Here’s the press release from Genome Biology, “People who experience chronically high levels of loneliness show gene-expression patterns that differ markedly from those of people who don’t feel lonely.” The study’s lead author, Steven Cole, notes: “In this study, changes in immune cell gene expression were specifically linked to the subjective experience of social distance. The differences we observed were independent of other known risk factors for inflammation, such as health status, age, weight, and medication use. The changes were even independent of the objective size of a person’s social network. What counts, at the level of gene expression, is not how many people you know, it’s how many you feel really close to over time.” Continue reading “Loneliness and Health: Experience, Stress, and Genetics”
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.
The other night, my two year old daughter complained with a sleepy vehemence, then turned to my wife for comfort (yes, we are co-sleepers!). She had been sick, unable to sleep well, and she sought out her mother for comfort and soothing. It wasn’t that my daughter was physically stressed, but that her little mind seemed to get ahead of herself. The terrible things bothering her? Suddenly they are all right because of Mamá.
What does this have to do with the fight-or-flight reaction? Very little. But anyone who’s tried to deal with a screaming baby knows that such a thing is very stressful for everyone involved. And that’s the point. Stress does not sit so easily into the category we imagine for it. When my daughter screams, I feel my blood pressure rise and a lack of control if I am unable to soothe her. Alternatively, calming her calms me. These sorts of experiences do not fit easily into the stressor/stress reaction dichotomy covered in yesterday’s post on Robert Sapolsky. But I had not really thought about it that way until I recently read the work of Michael Blakey, professor of anthropology at William & Mary.
In his chapter “Beyond European Enlightenment,” Blakey opens with a discussion of how naturalism leads into ecological and evolutionary “explanations” that lie explicitly outside the social realm as well as to sexual, racial and genetic determinism (“natural” causes or differences, hence we just have to accept the present state of affairs). Blakey is not against the documenting of human variation that good ecological or human biology research can highlight, say between a certain type of environment and a certain body type. However, he is against this approach becoming the core focus of a discipline (say, biological anthropology) and quite aware of the dangers that the projection of biological explanations into the social realm plays in the communications and politics of a public anthropology.
As he writes, “Naturalism as it informs empirical methods shows the human element in data analysis as contaminating, deviating from ultimate truth. Culture, therefore, becomes a thing to be purged (or denied) in apprehension of legitimate truth (382).” He sees the logical extension of such a view as: “The proper order of human life according to this view is to be found outside human society. Whether the method is belief in gospel or systematic evidence, religion and natural science obtain an allure of being able to reveal knowledge from beyond human agency (382).”
This article from The New York Times, Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile, illustrates a central point that Greg Downey and I want to make with neuroanthropology. First, what you do with your brain, how that doing plays out in an environment, and how that playing out feeds back into the workings of your brain are a central part of what makes us human—and thus is a central part of how anthropology should approach the study of ourselves.
What You Do: Having an active brain over your life course means that less neurons are likely to be lost and more connections actively generated and maintained. The brain, like your muscles, is use-it-or-lose-it—we have the most neurons that we’ll ever have when we are children, and as children, we go through a lot of “selective pruning”. That said, research has also shown the we keep producing new neurons throughout our lives, overturning a long-standing idea that we only get one set of neurons for life.
Doing in Environment: As the article notes, “there is no ‘quick fix’ for the aging brain, and little evidence that any one supplement or program or piece of equipment can protect or enhance brain function — advertisements for products like ginkgo biloba to the contrary.” Despite our wishes to the contrary, we need to do plenty of stuff in a challenging environment to maintain our cognitive reserves.
Playing Back into the Brain: Both social relationships and physical activity make a difference to your brain. Greg likes the physical side, so I will just highlight one quote here: “Long-term studies in other countries, including Sweden and China, have also found that continued social interactions helped protect against dementia. The more extensive an older person’s social network, the better the brain is likely to work, the research suggests.”
That said, we can also draw two other lessons from the article. First, as I pointed out briefly in my Introduction, we should avoid over-localizing function and pathology in any one area. Brains are not as hard-wired as computers; people’s physiology is variable (including their brains). We are soft wired, or “wet wired” to draw on the metaphor of a 1995 book. As the article states, “up to two-thirds of people with autopsy findings of Alzheimer’s disease were cognitively intact when they died.” The second point, and a crucial one for neuroanthropology, is the implicit framing of the article. The title reads “Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile,” re-using a very old mind/body metaphor. While Jane Brody speaks of social and physical activity, the main causal concepts are cognitive and physical: the cognitive reserve, the number of neurons present. Subsequently, Brody has our social, physical and symbolic worlds revolve around the mind/body dichotomy. Neuroanthropology needs to develop the research, the language, and the popular models to show what this article actually tells us: people’s social lives, from walking in malls to playing bridge, make a difference in the blood flow and neuronal connections of the brain. Our lives play back into our brains.