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Practicing self-compassion boosts immunity and healing, top British researchers say
The Buddha's teachings seem to be on point.
- Practicing self-compassion is shown to reduce arousal and increase parasympathetic activation in a new study.
- Feeling comfortable in your skin leads to higher-order emotions, such as empathy and compassion.
- Buddha realized this millennia ago when prescribing compassion as the path to self-realization.
One major advancement of Buddhism was the implementation of a universal approach to self-realization. Until that point — and, for the most part, ever since — spiritual platforms have relied on making an enemy of "the other." Another group must stand in the way of your tribe's glory; it is up to your faith to dismantle their structures for you to ascend to imagined heights.
Siddhartha Gautama pushed all that to the side. Well aware of rampant tribalism across India, he often had to play local politics in his founding of the many sanghas being created. The practice itself, however, did not rely on external enemies. The great challenger is your own mind, a lesson he was taught, his adherents say, during a battle with the demon-god Mara one fateful evening (or week, depending on the reading of that particular mythology).
Indeed, recent research suggests that our minds play a critical role — as New Agey as it may sound — in how we perceive and, in turn, experience our physical realities.
Before we get into that, though, at the heart of Buddhism is the Four Noble Truths, which coincide with the researchers' findings. The first: all life is dukkha. The Pali word is most famously translated as "suffering," which fits into the mindset of other religious traditions well yet does not serve the Buddhist understanding perfectly. Suffering is often extrapolated and applied to the persecution of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, all of whom have been (and continue to be) oppressed due to political circumstances. Even Buddhists don't escape this fate.
It's not that "suffering" is wrong, per se, but we have to recognize the type of suffering Gautama implied. Other translations of the term include difficult, causing pain, distress, and my personal favorite, uneasy. You suffer because your mind is restless. To put it another way: you wish the world was one way, and when it isn't you feel discontent. The other three noble truths address how not to feel this way.
At the end of the four directives lies the eightfold path, all of which begin with "right": right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. In this sense, "right" is not opposed to "wrong" as much as it is a reminder that there are a variety of ways to perceive and act in accordance with reality. Many paths lead to suffering/uneasiness/discontent. Some do not. Understanding and implementing the latter is the path of Buddhism.
The Dalai Lama Talks About Compassion, Respect
The psychological emphasis of this philosophy is why Buddhism has been extensively studied by neuroscientists. While trial regarding the neurochemistry of faith exist, the literature is ripe with the neural emphasis of mindfulness, meditation, and Buddhist practices. Since no metaphysics is involved with secular Buddhism — plenty of sects believe in heavens and hells, but they are not of concern here — researchers home in on practical applications without getting weighed down in tribal differences.
While it takes a book (or many) to break down the entirety of the eightfold path, we'll keep it simple: the goal is practicing higher-order emotions, such as altruism, empathy, and compassion. If you are comfortable in your own skin, you afford such attitudes in your relationship to others. When you're confident and secure, you don't get bogged down by "the other." You act with empathy, compassion, and kindness.
Which brings us to a new study, conducted at the Universities of Exeter and Oxford and published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science on February 6. The research team assigned two short-term self-compassion exercises to 135 participants alongside control conditions that involved negative, neutral, and positive valences. The results: people feel better, physically and mentally, when they practice kindness.
Specifically, when practicing self-compassion, the volunteers experienced reduced arousal — heart rate and skin conductance, increased parasympathetic activation, heart rate variability, etc. Their nervous systems responded better when their mindset invoked kindness instead of excitability and agitation. It's an interesting finding, however "the underlying processes for this," as the researchers explicitly state, are still "not well understood."
On the screen, this all may sound quite basic. Applying it in the moment is an entirely different challenge, though. Indeed, this practice of self-compassion is a challenge well-suited for modernity regardless of spiritual belief.
In a quick review, we opened by discussing Buddhism as it's tailor-made for such a study, yet kindness can be applied regardless of religious affiliation. When volunteers were instructed to be self-critical, the reaction was physical: their heart rate increased and they sweated more, both indicators they were entering fight-flight-freeze mode. When they focused on self-compassion that switch was dialed down. Their threat response turned off.
Buddhist devotees meditate during a ceremony at the Dhammakaya Temple in Bangkok on February 22, 2016 on the occasion of Makha Bucha day. Photo credit: Nicolas Asfouri / AFP / Getty Images
Lead researcher, Dr. Anke Karl, says this study shows both physical and mental benefits to being kind:
"Our study is helping us understand the mechanism of how being kind to yourself when things go wrong could be beneficial in psychological treatments. By switching off our threat response, we boost our immune systems and give ourselves the best chance of healing. We hope future research can use our method to investigate this in people with mental health problems such as recurrent depression."
