the people thought were smart performed much better than the “stupid” ones. The subconscious ways in which the techs touched the rats, as well as what they expected from the rats given their beliefs about the rats’ abilities, changed the way the rats behaved.

It’s obvious if you think about it: workers, children, athletes, soldiers, anyone moving under someone else’s authority – the degree to which they excel can vary wildly depending on what those authority figures – bosses, parents, coaches, officers – expect from them. Over time, negativity from those who “handle” us the way those lab techs handled the rats can leave us unmotivated, unfulfilled, even disabled. But when we offer encouragement, belief, and support for others’ efforts, it’s amazing what we can achieve.

Whether you celebrate or not, I wish encouragement, hope, and support to you in the new year.

 

Trying to manage pain? F*** it!

Research shows that swearing helps us to manage pain better. We’ve all had the experience of dropping something on our foot and yelling out a few choice Anglo-Saxon words. Scientists used to believe that doing so focused us more on the negative, and therefore decreased tolerance of pain. New research, however, shows that on the contrary, people who swore while experiencing pain were able to tolerate it for longer, and reported feeling less pain than those who repeated a neutral word.

swearing-294391_1280I’m reminded of a practice client I had a long time back, who was having an intense emotional experience in her life. Standing at her head, I asked her what she was aware of, and her answer was “F*** it!” Encouraged by this plainly authentic response, I mirrored it to her, encouraging her to allow that feeling to flow. Turned out that phrase was everywhere inside her, needing to get out, be felt, and be voiced.

This research brings a new dimension to that session: the idea that giving someone permission to spout profanity when in extremis can help not only release the painful emotions, but make doing so less painful. Anger, too – often associated with such outbursts – can be a powerful way to feel some control over something that hurts.

If the body speaks in metaphors, then swears are one way for the body to release steam. Nice to see work being done on how our use of language relates to our physical and emotional experience.

Dartmouth suggests more research on body-mind therapies!

A number of sources over the past few days are reporting a recommendation from Dartmouth investigators Peter Payne, SEP, and Mardi Crane-Godreau, PhD, in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that body/mind therapies such as Somatic Experiencing be subjected to more rigorous scientific research to examine their efficacy in the treatment of trauma.

I am a big fan of this idea, given that often, the work that I do and its adjuncts are often left in the dark when it comes to scientific inquiry. Skeptics like to place some healing modalities in the “quackery” category, which tends to create a circularly reasoned loop: these things are not backed by good science, therefore they must be unworthy of study, and therefore no science gets done.

The team at Dartmouth is interested in looking into the connection between the well-known effects of stress on morbidity in association with conditions such as cancer, and the relief of stress and associated trauma that is often seen in mental health modalities that incorporate the body. As this science advances, I hope to see more and more of these types of studies coming out of respected institutions, and giving us a more data-driven sense of how this stuff works.

Listening to your heart may be more literal than you think

A man in Brazil, having received a cardiac implant, found – not all that surprisingly – that his body image shifted: he had the odd feeling off having a heart in his belly rather than his chest. But rather more surprisingly, the introduction of the implant “seemed to have markedly altered certain social and emotional skills,” according to David Robson at BBC Future. The article that came out this week, “The mind-bending effects of feeling two hearts,” delves into recent research that shows that our hearts – and body-awareness in general – have a more profound effect on our emotional functioning than even the poets may have known.

A recent experiment asked participants to count their own heartbeats, without putting their hands over their hearts or having any other aid in perceiving them. About 1 in 4 people get something like 50% accuracy; some folks are not very good at perceiving what’s going on inside of them, as I have observed in my own practice. A few, though – also around 1-4 – can achieve an accuracy of 80%. This ability, incidentally, is called introception, a word I’ll definitely be adopting.

