The concept of cause-and-effect is very slippery. We think that A causes B only to find that C really causes both A and B. Or, perhaps it’s really B that causes A. More subtly, A might influence B which turns right around and influences A.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that we’ve been looking at a lot of things from the wrong end of the telescope. Some examples:
Our brain creates us – what creates our personality and the essence of who we are? Why our brains, of course. My brain is the cause; my personality is the effect. Further, the brain is what it is; there’s not much we can do about it. Well…not so fast. Maybe we got it backwards. It turns out that the brain is plastic; we can change it through our habits, actions, and thoughts. In many ways, we create our brains rather than the other way round. Norman Doidge is a leading writer on brain plasticity. You can find his books here and here.
Mutate first; adapt later – our general model of evolution suggests that random mutations happen in our DNA. Mutations that provide a competitive edge are then preserved and passed on. Mutations that aren’t so helpful just fade away. But, according to a recent article in New Scientist, we may have it backwards. Again, plasticity is a key concept. “A growing number of biologists think … plasticity may also play a key role in evolution. Instead of mutating first and adapting later, they argue, animals often adapt first and mutate later.”
I am the master of my fate – I used to believe that I was in control. Now I realize that my System 1 often makes decisions without any input from “me”. Indeed, I don’t even know the decisions are being made. But it’s not just my “primitive brain” that molds my behavior. It’s also how fast my heart beats and how healthy my vagus nerve is. But it’s not even just my body that steers me. It’s also the microbes in my gut. When the microbes team up, they can make me do bizarre things – like eating chocolate. They may even contribute to schizophrenia.
OCD starts with thoughts – we’ve always assumed that irrational thoughts create obsessive compulsive disorder. Irrational thoughts begin in the brain and radiate outward to produce irrational behavior. But, as Clare Gillan points out, we may have it backwards. When she induced new habits in volunteers, she found that people with OCD change their beliefs to explain the new habit. In other words, behavior is the cause and belief is the effect.
The gardener manages the garden – Suellen loves to garden and will spend hours at hard labor under a hot sun. When I see how hard she works, I wonder if she’s managing the flowers or if they’re managing her. It’s not a new thought. The Botany of Desire makes the same point.
What else have we gotten backwards? It’s hard to know. But, as the Heath brothers point out in Decisive, if you believe A causes B, you owe it to yourself to consider the opposite.
Does the mind influence the body or vice-versa? It seems that it happens both ways and the vagus nerve plays a key role in keeping you both happy and healthy (and creative).
Also known as the tenth cranial nerve, the vagus nerve links the brain with the lungs, digestive system, and heart. Among many other things, the vagus nerve sends the signals that help you calm down after you’ve been startled or frightened. It helps you return to a “normal” state. A healthy vagus nerve promotes resilience — the ability to recover from stress. (The vagus nerve is not in the spinal cord, meaning that people with spinal cord injuries can still sense much of their system).
The vagus also helps control your heartbeat. To use oxygen efficiently, your heart should beat a bit faster when you breathe in and a bit slower when you breathe out. The ratio of your breathing-in heartbeat to your breathing-out heartbeat is known as the vagal tone.
Physiologists have long known that a higher vagal tone is generally associated with better physical and mental health. Most researchers assumed, however, that we can’t improve our vagal tone. Some lucky people have a higher vagal tone; some unlucky people have a lower one. It’s determined by factors beyond our control.
Then Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok decided to see if that was really true. Their research – published in Psychological Science – suggests that we can improve our vagal tone. By doing so, we can create a virtuous circle: improving our mental outlook can improve vagal tone which, in turn, can make it easier to improve our mental outlook. (For two non-technical articles on this research, click here and here).
In their experiment, Fredrickson and Kok randomly divided volunteers into two groups. One group was taught a form of meditation (loving kindness meditation) that engenders “feelings of goodwill”. Both groups were also asked to keep track of their positive and negative emotions.
The results were fairly straightforward: “All the volunteers … showed an increase in positive emotions and feelings of social connectedness – and the more pronounced this effect, the more their vagal tone had increased ….” Additionally, those who meditated improved their vagal tone much more than those who didn’t.
The virtuous circle seems to be associated with social connectedness, which Fredrickson refers to as a “potent wellness behavior”. The loving kindness meditation promotes a sense of social connectedness. That, in turn, improves vagal tone. That, in turn, promotes a sense of social connectedness. Bottom line: it pays to think positive thoughts about yourself and others.