The separation of "mind" and "body" is a fundamental problem when trying to understand the holistic nature of our thoughts and actions. Every thought has a physical effect. Our nervous system is the conduit between our brain, the seat of the more ambiguous thought-creating machine we call "mind," and our organs, blood, and the rest of our flesh. We never just train our mind or just train our body.
Gautama understood this connection many millennia ago. He was an ardent yogi before leaving his instructors to found his own school. While he didn't have EKG or fMRI technology, he could certainly feel his heart rate increase at the outset of certain patterns of thought, as well as notice the cool wash of serotonin during meditation and compassion exercises.
This challenge is daunting when most communication occurs on a screen. It's hard not to take personally the thoughtless tweets and comments thrown around on a daily basis. Yet if you recognize the pain and suffering of those behind the screen, you can reframe your response in a more compassionate way. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but the important lesson is for your own mental and emotional sanity. Everything else, as Gautama realized the night Mara tossed a thousand temptations his way, is just noise.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
In more than a dozen countries as far apart as Portugal and Russia, 'Smith' is the most popular occupational surname
- 'Smith' is not just the most common surname in many English-speaking countries
- In local translations, it's also the most common occupational surname in a large part of Europe
- Ironically, Smiths are so ubiquitous today because smiths were so special a few centuries ago
Meet the Smiths, Millers, Priests and Imams - the most popular occupational surnames across Europe.
Image: Marcin Ciura<p>Although very few people are smiths by profession these days, there are millions of Smiths by surname the world over. It's the most popular surname in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, as well as the second most popular surname in Canada and the fifth most popular one in Ireland. And they're a thriving bunch, at least in the U.S.: the 2010 Census (1) counted 2,442,977 Americans called Smith, 2.8% more than in 2000.</p><p>Curiously, 'Smith' also is one of the most popular surnames across most of Europe –translated in the various local vernaculars, of course. This map shows the most common occupational surnames in each country. By colour-coding the professions, this map shows a remarkable pro-smith consistency across Europe – as well as some curious regional exceptions.</p>
‘Smith’ popular throughout Europe<p>'Smith', in all its variations, is the most popular occupational surname throughout Europe. Not just in the UK, but also in:</p> <ul><li>Belgium (<em>Desmet</em>) and Luxembourg, (<em>Schmitt</em>);</li> <li>France (<em>Lefebvre</em>), Italy (<em>Ferrari</em>) and Portugal (<em>Ferreira</em>);</li> <li>Slovenia (<em>Kovačič</em>), Croatia (<em>Kovačevič</em>), Hungary (<em>Kovács</em>), Slovakia (<em>Kováč</em>), Poland (<em>Kowalski</em>), Lithuania (<em>Kavaliauskas</em>), Latvia (<em>Kalējs</em>) and Belarus (<em>Kavalyov</em>);</li> <li>Estonia (<em>Sepp</em>); and</li> <li>Russia (<em>Kuznetsov</em>).</li></ul>
‘Miller’ on top in many Germanic-language countries<p>'Miller' is the most popular occupational surname in many Germanic-language countries, but also in Spain and Ukraine (perhaps because the grain in both countries is mainly in the plain):</p> <ul><li>There's <em>Müller</em> (in Germany and Switzerland), <em>M</em><em>ø</em><em>ller</em> (in Denmark and Norway) and <em>Möller</em> (Sweden);</li> <li><em>Molina</em> (in Spain – the map also shows the most popular surname in Catalonia/Catalan: <em>Ferrer</em>, i.e. 'Smith'); and</li> <li><em>Melnik</em> (in Ukraine).</li></ul>
Clergy surnames rule in the Balkans<p>Catholic clergy must remain celibate, so 'Priest' as a surname is rare to non-existent throughout Europe. Except in the Balkans, where Catholicism is largely absent. Here, the Orthodox and Islamic clergies have passed on the title from father to son, eventually as a surname, to popular effect. Orthodox clergy are addressed as <em>papa</em> or <em>pope</em> (which means 'father' – so the surname rather redundantly translates to 'father's son'). Islamic teachers or imams are known by the Turkish/Persian term <em>hodzha</em>. An overview:</p> <ul><li><em>Popov</em> (in Bulgaria), <em>Popovic</em> (in both Serbia and Montenegro), <em>Popovski</em> (in Macedonia);</li> <li><em>Popa</em> (in Romania); </li> <li><em>Papadopoulos</em> (in Greece); and</li> <li><em>Hodžić</em> (in Bosnia-Herzegovina), <em>Hoxha</em> (in both Kosovo and Albania).</li></ul>
