Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Collingwood on Magic

While discussing what connects art and magic, R. G. Collingwood writes
I am suggesting that these emotional effects, partly on the performers themselves, partly on others favourably or unfavourably affected by the performance, are the only effects that magic can produce, and the only ones which, when intelligently performed, it is meant to produce. The primary function of all magical acts, I am suggesting, is to generate in the agent or agents certain emotions that are considered necessary or useful for the work of living; their secondary function is to generate in others, friends or enemies of the agent, emotions useful or detrimental to the lives of these others.

To any one with sufficient psychological knowledge to understand the effect which our emotions have on the success or failure of our enterprises, and in the production or cure of diseases, it will be clear that this theory of magic amply accounts for its ordinary everyday employment in connexion with the ordinary everyday activities of the people who believe in it. Such a person thinks, for example, that a war undertaken without the proper dances would end in defeat; or that if he took an axe to the forest without doing the proper magic first, he would not succeed in cutting down a tree. But this belief does not imply that the enemy is defeated or the tree felled by the power of the magic as distinct from the labour of the 'savage'. It means that, in warfare or woodcraft, nothing can be done without morale; and the function of magic is to develop and conserve morale; or to damage it. For example, if an enemy spied upon our war-dance and saw how magnificently we did it, might he not slink away and beg his friends to submit without a battle? Where the purpose of magic is to screw our courage up to the point of attacking, not a rock or a tree, but a human enemy, the enemy's will to encounter us may be fatally weakened by the magic alone. How far this negative emotional effect might produce diseases of various kinds or even death is a question about which no student of medical psychology will wish to dogmatize. (The Principles of Art, OUP 1938, 66-67)
I see that tonight on BBC Radio 4 there is a programme called Metaphor For Healing about the ways linguistic phrasing may impact on medical therapy. We might say that this points to the magical (in Collingwood's sense) dimension of speech.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Social Regulation of Human Gene Expression

I will revive this blog once my current philosophy of mathematics phase wanes. For now here's an article to which Andy Fugard kindly pointed me:

author = {Steve W. Cole},
title = {Social Regulation of Human Gene Expression},
journal = {Current Directions in Psychological Science},
year = {2009},
volume = {18},
pages = {132--137},
number = {3},
abstract = {The relationship between genes and social behavior has
historically been construed as a one-way street, with genes in control.
Recent analyses have challenged this view, by discovering broad
alterations in the expression of human genes as a function of differing
socio-environmental conditions. The emerging field of social genomics
has begun to identity the types of genes subject to social regulation,
the biological signaling pathways mediating those effects, and the
genetic polymorphisms that moderate socioenvironmental influences on
human gene expression.}

Reporting on a recent experiment, Cole explains how

Among the 22,283 genes assayed, 209 showed systematically different levels of expression in people who reported feeling lonely and distant from others consistently over the course of 4 years. These effects did not involve a random smattering of all human genes, but focally affected three specific groups of genes. Genes supporting the early "accelerator" phase of the immune responseinflammationwere selectively up-regulated; and two groups of genes involved in the subsequent "steering" of immune responsesgenes involved in responses to viral infections (particularly Type I interferons), and genes involved in the production of antibodies by B lymphocytes—were down-regulated. These results provided a molecular framework for understanding why socially isolated individuals show heightened vulnerability to inflammation-driven cardiovascular diseases (i.e., excessive nonspecific immune activity) and impaired responses to viral infections and vaccines (i.e., insufficient immune responses to specific pathogens). A major clue about the psychological pathways mediating these effects came from the observation that differential gene-expression profiles were most strongly linked to a person’s subjective sense of isolation rather than to their objective number of social contacts.
Several studies have shown that social influences can penetrate remarkably deeply into our bodies. The nervous system plays a key role in perceiving and responding to social stimuli, and social conditions have been found to regulate the expression of neural genes such as the nerve growth factor (NGF) gene (Sloan et al., 2007) and the glucocorticoid receptor gene (Zhang et al., 2006). More surprising is the discovery that key immune system genes are also sensitive to social conditions (Sloan et al.,2007)...One recent study of women with ovarian cancer found more than 220 genes to be selectively up-regulated in tumors from women with low levels of social support and high depressive symptoms (Lutgendorf et al., 2009).
Something to ponder is how best to tell the psychological part of this story.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Monday, 21 July 2008

Some BBC and Science Blog articles

A note of some pages of relevant research mentioned by the BBC:

How emotional pain can really hurt:
New brain scanning technologies are revealing that the part of the brain that processes physical pain also deals with emotional pain.

And in the same way that in some people injury can cause long-lasting chronic pain, science now reveals why some will never get over such heartbreak.

Autism parents 'infection risk'
Caring for children with developmental problems such as autism or Down's syndrome can weaken parents' immune systems, research suggests.

Researchers at Birmingham University found they had a poorer immune response to a vaccine against pneumonia.

Anti-depressants' 'little effect'
New generation anti-depressants have little clinical benefit for most patients, research suggests.

A University of Hull team concluded the drugs actively help only a small group of the most severely depressed.

Drugs for ADHD 'not the answer'
Treating children who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with drugs is not effective in the long-term, research has shown.

A study obtained by the BBC's Panorama programme says drugs such as Ritalin and Concerta work no better than therapy after three years of treatment.

The findings by an influential US study also suggested long-term use of the drugs could stunt children's growth.

It said that the benefits of drugs had previously been exaggerated.

Stressed parents 'make kids ill'
Parents with stressful lives may be making their children as well as themselves vulnerable to illness, research suggests.

A University of Rochester study, reported by New Scientist, found sickness levels were higher in children of anxious or depressed parents.

