Why stress gets on your nerves

MOST PEOPLE would agree that certain events in their life, such as bereavement, changing jobs, examinations, or even rush-hour travel in big cities, are stressful. We try to avoid stress, but if we cannot, we must try to adapt to it. This adaptation is sometimes referred to as ‘toughening up’. Although stress is difficult to define, we know that both avoidance and toughening up are crucial ways of coping with it.

When we cannot cope, stress can lead to irritability and fatigue, and other more serious disorders, such as gastric ulcers, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression. Yet not everyone subjected to severe stress suffers from a heart attack or a bout of depression: some individuals are much more vulnerable than others. Many neuroscientists now suspect that the difference in the ability to cope may lie in biochemical changes in the brain involved in the process of adaptation to stress.

Continue reading Why stress gets on your nerves

The Body Electric

HAS anyone told you lately you’re electric? Well, you are. Your every pore oozes with the stuff. Must be all those ions you’ve been pumping. And we’re not just talking about nerve impulses here: every surface of your body, from your skin to your cell membranes, is humming with electrical activity.

Biologists have known for more than 200 years that nerve impulses are transmitted electrically. But only recently have they started eavesdropping on the electrical chatter of the rest of your body, and have discovered that electricity, in the form of electric fields, plays a vital role in numerous biological processes from embryonic development to cell division, nerve regeneration and wound repair. “The phenomenon is broadly applicable and I think we have only scratched the surface of something that is evolutionarily highly conserved and widely used,” says Colin McCaig of the University of Aberdeen, UK, who has been working on the biological effects of electric fields since the 1980s. Continue reading The Body Electric

Biology & Belief

BELIEF has never literally moved a mountain, but it can have some dramatic effects. Take Madeleine Rizan. By the time she bathed in the waters of Lourdes in 1858 she had been paralysed for 24 years, yet, according to the record, she regained her ability to move. Then there are the dozens of heart patients in the 1950s who were helped by a procedure known as internal mammary ligation – which worked just as well when patients simply believed it had been done. There are even instances of women who stop menstruating, grow a round belly and begin to lactate, in the firm but mistaken belief that they are pregnant. Equally mysterious are the paralysed people who believe their limbs are still working normally, despite the evidence of their own eyes.

What is going on inside our brains when we believe? How does that trigger physical changes in our bodies? And why would our minds believe the world is a certain way in flat contradiction to the evidence of our own senses? Or, put another way, what exactly is the biological basis of belief? “It’s a fascinating question and poorly studied,” says Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neurologist at the University of California at San Diego who has spent much of his career studying “disorders of belief”. Dean Hamer, from the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and author of The God Gene, goes further. “We have absolutely no idea,” he says. “Nobody has any idea.” Continue reading Biology & Belief