Recent studies show… a reflection on the value and function of research

In the past couple of weeks I have ended up reading and hearing quite a lot about the brain and about neuroscientific research. I have been on the search for findings that explain processes specifically in relation to learning and expression. Things that can in an interesting way back up and explain the work I am doing. Because it is really tempting to have proof – to have scientific evidence to back me up when someone is sceptical, or to inspire someone more critically minded to give it a try.

And I also keep searching for research about the body and mind because it somehow gives me a sense of substance – a necessary compliment to what I learn through my own process and through the experiences and exchanges I have with clients, colleagues and friends. Maybe because I come from a family and culture of academics and have grown up with a certain respect for science and with the conviction that everything needs to be viewed with a critical distance (- especially when it comes to areas that border to esoteric, spiritual and to religious or magical belief).

I have learnt that scientific investigation is something with weight – something valuable. And still, despite this respect, I sometimes find research fairly numbing and narrowing. The self-importance with which results are presented and defended as the truth, when we know that every research has its limits and can always be put in question. And knowing that history so often shows that the scientific truths of today can be seen as maddening erratic in a hundred years.

One strong example of this from a documentary on touch that I watched a few months ago: In the early 1900s the two big scientific ‚bibles‘ for childcare preached that touching, carressing or carrying small children should be reduced to a minimum. Reasons for this idea were both for hygenic and for educative – to avoid spoiling them and quicker making them more adult and controlled. According to this documentary infant mortality increased enormously in these years and only reduced when practices in relation to children and infants changed to make touch an important factor again. Now studies even show that prematurely born infants stabilize and grow much quicker when they are being touched more. It turns out touch is extremely important for our wellbeing, development and growth. This is a claim that I am obviously happy to agree with!

It seems to me often scientific research in these cases take a giant detour. Anything we simply experience can’t be trusted so instead we need to scan the surface with a magnifying glass, put on sensors, make X-rays and ultrasounds, measure every minute change. Only what can be seen or detected through scientific equipment and means is real. „Heureka!! Something actually does happen in the brain of people meditating.“ „Something really does change chemically and structurally in the body when we focus our attention in different ways.“ „Attentive touch can really speed up recovery processes“. „By imagining things we can really learn new skills and change something radically in the body – only through focus and imagination!“ And maybe placebo and nocebo effects are something real to take into account in the healing process and not just a neglectable unforseen consequence. Now it is scientifically proven!

Sometimes it feels to me like proving something I feel must be so obvious. If we try something out and it does us good and we notice a change in us, do we then really need to have it scientifically proved to be certain? Maybe at times it would be good to just trust what we feel and not to look for evidence to support it?

But at the same time I notice how important it can be for me to be presented with evidence or straight patterns of reasoning to make these inner processes and changes more visible for me. To have measurable proofs or a tangible way to explain what is happening and shifting inside of me can really sometimes help motivate me to go on. For example reading studies that show how certain forms of training or foods can stabilize hormonal balance over time, could motivate me to make a more permanent change in my life-style or diet, that the short-term benefits might not have done. Or hearing a person I respect say that meditating regularly over several years changed their life radically can motivate me to keep at it, more than only the short-term effects of the meditation might have done for me. Knowing from others what it could bring in the longterm makes me curious to see what happens to my own life when I deepen the practice.

One good example of this is also with pain, where it really might take a longer time of training and attention to bring a clear change to the symptoms. If we only judge from the short-term results there, we might just keep getting disappointed and shifting from one practice to the next without really giving each a real chance. I find short-term effects extremely important – it needs to in some deep way feel right also in the moment we do something. And I’m convinced we can learn to become a lot more sensitive to what does us good right now. But having the expertise and experience of someone else to recognise possible long-term positive (or negative!) effects is extremely valuable. This is definitely an important role of research.

When I remind myself what I read about how our brain works with learning – that we need to train things hundreds of times to make it sink in and that this is exactly what I have done over the past 37 years with some of my behaviours or patterns of thinking that I would really love to change now. Most likely I can’t expect it to go away or change in a couple of weeks, and I will most likely experience certain resistance to the change – inner arguments against changing, more or less conscious anxiety about what the change might bring and how my surrounding might react, urges to give up trying… It can help me having someone pointing out that even when I don’t notice the big change after two weeks it is still worth continuing practicing.

Yesterday I heard a man speaking about reseting the brain – how our brains pathways tend to want to take us back to where it feels safe, which in most cases means to what we already know. And that this is the reason why we often end up back in the status quo with things that we want to change – like financial situation, weight issues, procrastination… We have one force within us that fights against any change and that will bring us convincing arguments why it isn’t even worth trying, or telling us now we already tried and failed: „You are simply not good and strong enough to do it.“

This idea definitely moves something in me. I know this quick movement towards dropping everything I dreamed of doing and just go back to the comfortable spot of what I know myself to be – someone who procrastinates a lot, undisciplined, chaotic, unclear, weak-willed, insecure… „Maybe I simply don’t have what it takes to do something greater than this… Maybe this is simply as far as it goes. I can’t really expect to get more than this. Not everyone is meant to do great things. Maybe I just have to accept that I’m average. And apart from that it is really egoistic of me to want more from life when I already have such a privileged position. Think of all of the people who have so much less!“ There are always reasons to give up. And maybe in this spot where I am right now it helps me to understand more about the mechanisms that bring me there – the way that the brain functions. And to integrate it into my practice as another tool of motivation.

This morning while taking time to just sit still and try to not think of anything, I imagined I could physically feel how this process in the brain started up. I noticed how I kept moving from the feeling of space and endless possibilities towards a place in me that kept telling me how the day will inevitably unfold and how I will be and react. There was a huge temptation staying in this space of planning, predicting and knowing. And this time it really helped me to have the idea of the brain’s pathways fresh in mind – deciding to consciously train myself to reject the old pathways and conclusions and to make a clear decision to keep opening the space for new.

There is a good reason why we have this mechanism moving us towards what we already know and where we feel safe. We need safe spaces to rest and digest whatever new we learned and experienced. Learning a bit more about the mechanisms in me makes me at the moment be a bit more in peace with myself – blaming myself less for the urge of moving towards what is safe, but still gently shifting back my attention towards where I want to go, towards the changes I want to make and the challenges that am facing at the moment. There are good reasons why I am scared moving towards what I don’t know, and there are good reasons why things won’t change so quickly in or around me – it won’t be immediately easy, but it doesn’t mean I should give up or judge myself for the urge of giving up – making this into a reason in itself that I’m not strong enough to pull through.

Another research article I read lately showed how when we are worrying the brain automatically switches on the reward system. I’m thinking the reason for this is probably to sooth us enough that we can get to a state where we can think more clearly about what is making us worried – to encourage us to relax and give it the space for thinking, or maybe even to encourage us to generally engage with things that are troubling us. But the research shows that what often tends to happen is that we instead get addicted to the worrying itself – keeping finding new reasons to worry in order to get the impulse to reward ourselves. This is another interesting impulse to explore.
And again it points me to the start of the argument:
Research can bring us something very valuable – opening up the perspectives, allowing us to step back and getting a clearer view, supporting and motivating us to take on certain paths of change. Maybe also in the best cases engaging with research and expertise can open a field for exploration and dialogue with different people who have also dug in deep into this question. I think this is what I would like to use research for – not for the ultimate answers or instead of trusting my own feeling, but to help me go into serious interaction and critical reflection of what my experiences are telling me.