Last week, the story of Lt. Collette McLennan, a Seattle firefighter, played on our local news. She took herself to the hospital eleven days after finally realizing her brain might be damaged. She was operated on for a brain aneurysm and back at work full-time four short months later. Here’s the part of the story that caught my attention:
She credits her family of firefighters for playing a big part in her recovery. “That’s what we do, we’re a family,” said her Battalion Chief, Tom Richardson. “We made sure a firefighter was with her at the hospital, and after she went home, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
A Resounding “Yes!”
In my mind, this family of firefighters was clearly answering The Big Brain Question “Yes!” in a very big way. I can’t help but wonder what effect they may have had on her neurobiology as it functioned in her recovery. She seems to think it was considerable. I do as well. What would be really interesting is to find out just how answering that question “Yes” might work to effect such rapid healing. Having spent many years with grieving kids and adults, I have some ideas.
What I consider to be the “First Law” of Social Neuroscience is: “It takes a more organized brain to help organize a less organized brain.” It applies to young kids most obviously when they learn things from older kids that parents wish they didn’t. But I think this First Law might also apply to immune systems and body healing mechanisms as well. The bedside manner of a trusted authority figure might have more healing power than we imagine. It might also be at play in placebo efficacy, wirelessly reorganizing a less-than-optimally functioning healing mechanism. I once had a nearly severed toe healed virtually overnight after receiving a hands-on blessing from the controversial Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. And I’ve had many unmistakable, palpable experiences of receiving healing Reiki transmissions at a distance from skillful practitioners of that art. So, while there might not be a lot of rigorous, scientifically-controlled experiments to confirm such experiences, in my mind there are certainly more than enough anecdotal reports to continue creative inquiry and experimentation in this area.
Mastering the Healing Mystery
What, for example, might be the mechanisms at work for all these cases of cancer spontaneously remitting as reported by Brendan O’Regan (before he himself died of cancer) in the research he performed for the Institute of Noetic Sciences? Or what of Norman Cousins, an adjunct professor at UCLA who researched the biochemistry of human emotions, and who purportedly laughed himself healed from the pain and fatigue of ankylosing spondylitis (a chronic inflammatory arthritis) using a daily dose of Marx brothers comedies. Laughter might not only be good for the soul, but good for the connections in the brain as well.
Finally, what energies or neurobiological processes might have also been at work in the life of Evy McDonald, a registered nurse who Dr. Bernie Siegel writes about in Peace, Love and Healing. Evy cured herself of Lou Gerhig’s Disease by devising her own unique (some might say “crazy” or “silly”) personal treatment plan?
Evy lists seven changes that she made in her life which she considers primarily responsible for her full recovery – changes which presumably significantly altered her brain:
I went from get to give – demanding from life to giving to life. (I’ve previously presented Stephen Post’s research on the great neurological benefits of altruism).
I went from resentment to forgiveness. (I’ve also mentioned the healing power of forgiveness in conjunction with Fred Luskin’s Stanford Forgiveness Project, an important element of peace, love and healing).
I went from self-hatred to self-acceptance and unconditional love. (Interestingly, she “faked it till she made it.” In other words, practiced using repetition to gain an ability she didn’t possess, until at last she came to authentically possess it).
I went from wanting to escape from life to accepting life exactly as it is. (This forced her to ask and answer The Two Perilous questions for herself with ruthless compassion).
I went from expecting and preparing for death to celebrating life and living every moment. (There’s apparently great neurological benefit in learning to fully Be Here Now).
I went from denying painful emotions to sharing them and letting them go. (An important, often neglected exocrine function? One not much different from sweating, crying or urinating?).
I went from avoiding intimacy to opening myself to love.
The Soft Subtle Energies of Love
This last shift Evy identifies as actually a product of the other six – and perhaps the most important one. She cites a well-known, 30 year old experiment at Ohio State University by Nerem, Levesque and Cornhill where rabbits were given a “heart attack diet” to demonstrate atherosclerotic changes. One group of rabbits had 60 percent less atherosclerotic changes than the other groups. The only variable discovered was that the researcher for this group regularly took the rabbits from their cages and petted, stroked and talked to them, an experiment subjected to many confirmation studies. “Intimacy at every level – emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and physical – is the flowering of unconditional love.” Not to mention, a flowering that apparently restores neurological function and optimizes immune systems.
To me what this and other research shows is that generally positive emotions – much different than simply putting on a Pollyanna face, which is actually more like denial – tends to help build resilience. Resilience might turn out to be something like simply having more brain neurons, no longer overly devastated by past traumatic physical and emotional injury, making more and more immune-specific connections in the brain.
The result: a repaired brain that significantly improves health and human functioning.