by Sophia Ruan Gushee
Podcast composer: Chris Robertson
Dr. Esther Sternberg served for 26 years in the National Institutes of Health Intramural Research Program as Senior Scientist and Section Chief of Neuroendocrine Immunology and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health.
She has too many other impressive accomplishments to list here. But, currently, she holds the Inaugural Andrew Weil Chair for Research in Integrative Medicine and is Research Director for the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona at Tucson.
I learned of Dr. Sternberg through her must-read book, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being, which was recognized by the President of the American Institute of Architects as an inspiration for launching its Design and Health Initiative.
Dr. Sternberg's book, Healing Spaces, inspired me to rethink home as an opportunity to decrease stress and support our immune systems and feel-good hormones.
As you listen to our conversation, you'll learn about key design features to consider to transform your home into an environment that can support your health and wellbeing.
Below is a transcript for the podcast. However, text has been edited and paraphrased to become more reader-friendly.
Podcast Conversation between Sophia and Esther Sternberg, MD
Gushee: Sophia talks about her apartment renovation, the stress it caused, and the healing and relaxation that followed after she could reclaim her space...
Sternberg: I'll start by telling you a story... I was researching how we perceive everything around us—whether it's our home, or work space, or our schools, or the outdoors—through all our senses: What we see, what we hear, what we smell, what we touch, what we taste, what we do in a space all effect our emotions and how we heal.
In my own life, I was going through a renovation too.
I had moved into a new house, and I was renovating the deck, which was falling apart: the contractor said the only thing you should put on top of this deck is air.
So I redesigned the deck. And only when I was finished did I realize that I had redesigned my mother's deck. I wasn't consciously aware of it. [Dr. Sternberg explains further in the podcast.]
The story illustrates that we're often not consciously aware of how our physical space—and the place around us, our homes—affect our emotions, how they tap into memories—deep deep memories of childhood, for example.
When I saw this house, I immediately wanted to buy it.
This was in Washington DC, and I didn't know why it spoke to me.
Only after I redesigned the deck did I realize it had elements of my mother's home—of the home where I grew up in—and I think that most people, if you're not an architect, you're not consciously aware of how that physical environment impacts your memories, your emotions, and then ultimately healing.
There is a connection between the brain and the immune system. This was the work that I've been doing—for forty-some years—proving that there really is a connection between the brain and the immune system. And that when that connection is intact, you have health; and when you break that connection, you have disease.
In my first book, which was published about ten years before Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being, I talked about that piece of the mind-body connection. It's called The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions.
When I started in this field, there was a lot of pushback from the from the powers that be, in the scientific and medical community, who said that the brain and the immune system don't talk to each other, that was heresy.
I, and a small group of researchers, proved that there really is a connection between the brain and the immune system.
In The Balance Within, my first book, the science connecting health and emotions, I described the research that was done to prove how the brain and the immune system talk to each other, which shows how stress can make you sick, how believing can make you well, and that led to the next book Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being that really takes those concepts out into the physical world, and how all those different elements of the physical world can impact your emotions, and, in turn, your ability to heal.
When you're stressed, you release chemicals—nerve chemicals—from neuron endings, hormones from the brain and the adrenal glands. Ultimately, those hormones and nerve chemicals—cortisol, adrenaline, adrenaline-like nerve chemicals—all cause the feelings that you have inside when you feel stressed: your heart beating fast, you're anxious, you're sweating, you want to run to the bathroom—that's all caused by that physiological stress response.
Those same chemicals—those same hormones—affect the immune system and tamp down the immune system's ability to do its job: to fight infections, to fight cancer, to help wound healing.
People who are chronically stressed will have more severe and more frequent viral infections. If you go out to get a flu shot, if you're chronically stressed—for example, a caregiver of an Alzheimer's patient—then you're less likely to have a good take-rate of the vaccine. Because your immune system can't mount that response. If you have a wound—if you have surgery—there's poor wound healing. It can take two weeks longer in a chronically stressed person than somebody who's not stressed.
It speeds chromosomal aging. People who are chronically stressed, their chromosomes can look 10 to 17 years older than your chronological age which is you know a big difference. And the cancer growth it can speed—chronic stress through these hormones and nerve chemicals—can speed cancer growth.
So, just to emphasize, stress does not cause all these conditions. Stress makes them worse, or speeds them up through all these nerve chemicals and stress hormones.
So to the extent that the environment can also stress you, it can contribute to making you sick. And to the extent that we can control our environment, we can design the environment to optimize health, to reduce stress, to actually enhance the positive and, just what you were saying, that the kinds of things around you—that the natural stone, the plants, natural plants, views of nature—are very important in reducing stress and optimizing those positive emotions, which in turn release positive hormones and nerve chemicals in the brain, in the reward pathways of the brain—dopamine, opiates that the endogenous brain creates, these endorphins—so all these feel-good hormones and nerve chemicals are released when you're looking at a beautiful view, or you're in nature, or you're breathing deeply. And that helps to reduce your stress response.