After this, the groups were asked to do a series of tests around emotional awareness. The results were astounding:

People with more bodily awareness tend have more intense reactions to emotive pictures and report being more greatly moved by them; they are also better at describing their feelings. Importantly, this sensitivity seems to extend to others’ feelings – they are better at recognising emotions in others’ faces – and they are also quicker to learn to avoid a threat, such as a small electric shock in the lab, perhaps because those more intense bodily feelings saturate their memories, making the aversion more visceral.

In another study aimed at looking at intuition, people who had a more accurate sense of their hearts followed their intuition more. They were asked to pick cards that would win them money if they matched the color of a card on the table. “The game was rigged so that you were slightly more likely to win from two of the decks, and lose if you picked from the other two. Dunn [the researcher] found that the people who could track their heartbeat with the most accuracy would tend to pick from certain decks, whereas those with poor interoception were more likely to choose at random.”

It is not so much that the hunches the more body-aware people followed were always right – quite the contrary. It is more than they tended to follow their hearts, as the saying goes, more often. People with increased body awareness are being found to have richer emotional awareness as well, resulting in a richer experience of life. And those with reduced bodily awareness – including those with certain neurological flaws in the connection between the body and the brain – can suffer everything from depression to depersonalization disorders.

Naturally all of this is exciting for someone who works primarily on helping people increase their body awareness. It is also no wonder that Rubenfeld Synergy can be so powerful: tuning in to the body’s sensations can unlock emotions that are lying dormant and allow them to flow when they have been trapped.

What happens when you listen to your heart?

Stand like Wonder Woman, and change your life

More research, this time out of Harvard Business School, is emerging around the ways in which body language, body position, and other clear, controllable physical actions can not only change the way others think and feel about us, but how we feel and think about ourselves. Amy Cuddy’s research showed a two-minute change in body posture changed hormone levels in the body, affected self-confidence, and influenced job interviewers.

I’ve talked here some about Ilana Rubenfeld’s principle that the way you move in your body is the way you move in your life. The video below is a fantastic TED talk that shows how this is literally true.

In Cuddy’s experiments, just two minutes of assuming “power poses” significantly raised testosterone levels, lowered cortisol levels, improved people’s sense of self-worth and made interviewers much more likely to want to hire them. Two minutes of sitting curled up and making themselves small had the opposite effect: lowered testosterone, elevated cortisol, feelings of insecurity, and unattractiveness for hiring.

The implications of this would be almost alarming if they weren’t so accessible. In my work, we do a lot of imagining around what different options might be like. What if a client who has spent his whole life with his shoulders curled around his body could open up? What would that feel like? What might become possible? We might talk to the physical pain that trying this would be likely to cause: what protective mechanism has his body had in place for so long, but might be ready to let go and become something else?

For some, this process of healing, of becoming, can be slow, but it is possible. This science shows how it works. What is remarkable to me is how the power positions are all about being open, taking up space, being seen. Opening yourself up like this is exposing – relating back to the Brene Brown talks I’ve linked to here before on vulnerability. This relationship between vulnerability and power continues to intrigue me, and I’m sure you’ll hear more from me about it in this space.

For now, though, watch below, and don’t miss Cuddy’s own story, near the end, of how she, personally, overcome near-crippling self-doubt.

 

Pain and pleasure as emotions

On a recent edition of Science Friday, I encountered an interview with neuroscientist Francis McGlone, whose research into touch-sensitive nerves has changed the landscape for how science understands touch in humans.

It was already known that there are what might be called fast nerves and slow nerves. The first carry sensation to the brain in milliseconds; these are the nerves that make you draw back when you touch a hot plate. The slower nerves carry the message over the course of several seconds: these are the nerves that process the burning sensation afterward.

What was a relatively new finding was that there are also slow nerves – called C fibers – associated with pleasant touch. These are known as C-tactile fibers, and convey what McGlone calls the emotional quality of touch.

When a person is stroked gently, these slow nerve fibers process the sensation as a feeling, transmitting to the brain a feeling of pleasure. These nerves, though, also work with the brain to interpret the feeling and put it in context: if someone you can’t stand is touching you, for example, the pleasant touch won’t be experienced as pleasant. Similarly, a painful sensation won’t be experienced as quite so painful when it’s in an expected or familiar context: for example, getting hair pulled out at the salon.

