Melina Uncapher: This Is Your Brain On Service

Posted by Janis Daddona on Feb 13, 2014
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     It’s a great day when science and our spirit can agree on something:  altruistic thoughts and actions are not only good for others but good for our health and longevity.  Just ask Melina Uncapher, Ph.D. who gets to investigate how our behaviors and thoughts interact with our anatomy and physiology.  By exploring the brain, we can create practical applications for better living.
     At the Stanford Memory Lab, where the possibilities for exploration are seemingly endless, she and her colleagues can show us that people with elevated levels of stress have elevated levels of inflammation.  But through acts of altruism and compassion, the body releases stress and inflammation declines.  They are teaching women with stage-four breast cancer how to enhance their internal locus of control, helping them feel more empowered and find more meaning in their circumstances. They are studying the effects of multitasking with media on our attention and memory.
     But where service is concerned, Melina shared, the research is fascinating.  Service is important to our wellbeing.  We have a baseline for our outlook and emotions that can be spiked by sudden fortuitous events like winning the lottery, but soon the euphoria dissipates, and we drop down to the baseline.  Likewise a sudden tragedy can send our
wellbeing into a death spiral, and before too long, that also lessens as we rise to our baseline.  “But the things we do—rather than what happens to us—lead to more lasting happiness.  This can boost our baseline, especially in terms of our outlook.  This affects your health and relationships for the better…which in turn boosts the baseline even more.” 
      But compassion burnout can be a very real problem for some.  “The motivation underlying service is a key factor in predicting burnout," she alerts us.  "If there is real altruism then that can actually enhance our health and longevity.  But if you feel like you’re engaging in a behavior that no longer serves you, then that really is a call to consciousness.  If it feels burdensome it could have negative consequences.”
     To listen to Melina speak with real passion and good humor, you can tell she is a living example of what she researches.  “While the work is exciting, it can be so focused that the larger context can be lost.”  To counter that, Melina co-founded The Institute of Applied Neuroscience.  “The work has changed me by shifting my focus towards a more community- and globally-based communication style.  It’s really important that all of this knowledge that is often siloed in the halls of academia flows out into the community to create conversations between scientists and the real world so we can tackle real world problems.”  Just one example is the work being done in justice system.  By researching how mindfulness affects our memory, her team was able to help the New Jersey court system adopt new training for jurors to give them a better understanding of the limits of eyewitness testimony. 
     As fascinating as our conversation was, Melina gave us some very excellent advice. Pay attention to your body.  Be fascinated with how all aspects of your being interact with and support each other.  Learn firsthand how service, done with genuine altruism, affects your happiness even as you make a difference in others’ lives.  “Use your life as your own experiment,” she urged us.  “And take what scientists say with a grain of salt.” 

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