Gushee: I would love to pause and talk about—that even images of nature—can be healing. That was that was interesting and surprising. It's exciting because not everyone can get a view of nature but...
Sternberg: Absolutely. Of course, it's better to be in nature because you have all of your senses: you can be inhaling the wonderful fragrance of the blossoms, or the trees, or the wet grass after a rain.
Or here in Tucson, we smell the creosote bushes after a rain, which is a very sweet smell.
Being in nature is the best. But if you can't be in nature, yes, absolutely, views of nature can certainly turn on those positive responses in the brain.
In my PBS television special, called "The Science of Healing," we visited a lot of different labs around the country that are researching these different questions. It was based on my own story of going through a period of stress, getting arthritis, and then healing. In the process of doing this television show, I was the guinea pig.
I had my brain scanned in an MRI: and while I was looking at either beautiful images of nature, or ugly smokestacks, or junkyards, and so on...Irving Biederman at the University of Southern California does this work.
What he's found is that when you look at a beautiful view—and this is across cultures, across ages, gender, socioeconomic status whatever—people who look at a beautiful view have a positive reaction. The preferred views are views of nature. And the part of the brain that specializes in beautiful views is called the parahippocampal cortex. It's a part of the brain that's sort of underneath your brain.
When you look at the view, it goes to your eyes. It goes to the back of your brain through the optic nerve, through the optical cortex, and then it goes through back to the front of the brain that is rich in endorphins.
Irving Biederman's theory is that the reason we all want to look at a beautiful view, the reason we all feel better when we look at a beautiful view, is because you're giving yourself a shot of those feel-good endorphins when you look at the view. We don't know if that's the true explanation, but it makes a lot of sense to me.
Gushee: Would you also talk about fractals? I thought that was interesting. It might be worth talking about because, if you're thinking about interior design, you may want to incorporate this idea.
Sternberg: Yeah, that's true.
So fractals are repeating geometries at every scale that occur in nature. And they occur in other places.
But, think of: veins on the leaf, leaves on a branch, leaves on a twig, twigs on a branch, branches on a tree. All those are similar geometries, but at increasing scales. It's the same as snowflakes. The same as trees in a forest. So they're complex geometry patterns that we see over and over, again and again.
We don't know why people like to look at these fractals, but people find them calming.
There was a study done by Japanese scientists in the Ryōan-ji 's temple in Kyoto, where there was a beautiful temple garden with rocks arranged in a certain way in the 14th-century.
The monks who arranged this garden knew that there was one particular spot where you could stand and look at this rock garden and feel calm.
The scientists—this was probably about 10 years ago—they did a study where they analyzed the geometries, using computer algorithms. They found that the spot where the monks in the 14th-century had said is the best place to stand is exactly where the fractal geometries met, where there was harmony.
And if they rearranged the rocks in a computer image, they lost that harmony. So, again, we don't know why that is, but people like to look at fractals.
That speaks to, for example, Katsushika Hokusai's painting, "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" from the early 1800s," where there's a big wave with lots of little foaming little curlicues; and people in a rowboat, and other people in a rowboat. That kind of repeating pattern seems to be calming.
So, yes, if you can put those kinds of patterns in your home, that can help. You don't want to go overboard, because then it's not calming anymore.
But, again, actual plants...if you can't be in nature, if you could put plants... I see behind you, you have some plants. That will help.
There are some studies that show that a minimum of three plants—up to 37 plants—can be calming. That's important too.
Gushee: In your book, you talk about mazes and labyrinths. When I read your sections in the book about labyrinths and walking meditations, I thought, This is a great idea for carpets, like for a play room. It could be really beautiful and playful, with light colors.
Sternberg: [laughs] Wow, that's a great idea! I don't think anybody has ever said that to me.
You can go online, and you can find labyrinths near you. They're all over the country. They're all over the world, actually.
So what is a labyrinth?
It is a pattern on the floor that looks like a circle. It looks a little bit like a rose. And there's one spot where you enter, and you walk around it slowly until you get to the middle. And then you have to walk out again.
But it's calming because, really, it's a walking meditation. You don't have to think about where you go.
On the other hand, a maze is stressful. And why is that?
You have to make decisions. The best description of a maze is in chapter 4 of Harry Potter's chapter, Goblet's of Fire.
My editor, when I was writing my book, said you've got to put this in there, you have to put something that young people will relate to. And I said that I hadn't read Harry Potter, and she said, Well you've got to read this particular book. It is the best description of a maze, which I think might have been taken from the maze outside of the King Henry VIII Hampton Court Palace outside of London, which was built in the 1500s.