These slow nerve fibers, then, are the conduits that help our bodies translate the sensation of touch into an emotional experience of the world, from the breeze on our face to the sand between our toes to a reassuring touch on the shoulder.

A more detailed discussion of McGlone and others’ work in this arena is here, in an article from The Scientist.

What this research made me think of in the context of Rubenfeld Synergy was how developmentally, the type and amount of touch we receive as infants and children helps determine how our brains form socially.  In the above interview, McGlone calls the brain “a social organ,” and talks about how the earliest touch we receive helps us develop affectively. This, to me, points to how many people’s wiring gets crossed early on, and what is meant to be pleasant touch, received from inappropriate sources or in sexualized or otherwise inappropriate ways, may wire a person’s brain to perceive pleasant touch as unsafe or even painful.

One role that touching healers, like Synergists, can potentially play is in helping clients rewire their nervous systems to be able to receive pleasant touch, by exposing them to non-sexual, boundaried, gentle contact in a healing context. This is tricky and sensitive work, but I have hope for its healing properties.

Fostering consent culture – making touch safe for kids and adults

My friend and colleague Christine Kraemer wrote over at the Patheos website recently about how desperately kids need touch – not just for emotional development, but literally for biological development – and how that touch is being systematically taken away in many school environments and elsewhere. More and more, non-parent adults are not allowed to hug children, kids are not allowed to touch each other, and the entire culture of touch and kids has been boiled down to preventing sexual abuse.

But it turns out that if infants don’t receive enough touch, they can literally die. And even older children can experience developmental delays from lack of touch early on, and violence in teenagers has been correlated with neglect. In the attempt to protect our children from predators, we are contributing to a world where our children, deprived of touch, may grow up to become them.

In this culture, then, a shift needs to occur. One pathway in this direction is toward a consent culture: where asking permission to touch, and believing that each individual is the best judge of whether they want to receive it, is the norm. The more we cultivate this culture of consent, the more we make asking – and not just denying, but also granting! – permission the norm, the more safe touch we cultivate in the world.

Christine includes some great exercises for elementary aged kids in her post, to help practice asking, saying no, and saying yes. It reminded me a lot of this post of mine that was very popular some time back, describing kids playing with splashing in the pool. Both of these things make me wish that this topic was alive when I was a child – painfully shy, introverted, weird, and often picked on and touched in ways I didn’t want but had no tools to stop. The idea of touching other kids or being touched on purpose never even occurred to me, though I longed to belong to a group. I believe that teaching kids how to ask for touch, how to refuse it or accept it, and how to respect others’ boundaries and personal space could go a long way, not just toward getting people the touch they need to grow, but toward alleviating loneliness, shyness, and fear.

Go read.

How to get high on life. No, seriously.

Black trunks

This week I dug this post by Mark Sisson, ex-marathoner and current loud advocate of what he calls a Primal lifestyle. While his dietary recommendations only somewhat work for me, I really love his attitude, writing style and sense of humor, and keep returning to his blog for inspiration.

Getting “high on life” may sound like a cliched holdover from the “Just Say No” generation, but I find it really valuable as a concept because I place a very high value on pleasure and ecstasy for optimal health and happiness.  While Sisson jokes around a bit (“If that sounds like it involves a shaman, some cactus cuttings, and monotonous chanting over a fire, I don’t blame you”), I do see and respect the spiritual benefits of meditation, chanting, ecstatic dance, and even the responsible use of substances to achieve ecstatic states and commune with whatever divine you jibe with. (For some people, those in recovery from addictions, for example, substances are out of the question: I highly recommend this great series called The Dance of Pagan Recovery.)

