Our bodies are chronically in "threat mode"—but being kind recalibrates our nervous system

Being kind to others positively impacts your physical and mental health, according to this groundbreaking research by Stanford professor Dr. James Doty.

kind woman giving money to homeless man

Kindness is good for our health, and here's why...

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  • The default "rest mode" of our brains is often taken over by a "threat mode" setting because of our stressful, "on-the-go" lifestyles. When we are chronically in threat mode, this leaves us with less capacity for compassion.
  • Showing compassion or acting kind to others can actually change your physiology, taking you out of threat mode and putting you back into your natural "rest and digest" mode.
  • Research by a well-known Stanford professor Dr. James Doty has shown that acts of kindness or compassion that put us back into our "rest mode" can have lasting positive impacts on our physical and mental health.

Kindness is a virtue that is admired and applauded, in most cases. But did you know that being kind can also be good for your health? In fact, being compassionate to others can actually reset our consistently stressed systems back into our default "rest mode", causing all kinds of positive effects to our overall health.

Our nervous system was never meant to be in "threat mode" all the time

confused brain with rough lines happy brain with smooth lines

Living in "threat mode" isn't healthy for our minds or our bodies.

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According to Dr. James Doty, Stanford professor and author of Into the Magic Shop: A Neurosurgeon's Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and Secrets of the Heart, the nervous system doesn't function optimally if it's in threat mode all the time. And yet, our adrenaline-fueled, "on-the-go" lifestyles have us operating mainly in threat mode, which can be one of the reasons we contract a variety of different illnesses.

Our bodies release inflammatory proteins in response to stress. Because of this release, our nervous system shows a decrease in the capabilities of our immune system, which is what responds to threats such as germs or bacteria that cause illnesses.

The constant over-stimulation of our nervous systems caused by our fast-paced way of living also makes us much more inclined to jump to (often judgmental) conclusions about other people. This kind of quick judgment dulls our own ability to act out of compassion for others. That, in turn, leaves us operating in a constant threat mode, which has negative long-term effects on our health.

Kindness and compassion reset us into "rest mode", starting in the nervous system

The ability to feel and act out of compassion for others can have a huge effect on your overall health.

Dr. Doty explains it best in this Uplift article:

"When someone acts with compassionate intentions, this has a huge, huge positive effect on their physiology. It takes them out of threat mode and puts them into the rest and digest mode. What happens when that occurs is it changes how they respond to events."

According to Dr. Doty, instead of a quick response that is often based on fear, anxiety or stress, our response time is slower and more deliberate, which tends to result in more effective, more creative and more compassionate actions. We are able to change the responses we have to events because we are allowing the executive control area of our brain to function at the highest level.

Several studies at Emory University have demonstrated this and given results that support the idea that regular compassionate acts or compassion-based meditation practices can reduce negative neuroendocrine interactions in our brains (which are the interactions between our nervous system and the endocrine system).

The sympathetic nervous system vs the parasympathetic nervous system

smiling woman light up brain illustration

The benefits from being kind can help us live healthier, happier lives.

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When we switch to our parasympathetic nervous system (which we instinctively do when we act out of compassion), we flip out of the sympathetic nervous system that most of us live in due to our busy lifestyles.

When this switch happens, our heart rate variability increases, which causes a boost in our immune system. This immune system boost can help us fight off infections or illnesses.

Now, let's talk about telomeres. To visualize them, you can imagine small caps that protect the ends of chromosomes during cell division. Telomeres get shorter each time a chromosome copies itself during cell division, which happens constantly. Eventually, telomeres get too short to do their job of protecting the genetic information stored in the chromosomes, which causes the cells to eventually stop replicating—a process known as cell death. This is how telomeres act as an aging clock in every cell we have; the faster your telomeres shorten, the more advanced the aging process becomes.

Research by Dr. Doty has shown that one of the long-term positive effects of living in our parasympathetic nervous system (referred to as our "resting" mode) is that our telomeres actually increase in length.

In theory, over time, being kind and compassionate can actually slow down the aging process in some of the cells of our body.

Just as showing compassion can recalibrate our nervous systems out of threat mode and back into resting mode, experiencing compassion or kindness from others also has a positive impact on our systems. Research by Stony Brook University professor Stephanie Brown has proven that experiencing compassion can lead to tremendous improvements in our mental and physical well-being, as well.

Be kind. It's good for your health.

This ground-breaking research allow us to understand the benefits that kind human interactions can have on the health of our minds and bodies.

The positive ripple effect that comes from being kind doesn't just impact our health, but it can also impact our interactions with others and set off a positive chain reaction with far-reaching benefits across entire communities. Resetting our own systems into resting mode by taking ourselves out of threat mode can allow us to process things more clearly and make better choices.

In a world where you can be pretty much anything, be kind. It's good for your health.


This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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