It's a very high hedge—maybe eight ten feet high—so you can't see over the edge. It's thick so the sounds are muffled.
As you enter the maze, you have to find your way through it. And you come to decision points, and you don't know, Should I go right? Should I go left?
And then if it's getting dark, you get anxious.
In the Harry Potter case, he was worried that there are monsters lurking behind every turn. This is a very stressful thing. You don't have feedback from your different senses as to where to go, so that's a maze. And that's stressful.
In fact, mazes have been used in the pharmaceutical industry for maybe a hundred years to test the effect of anti-anxiety drugs. Because if an animal in a maze gets anxious, and if the drug calms them, then you know that it's working. That's one standard animal test in the pharmaceutical industry. So mazes are stressful.
Labyrinths, on the other hand, are calming because you don't have to think about where you're going. You just walk. And it slows you down because you're following this pattern. And it helps you to breathe deeply and slowly. So it gets you into a quiet rhythm.
And that's calming. And it is a walking meditation.
The classic labyrinth that is used across the world is based on the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral just outside of Paris. It was built by the monks, about the 13th-century. And they used it as a walking prayerful meditation.
It's stone-laden in the floor of the Cathedral and is extremely well preserved because most of the time the pews are placed over the stones. They only remove the pews so that you can actually walk this labyrinth, I think, every once a month or once a week something like that.
So the labyrinths that are usually used in public spaces can either copy that labyrinth pattern in stone or brick. Or if you don't have the ability to do that, so, for example, at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, they have the labyrinth printed on a large canvas and you roll it out, they roll it out every Tuesday night. And they have a choir or harpist, and it's the most wonderful experience at the National Cathedral, if you're ever in Washington DC at the National Cathedral.
I recommend that you do this one evening. It's just the most calming, soothing experience.
The military has actually adopted this in their national intrepid centers of excellence hospitals around the country for wounded warriors with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. The patients and their families and even the staff really get a lot of relaxation and calm out of walking these labyrinths.
Gushee: I think New York City needs a lot more these labyrinths.
Sternberg: [Laughs...] Well, your idea of putting it in the playroom is a great idea. We should patent it and put them in play rooms.
Gushee: So we talked about what we see, and not yet...
Sternberg: I'll go back to my own story. When I got sick, and I went through a period of extreme stress with my mother dying of breast cancer... this was about 20-some years ago.
I was in Washington DC, and she was in Montreal. I was a long-distance caregiver.
During that period, I developed inflammatory arthritis—not rheumatoid arthritis—but my joints flared and I had a lot of pain, and I had trouble walking, and I would fall and lose my balance.
I had knee biopsies and all kinds of studies. I was going to go into hospital to get an experimental drug for arthritis.
And then my mother died.
And I felt like I can't deal with hospitals anymore. I'm just gonna leave it alone, and do something later.
And that's also exactly when I moved into that new house in Washington DC. So I had some really major stressors in my life. Because moving is a big stressor as well and I was sitting at the computer on my deck, and my neighbors next door saw me on the deck. They came over and they rang the doorbell. They're Greek, and they brought over Greek food to welcome me to the neighborhood.
They saw me writing and they said, Are you a writer?
I said, No, I don't know I don't think of myself as a writer.
And I said, Why did you ask?
They said, Oh, because we've always wanted a writer to stay at our cottage in Crete.
I said, I'm a writer.
And I went with them to Crete.
They had this cottage in a tiny village on the South coast of Crete. It had maybe five or six streets. And you couldn't drive in it. You have to leave your car at the edge of the village.
And I stayed there, and gradually began to exercise more, swim in the Mediterranean every day. I was eating healthy Greek food, a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, seafood, and fresh vegetables.
When I felt a little more stable, I began to walk to the top of the little hill above the village where there was the ruins of a great temple to the Greek god of healing Asclepius.
On top of the temple, there were the ruins of a Byzantine church. On the top of that, there was a tiny little Greek chapel with icons and candles, and I would sit there for hours. And just look out at the Mediterranean, the beautiful blue Mediterranean, and the white stucco walls, and the red fuchsia Bougainvillea, and listen to the rich stretch of the gardener across the way, the sheep, and the goats, and the ocean, and I didn't realize at the time that was meditation. That was mindfulness meditation.
And I would inhale the wonderful fragrance of the orange blossoms, the Jasmine—they had just this wonderful fragrance.
It just was so calming. Again, I didn't realize at that time what it was that made me feel calm. But it was all of those things: what I heard, what I smelled, the exercise, climbing up the hill, and just being in the moment.
When I came back home, and I sat on my deck, and I said to myself, You know, I can't be in Greece all the time, but I can recreate some of this here.
