One of my preferred news compilation websites, Alternet.org, just published a piece, originally from the UK Independent (I believe), on the relation of emotions, personal interactions, and similar ‘moods’ on health. Anastasia Stephens, in the article, ‘How Your Mood Affects Your Health,’ runs through in very cursory fashion a whole host of research on the effects of things like laughing, stress, arguments, and crying on the human immune systems, healing, and the like.
The article has a lot of fun little research summaries, unfortunately, without links to the actual research reports or anything deeper about the studies. But there’s warnings about how arguing affects healing:
A half-hour argument with your lover can also slow your body’s ability to heal by at least a day. In couples who regularly argue, that healing time is doubled again. Researchers at Ohio State University discovered this by testing married couples with a suction device that created tiny blisters on their arm. When couples were then asked to talk about an area of disagreement that provoked strong emotions, the wounds took around 40 per cent longer to heal. This response, say researchers, was caused by a surge in cytokines — immune-molecules that trigger inflammation. Chronic high levels of these are linked to arthritis, diabetes, heart-disease and cancer.
Or another personal favorite:
Scientists at the University of California have discovered that laughter relaxes tense muscles, reduces production of stress-causing hormones, lowers blood pressure, and helps increase oxygen absorption in the blood. Cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center found laughing can actually reduce the risk of heart attack by curbing unwanted stress, which can destroy the protective lining of blood vessels. A good giggle also burns calories since it’s possible to move 400 muscles of the body when laughing. Some researchers estimate that laughing 100 times offers an aerobic workout equivalent to 10 minutes on a rowing machine or 15 minutes on an exercise bike.
There’s even a brief quote from Robert Sapolsky, whose books The Trouble with Testosterone: And Other Essays on the Human Biological Predicament and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, are personal favourites. He’s a great commentator on human endocrine systems and almost always manages to put things in perspective with a clear, plain language summary of his own fascinating research. Example, his comment on the affects of aggression-related endocrine reactions: “What’s the punch line here? Physiologically, it doesn’t come cheap being a bastard 24 hours a day.” (From an on-line lecture Sapolsky gave.) (I started writing this before I read Daniel Lende’s discussion of Sapolsky on stress. We’re both fans of his work, but Lende does a great job of highlighting some of its limits.)
So often, this research is presented in a kind of ‘self-help’ fashion. The implication being that we could ‘laugh our way to physical fitness’ or something similar, and the comments from Alternet’s readers are an intriguing mix of affirmation and criticism. A number of readers point out that a reader could get the impression from the article that a ‘don’t worry, be happy’ approach to life is being advocated; some readers lash out at the political implications of this approach.
Of course, I don’t see this article as interesting because it encourages laugh-therapy or because it tells us that our blisters will last longer if we argue a lot with our spouses and kids. These sorts of effects are fascinating because they are ‘top-down’ influences on cellular-level processes, an enormous category of biological effects produced by the actions, behaviour, and even attitudes of the whole organism. Although the message of the article might be that you have control over these processes, I would say that the subtext is really that, whether or not we attend to it consciously, our organism-level lives affect our cellular-level processes. The endocrine system seems to be one of the most interesting, though certainly not the only, system that has this kind of ‘top-down’ ‘whole-affecting-the-parts’ effects. The message isn’t just the power of positive (or negative) thinking, but that in any model of human biological development, the endocrine system is a fundamental channel through which humans (and other animals) are conditioned biologically by their environments, by their own behaviour patterns, and by other biographical facts (not just ‘nurture’). Modeling these channels is one way that a more robust, dynamic systems theory of human biological development
That is, the endocrine system is a primary channel for deep enculturation. The sorts of experiments that are described are pretty shallow manipulations of these systems, as far as I’m concerned. Studies of the long-term effects of traumatic stress, neural recalibration accompanying depression, or other serious conditions suggest that neural plasticity allows for substantial reorganization accompanying sustained emotional effects. The point then is not ‘be-happy-to-be-healthy,’ but rather that organism-level (and larger) processes will affect organ-level and cellular-level processes through a host of mechanisms. The idea that a single state of the organism is the one ‘healthy’ one is part of what leads this research astray; for example, states that might be considered a kind of low-level ‘paranoid’ in urban Western middle-class life might be absolutely adaptive elsewhere. Because I work on sports, training of senses, and links to physiological development on an evolutionary scale, I sometimes feel that the whole ‘health’ discourse is under a looming shadow, which is our current human-constructed ‘ecological’ niche. To talk about ‘health’ in this environment as if it were a ‘natural’ state, without acknowledging that the niche is artificial, the standards socially constructed, and the expectations really extraordinary considering what we know about human life, makes a lot of this seem surreal.