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Behavioral Science, Complementary Medicine, Events, Stanford News

His Holiness the 17th Karmapa discusses the nature of compassion

20150317-CCARE-17th-Karmapa-7343When he was taken from his village in eastern Tibet at age 7 after being identified as a religious leader, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa didn’t have aspirations to become a world-renowned spiritual leader. “My first thought was this new position would give me many more opportunities to play and many more friends to play with,” His Holiness said Tuesday, in one of his first appearances on a two-month tour of the United States.

Now 29, he certainly attracted many “friends” Tuesday; fans and followers packed Stanford’s sizable Memorial Hall for the evening talk. Though his English is quite good, His Holiness used an interpreter to tell tales of his childhood and escape to India at age 14 and to share his thoughts on the nature of compassion and hopes for the protection of the environment.

He told the audience that he learned about compassion early, while living with his parents and siblings in a one-room tent made of yak hair. Every morning, his parents prayed — “May all sentient beings be happy” — again in the evening, they prayed. And they taught him about the interdependence of all beings — even insects could not be smashed. “I really feel I was raised in a mandala, or circle, of compassion and love,” he said.

Even the way his parents gave him up, letting him leave to pursue his future as a spiritual leader, was altruistic, His Holiness said. “They embraced the idea the Karmapa would accomplish great, excellent benefits for the world.”

His Holiness said he has come to learn that compassion is all about thinking about the feelings, and interests, of others. “It’s all about developing a sense of responsibility in relation to the reality of interdependence,” he said, before elaborating:

 I think what compassion involves is not just looking at our own situation, but considering  the state or reality of other sentient beings, those similar to us and those dissimilar to us… and developing a concern for those people.

Compassion involves realizing that our experience of happiness and suffering is the same as everyone else’s. Compassion has this component of awareness to it and knowledge that everyone is wanting to be happy and free of suffering.

For example, His Holiness said he is hoping to teach others in Himalayan monasteries about the importance of caring for the environment. “Compassion means becoming more involved,” he said.

He explained that his passion for the environment stems from his experience growing up in rural Tibet, which he said was beautiful and unaffected by development or pollution. “If I were to return to Tibet, the sad thought occurs to me that maybe things wouldn’t be as beautiful as I remember,” he said.

Though there’s much work to do to protect the environment, and “the actions of one individual are not going to be enough,” he said he still believes “it’s really important for individuals to take up the cause.”

The event was sponsored by the Center for Compassion and Altrusim Research at Stanford and was followed by a Q&A session with James Doty, MD, center founder and director.

Previously: The Dalai Lama talks business, compassion and happiness, Dalai Lama and Stanford researchers explore the science of compassion and altruism and Buddhist teacher Jack Cornfield on practicing “sensitivity to now”  
Photo by Christopher Wesselman

Behavioral Science, In the News, Medicine and Society, Research

Research prize for helping make mice comfy – and improving science

Research prize for helping make mice comfy - and improving science

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Stanford researcher has won accolades for a research paper that could help ease the lives of millions of laboratory mice – and improve the outcomes of research studies.

Joseph Garner, PhD, an associate professor of comparative medicine, and his colleagues observed that mice are routinely housed in cold conditions, which put stress on the animals. The mice compensate with physiologic changes that can skew the results of laboratory studies. For instance, temperature has been shown to affect immune function and tumor development in mice, among other factors. So cold stress in mice raises concerns not only for animal welfare but also for science.

Garner and his colleague, Briana Gaskill, PhD, proposed a simple solution: Give the animals some nesting material, and they’ll build a cozy home to regulate their temperatures. These comfy mice would be more physiologically comparable to humans, making them better research subjects, the researchers said. But one obstacle to adopting this simple solution was the question of how much nesting material is enough? In their prize-winning experiment, the researchers asked the mice how much nesting material they needed to give up a warm cage for a cold cage with a nest. The scientists found that between 6 and 10 grams of nesting material could effectively reduce cold stress in the animals – a standard now starting to be adopted in labs around the world.

The paper, published in 2012 in PLoS One, won a high commendation recently from the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement & Reduction of Animals in Research, a leading, UK-based scientific organization that supports research which aims to minimize the need for animals in research and improve animal welfare.

The group said that the research results “have the potential to positively impact the welfare of millions of laboratory mice all over the world.”