So I, on purpose, put Jasmine trees—little Jasmine bushes—and fragrant plants, herbs that had the fragrance, that reminded me of Greece. And then I thought deeper into my memory, Why is this so calming? Why is the smell of orange blossoms so calming to me? And it reminded me that my mother. Her garden had mock orange bushes in Montreal, where I grew up, whose white blossom smelled very much like citrus trees.
I think that was the deep memory that was brought back to me.
But there were layers of memories.
After I came back from Greece, that fragrance of the Jasmine reminded me of the lemon blossoms and orange blossoms in Crete.
Now that I live in Tucson Arizona. I just love the smell of the orange blossoms. It's just amazing.
Gushee: It's interesting...it seems like there's this pattern of: What are the triggers of good memories and feel-good hormones, right?
Sternberg: Yes, absolutely.
Gushee: The triggers can be visual, or through smell.
Sternberg: You got it. Absolutely, absolutely. And that's how memory works. There are subtle triggers, which are through any one of your senses.
You know, Proust, the French writer of the 19th-century, wrote about the ‘Madeleine and the Tea’ that he tasted.
When he was sick, he had this wonderful feeling that came over him, this warm feeling. The first 40 pages of Remembrance of Things Past are describing him eating this madeleine and tea, so some people find it a little bit long to talk about, but, really, it's a perfect description of the neuroscience of how memory works.
He had the warm feeling as soon as he tasted the cookie and drank the tea, but he couldn't place why did he have that feeling. It took him 40 pages to figure out that it was because when he was a sick child, his aunt would give him that kind of cookie: the madeleine and the tea. And that made him feel warm and taken care of by his aunt.
Taste is a very very powerful trigger of positive memories and positive emotions.
I'll tell you another story of that, when my father was dying.
It was now about 30 years ago. He had some sort of dementia, Parkinson's disease, and had been sick for a number of years, and had not really recognized me for the longest time.
When I was called to the emergency room to fly from Washington to Montreal, the doctor said you have to come now. It's not much longer that he has to live.
I happen to have been in the kitchen with my daughter, who at the time was about ten years old. We were making ‘Kumquat jam’ because a colleague of mine from California had brought me a bag of Kumquats from his Kumquat tree. I think there's a thread here that I like citrus [laughs]...
But, so, we were making Kumquat jam. And I got the call to fly up. So I got on the next plane, and I put a jar of Kumquat jam in my hand bag, which you could do at that time. And because my favorite Jam used to be Kumquat jam.
So I got to his bedside. He was unconscious, and I whispered in his ear, I said, I'm here, at no response.
I touched him. I touched his forehead. No response.
And then I had the idea... I took a spoon, and I took a little bit of that Kumquat jam, and I put it on his tongue.
And he had the most wonderful smile.
And that was that was his goodbye to me.
So, you know, taste, smell...they bring back memories—happy memories, positive feelings.
I'm allergic to a lot of stuff, so I can't put fake fragrances in my house. But real fragrances—like those plants that have a fragrance, that's for me—that's very important.
When you're going to sleep at night, if you have trouble sleeping, you can use a little bit of lavender spray... that's the whole basis of aromatherapy.
We didn't talk about light...full-spectrum sunlight is really important... I'm sitting here in my home office... You can't see what I'm looking at, I'm looking at a window.
My computer is facing a window in a beautiful desert garden. And that's really important if you're in any space, that where you're working, where you're studying: full-spectrum sunlight is very important. And that's because it improves moods.
People who have a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder, they get depressed during long periods of low light in northern climates. They come down to the South. We have a lot of snowbirds who come to Tucson in the winter, and it's rejuvenating.
The reason is full-spectrum sunlight really does improve moods, and is as effective in treating this form of depression, seasonal affective disorder, as any drug.
If you don't have the advantage of sitting next to a window that is sunny, then you can put full-spectrum sunlight boxes—there's artificial light that mimics the sunlight, and you can put those around.
Gushee: I have been wondering if they were...
Sternberg: Yeah, yeah. They're used in treatment of seasonal affective disorder, and you can certainly place them around your computer.
There are studies that our colleagues at the General Services Administration have done with the federal government, and colleagues at the RPI Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, who are experts in lighting. You can certainly put those around the computer if you're spending a lot of time looking at this blue screen.
Now you have to be careful because if you have them on all day, then you're gonna be really awake and zinged. I mean, full spectrum sunlight in the afternoon is probably as good a wake-up as a cup of coffee. So you have to be careful that as the day wanes, you don't want to have too much exposure to this sunlight. You want to mimic what is the natural light, and the natural circadian rhythm.
Gushee: If you are sleepy in the afternoon, and you may be trying to avoid the coffee, how much time in the full spectrum light will wake you up?
