Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Author’s Retreat…Changing the World with Your Mind...And Faith


Last week I went on an author’s retreat at my friend’s cabin near Manning Park in British Columbia. Some of them were going skiing at the nearby ski hill and Anne thought I’d appreciate the rustic setting as an ideal place to write. I leapt at the chance. I had lots of writing to do and had set myself up for quite a work schedule: I’d promised ten articles and some excerpts to my publisher, three articles to the online magazine I write for, a review of my manuscript contract with my other publisher, and to write as much as possible on my prequel. I’d set myself up for quite a work schedule...Hey, didn't I say that already?...There was no internet access at the cabin. In fact, no cell phone coverage either. We were pretty isolated from the rest of the world—except for the bustling ski hill not far from us…

Then my computer refused to work…
The ski hill beckoned…
And the snowshoes came out…
And the sun blazed…
And the hoarfrost on the frozen lake sparkled like jewels in the snow…

…My promise to myself to write melted like giant snow crystals in the sun as I indulged in outdoor walks and diverting conversations with my friend, Anne. Later in the evening, after the boys finally got the fire going, Anne and I got to talking about the book I’d leant her—Calculating God, by Robert J. Sawyer. We were soon discussing God and faith; what it meant to have faith in oneself and in others and ultimately what it meant to have someone show faith in you.

After returning from Manning, I ran across an article in Time that featured Dr. Andrew Newberg (professor of radiology, psychology and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania) who’d recently authored the book, How God Changes Your Brain. What I found incredibly interesting was the connection made between faith and well-being.

According to Newberg and other neuroscientists, when people engage in prayer or meditation they engage the frontal lobes of the brain, since they govern focus and concentration. In fact, if you pray or meditate long enough you may change your brain permanently; creating thicker frontal lobes. “People who describe themselves as highly spiritual tend to exhibit an asymmetry in the thalamus—a feature that other people can develop after just eight weeks of training in meditation skills,” says Newberg. Better functioning frontal lobes help boost memory, by the way.

That faith can play a key role in how our mind and body regulate our general health and determine our own well-being is proven in experiments involving “placebos”. First described in the medical literature in the 1780s, the placebo effect has been documented in some amazing examples of mind-over-matter. Time writer Jeffrey Kluger in his February 23, 2009 article “The Biology of Belief” describes how Parkinson’s disease patients who underwent a sham surgery that they were told would boost the low dopamine levels responsible for their symptoms actually experienced a dopamine bump. Newberg described a cancer patient who regulated his tumors based on his belief of a drug’s efficacy (his tumor shrank or returned accordingly).

In my previous post about Brain-Mind-Interfaces (BMI) I discussed the notion of using our minds to control computers and robots either inside us or close to us and the current technology that is making that possible. Then my good friend, Margaret, told me about this workshop on neurotherapy that she’d attended given by a Dr. Paul Swingle in Vancouver. “He uses biofeeback for the brain to treat attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, epilepsy, anxiety, migraine, trauma, and depression,” says Margaret. “It's all based on the idea that we can control our brian activity and that through training, the brain can learn to modify its own electrical patterns for more efficient processing or to overcome various states of dysfunction.”

Neal Krause, a sociologist and public health expert at the University of Michigan, found that people who maintain a sense of gratitude for what’s going right in their lives have a reduced incidence of depression. In another study he found that people who believe their lives have meaning live longer than people who don’t. Victor Frankl could have told him that!

p.s. speaking of belief, I got all my writing done in the end! My computer decided to behave itself and I got very productive…especially after the oreo-cookie chocolate cake and pink grapefruit Breezer…


Photos by Anne Voute and Nina Munteanu




Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

11 comments:

Jean-Luc Picard said...

What a tranquil place! Ideal to write with no outside interference!

SF Girl said...

It certainly was, Jean-Luc. :) Manning Park and Resort is located in a pristine area in the heart of the Cascade Mountains of British Columbia's interior. The snow is pretty much all gone in Vancouver but there's a lot at Manning still... lots of snow balls left!

Janet said...

That was a fascinating article. I've been thinking about blogging about it for at least a week now, but haven't worked up the courage. ;o) Thanks for an interesting post.

SF Girl said...

Janet, let me know when you do. I'd be very interested to read it. :)

Quercus said...

This was a great read, and I loved your photos!
I'm also trying to write more these days myself. It's great to live so close to peacefull places like this, though personally I can do without snow and ice, lol. :)

SF Girl said...

LOL! That's why you live in Victoria! :) ... bet the spring flowers are bursting with colour right about now over there?...

Footsteps said...

A read well worth the time... These are near and dear subjects: Faith, choosing gratitude and the obviously brain-enhancing effects of outdoor time! Thanks, Nina!

Anonymous said...

I'm quite impressed you managed to get so much done especially with the great outdoors beckoning like that. Your focus and discipline reminds me why I'll probably never be a writer. :-)...unless I'm forced to by this economy.

Interesting that those who maintain a feeling of gratitude suffer from less depression. If memory serves, many religions have offered up a similar message including Christianity with "in all things give thanks".

To automatically dismiss religious writings the world over because they're not 'science' or deal with the supernatural is to miss some of the wisdom contained in them which were supposed to lead to a happier, healthier life...which apparently is does.

In a similar conversation with a friend we were discussing the origins of the golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), and we looked it up. Sure enough a similar golden rule has been found in many religions and philosophies, some predating Judaism.

I wonder how many times different cultures had to rediscover the same basic wisdom by doing things the hard way first? And did the majority take heed?

You need to get going on that time machine, SF Girl! There's questions waiting to be answered, and answers waiting to be questioned.

-Myrdinn

SF Girl said...

Oh so true, Heather... the outdoors truly does enhance brain power, doesn't it? It is so invigorating. And when the body is happy, soaking up the sun and fresh air, so is the brain... LOL!

Myrdinn, you bring up some very interesting points about religion and faith. I'm not surprised to find the same tenets of excellent behavior in many cultures and faiths... wasn't it Bill and Ted who coined the phrase, "Be excellent to one another and... party on, dudes!" ... LOL! Let us not forget to treat outselves with excellence (and have fun) too.

As for that time machine... well, I'm working on it!... give me ... er ... time... :)

blackburn1 said...

Buzzwords like productivity, maximizing output and becoming more efficient sometimes need to be put aside, especially when the outdoors calls. Good to see that you had a chance to go outside, and took it. And still managed get those to-do's done.

Gratitude. I need to remember that on the nightly commutes home, in the middle of all the other tired, short-tempered drivers on the road. *L* Not an easy task. =]

SF Girl said...

Yes, commuter driving certainly presents one with many challenges (and opportunities) to be creative and express who we are... :)