Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
How Your Emotions Affect Sickness and Depression
In How Emotions Are Made psychology professor Lisa Fedlman Barrett considers the role of emotions in health.
At the gym I’ve watched members enter class or the steam room to “work through” a cold. Hoping to feel better, their spread of germs is likely to infect others. Gyms are, like schools, breeding grounds for illness. But is the spreading of germs enough to make another sick?
Sometimes. Amazingly the germs themselves prove secondary to the mindset of the potential victim. One study found that when a group of people received a cold virus directly into their nose only 25-40 percent of the infected became sick. There’s more to illness than germs.
Of all the psychosomatic factors psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett discusses in her groundbreaking book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, these lines in particular jumped out:
The diverse set of symptoms that you collectively call “a cold” involves not just your body but also your mind. For example, if you are an introverted or a negative-minded person, you’re more likely to develop a cold from a noseful of germs.
When I talked to Barrett about this phenomenon, she told me her point was not to focus on pessimism. She was just reminding readers that multiple factors go into generating sickness. The larger picture begins with concepts.
We learn about everything through concepts. Barrett uses bees as an example. In order to mentally envision a bee you first have to have a concept of what it is, not only what one looks like, but also information relating to bees, which require other concepts: meadow, honey, and sting, for example. The more you learn about and have experiences with bees, the broader your concept. You then group bees with other larger concepts, such as insects and flowers.
This is how humans learn. Concepts help us “guess the meaning of incoming sensory inputs.” When you first experience a small buzzy thing flying around your head you don’t know what it is. Maybe someone informs you; maybe it stings your arm. You quickly learn to avoid it. In the future you know to move away when you see it coming. We apply concepts and grouping to everything. If we didn’t we’d have to relearn the same concept over and over and over.
Barrett’s thesis takes off from this basic knowledge when she writes,
With concepts, your brain simulates so invisibly and automatically that vision, hearing, and your other senses seem like reflexes rather than constructions.
While common wisdom claims humans share basic, universal emotions, Barrett realized that theory, based on very specific emotions applicable to the facial expression of Westerners, is not how humans generate emotions. There is no “fear face.” We don’t so much react to stimulation—the old knowledge of emotions—as predict incoming sensory information and construct, on the spot, our emotions relating to it. This might sound minor, but the implications are anything but.
If humans are reactive animals always responding to stimulation—this causes fear, that creates angry, this implies sadness—then we’d share a basic set of universal emotions. But we know that’s not how humans work. People respond to seeing a dead body differently: disgust, sadness, anger, but also joy and even arousal. It’s not a reaction but a creation dependent upon numerous factors, including past experiences to that stimulation, genes, and your current audience.
Problems begin because we're often essentialists, which is the belief that essence is prior to existence. An emotion is innate and therefore we react with it at these times; a virus germ is the essence of a cold, and so when coming into contact we become sick. But if the majority of people infected with a virus does not become sick, Barrett asks, what other factors need to be considered?
Barrett says most genetic material is not comprised of genes but the machinery turning genes on and off dependent upon the situation—genomics, or epigenetics. Certain people are more sensitive to input than others. When dealing with germs, your stress level makes a huge difference. If you’re interacting with your environment in a stressful or pessimistic manner, you’re more likely to get sick.
When your body budget is taxed—continually taxed—to the point where your brain believes your body is sick, that it needs to be protected from a major illness, the genes that protect you from bacteria tend to be turned on and the genes that protect you from viruses tend to be turned off. If your body is under siege, if you’re stressed, your brain is running your body at a deficit—this is colloquially what we call stress—long term stress comprises your immune system in a particular way that means you’re more likely to catch a virus.
The ravages of stress aren’t only applicable to viruses. Barrett points out 1.5 billion people suffer from chronic pain. Chronic pain is so pervasive in America we spend or lose in productivity $635 billion every single year. Barrett extends this to include depression, which she believes might be “a disorder of misbudgeting and prediction.”
We know there’s no silver bullet for chronic pain and depression, but it is similar to a virus: there is no singular cause. What we do know is that stress plays a role. Barrett writes that we can’t treat one part of the body without taking every system into account. Stress, though, has system-wide effects.
Everything about us—our central nervous system, enteric nervous system, the environment, friends, family—plays a role in our health. While the concepts we use to frame the world might not be the only factor in determining health, it often begins there. And if we’re overwhelmed every time we contemplate the input around us, our immune system will be compromised. A vicious cycle ensues.
The reality is there is no reality. At least no singular reality ruling over all other realities. We are constantly constructing reality every moment of our lives. Your experiences, Barrett concludes are not “windows into reality.” Your brain instead models your world dependent upon what is happening in your body and environment this very moment. Your world, she says, is “formed in a storm of prediction and correction.”
And that matters for health, be it the common cold or, strung out over a period of decades, mental health. It matters in relationships and careers. It matters in politics and the law. In each instance we often want to be right, but demanding the world bend to your perception of it always leads to suffering, as the Buddha knew all those millennia ago. You're guaranteed disappointment. A chronic system-wide spiral begins.
Predicting correctly is an art, not a reaction. As with everything it takes time and patience, as well as, at times, moving out of the way of yourself. Not the easiest task, but when your health and the health of your society matters, it’s well worth the sacrifice.
Derek's latest book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, is out now. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.