Science of the Spirit


Nurse reveals the top five regrets people make when faced with their own mortality

For many years I worked in palliative care. My patients were those who had gone home to die. Some incredibly special times were shared. I was with them for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives. People grow a lot when they are faced with their own mortality.

I learnt never to underestimate someone's capacity for growth. Some changes were phenomenal. Each experienced a variety of emotions, as expected, denial, fear, anger, remorse, more denial and eventually acceptance. Every single patient found their peace before they departed though, every one of them.

Comment: See more:
  • Inside the alternative death care movement: What's a Death Midwife?


Spending time in nature may improve social cohesion, reduce crime

© Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Spending time in nature, even in urban areas like Central Park, is associated with a greater degree of social cohesion and lower crime rates.
A wealth of research shows that just being in nature, even a city park, can make us feel better, both psychologically and physically. Such contact with nature can improve mood, reduce pain and anxiety, and even help sick or injured people heal faster.

But what effect does it have on groups of people and society at large? New research suggests that nature can actually improve the degree to which people feel connected to and act favorably toward others, specifically their neighbors, says Netta Weinstein, a senior psychology lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales.

Weinstein and colleagues conducted a large and wide-ranging study of 2,079 participants from throughout the United Kingdom. They asked each person a bunch of questions, such as how much time they spend in nature and how many parks and how much vegetation is found in their neighborhoods. They also queried them about how much they cared about and felt connected to their neighbors. The researchers also looked at each person's socio-economic status, the crime rate in the area, and other measures.

The study, published November 25 in the journal Bioscience, found that contact with nature accounted for a small, but significant increase in the degree to which people felt socially connected. Experience in nature was also tied to a reduction in local crime rates.

Comment: For more information on the benefits of spending time in natural settings, see:


Brain structure may be biological basis for apathy

© Oxford University
Can't be bothered to read on? It might be due looser connections in your brain

When brain scientists at Oxford University studied apathy, they didn't expect to see less motivated people making more effort. Their results suggest that for some people traditionally perceived as lazy, it's biology - not attitude - that might be the cause.

A team of neuroscientists at Oxford, funded by The Wellcome Trust, decided to study young people to see if there were any differences in the brains of those who were motivated compared to those who were apathetic.

Masud Husain, Professor of Neurology and Cognitive Neuroscience, explained: 'We know that in some cases people can become pathologically apathetic, for example after a stroke or with Alzheimer's disease. Many such patients can be physically capable. Yet they can become so demotivated they won't be bothered to care for themselves, even though they're not depressed. By studying healthy people, we wanted to find out whether any differences in their brains might shed light on apathy.'

Forty healthy volunteers completed a questionnaire that scored them on how motivated they were. They were then asked to play a game in which they were made offers, each with a different level of reward and physical effort required to win the reward. Unsurprisingly, offers with high rewards requiring low effort were usually accepted, while low rewards requiring high effort were less popular.

When volunteers played the game in an MRI machine, so that researchers could study their brains, a surprising finding emerged. Although apathetic people were less likely to accept effortful offers, one area of their brains actually showed more activity than in motivated individuals. The pre-motor cortex is a key area involved in taking actions. It becomes active just before those areas of the brain that control our movement. Paradoxically, in more apathetic people it was more active when they chose to take an offer than it was in motivated people.

Comment: Equality, empathy and psychopathy

Blue Planet

The real effects that 'Earthing' can have on your body

Grounding, or 'earthing,' as some people call it, involves placing your feet directly on the ground without shoes or socks as a barrier. The logic behind this practice relates to the intense negative charge carried by the Earth. This charge is electron-rich, theoretically serving as a good supply of antioxidants and free-radical destroying electrons.

Dr. James Oschman, a PhD in biology from the University of Pittsburgh and an expert in the field of energy medicine, notes:
Subjective reports that walking barefoot on the Earth enhances health and provides feelings of well-being can be found in the literature and practices of diverse cultures from around the world. For a variety of reasons, many individuals are reluctant to walk outside barefoot, unless they are on holiday at the beach. (source)
It makes sense if you think about it; in our most natural state, we wouldn't really be wearing any sort of cover on our feet. Putting your feet on the ground enables you to absorb large amounts of negative electrons through the soles of your feet which, in turn, can help to maintain your body at the same negatively charged electrical potential as the Earth.

Comment: Earthing: Health Benefits from being Grounded

2 + 2 = 4

Why lonely people stay lonely

© SuperStock/Corbis
Nobody likes feeling lonely, and some recent research suggests that the ache of isolation isn't only a psychological problem; unwanted solitude impacts physical health, too. Loneliness increases a person's risk of mortality by 26 percent, an effect comparable to the health risks posed by obesity, according to a study published this spring.

And because of this new evidence of the serious ramifications of loneliness, some researchers are investigating what it is, exactly, that makes lonely people stay lonely. In particular, could some behavior be at the root of their isolation? One long-held theory has been that people become socially isolated because of their poor social skills — and, presumably, as they spend more time alone, the few skills they do have start to erode from lack of use. But new research suggests that this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the socially isolated. Lonely people do understand social skills, and often outperform the non-lonely when asked to demonstrate that understanding. It's just that when they're in situations when they need those skills the most, they choke.


