The Elephant in the Room


In my last post, I used the story of Chicken Licken to look at how fear is a hard-wired, brainstem instinct that not only has the ability to be involuntary and contagious, but can also rob us of our ability to think logically. Fear is explored a little further here, as are the effect of emotions on immune response. (At the end of this article, you will find links to yoga practices and information aimed at calming fear and building immunity.)

In this time of pandemic, fear is more than understandable. The death-toll is undeniably concerning. A huge percentage of the world's population have been asked by their governments (with echoes of an old-testament 'passover' story) to retreat to the safety of their homes. Shops and hospitals and a few services are deemed essential, while everything else must close. Businesses and livelihoods are obliterated, or at best, left hanging in a precarious state of suspended animation.

Our primal brain loves the "comfort of everyday routines, the security of the familiar, and the tranquillity of repetition,"* so brainstem-derived fears are severely unnerved by the sweeping and sudden changes brought to daily life. Like the father in the animated movie The Croods these innate survival mechanisms are, however, peculiarly sated by retreating neurotically to the safety of the 'cave'. Staying at home to 'flatten the curve' and stop the hospitals from being overwhelmed by an unmanageable surge of critically ill patients, is a measure many of us are more than happy to adopt. Cocooning with my beautiful family in a home with food, income and running water in a country that has a functioning health system is a privilege not available to everyone. I am thankful for my blessings.

Listening to the radio or watching the television however, a concerning 'sitting duck' narrative is emerging. Commentators can't imagine life getting back to normal until perhaps a vaccine or similar medical 'silver bullet' is developed. In the meantime, social distancing and hand washing are the only tools we seem to have available to fight the invisible threat of this terrifying virus (masks are not as yet endorsed by the WHO or the Irish authorities). An OCD-type compulsion to wash everything might give us back a sense of control in this time of uncertainty, but pretty soon we must realise how much we resemble the little kids in this image doing the rounds on social media at the minute. The picture paints a thousand fearful, disempowering words.

There's a gigantic elephant in this impeccably disinfected room however. Could it be that feelings of helplessness are blinding us to the fact we wouldn't have gotten to this stage of our evolution if we didn't have an amazingly resilient, responsive, adaptive, inborn immune system? Our immunity is something we can each take responsibility for, and creating the right conditions for health through good nutrition, lifestyle and mental health self-care, can gives us a lot more agency in this scenario than perhaps we realise.

Yoga has a rounded worldview. Through the lens of yoga our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects are understood to constitute an integrated whole. (In fact, the word yoga roughly translates as 'to make whole.') In this holistic system it is entirely normal to expect practices that soothe the nervous system to have a positive effect on immunity, mood and the physical body. In the scientific worldview however there have long been divisions drawn, with mind and body habitually understood as entirely separated. (Pathologies for example, are even treated in separate psychiatric and medical hospitals). The theoretical divisions between mind and body are rich pickings for a future post (or ten), but for now, let me get back to the elephant metaphor. This time, the elephant is not a giant, obvious, yet inexplicably unacknowledged presence in a metaphorical room. This time, it's being examined in minute detail.

A group of blind men are introduced to the elephant as an unknown entity and asked to describe it. Each man tackles a different part and sets about meticulous observations. Once they've made their assessments, they come together to share their findings. A bitter row ensues, since each is entirely convinced as to the verity of their individual findings. Each man's experience was so disparate from their colleagues' they couldn't reconcilable the others' conclusions. The man who examined a leg is convinced it is a tree truck he has found. The man who inspected an ear describes it as a fan. The tail is thought to be a rope; the body is like a wall; the tusks are like spears, the trunk like a hose. None could countenance or even imagine the whole truth that was the elephant.

In almost every area of life, ours is a culture of experts. The sciences and medicine are long ago divided into separate fields allowing each area to be researched microscopically. We have immunology, endocrinology, psychology, neurology, cardiology and every other 'ology' that could be named. Despite the impressive expertise available in each separate field, like the men examining the elephant, the big picture is sometimes hard to comprehend. Many invisible barriers need to be overcome before experts can imagine a way to stay true to their own findings while simultaneously allowing room for the possibility of another parallel truth. Since science gains knowledge through dissection and meticulous examination, it takes a brave scientific soul to ambitiously search for holism.

One of my favourite trailblazing scientists in is the late, great Candace Pert. Her work led her towards a surprising place where barriers between different truths become thinner. She recounts a repetitive dream about a giant gulf separating the old medicine from the new medicine. "There's a guy on the other side who is telling me to jump," she told colleagues, "and I'm scared to jump." But jump she did and her work is ground-breaking. It makes a significant contribution to the burgeoning interdisciplinary branch of learning called 'psychoneuroimmunology.' The field is creating a holistic environment where it no longer seems implausible to claim that calming fear and building positivity could enhance immunity and better one's chances to fight the virus that currently has us all hiding in our caves.