Sternberg: That's a really good question. I mean, one of the things that's a good thing to do, is not only look at full spectrum sunlight, but if you're sleepy, go out and walk in it. That's the best thing. Because both exercise and light will wake you up. In that case, 30 minutes of exercise a day, walking. It can be in small segments, like 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there, will certainly give you more more energy.
There are studies by Mariana G. Figueiro, Ph.D. at RPI, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where she has looked at this. For example, blue light, and waking people up in the middle of the night, even just a short flash of it, will actually wake up your brain when you should be trying to sleep. So it doesn't take very long for the light to stimulate you.
Gushee: How strong is the science on aromatherapy?
Sternberg: Well, there's a lot of science. This is what we talked about in the book.
Sensory neuroscience is a very strong, very well-researched field. To the extent that one can take the principles that are learned from sensory neuroscience—that is, understanding the neural pathways of smell, how they tap into memory, how those memories tap into emotions, how the motions tap into the stress and relaxation response... and that's what I try to do in the book. It's not necessarily a direct study to show how each different aromatherapy modality works. But there is very strong neuroscience underpinning understanding, how the sense of smell connects to the rest of the brain, that we then know can help you heal and certainly can call new.
So at the Monell Center for the chemical senses in Philadelphia, we did this in our in the PBS show, "The Science of Healing," I also, again, was the guinea pig. What they do is, they look at the combination of the sense of smell and what you see. And those two interact as well. And they put me in a... my head was in a sort of a Plexiglass box, and I'm going to smell whatever it is they put in,,, they didn't tell me what it was... and, at the same time, I'm looking at a either a beautiful view or a smokestack.
So when I saw the smoke stack, the puffs of whatever they put in there, to me, smelled like burning rubber. When I saw the beautiful view of the forest and mountain, the puff of smell to me smelled fresh... I couldn't tell what it was. And then they told me that it was actually just a puff of air or something, and I must be very very susceptible to what I see. I have a very strong visual sense.
So there are certainly connections in the brain between what you smell and memory.
Lavender actually does cause animals to sleep. There are studies that show that rats, when they are given an inhaler... they have EEG results that show brainwave changes, that show that the rats are sleeping. You can't say that the rat remembered that the grandmother gave [inaudible 38:19] to him. It's clearly that there are brain pathways, that this chemical lavender can trigger a calming response. There are many examples of different kinds of chemicals because, after all, what are fragrances but chemicals that are in the air. They're volatile organic compounds that you inhale, and they can have direct effects on the brain's relaxation response.
Gushee: And music, or sound. And silence.
Sternberg: Yes, definitely. There are a lot of studies, tremendous studies, on music and sound, and emotions. Books have been written on it.
Again, in our PBS television show, "The Science of Healing," Julian Thayer, who is a psycho physiologist, world-famous in measuring the relaxation response, through the heart rate, measuring the heart rate variability (that is the variability between the beats).
Julian Thayer is not only a world famous psycho physiologist, he is also a famous jazz musician. He got into the field of psychophysiology because he started off as a jazz musician and he wondered why it was that his compositions could affect people's moods so deeply. There's a large science of music and emotions, and music in the brain. Some of the people who do this the best, who can use sound and music to change your emotions, either to make you anxious or fearful or calm or happy, those are the composers who compose movie scores.
We've worked with a seven-time Emmy Award winning film scorer, who has... it's part of their trade... they know how to show a film, a silent film, of whatever, and then overlay different kinds of musical scores; and it will change your emotions. There are studies that show that you can measure heart rate variability—that is, measure the stress and relaxation response in people who are listening to different kinds of music. And you can see the changes in their stress response in relation to the music. I mean, I don't like scary movies and, if I'm flipping through TV channels and I see something looks scary, I'll turn the sound off. And it reduces that emotion because you take away the sounds.
Gushee: What is it about music that can be so powerful, is it the patterns?...
Sternberg: People have done these studies. It's all of the above. It's the timbre, it's the pitch, it's the patterns, it's... I'm not a music expert, but there are studies that have shown this, and analyze it. But, really, again, it's combinations of all of the above that are most effective. Not single notes, or single changes.
Gushee: Have you looked at the science on chanting, Sanskrit?
Sternberg: Now that's a different thing. In the book, I actually talked about this.
So one thing is listening to music. And the other thing is singing it. They are two different things, and people have studied this.
So when you're actually singing, you are breathing deeply. You are doing all kinds of physical things that can help relax. There are studies that looked at professional musicians, professional singers, versus the rest of us. And while singing, and group singing, and chanting can certainly reduce your stress response, if you're not a professional.
For professionals, it tends to increase their stress response because they are actually performing. But, in general, what singing does, chanting, all of these things, it helps you breathe deeply. And breathing deeply triggers your relaxation response.
The brain, stress response, and all those are adrenaline-like nerve chemicals, and hormones, and cortisol that comes from the adrenal glands.