Palo Santo: The effects of sacred wood

Bursera graveolens, also known as Palo Santo or Holy Wood, is a sacred tree that holds a fascinating place in history and now, perhaps even in modern medicine. For centuries, it has been used by shaman and ancestral medicine practitioners during prayer, ritual, divination, and healing. Not unlike its relatives Myrrh and Frankincense, Palo Santo is rich in brain oxygenating terpenes including a-terpineol and limonene, which explains the inspiriting, energizing effects that it's known for.

Palo Santo's history dates back to the ancient Incan Empire where it was used in the form of essential oil to soothe, relax, and promote spiritual purification. The shaman of Peru burn Palo Santo sticks in preparation for meditation as the aroma is said to clear misfortune, negative thoughts, and evil spirits. It is also burned by South American natives to shed bad energies around them and in their homes with the naturally therapeutic fumes.


Incorporating the practice of gratitude in your daily routine

The benefits of practicing gratitude are innumerable. It helps release toxic emotions such as frustration, envy, regret and resentment while increasing sensitivity and empathy toward others. Being grateful also improves self-esteem and personal relationships by reducing social comparisons and supporting prosocial behavior.

While it's common knowledge that cultivating gratitude is good for us, it's not common practice for many of us. Here are five ways to change that.
    1. Give thanks immediately upon waking.
    Every morning before jumping out of bed into the new day, pause for a few moments and give thanks for the following: the opportunity to live and experience another new day; the people in your life whom you love and who love you; the good night's rest you just had; the work you get to go to later; the clothes that keep you warm, and the commute money you have so you don't have to walk to work.

Comment: A study found that a focus on what you want - and therefore don't currently have - makes it more difficult to appreciate what you already have. They found that people who were more materialistic also felt less gratitude which, in turn, was associated with lower levels of life satisfaction.


Inside the alternative death care movement: What's a Death Midwife?

© Illustration Jennifer Luxton
Char Barrett walked into a quaint cafe in Seattle with business in mind.

Over the smell of coffee and freshly baked tarts, she was going to advise a client on how best to host a special event at her home, helping coordinate everything from the logistics of the ceremony, to how to dress the guest of honor. People might cry, they might laugh, and all attention would be on the person of the hour—only that person would never see, hear, or enjoy the festivities, because they would be dead.

"People looked at me like I had two heads when I said, 'Keep the body at home after the person dies,'" says Barrett, a Seattle-based funeral director and certified "death midwife." "For families who want it, they should have the right to do it."

Barrett has been practicing home funerals in the area since 2006 through her business, A Sacred Moment. In a home funeral service, the body is either brought back to the family from the place of death or stays at home if the person died there. The family then washes the body, in part to prepare it for viewing and in part as a ritual.

"It's really the way we used to do it," says Barrett.

To Barrett and many other professionals who are offering alternatives to the more status-oriented, profit-driven funeral industry, it's time to rethink how we handle death. From consumer cooperatives that combat price gouging, to putting the power of choice back in the hands of the family, the city of Seattle has become a hub for alternative death care in the last two years, according to Barrett. The subculture of "deathxperts" want not only to empower their clients, but also potentially phase out their jobs altogether—a sort of death of the funeral director as we know it.

Comment: For an interesting discussion about death and dying listen to The Health and Wellness Show - 6 Nov 2015 - Death: No One Gets Out of Here Alive

Magic Hat

Blindness a psychological issue? Woman with DID switched personalities and could suddenly see again

It had been more than a decade since "B.T." had last seen anything.

After suffering a traumatic accident as a young woman, doctors diagnosed her with cortical blindness, caused by damage to the visual processing centers in her brain. So she got a seeing eye dog to guide her and grew accustomed to the darkness.

Besides, B.T. had other health problems to cope with — namely, more than 10 wildly different personalities that competed for control of her body. It was while seeking treatment for her dissociative identity disorder that the ability to see suddenly returned. Not to B.T., a 37-year-old German woman. But to a teenage boy she sometimes became.

With therapy, over the course of months, all but two of B.T.'s identities regained their sight. And as B.T. oscillated between identities, her vision flicked on and off like a light switch in her mind. The world would appear, then go dark.

Writing in PsyCh Journal, B.T.'s doctors say that her blindness wasn't caused by brain damage, her original diagnosis. It was instead something more akin to a brain directive, a psychological problem rather than a physiological one.

B.T.'s strange case reveals a lot about the mind's extraordinary power — how it can control what we see and who we are.

Life Preserver

Life is work: How to lift yourself back up

© iStockphoto
Life is hard. This is a fact that even children are exposed to, when they enter school and encounter bullies and unfair teachers. It continues on through adulthood, as we struggle with money, fall in love and then fall out, lose friendships and get caught up in the rat race. Throughout the process of making our day-to-day life manageable, we can forget that we're human beings who, above all else, need acceptance and kindness to thrive. And we often forget that the person whose care and support has the greatest impact on us is our self.

We're always told to step back, take a deep breath and practice self-love, but how often do we actually do that? Very often, we may not even know where to start. It's always easy to see the good in others, but in ourselves, not so much. But we have to learn to love ourselves from the inside out, and there are a few activities you can start today that will help you get in touch with all your best qualities and help you realize what a wonderful, capable person you are.
"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more." - Melody Beattie

Comment: The neuroscience of gratitude: Small acts of generosity