Landowners and other professions<p>Austria and the Czech Republic have different national languages but are neighbours and share a lot of history. Could that explain why they have a similar most popular occupational surname, for 'landowner'?</p> <ul><li><em>Huber</em> (in Austria) and</li> <li><em>Dvořák</em> (in the Czech Republic).</li></ul> <p>Just four professions, that wraps up all but five countries on this map. Those five each have their very own most popular occupational surname:</p> <ul><li><em>Bakker</em> (in the Netherlands): 'Baker'</li> <li><em>Kinnunen</em> (in Finland): 'Skinner'</li> <li><em>Ceban</em> (in Moldova): 'Shepherd'</li> <li><em>Avci</em> (in Turkey): 'Hunter'</li> <li><em>Murphy</em> (in Ireland): 'Sea Warrior' </li></ul>
Even more Smiths<p>Judging from the popularity of these surnames, your generic European village of a few centuries ago really couldn't do without a smithy. It was a much more essential craft even than that of the miller (or the baker, who put the miller's flour to good use) – except in the Balkans, where spiritual sustenance apparently sated a greater need. On the outskirts of <em>Anytown, Europe</em> live the shepherd and the hunter, the skinner and the pirate.<br></p><p>A bit too simplistic? Perhaps not simplistic enough. This map could have been dominated by even more Smiths. As the original poster explains, he always picked the most frequent version of an occupational surname, even if multiple variants point to a more popular alternative. </p><p>In the Netherlands, for instance, people with the surnames <em>Smit, Smits, Smid, de Smit, Smet </em>and <em>Smith</em> collectively outnumber those with the surnames <em>Bakker, Bekker, de Bakker</em> and <em>Backer</em>. So, the Netherlands could be considered another win for 'Smith' – except that the variant <em>Bakker</em> is more frequent than any other single variant.</p><p>Same story in Germany: added up, there are more people named <em>Schmidt, Schmitt, Schmitz </em>and <em>Schmid</em> than <em>Müller</em>. Ditto for Spain: <em>Herrero, Herrera </em>and <em>Ferrer</em> together outnumber <em>Molina</em>. Also in Finland, where <em>Seppä</em>, <em>Seppälä</em> and <em>Seppänen</em> together have a higher count than <em>Kinnunen</em>. </p>
Smiths in other cultures<p>'Smith' was a crucial occupation in other cultures too, judging from the familiar ring it has in these languages:<br></p><ul><li><em></em><em>Demirci</em> (Turkish)</li><li><em>Hadad</em> (Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic)</li><li><em>Nalbani</em> (Albanian)</li><li><em>McGowan</em> (Gaelic)</li><li><em>Faber</em> (Latin)<span></span></li></ul>
Other most popular surnames<p>Take note, though: 'Smith' may be the most popular surname in in the Anglosphere, this map does not mean to show that its variants in French, Russian and other languages also are the most popular surnames in the countries marked grey. They are merely the most popular <em>occupational</em> surnames.<br></p><p>As this sample of most common ones for each country shows, surnames can refer to a host of other things. Personal qualities or physical attributes, for example:</p> <ul><li>Russia: <em>Smirnov</em> ('the quiet one')</li> <li>Turkey: <em>Yilmaz</em> ('unflinching')</li> <li>Hungary: <em>Nagy</em> ('big')</li> <li>Italy: <em>Rossi/Russo</em> ('red', in northern and southern Italy, respectively)</li></ul> <p>Another option: the origin of the name-bearer (be it a place or a person):</p> <ul><li>Sweden: <em>Andersson</em> ('son of Anders')</li> <li>Slovakia: <em>Horvath</em> ('Croat')</li> <li>Kosovo: <em>Krasniqi</em> (refers to the Krasniq tribe and their mountainous home region)</li> <li>Portugal: <em>Silva</em> ('woodland')</li> <li>Latvia: <em>Bērziņš</em> ('little birch tree')</li> <li>Estonia: <em>Tamm</em> ('oak')</li></ul> <p>But sometimes, even for the most popular ones, the exact origin of the surname is lost in time:</p> <ul><li>Spain: <em>Garcia</em> (originally Basque, possibly meaning 'young', 'bear' or 'young bear')</li> <li>Finland: <em>Korhonen</em> ('hard of hearing' or 'dim-witted'; 'village elder'; 'proud'; 'upright'). </li></ul>
Smith popularity theory<p>So why exactly is Smith – and not Miller, for example – the most popular surname in many English-speaking countries? The theory propounded by historian C.M. Matthews in <em>History Today</em> (July 1967) probably also holds for the other-language variants so popular throughout Europe:<br></p><blockquote>"The reason for (the) multiplicity (of the surname 'Smith') is not so much that metal-workers were numerous as that they were important and widespread. On the skill of the smith, both rich and poor depended for the most essential things of life, the tools of husbandry and the weapons of hunting and war. Every community in the land must have one, every castle, every manor; and so distinctive was his trade that he would seldom need another name".<em></em></blockquote><p>That does not mean all people with the surname have a forefather who forged iron into weapons and farm tools. Especially in North America, 'Smith' was adopted by many people precisely because it was already common – as a secret identity or to blend in, for example by natives, slaves and immigrants.</p>
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.