Garner and Gaskill both traveled to London to receive the prize.

Previously: Stanford students design “enrichments” for lions, giraffe and kinkajou at the San Francisco Zoo, Nesting improves mouse well-being, could aid research studies and Stanford researcher’s easy solution to problem of drug testing in mice
Photo, which originally appeared in Stanford Medicine magazine, by Brianna Gaskill

Behavioral Science, Complementary Medicine, Events, Research, Stanford News

Tend and befriend — helping you helps me

Tend and befriend — helping you helps me

7005743072_b8c1acb3d0_kHelping others helps you. That’s not new news — perhaps you’ve heard it from your mother or your priest or your great-uncle Joe for your entire life. But what is new is the firm biological basis of that old adage — the connections between altruism, caring and neuroscience. Health psychologist and Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal, PhD, drove that point home hard last week at a talk sponsored by the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

The event kicked off with a meditation tailored to open hearts and minds outward — for participants to consider others as well as themselves. Even that five-minute exercise was enough to spur the release of oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone,” McGonigal said. It “fine tunes our social instincts,” she explained. It dampens fear, making it easier to help others and even improving one’s ability to read facial expressions.

“We can create this biology by choosing to have a social response to stress,” McGonigal told the audience. The academic term is “tend and befriend,” coined by UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor, PhD. Rather than making her aggressive, Taylor and her colleagues found they softened when stressed, becoming more caring and pro-social.

A series of studies have demonstrated the power of the tend and befriend response. Urban teens who volunteer alleviate their own biological stress. Adults who contribute to charity are more resilient in the face of major life events. People feeling a time crunch — too much to do, too little time — can alleviate the feeling by spending time on others. And the list goes on.

“There’s something about this tend and befriend mindset that seems to create physical resilience,” McGonigal said.

Evolutionarily, the instinct makes sense in the event of a disaster, she said. “I have it so you all will survive if there’s an emergency. My having the tend and befriend instinct is mostly about you.”

Perhaps one of the most relevant illustrations of the tend and befriend response — and a lesson for adopting it — comes from study that just came out this week, McGonigal said. Two researchers asked 150 middle-age adults to tell the story of their lives. The stories from the mentally healthiest participants shared a similar theme: Personal suffering inspired them to do something to transform the suffering of others into something positive. They transformed their suffering from a negative into a positive.

“Helping others increases the chemistry of hope and courage and dampens fear and despair,” McGonigal said.

Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal taking questions on willpower, Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes us and Why stress might not be so bad
Photo by David Hodgson

Behavioral Science, Complementary Medicine, Neuroscience, NIH, Patient Care, Research

“Tranceformation:” David Spiegel on how hypnosis can change your brain’s perception of your body

4254170454_4f55755317_zWhen we think of cognitive function, we usually think of having the power to alter our reasoning, while we passively respond to our perceptions. What if we could do the inverse: manipulate our perception, while merely responding to reasoning and language? That is the basic neurological explanation of hypnosis, says David Spiegel, MD, director of the Center on Stress and Health and medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine.

Spiegel spoke on new research in hypnosis yesterday morning during the Integrative Medicine Research Lecture Series presented by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). Despite its Greek etymology, hypnosis does not involve going to sleep; it’s more like a narrowing of attention. “Hypnosis is to consciousness what a telephoto lens is to a camera,” Spiegel explained.

When hypnotized, you put outside of awareness what would normally be in consciousness (dissociation), and become less likely to judge what people tell you (suggestibility). The idea of this often makes people nervous, because we’re evolved to respond to nuanced social cues. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that overcoming this nervousness can yield a wealth of health benefits.

Hypnosis can be an effective method for managing pain, and treating anxiety and stress-related disorders. Past studies have shown that people hypnotized before operative care have a shorter procedure time and a significant reduction in intraprocedural complications, such as hypoxemia and vomiting. One study showed that in select cases “hypnosis as sole anesthesia works extremely well,” Spiegel said.

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Addiction, Behavioral Science, Ethics, Events, In the News, Media

At Stanford visit, Glenn Beck addresses compassion, change and humility

At Stanford visit, Glenn Beck addresses compassion, change and humility

glennUntil this week, I wouldn’t have associated radio personality Glenn Beck with compassion. And when Jim Doty, MD, director of Stanford Medicine’s  Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education invited Beck to the Stanford campus, he realized the right-of-center author and provocateur might be a tough sell to his audience accustomed to guests such as the Dalai Lama and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar.

