Last week, at the same time that most of us were watching The Apprentice ‘Interviews’ on BBC1, an extraordinary episode of Horizon called The Truth About Personality was showing on BBC2. The programme began with host, Michael Mosley explaining that he had strong personal reasons for wanting to explore the latest thinking in the science of personality in that he was a ‘catastrophic thinker’ and ‘chronic insomniac’ who really wanted to understand if it was possible to ‘change his mind’.
Michael’s first port of call was the small town of Oxford Ohio where, back in 1975, a unique social experiment involving all of the town’s population of over 50 year olds began. For the last 40 years over 1000 people have contributed data for a study into ageing, and specifically into the impact of our attitudes into growing old. Professor Becca Levy at Yale University, who has analysed the data from the ‘Ohio Experiment’, concluded that attitude to ageing became a strong predictor to how long residents would be likely to live. She went on to explain that residents with a positive and optimistic outlook to growing old increased their life expectancy by, on average, 7.5 years over their more pessimistic neighbours. To put ‘the power of optimism’ into context, apparently if we were to cure all cancers tomorrow, we would increase our average life expectancy by somewhere between 3 and 4 years!
Central to the documentary was the question of whether indeed we are able to change our bias and stop looking on the negative side. Two techniques were explored, both with strong evidence of proving successful in combating anxiety. The first, Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM), demonstrates that we all have the ability, should we choose to use it, to train ourselves to seek out the positive. The second technique was meditation. Michael Mosely explained that he was rarely able to just ‘be’ in the present moment, and that he was instead constantly worrying about past events, and what might (or might not) happen in the future. Horizon conducted a brain scan on a Buddhist Monk who was a long-term meditator, finding significantly higher activity than normal in the left side pre-frontal cortex than on the right side (where we do stress). The programme reported that an increased level of left brain activity was regularly recorded in people that had been meditating for just 6-8 weeks, and for no more than 10 minutes a day!
It was when the programme turned its’ attention to where it is that the tendency towards anxiety and stress comes from that things got really interesting for me. A 20 year study into twins at St Thomas’ Hospital looked to understand why identical twins are different. St Thomas’ researched 100’s of pairs of twins and only recently, within the last few years, as our understanding of Epigenetics has grown, discovered that whilst 40 – 50% of our personality is genetically ‘heritable’, the rest is entirely and directly as a result of our environment. The study of ‘discordant twins’ included sisters born with identical genetic codes, where one of the sisters has developed clinical depression. Brain scans revealed that the hippocampus of one twin has developed a very different set of DNA receptors to that of the other twin. Further evidence that our genes really aren’t fixed at all, and that our environment, events in our lives, and crucially the way that we choose to respond to those events change our genetic make-up, switching genes on and off.
The final contribution came from Professor Michael Meaney of The Quebec Brain Bank – home of over 3000 human brains complete with comprehensive biographies and personality profiles. Professor Meaney described his experiments on rats, designed to identify where in our brains our anxiety response is controlled from. Meaney has proved conclusively that the quality of maternal love (as measured in rats by physical contact and frequency of licking) has a direct measurable impact on the level of response to stress that the adult rats will display. Pups from ‘low licking mothers’, not only get stressed much more easily, they in turn grow up to be ‘low licking mothers’ themselves! Furthermore, the research in Quebec on human brains has confirmed that the quality of maternal love that we receive at an early age really does have a significant impact on our personalities, our propensity towards either optimism or pessimism, is a pre-eminent influence on our stress response, and, having watched this programme, very possibly our life expectancy!
One of the central pillars of The Charisma Model Programme is Self Esteem. It is difficult to be truly charismatic when we’re not feeling all that good about ourselves. Very often the 1-2-1 Releasing Resistance work that we do with individuals will identify early ( and often fleeting) memories of feeling isolated and unloved. I am sure that for many of us the precise moment or event leading us to ‘switch on’ additional DNA Anxiety Receptors in the hippocampus part of our brains has been suppressed or forgotten. I am however equally convinced that if certain events and situations bring up an ‘inappropriate’ anxiety or stress response in you, the chances are that you are triggering a long forgotten fight, flight or freeze response that you really don’t need anymore.
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”