It also found links between stress and immune system activity in the children.

'Healthier hearts' for cat owners
Cat owners appear to have a much lower risk of dying from a heart attack than their feline-spurning counterparts, a study suggests.

Researchers looked at nearly 4,500 adults and found that cat ownership was related to a 40% lower risk of suffering a fatal heart attack.

And some stories from Science Blog,

Abused kids lose two years quality of life
Childhood maltreatment—which includes physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect—has been linked to an increased risk for ailments ranging from heart disease, obesity and diabetes to depression and anxiety. Corso said there are two reasons why. First, childhood maltreatment increases the likelihood of unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, substance abuse and sexual promiscuity. And recent studies suggest that repeated exposure to the stress caused by maltreatment alters brain circuits and hormonal systems, which puts victims at greater risk of chronic health problems.

Stress cuts blood flow to heart in patients with gene variation
University of Florida researchers have identified a gene variation in heart disease patients who appear especially vulnerable to the physical effects of mental stress — to the point where blood flow to the heart is greatly reduced.

Fear that freezes the blood in your veins
"The blood froze in my veins" or "My blood curdled" – these common figures of speech can be taken literally, according to the latest studies. Indeed, more literally than some of us would like. For it turns out that intense fear and panic attacks can really make our blood clot and increase the risk of thrombosis or heart attack.

Immune system may target some brain synapses
A baby's brain has a lot of work to do, growing more neurons and connections. Later, a growing child's brain begins to pare down these connections until it develops into the streamlined brain of an adult.

Now researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have discovered the sculptor behind that paring process: the immune system.

Friday, 30 May 2008

Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

I've only just realised that I have access to the journal Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, a treasure trove of interesting articles. For example from Volume 19, Number 3 / June, 1998 we have Norbert Paul:
Incurable suffering from the “hiatus theoreticus”? Some epistemological problems in modern medicine and the clinical relevance of philosophy of medicine.
And from the next issue, Volume 19, Number 4 / August, 1998, we have Edmund Pellegrino
What the Philosophy Of Medicine Is.
Essential reading when I finally get around to preparing my Philosophy of Medicine course.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Our Genes are Not Our Fate

Dean Ornish tells us in 3 minutes how lifestyle matters.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Two items

Posting has been terribly thin of late. I've swung back for a time to my mathematical phase.

We have sold the translation rights to the book to publishers from four countries - Finland, Japan, Portugal and Brazil. The Portuguese edition - Porque Adoecemos? - looks like this.

Mind, the mental health charity, shortlisted us for their Book of the Year.

Monday, 25 February 2008

The Risks of Football

A report into the risks of watching football:

Ute Wilbert-Lampen et al. Cardiovascular Events during World Cup Soccer, The New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 358(5): 475-483, Jan 31, 2008.
Viewing a stressful soccer match more than doubles the risk of an acute cardiovascular event. In view of this excess risk, particularly in men with known coronary heart disease, preventive measures are urgently needed.
and BBC report.

Interesting to see that immune system cell functioning is suggested as a possible mechanism. From our research, this struck us as highly relevant in many cases of chronic heart disease.

It's also worth thinking about why people get so emotionally involved in football matches. Perhaps Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch offers the best insight from fiction.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Anger and wound healing

We've discussed wound healing before. Now more interesting research from the laboratory of Kiecolt-Glaser in Ohio State University.

Gouin, J.-P. et al., The influence of anger expression on wound healing, Brain Behav. Immun. (2007) doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2007.10.013.
Certain patterns of anger expression have been associated with maladaptive alterations in cortisol secretion, immune functioning, and surgical recovery. We hypothesized that outward and inward anger expression and lack of anger control would be associated with delayed wound healing. A sample of 98 community-dwelling participants received standardized blister wounds on their non-dominant forearm. After blistering, the wounds were monitored daily for 8 days to assess speed of repair. Logistic regression was used to distinguish fast and slow healers based on their anger expression pattern. Individuals exhibiting lower levels of anger control were more likely to be categorized as slow healers. The anger control variable predicted wound repair over and above differences in hostility, negative affectivity, social support, and health behaviors. Furthermore, participants with lower levels of anger control exhibited higher cortisol reactivity during the blistering procedure. This enhanced cortisol secretion was in turn related to longer time to heal. These findings suggest that the ability to regulate the expression of one’s anger has a clinically relevant impact on wound healing.
They conclude
...this is the first study showing that difficulty in anger regulation can lead to delayed healing. Furthermore, an exacerbated cortisol response to stress appears to explain the relationship between lower anger control and wound repair, although other physiological pathways may mediate the association between anger regulation and healing.
Media report here.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Whitehall Revisited

More on the health of Whitehall Civil Servants (article, BBC report):
This study adds to the evidence that the work stress–CHD association is causal in nature. We demonstrate, within a population of office staff largely unexposed to physical occupational hazards, a prospective dose–response relation between psychosocial stress at work and CHD over 12 years of follow-up. We confirm, during the same exposure period, the plausibility of the proposed pathways involving behavioural mechanisms, neuroendocrine and autonomic activation, and development of risk factor clustering, represented by the metabolic syndrome. Further, those who are older (and are more likely to be retired and less exposed to work stress) are less susceptible to the work psychosocial effect, presenting a coherent pattern in our findings. This study demonstrates that stress at work can lead to CHD through direct activation of neuroendocrine stress pathways and indirectly through health behaviours.
This is part of the Whitehall II study, which I've mentioned before. Long-term, large-scale, prospective studies of this kind are, of course, very welcome. But naturally we'd like to see these balanced by lifelong individual studies, so that we can get beyond the non-specificity of the stress construct.