Sisson’s post, though, is more about that deep evolutionary drive we all have to experience pleasure. Pleasure, he says, 

is the carrot dangled by the body to get us to do the things we need to survive and prosper. It helps us reach important survival goals. But we’re not ascetics. Experiencing and appreciating pleasure as its own entity is necessary for true happiness and life contentment. Our genes expect us to feel good, not just do the tasks that feeling good compels us to complete.

The rest of his post tells us why things like different kinds of exercise, controlled risk, sex, nature, spicy food, music, and laughter help activate the pleasure centers in the brain. He classically does a ton of research, so there’s lots of juicy studies and links in there, too.

Even without studies, though, I recommend that this weekend, you put on some of your favorite music, have some juicy sex (solo or with a partner), and then go dance in the rain.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Infants are sensitive to pleasant touch

The latest from the “but we knew that, right?” department: a study showing how infants process the sensation of “pleasant” touch – and how young they learn it.

Touch is critical to human development, and in fact, as my friend Christine Kraemer pointed out, most baby mammals will die without it. Much writing has been done on the topic of the crucial role of touch in bonding, healthy development, and general emotional and social health. But it’s always nice to see more detailed studies like these, that begin to examine the mechanisms by which these things work.

Of greatest interest to me was the following quote. For context, the researchers were brushing the infants’ skin with a paintbrush:

Interestingly, infants’ slower heart rate during medium-velocity brushstrokes was uniquely correlated with the primary caregivers’ own self-reported sensitivity to touch. That is, the more sensitive the caregiver was to touch, the more the infant’s heart rate slowed in response to medium-velocity touch.

This brings powerfully to mind the relationship between the synergist and the client in an RSM session, and how the energy and mood of the synergist communicates through to the client through touch, and vice versa. It’s also remarkable to me that this happened in the research even though the caregivers weren’t touching the infants directly.

Think about what it’s like to be near someone who is warm and calm and welcoming, and then think about what it’s like to be around someone high-strung, nervous, or angry. Mood is contagious, and touch amplifies it. This research seems to show, at least by correlation, that sensitivity can also be contagious.

Read it here.

 

Heroic helplessness

Image courtesy of Mme Scherzo

I was taken with David Kanigan’s post the other day, quoting Florida Scott-Maxwell on aging, and including this beautiful photograph of I-know-not-whom, but surely one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen of any age.

I include the entirely of the quotation he included here, because it is worthwhile:

Age is truly a time of heroic helplessness. One is confronted by one’s own incorrigibility. I am always saying to myself, “Look at you, and after a lifetime of trying.” I still have the vices that I have known and struggled with— well it seems like since birth. Many of them are modified, but not much. I can neither order nor command the hubbub of my mind. Or is it my nervous sensibility? This is not the effect of age; age only defines one’s boundaries. Life has changed me greatly, it has improved me greatly, but it has also left me practically the same. I cannot spell, I am over critical, egocentric and vulnerable. I cannot be simple. In my effort to be clear I become complicated. I know my faults so well that I pay them small heed. They are stronger than I am. They are me.

~ Florida Scott-Maxwell, Measure of My Days 

As I crest 40, and go through massive changes in my own life and subtler ones in my own body, I consider what it means to age.  I came across another quotation I loved just the other day, from my man Carl Jung: “Life really does begin at forty. Up until then you are just doing research.”  As I see my first wrinkles, my first grey hairs start to set up shop in the streets of my skin, I consider what my research has led me to thus far.  Research slowly becomes knowledge, but it seems to take much of a lifetime.  And as Maxwell says, over time, those things we know – and perhaps dislike – most about ourselves can become what defines us, even as experience leads us to better choices and more settled lives.

I am overly sensitive and at times gullible (one of my loved ones is kind enough to call it “credulous”). I cannot resist a good argument. I love to sleep and enjoy wine. I cannot express things in an uncomplicated way (In my effort to be clear I become complicated).  I would always rather be doing something creative and different, at times to the foolish exclusion of the mundane. I am in love with love.

What are the faults which define you?  How can you grow to love them more?