Michelangelo was a religious man, but he was also a scientist. He must have been very conflicted about painting a brain and brainstem in God's head and neck, especially in the Sistine Chapel. After all, he was commissioned by the Church, which did not take too kindly to literal images on its murals.
Wherever you are reading this, take a moment now and notice your body: Are your legs crossed? Is your posture straight or are you slouching? Are you slightly warm or cold? Now notice your surroundings: Is your body in a serene or noxious environment? Is it being transported in a moving vehicle, rocking slightly from side to side? If you could precisely answer any of those questions, congratulations, you are conscious. How consciousness arises from, as the great neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran mused, "a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm" is one of science's deepest enigmas.
What’s your favourite song? Everyone has one. Or maybe, if you’re like me, you have about twenty. Those particular songs, our desert island discs, are powerful. They connect with us at a deep level and can arouse a variety of emotions: nostalgia, empowerment, wistfulness, sadness, ecstasy, maybe even a combination of these. But the potential of music – and particularly our favourite music, goes further than this. The forthcoming documentary ‘Alive Inside’, currently doing the rounds of the film festivals, powerfully illustrates the emancipatory potential of music which has largely gone unnoticed until now. For older people suffering the confusion and loneliness of dementia, music can bring them out of their isolation and help them re-engage with the outside world.
Test subjects taking part in an 8-week program of mindfulness meditation showed results that astonished even the most experienced neuroscientists at Harvard University. The study was led by a Harvard-affiliated team of researchers based at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the team’s MRI scans documented for the very first time in medical history how meditation produced massive changes inside the brain’s gray matter. “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”
Throughout the years, I've learned there are certain traits and habits chronically unhappy people seem to have mastered. But before diving in with you, let me preface this and say: we all have bad days, even weeks when we fall down in all seven areas...