Well, there is an opposite system in the body called the relaxation response. And the vagus nerve is a very important piece of the relaxation response. It's a big nerve that goes through your whole abdomen to your liver and your heart and your chest, of course, for the heart. It controls the speed of the beating of the heart. When you trigger the vagus nerve, the heart rate slows down. Athletes have a slower heart rate but stronger pumping.
When you're anxious, adrenalin, the heart, and it's also pumps more shallowly. So it's not as effective in feeding your whole body with that oxygen that comes from the blood.
So the relaxation response is like the break to the stress response, and deep breathing triggers that relaxation response. You inhale, and you exhale slowly. And that triggers that vagus nerve, and the relaxation response.
So that is happening when you're chanting or singing, when you're exercising, when you're swimming. It's happening when you're walking a labyrinth—slow walking meditation, slowing your breathing. That's the relaxation response that triggers, that kicks in.
So to the extent that you can fill your home with the kinds of things that will trigger your relaxation response, that can also help you stay happy, healthy, and heal.
Gushee: What about silence?
Sternberg: Silence, well, I particularly love silence.
Silence, especially silence in nature, is not completely silence. This is this is really mindfulness meditation. If you quiet yourself, if you quiet your mind, and you sit, and you listen to the silence, you can begin to hear the tiny little sense that you might not have heard before: the rustling of trees, rustling of leaves, and the wind, a little scratch of little animals, birds chirping, and when it snows...
In Montreal, or even when I was in Washington DC, when it snows, the silence is a much deeper silence because the snow muffles everything. But there's still some sounds: you're walking on the snow, and you hear the crunch underneath your feet. So silence is a beautiful thing, and can help calm your mind, and calm your moods.
Gushee: The science on meditation is pretty strong now?
Sternberg: It's extremely strong.
So, Richie Davidson was one of the pioneers in this area. When we were all part of the MacArthur Foundation mind-body network, back in the 90s, and about 15 researchers from across the country, and Richie Davidson, was one, and in each, and our own institutions, we had a lot of pushback from the academic scientists and medical community that said, Ah, meditation that's not real. I mean, that's not... there's no science to it.
But Richie really did the landmark studies, where he looked at brain EEG changes—brainwave changes, MRI changes, brain imaging changes—looking at changes in blood flow, in different parts of the brain, and he was able to show that during a meditative state, there are very important changes of the brain that are not completely... it's not that the brain goes to sleep, that nothing is happening. There are active changes in parts of the brain that are important and resilience.
So when he first started doing these studies back in the 90s, he was studying students who were learning how to meditate. The data was all over the map. He couldn't make sense of it. He tells the story that he got a fax from the Dalai Lama, saying that he's interested in understanding the science of meditation.
So Richie Davidson started working with the Dalai Lama and his monks, who are really the Olympic athletes of meditation. They can really meditate. They're experts.
He found in those athletes—those expert meditators—that there were these very consistent changes in brain patterns—including something that's really interesting because they're a different kind of electrical wave called gamma waves that suddenly come across the whole brain, and kind of connect the whole brain. When the monks achieved this state of meditation—of the ultimate state of meditation—of compassionate meditation.
Again, we don't fully understand what those mean. But there are definite changes in the brain during meditation, and these changes also trigger that relaxation response and reduce the stress response.
When I was moderating a panel at one of Richie Davidson's mind-body conferences, I was moderating a panel with the Dalai Lama and the panel was about whether meditation can be used to reduce stress and help heal. And I asked the Dalai Lama, I said, I understand that meditation, that stress, is not a word in the Tibetan tradition. But here in the West, we use meditation to reduce stress. What do you think about that? And he shook his head, and he didn't want to answer. Finally, he said, No. No. Meditation, stress, is not a term in the Tibetan tradition, but we use meditation for love. That's it. It's as simple as that: to increase love.
From a neuroscience point of view, increasing the positive, increasing those positive love pathways—dopamine, endorphins, those positive emotions—is not only as good as reducing stress, but it's better than reducing stress because those brain changes do reduce stress and they also enhance the positive. So there's tremendous research and tremendous literature showing the benefits of meditation, different kinds of meditation, mindfulness meditation, compassion meditation, and so ons
Gushee: Is it compassion meditation that is prevent to be most healing?
Sternberg: You know, they're talking about meditation, again, this is Richie Davidson's quote, saying the word 'meditation,' is like saying the word sports. There are so many different kinds of meditation that gets you to a place of calm and healing, it's kind of like saying basketball is, you know, in volleyball, and golf, are all the same. They're not the same.
