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UCLA Magazine Fall 2004
From Murphy Hall
The Next Wave
How “Human” Are We?
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In Their Own Words
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Fall 2004
The Next Wave
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OCD
High Energy use in the brain of a typical person with OCD
Change in Energy use after pactising Drug-Free Mindful Awareness
Mindful Mindful awareness, as these PET scans show, is useful for treating “obsessive compulsive disorder” (OCD), a neuropsychiatry disease in which distressing thoughts prompt patients to repeatedly perform bizarre acts. Research professor Jeffrey Schwartz has cured OCD simply by teaching his patients to practice “wise attention”; that is, the recognition of distressing thoughts as errant brain signals unworthy of acting on.

The idea is to show ADHD patients how their disorder manifests, and then “let them step back to look at themselves from a third-person perspective,” says Smalley. The goal, she explains, is to enable them “not to get too attached to whatever activity might be happening in their brain, allowing them to gain more insight into their own way of thinking and seeing and learning how to regulate their lives.”

That acts of the mind affect biology is firmly established in research that is still in its early stages, but the research has enormous therapeutic implications. “Most of that work has looked at the immune system and found many positive changes in it,” says Smalley. “We are going to do empirically sound studies that look at how mindfulness causes changes in the brain.”

One of the experts in this field is Jeffrey Schwartz, a research professor at NPI whose work has shown how positive thinking can permanently alter neural pathways. “A change in perspective is a uniquely human capacity, and the regular paying of attention determines not only how the brain works but also how genes express themselves,” he says. This power, adds Schwartz, can be demonstrated by the “Quantum Zeno Effect,” named after the Greek philosopher Zeno and introduced into science by a group of physicists in 1977.

The phenomenon means that a simple act of observation freezes a quantum system — brain activity, for instance — and suppresses certain transitions to other states, including gene expression. “Quantum physics asserts that all causation does not lie in matter,” says Schwartz. “Physics doesn’t integrate this with the brain, but we’re bringing a new form of causation to science. It’s a major paradigm shift of Copernican magnitude.”

— A.S.

 


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