“Please trust me,” Doty tweeted last week.

Yet fireworks were absent from the nearly two-hour conversation, which ranged from Beck’s struggle with addiction to his Mormon faith and his passion for radio.

Beck came across as human, a man who had endured struggles, made mistakes and is striving to learn from them. He is a father and husband, who organizes charity efforts and volunteers in his church. He said he’s gone from a person for whom the audience size was just a measure of his success to a man who cares deeply about people and his audience members. He prays for humility and said he is not trying to be divisive.

“I spend a lot of time, at the end of my day, saying, ‘Okay, am I that guy? What could I have done better,'” Beck said. “You self-examine all the time and with that self-examination you grow. It’s good. I know who I am because I’m pushed up against the wall all the time.”

Americans share a certain set of principles in common, Beck said. The rift begins when people replace their principles with specific interests and policies.

“For example, if I said to you, ‘Do we torture?’,” Beck said. Nearly everyone would say no. But once threats from terrorists are introduced, the conversation becomes more divided.

“The left and the right have principles in common. We may disagree on interests, but we have to start anchoring ourselves in the principles.”

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Behavioral Science, In the News, Patient Care, Research, Sleep, Stanford News

Watson, the narcoleptic Chihuahua, demonstrates symptoms on-air

Watson, the narcoleptic Chihuahua, demonstrates symptoms on-air

Watson - 560

What’s black and white (with just a few splotches of brown), understands French, and falls asleep at feeding times? A narcoleptic Chihuahua named Watson.

Watson’s becoming accustomed to the spotlight — he made his debut here at Scope, then went on to star in a KQED blog post. But today, Watson made it on air for The California Report. The segment begins – endearingly — with Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, cooing to Watson in French. Mignot is Watson’s human and a sleep researcher known for the discovery of the gene that causes narcolepsy in dogs. (He also directs the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine).

Although Watson isn’t officially a Stanford dog — he’s Mignot’s pet — Mignot is hoping to use the slightly shy pup to help some of his patients, particularly children, who suffer from narcolepsy.

One of the symptoms of narcolepsy is cataplexy, a sudden loss of muscle control and Watson often suffers these attacks when he’s excited or spots tasty food.

“He looks at you with these eye half-closed and its almost like he’s just telling you, “Oh, I love you,” but in fact its because he’s having a sleep attack,” Mignot said.

Previously: Narcoleptic Chihuahua joins Stanford sleep researcher’s family, Stumbling upon circadian rhythms and Does influenza trigger narcolepsy?
Photo by Emmanuel Mignot

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Cells from patients diagnosed with schizophrenia may provide clues about the disease

Cells from patients diagnosed with schizophrenia may provide clues about the disease

neural-pathways-221718_1280As a medical student, Sergiu Pasca was frustrated when he learned about the treatments available for mental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

“We can cover up the symptoms, but these are lifelong, chronic disorders,” Pasca, MD, said. “That was incredibly disappointing to me.”

Now, as a neuroscientist, Pasca is planning to do something about that. To understand more about the mechanisms driving these disorders, his team has developed a technique to take cells from patients with schizophrenia and culture them in a dish to make functional 3-D neural models. Using this approach, his team is trying to uncover the roots of schizophrenia.

What is going wrong during neural development that leads to these disorders? Are the neurons themselves misformed? What is the role of glial cells, the under-appreciated support cells in the brain?

The technique offers opportunities not available by examining post-mortem human brains or living mice, whose neurons are quite different than humans’, Pasca said.

The mental-health community is excited about this new technique too; Pasca was recently named one of four MQ Fellows, an honor bestowed by a London-based NGO that works to improve the quality of life for people with mental-health disorders. The fellowship provides more than $350,000 over three years as well, enough to support Pasca’s relatively new Stanford lab.

Previously: New thinking on schizophrenia, it’s the mind, body and social experience, Researchers induce social deficits associated with autism, schizophrenia in mice and Imagining voices: A look at an alternative approach to treating auditory hallucinations
Photo by geralt

Behavioral Science, Complementary Medicine, Neuroscience, Videos

This is your brain on meditation

This is your brain on meditation

For years, friends have been telling me I should try meditation. I’m embarrassed to admit it’s mostly because of (how can I put this delicately?) a temper that flares when I’m anxious or stressed out. But, as it is for many people, it’s one of those things I haven’t gotten around to. This video by AsapSCIENCE, though, describing the things scientists have discovered about meditators has me thinking about it again.