But meditation is also like prayer. So there are studies on nuns who visualize during prayer. There are studies of people repeating the rosary. That's kind of auditory or vocal repetitions. All of those things activate the same parts of the brain. You just get there in different ways. What helps one person may not help another. You know that some people may have a response by doing the rosary, somebody visualizing, some by deep breathing, some by saying AUM. There are many ways to get to that place. It really depends on the individual. It's not one-size-fits-all and individuals can try out different approaches for me.
Going back to Greece, and if you watch the PBS show which I think you can get on pbs.org, I say in the show that I'm contemplating. I wasn't ready back then--that was about 2009 little ten years ago—I wasn't ready to say I meditate. I didn't know I was meditating until I met a 40 year meditator and he asked me what do you exactly do when you're contemplating. I said, Well, I close my eyes, and I sit quietly. And I listen to the birds, and I listen to the sounds of the wind, and the leaves. And he said, You're meditating. That's mindfulness meditating, and I just didn't even know it. So anybody can do it anywhere You just try what the method that works for you.
Gushee: I thought it was very interesting when I was watching some of your videos, you talking about early in your career, when you started studying stress and how it could contribute to health issues or autoimmune issues, that was considered a very novel, provocative idea. And now there's such strong science proving that stress is very important to health and well-being. So you've experienced how slow science can be to prove a truth.
So I thought you would be an interesting person to ask, because I feel like the more I learn, the more humbled I become about how little we know. There's something really wise about knowing that we know a small percentage of even just how the human body works. Do you agree? Do you have a conclusion now?
Sternberg: Yeah, absolutely. I think an example of that is in the book I write about Lourdes and thus the South in the southwest of France, where people go for miracle cures. I went there with a dear friend of my parents who, after my parents died, I kind of became their adopted American daughter.
They lived in Lyon, France. Unfortunately, the husband has since died. But he was a confirmed atheist; and his wife was a devout Catholic. She grew up near Lourdes, and she would go there every summer with her family and in her adulthood, she continued to go to Lourdes. When I was writing the book, Healing Spaces, my friend said, Well, you can't write about healing spaces without going to Lourdes. And I said, Well, it's hard to get there. And they said, No, no, no, fly to Lille. And we'll drive across the southwest of France, and we'll take you to Lourdes.
So we did that. And they were friends with the Archbishop of the next diocese, the Archbishop of Oak.
So he introduced me to the doctor the chief doctor of lords. People come there. It's a shrine to the Virgin Mary, where Bernadette Soubirous, who was a peasant girl back in the late 1800s, had witnessed, had seen visions of, the Virgin Mary; and then healings had taken place. And so, from the late 1800s on, people would, pilgrims, millions of pilgrims, have gone there for healing.
So I asked the doctor, what is it about this place that helps people heal. He said, Well, of course, it's the mountains. It's the sunlight, it's the river, it's the beauty of the place, the rocks, and it is beautiful. The sunlight comes through the mountains there. It's sort of filtered in this beautiful mist. And everything takes place outdoors, or at least most of the grotto where Bernadette Soubirous saw the visions of the Virgin Mary is outdoors. And the processions are outdoors. So you're in nature. But you're also in the middle of this bustling town that sells a lot of souvenirs, related to the grotto, and to the Virgin Mary.
And there's the water from the source, which is the healing water. What the doctor said, It's not just the physical place. It's about the people here, people come to help other people. There's love in the air. it is the most amazing thing. There are strangers helping strangers. People showing love—genuine love—to the sick.
There are the social connections that help people heal. Then above it all, there's the history, the legend, which is very powerful in helping people heal.
So why am I telling this story? There's a lot that we don't know.
My friend, who's a physician, he believed in only things that we could prove. He got so interested in the miracle cures at Lourdes that he spent five years researching the cures. He talked to the doctor, the chief doctor, the previous chief doctor. He ended up writing a manuscript, which we wrote together, and published a paper in the journal on the history of this medicine.
And trying to explain what is the science that explains these cures... there is a science... you could imagine, if somebody is extremely stressed, and then they come into this wonderful environment where there's a lot of helping hands, that reduces your stress response, that could allow your body to heal.
So certainly in tuberculosis and arthritis, which were a lot of the cures in the late 1800s, early 1900s.
But he ended the article, and these were his own words, there are many things that we cannot explain in science. And we just have to leave it at that, and accept that we cannot understand everything.
So, especially coming from that physician, who was so convinced of the need for concrete proof, to say, there are things that we cannot understand... to me, and to the editor of the journal, it was very very powerful.
Gushee: Earlier, we were talking about chronic stress, and the health effects from that, Are there easy ways to know if you're experiencing chronic stress? When I was listening to you, I thought about many children in Manhattan, and just children, in general, anxiety is higher than ever. Are their blood tests to know if, like, your inflammation is elevated?
