Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Power of Attention

About a year ago I was sent a book "Faith and the Placebo Effect" by its author, Lolette Kuby. She had taken an interest in some of my online posts in relation to a new book she's writing. I finished reading it in the last few weeks. I now wish I'd moved it up my reading list as it was fascinating.

The basic message of the book is that we have the power to heal ourselves using our belief system - our thoughts. She gives numerous examples of how your attitudes and expectations influence your body's repair mechanisms, even if you are not actually receiving any "conventional" medical treatment. A professor of literature, rather than a medical author, her authority for writing was the positive effect she had had on herself by invoking her own placebo response to breast cancer through positive thinking.

This got me thinking about how the Alexander Technique produces its peripheral effect of improved physical well-being purely by employing conscious inhibition and direction to the use of the self.

Well, we know that "use affects functioning" or in other words - if you use your body with undue tension you can cause physical problems. Use it well and you can improve your health and well-being. We also know that the body is a "psycho-physical mechanism" - in effect, what you think affects the way your body functions. But, there is another thing to take into consideration: it depends where you direct your attention.

I did some further research on the placebo effect and came across David Hamilton, a former research scientist working for a pharmaceutical company. In the following lecture, he explains how a positive attitude, properly directed can cause beneficial effects at a cellular level and can even affect our DNA.

Dr. David Hamilton: The Placebo Effect (5 of 9)

If you have time I recommend that you watch all 9 of the videos in this series.

In an AT lesson our attention is drawn to areas of undue tension and poor use. We are encouraged to think 'up' and to release the tension. We change the way we 'hold' ourselves in the context of the whole self. In 'directing' the head forward and up, lengthening the spine, widening the upper part of the arms and sending our knees forward and away, we are systematically putting our attention in the areas that Alexander realised were key to good use and functioning.

Bearing in mind Dr. Hamilton's revelations about the effects this can have on us at the most fundamental level of our functioning, it's hardly surprising that after say 6 months of studying AT, many pupils are transformed beyond mere postural improvement.


  1. Perhaps Monsieur Lamarck was on to something after all.

  2. I think I understand that comment David?

    My limited understanding of "Lamarckism" is that it refers to passing on (presumably through DNA) characteristics of the "parent" which were the result of their lifetime experience, rather than anything "hard-wired" into their genetic code.

    I also think Dr. Hamilton was saying that the response of our DNA to our current state of being is influenced by how we direct our thoughts.

    if A=B and B=C then A=C...

    So, if we affect our DNA by our thoughts then we pass-on DNA that is modified by our life experience.

    I think YOU could write a blog post on that!
    I look forward to reading it :-)

  3. I’m afraid that incompetent two-finger keyboardists like me are not likely to write blogs, or anything else for that matter. However I do find your blog is a very good read and superbly presented and thought provoking, but as you as know I tend to take a sceptical view of ideas unless they supported by rigorous adherence to the scientific method.

    Lamarck’s theory of ‘the inheritance of acquired characteristics’ was of course blown out of the water by Darwinian evolution but if it were true that DNA could be changed by thought processes or bodily activities it might be vindicated, but, for what it’s worth. I would think that very unlikely. The modern discipline of Epigenetics apparently demonstrates changes in gene expression caused by environmental conditions but not changes in DNA itself.

    I’ve looked up Dr Hamilton in Google, but all I can find are hundreds of entries promoting his books and videos with no peer reviews. I wonder if his assertions have been confirmed by other researchers. It’s very easy for people, including scientists, to get carried away with their own ideas.

    Of course we all know that the placebo effect is both real and a mysterious process, and that mind and body interact (AT being a good demonstration of this), but then they are both part of the same organism.

    I would recommend that anyone interested in science and biology read ‘On the Origin of Species’ to see the way Darwin advanced his ideas, and positively invited readers to find flaws in his theory.

    Well there you are, from the depths of my ignorance I have written quite a lot by my standards. Must have a pint to cool my brain.

  4. In his 9-part video lecture on Youtube he points at scientific experiments that show evidence of profound physical changes at the cellular level that are the result of thought processes.

    In particular, the modern "neuro-plasticity" model of brain function shows us to be much more adaptable to how we think in response to the demands placed on us by our environment than we ever thought likely in the past.

    As to peer review, I can't point to anything right now but then again, I'm a relative newcomer to the field of research into the placebo effect. Lolette Kuby points out in her book that it is unlikely that serious money will ever be invested into establishing exactly how the placebo effect works and improved methods of harnessing it - merely because no-one will ever be able to patent the placebo effect!

    I agree with the sentiment that we should be sceptical about all extraordinary claims. They require extraordinary proof that must be repeatable and properly peer reviewed. Having said that, it won't stop me speculating about such remarkable findings prior to due process having been served ;-)