Meditation is linked to a decreased anxiety and depression, and increased pain tolerance. Your brain tunes out the outer world during meditation, and on brain scans of meditators, scientists can see increased activity in default mode network – which is associated with better memory, goal setting, and self-awareness. The part of the brain that controls empathy has also been shown to be more pronounced in monks who are long-time meditators. From the video:

“[Meditation] also literally changes your brain waves, and we can measure these frequencies. Medidators have higher levels of alpha waves, which have been shown to reduce feelings of negative mood, tension, sadness and anger.”

Much like hitting the gym can grow your muscles and increase your overall health, it seems that meditation may be a way of working out your brain—with extra health benefits.”

Other demonstrated benefits include better heart rate variability and immune system function. I’m glossing over a lot of the information that’s packed into this entertaining little video, but if you’re curious, check out this less-than-three-minute video yourself.

Previously: Study shows benefits of breathing meditation among veterans with PTSDResearch brings meditation’s health benefits into focusUsing meditation to train the brainCan exercise and meditation prevent cold and flu? and How meditation can influence gene activity
Video by AsapSCIENCE

Behavioral Science, Complementary Medicine, Mental Health, Parenting, Pediatrics, Research

Mindfulness and the fourth- and fifth-grade brain

Mindfulness and the fourth- and fifth-grade brain

Maths Homework

As a parent, this Time headline immediately grabbed my attention: “Mindfulness Exercises Improve Kids Math Scores.” But as I read the article, I learned that math scores were just one facet examined by the researchers and that mindfulness training was also shown to help children be less stressed and more caring.

The study, which was published in this month’s issue of Developmental Psychology, looked at a group of 99 fourth and fifth graders in British Columbia. For four months, half of the students were taught a pre-existing “personal responsibility” curriculum, while the rest learned about mindfulness through a program called MindUP that focuses on breathing exercises, mindful smelling and eating, and gratitude. The researchers then looked at cortisol levels, behavioral assessments, self-reports, along with those math scores. The article describes the results in more detail:

The results were dramatic. “I really did not anticipate that we would have so many positive findings across all the multiple levels we looked at,” says study co-author Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia. “I was very surprised,” she says—especially considering that the intervention took place at the end of the year, notoriously the worst time for students’ self-control.

Compared to the kids in the social responsibility program, children with the mindful intervention had 15% better math scores, showed 24% more social behaviors, were 24% less aggressive and perceived themselves as 20% more prosocial. They outperformed their peers in cognitive control, stress levels, emotional control, optimism, empathy, mindfulness and aggression.

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Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Medical Apps, Public Health, Technology

What needs to happen for wearable devices to improve people’s health?

What needs to happen for wearable devices to improve people's health?

15353072639_f3a79557df_z“Wearable devices” are pieces of technology that are worn in clothes or accessories, and they often have biometric functionality – they can measure and record heart rates, steps taken, temperature, or sleep habits. Numerous tech companies have begun manufacturing and marketing such devices, which are part of a larger movement often referred to as the “quantified self” – where data about one’s life is meticulously gathered and recorded. Only 1% to 2% of Americans have used a wearable device, but annual sales are projected to increase to more than $50 billion by 2018.

Health and fitness apps are also proliferating, from software that maps where you run or provides a digital workout community, to programs that count calories or suggest how to improve your sleep. But what’s the real impact for people’s health?

Earlier this month, a report from the Journal of the American Medical Association called into question the idea that wearable devices will effect population-scale changes in health. There is a big gap, the authors claim, between recording health information and changing health behavior, and little evidence suggests that this gap is being bridged. Wearable devices might be seen as facilitating change, but not driving it. Mitesh Patel, MD, MBA, from University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues wrote:

Ultimately, it is the engagement strategies—the combinations of individual encouragement, social competition and collaboration, and effective feedback loops—that connect with human behavior.

The difficulty of population health is that changes have to be sustained to have meaningful effects, and that is quite difficult. The authors identify four steps that must be taken to bridge this gap towards sustained change.

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