Dr Michael Mosley‘s list of excellent BBC Horizon documentaries, including ‘The Truth about Food‘ and ‘The Truth about Exercise‘, now includes ‘The Truth about Personality‘ another really accessible programme. Filled with great information and insight, the content is understandable for non-scientists. Dr Mosley integrates different scientific perspectives from a range of international experts while relating the findings to his own life.
Over the course of the programme, optimistic and pessimistic tendencies are explored in terms of the impact of stress on the brain, how our unconscious mind gives attention to ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ cues from our environment, and the effect this has on how we relate to other people. Through a range of psychological tests and some honest self-reflection, Dr Mosley explores the balance between optimism and pessimism and what this means for humans progressing through life. Are we stuck at one end of the spectrum based on our genes, our childhood and our experiences, or is there potential for change, and how can we help ourselves to change?
In the first experiment, Prof Elaine Fox from Essex University used an EEG to scan Dr Mosley’s brain activity while testing his reaction time in response to a series of facial images, flashed just long enough to enter his subconscious with a mixture of happy/relaxed or unhappy/stressed faces. His responses showed that his subconscious was faster at taking in the unhappy/stressed faces than the happy/relaxed ones and his brain activity concentrated on the areas activated in stressful situations. In other words, subconsciously, his brain found it easier to take a ‘negative’ stimulus than a ‘positive’ stimulus.
To see if this could change, Dr Mosley had to watch a series of images daily for the next two months, picking out the happy/relaxed faces. The process is called ‘Cognitive Bias Modification‘ (CBM), consciously training the brain to pick out the ‘positive’ rather than the ‘negative’. Dr Mosley trained his brain for eight weeks with CBM before repeating the tests, the results of which would be considered alongside the other exercise he practiced, being Mindfulness Meditation. After an introductory session with meditation teacher Andy Puddicombe, Dr Mosley meditated daily for ten minutes over the eight weeks before being retested by Prof Fox. In this time, his tendency had rebalanced meaning that his subconscious now picked out the ‘positive’ stimulus faster than the negative and his brain activity changed from showing signs of stress to relaxation while performing the task. Over an eight week period, there were measurable changes to his brain activity and in addition to his general sense of wellbeing, his insomnia had improved significantly having lived with the condition for over 20 years.
In my craniosacral practice I use a combination of Somatic Mindfulness (ie offering attention to the sense of body through touch) and what might be called ‘Somatic Bias Modification‘. I help people to find safe and relaxing ways of paying attention to feelings in the body, even in times of stress and discomfort so that the brain can change to have more of a tendency towards health and comfort.
There is some evidence that optimism and pessimism have a genetic component, certain genes are expressed and passed between generations depending on parental influence. Dr Mosley however, talked about the emerging field of epigenetics and how genes can be altered by changes to behaviour and environmental factors. In the programme, studies involving rats showed that genes associated with stress are more active and present in rats that had less nurturing contact as babies. There are comparable findings for humans, with touch being an important marker for a positive outlook. Thankfully, what the studies also show is that these genetic predispositions to pessimism can change across generations when conditions and behaviours are changed, for example in ways similar to the exercises learned by Dr Mosley.
Prof Roz Picard from MIT conducted (pun intended) another experiment on Dr Mosley using sensors to detect the nerve conductivity in his skin to measure his emotional state (driven by the autonomic nervous system). According to Prof Picard, “your body tells you there’s a change in your state long before your mind recognises there’s a change“. Becoming more familiar with how our bodies feel, for example through the work I do with touch, people can learn to sense and understand the messages the body sends the brain in response to stress and emotions, with more awareness there is more choice.
Dr Mosley finishes the documentary on an optimistic note, “life events can have deep, long lasting and measurable effects on our brains but our personalities are far more malleable than many of us think“. If you have a tendency towards feeling ‘stuck’ and thinking of yourself as ‘a pessimist’, it’s worth remembering that with practice and support, you can change…