Science of the Spirit


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


Study shows religious kids are meaner than secular kids

In a study to find out if kids who grow up with a strong religious background are nicer, more compassionate and more kind than secular children, it was revealed that religious kids are simply more mean, less-tolerant, more-punitive, and less-forgiving than kids who don't grow up in a religious household.

Looking at mostly Christian, Muslim and secular children, researchers from a number of different universities around the world coordinated to compare the behavior and attitudes a group of around 1200 children from many backgrounds. The study conducted social experiments to determine how the children reacted in differing scenarios involving concepts like sharing, as well as their reactions to scenarios where bullying occurred. Included were four key tests:

Comment: For more on this topic see:


The Shamans of the world tell us: "We are not alone"

To disregard the problems facing the Earth and to proceed with business as usual in education would be a betrayal of trust. Our students want to know how to make a difference. They need hope. And it won't come if all we can offer is another scientific theory or technological fix. We must expand our vision to seek non-scientific alternatives. To make a difference, we must search for different understandings. Let us look to the wisdom of our ancestors. They believed that intelligence is not restricted to humans but is possessed by all creatures - plants as well as animals — and by the Earth itself.

They also believed in spirits. Human welfare was understood to depend on tapping into these wellsprings of wisdom, and all ancient societies (just like indigenous peoples today) had specialists skilled in communication with the natural world and with spirits. These people we now call shamans, and this article argues for the inclusion of shamanic practice in the educational curriculum. Shamanism gives working access to an alternative technique of acquiring knowledge. Although a pragmatic, time-tested system, it makes no claim to be science. Its strengths and limitations are different from those of the sciences and thus complement them. Being affective and subjective, shamanism offers another way of knowing.


Art does heal: scientists say appreciating creative works can fight off disease

Researchers from California University in Berkeley say studies show great nature and art boost the immune system

© Getty
Art does heal: scientists say appreciating creative works can fight off disease.
The healing power of art and nature could be real after scientists discovered they boost your immune system.

Seeing such spine-tingling wonders as the Grand Canyon and Sistine Chapel or listening to Schubert's Ave Maria can fight off disease, say scientists.

Great nature and art boost the immune system by lowering levels of chemicals that cause inflammation that can trigger diabetes, heart attacks and other illnesses.


Heart - Black

Traumatic life events are the biggest cause of anxiety & depression

It's estimated that 1 in 10 U.S. adults struggle with depression1 and another 40 million have anxiety. It's quite common, too, for someone with depression to also have anxiety. In fact, close to half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with anxiety.2

There's no doubt that both of these mental health conditions are at epidemic proportions, but the unanswered question remains why? Oftentimes you hear about depression or anxiety running in families, which leads to an assumption that your genetics may be to blame.

Another popular theory is that depression is due to some sort of 'chemical imbalance' in your brain (more on this later). But the truth is, in most cases no one really knows why some people are depressed or anxious while others are not, and most likely there are multiple factors at play.

Among them, and perhaps most important, could in fact be your life experiences, and particularly your experience of traumatic events.

People 2

Neuroplasticity: Can you really think yourself into a different person?

© shutterstock
For years she had tried to be the perfect wife and mother but now, divorced, with two sons, having gone through another break-up and in despair about her future, she felt as if she'd failed at it all, and she was tired of it. On 6 June 2007 Debbie Hampton, of Greensboro, North Carolina, took an overdose of more than 90 pills - a combination of ten different prescription drugs, some of which she'd stolen from a neighbor's bedside cabinet. That afternoon, she'd written a note on her computer: "I've screwed up this life so bad that there is no place here for me and nothing I can contribute." Then, in tears, she went upstairs, sat on her bed, swallowed her pills with some cheap Shiraz and put on a Dido CD to listen to as she died. As she lay down, she felt triumphant.

But then she woke up again. She'd been found, rushed to hospital, and saved. "I was mad," she says. "I'd messed it up. And, on top of that, I'd brain-damaged myself." After Debbie emerged from her one-week coma, her doctors gave her their diagnosis: encephalopathy. "That's just a general term which means the brain's not operating right," she says. She couldn't swallow or control her bladder, and her hands constantly shook. Much of the time, she couldn't understand what she was seeing. She could barely even speak. "All I could do was make sounds," she says. "It was like my mouth was full of marbles. It was shocking, because what I heard from my mouth didn't match what I heard in my head." After a stay in a rehabilitation centre, she began recovering slowly. But, a year in, she plateaued. "My speech was very slow and slurred. My memory and thinking was unreliable. I didn't have the energy to live a normal life. A good day for me was emptying the dishwasher."