Sternberg: Well, there's certainly blood tests to know that your inflammation is elevated. You can measure your cortisol, but cortisol reflects your stress in the moment. And the needle stick, it could be simply the cortisol going up. Plus, you need your cortisol. You need that stress response in order to have the energy to have focused attention to fight or flee. You need that stress response. You cannot survive without a stress response.
In Manhattan, if you were to have no stress response, and you have to cross the street, you'd be dead. You have to be able to be vigilant, look where the cars are coming, you have to be able to concentrate, to get across the street fast, you have to have the energy to do that. That's your stress response working for you.
The problem is if it goes on too long. And that's where you have the problem.
So there are situations, like burnout. It is a serious problem. You can feel depressed, lethargic, not have energy, to have difficulty sleeping. You lose your appetite, losing weight. If you feel anxious, all of those things are signs that you might be chronically stressed or even depressed It would be a reason to see a doctor to check you out.
So I think if anybody feels that they're chronically stressed, then it's a good thing to see a health professional, and get checked out.
Gushee: I've been very interested in resiliency and healing. What are in your comments on our resiliency? I know that we are healing all the time, and when we sleep—especially, when we have good quality sleep, the healing is even more powerful. But there might be a lot of people out there who think, Oh, it's too late for me, for x, y & z reasons. What are your reactions to the opportunities we have to heal?
Sternberg: It's never too late. So, I guess, I was an example. I had been following a sedentary lifestyle. I told you exercise every day, 30 minutes of exercise a day, is really important.
I had been eating hamburgers and french fries.
I was sedentary, had an unhealthy diet, I was stressed because of a number of stressors in my life. And, yet, when I had this Aha moment in Greece, that if I continued to function the way I was before I left, I would just keep getting sicker. And I felt so much better, only after ten days.
Now people can say, Oh, well, you just had a vacation. Well, a vacation is a good thing. In Germany and Italy, a doctor can prescribe six weeks at a spa for burnout. So yeah, it's not just a vacation. It is getting away from those stressors but also engaging in those healthy activities. And that's really important.
There are studies. For example, Dean Ornish, has shown that people who are chronically stressed, who have a history of prostate cancer, if they followed this routine of 30 minutes of walking a day—doesn't have to be on the treadmill; a healthy Mediterranean diet, and mindfulness meditation three times a week. If they followed that for five years, their chromosomes, which I mentioned the chromosomes can be 10 to 17 years shorter than your biological age if you're chronically stressed, not only did their chromosomes stop shortening, but they actually lengthened—as opposed to people in that study who didn't follow that regime, and their chromosomes continued to shorten.
So it doesn't matter when you start, you can always begin to reverse the process, and it's really a lifestyle change. And that's what we I'm here.
The reason I left the National Institutes of Health, and came to Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine, I had the research program here at Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine.
The reason I came here is to really begin to understand how all of these different modalities can help us heal. Again, it does not matter when you start, you'll always be able to improve that resilience if you engage in these healthy lifestyle changes.
Gushee: So my last question is just is there anything else that you would like to share that we haven't covered?
Sternberg: Well, I can share the stories that I tell at the end of my book, which really is about my own healing place. It tells the story of how when I was a child, we would sit outside on the terrace on that deck that my mother had built. I'd sit there and have breakfast with my father. It was only about a decade after the end of World War II.
He'd always read a book when he was eating. And he'd stop, and he'd say to me, Listen. Listen to the sounds of peace.
I was about what six-, seven- years old, something like that. And I'd wonder, What is he talking about? I hear a dog barking. I hear the tennis balls, on the tennis court across the street. I'd hear the wind, and the trees...
It was only when I was an adult that I really understood what he was talking about.
Because he reveled in listening to these sounds of peace.
It's a little like what she said of the silence, sounds of silence.
I didn't know until his funeral, until the Shiva, when we sit after the funeral in the Jewish tradition.
I didn't know that he had been in a concentration camp during the war. And one of the friends who came said, Of course, you knew that your father was in a concentration camp.
I said, I didn't know that.
It wasn't in a German concentration camp. It was in in Russia. In a place called Transnistria.
So it was more like a work camp, but he never talked about it. He never talked about it.
I think my parents wanted to protect us, my sister and me, from this horrible, their experiences that they had gone through.
At that point I understood something else about my father: When we would eat dinner, often he would pull the Bible off the shelf. And he'd read the 23rd Psalm. It was his favorite psalm, and he would have this look of wisdom and calm when he'd read it.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
I think when my father was in that concentration camp, I can imagine that he didn't have a view of nature, he couldn't go out into nature. But he could visualize this, he could hear it in his mind, he could think that beautiful poem, that beautiful song and that could give him a sense of peace.
So if you can't actually physically experience the beautiful views, and the plants, and the sounds of peace, and the fragrances of the forest, you can go to a favorite place in your mind and experience. So that's the only thing I would leave everywhere.
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