Sunday, 3 January 2016

Awe and Alzheimer’s

View of Parliament Buildings from the Grand Palace, Budapest, Hungary

We already know that positive emotions such as happiness, joy or gratitude have a positive effect on our physical and mental health.[1] For example, our immune system is given a boost, and our feelings of satisfaction with life are increased when we feel and express gratitude.[2]

And now, new research has linked the experience of positive emotions in general, and awe in particular, with a decrease in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, among others.[3]

This is of great interest to me personally, because my late father and over half of his seven siblings eventually developed Alzheimer’s disease. So anything that decreases the risk for me is good news.

So what is Awe?

  •         Awe is a positive emotional response to an experience or sensation that is so overwhelming it is impossible to measure or compare to any previous experience or sensation. [4],[5].

  •         Some people experience awe when looking at the Grand Canyon, The Northern Lights or the Pyramids. For others, awe is experienced while sitting quietly in the middle of a forest, looking out at the ocean or staring up at the stars.

  •          Many people who regularly meditate report that they frequently experience a feeling of awe. Others felt awe through profound religious experiences.

But how does a feeling of awe affect our risk of developing diseases such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease, depression or Alzheimer’s?

  •         Well, it’s all to do with proteins in the body, called proinflammatory cytokines, which produce inflammation.

  •        This can have a positive effect, in that it brings blood and healing to an infected or injured part of the body.

  •       But if our body produces too many proinflammatory cytokines, or too often, then it has a detrimental effect:

  •      Stress, anxiety and other so-called negative emotions can result in the production of too many proinflammatory cytokines. And this can result in the development of diseases.

  •  The more often people experience a feeling of awe, the lower their proinflammatory cytokines levels.

         So, positive emotions, and awe in particular, can inhibit the over production of proinflammatory cytokines, and so reduce the risk of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.[3].

Therefore, on my recent visit to the city of Budapest in Hungary, I probably lessened my risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other diseases when visiting the Grand Palace and the Parliament buildings. I have visited several European cities and admired the old and beautiful buildings there, but never have I experienced such a feeling of awe when looking at these buildings.

This recent study on awe and it’s benefits to our physical and mental health was conducted by a team led by Jennifer E. Stellar and also included the Director of the Greater Good Science Centre, Dacher Keltner. Keltner has been called a pioneer in the area of awe and I have no doubt that there will be more studies of this nature coming to the fore in the near future.

1. Fredrickson, B. L. (2003). The value of positive emotions. American Scientist, 91, 330–335.

2. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Personality & Social Psychology, 88, 377-389.

3. Stellar, J., John-Henderson, N., Anderson, C., Gordon, A. M., McNeil, G., & Keltner, D. (2015). Positive affect and markers of inflammation: Discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines.Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/emo0000033 

4. Piff, Paul K.; Dietze, Pia; Feinberg, Matthew; Stancato, Daniel M.; Keltner, Dacher ,Awe, the small self, and prosocial behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 108(6), Jun 2015, 883-899.

5. Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion 17 (2) 297-314

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