One of her major discoveries was molecules called neuropeptides and their receptors. They are game changing little chains of amino acids. They force nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way medicine conceives of the mind and body. In a talk she gave in 1985 she said:
"Let me summarize the basic idea I have been developing. My argument is that the three classic disciplines of neuroscience, endocrinology, and immunology, with their various organs - the brain [...] the glands, and the immune system [...] These three areas are actually joined to each other in a bidirectional network of communication, and the information carriers are the neuropeptides."
In fact, continuing research uncovers even more molecules that steadily provide even more evidence of cross-system communication at multiple biological levels.

For the sake of brevity, let's stick with neuropeptides. Pert, with her colleague/husband went on to develop a break-through treatment called Peptide T, which proved effective against the AIDS virus. (It features in the movie The Dallas Buyers Club.) Not only were these neuropeptides breaking down interdisciplinary barriers, and innovating at a time of great need, they were also bringing 'hard science' into the realm of psychology. Incredibly, these same molecules were also shown to be responsible for the manifestation of emotions.

Pert explains the significance of this best herself; "some scientists might describe this idea as outrageous. It is not [...] part of the established wisdom. Indeed, coming from a tradition where the textbooks do not even contain the word "emotions" in the index, it was not without a little trepidation that we dared to start talking about the biochemical substrate of emotions." The discovery of these molecules of emotion finally allowed exciting new conversations to happen. Yoga, with its centuries-old belief in the transformational power of positive emotions, can now talk with a scientific basis about harnessing positivity to boost immune system response.

The science is now there to support such claims. See for example the work of Sheldon Cohen, who looked at how the risk of catching a cold could be linked to emotions. He exposed 300 volunteers to the virus and monitored their emotional state before and after the exposure. He concluded that "People who express more positive emotions are less susceptible to upper respiratory tract infections than people with a negative emotional style." In fact, those who reported the least positive emotional outlook were three times more likely to catch a cold that those who reported the highest positivity.

A study from 1993 found that stress decreased the body's production of key immune cells (incl. helper T cells, suppressor T cells, cytotoxic T cells, B cells, and natural killer cells). A 1998 study similarly found that "Optimists had more helper T cells, an essential immune-regulatory cell that mediates immune reactions to infection." As yogis will probably know, Fish Pose/Matsyasana physically stimulates the thymus gland, which produces these T Cells. It is heartening to know that adding an encouraging intention and its attendant emotions to your pose, will possibly also help this asana earn its reputation as 'The Destroyer of Disease.' (See yoga links below.)

The conventional 'antibody only' model of immunity has an interesting cause for reflection in the research of Richard Davidson. He used the flu vaccine to establish if antibody production (often imagined as uniform and universal through this 'magic bullet' style intervention), is in fact, impacted by factors as scientifically whimsical as mood. To establish the psychological terrain of his subjects he used brain scans to investigate the volunteers' reaction to painful and positive memories. 6 months after the inoculation, he found that the most positive thinkers had 50% more antibodies than the most negative thinkers. He concluded "It's absolutely likely that positive emotions can improve your immune function. People with negative emotional styles would be more likely to develop the flu." If positivity can reliably enhance antibody production, those positive affirmations you are coaxed through at a yoga class, might now begin to seem a little less fruity.

In this time of collective pause, we now have an opportunity to change focus from fearfully avoiding disease towards positively nurturing health. What changes might happen, if we could shift gear from an attitude of distrust of our health towards an attitude of cultivating optimism to support the innate intelligence of the body/mind we've been blessed with? At the very least, engaging in practices such as yoga that help maintain our immune and nervous systems might allow us to change the narrative.

In the next post I will use 'Polyvagal Theory' to look at the 'gears' we have available in our nervous system to react to adversity. (Warning to those of you who have attended my yoga classes; there will be talk of my favourite subject, the Vagus Nerve.) Understanding how these gears work is helpful for building a roadmap to the happiness (or to give it a fancier name - "socially engaged homeostasis") that is our optimum health state.

In the meantime, here are some links to yoga practices and information relevant to the ideas discussed.

Fish Pose - Matsyasana - Destroyer of Disease (Article) Contraindications listed

Fish Pose - Matsyasana -  (Video) Restorative version from 3.50 mins

Cobra Pose (also stimulates the Thymus gland) - Yoga with Adriene

Legs up the Wall - Yoga with Adriene (soothes the nervous system+drains lymph=boosts immunity)

Meditation / Savasana Music - Solfeggio frequency to boost immunity

Candace Pert - Legacy Talk by her husband and collegue Dr. Michael Ruff

* Taken from the film script V from Vendetta