Saturday, July 30, 2005

Drama and Another Reason to Breastfeed Baby

Your physical wellbeing and your cultural environment are not distinct, separate spheres. They interact all the time.

Let’s start with — abstract ideas that are propelled around the world by . Every conversation is a display of culture — and so are all TV shows, movies, novels, and blogs. Because we regard culture as abstract, we don’t pay much attention to its physiological effects, which are actually obvious when you think about it.

In today’s Globe and Mail there’s a piece about being good for mothers. We already knew it was good for babies, but now it turns out that mothers who nurse are more relaxed than those who bottle-feed their infants. Researchers found this out by showing movie clips to mothers and measuring their physiological reactions. The hormone increases whenever one feels . To induce it, the experimenters showed a fictional about children being exposed to . The mothers who breastfed reacted much less to the film, and produced less cortisol, than the mothers who bottle-fed their newborns. Why? Because breastfeeding stimulates the mother’s brain to produce more , a hormone that is necessary for and that also has a calming effect. It’s often called the “cuddle hormone,” and it’s good for the mother’s health. By reducing her stress, it also may help her give optimal care to the baby.

These scientific findings are not particularly surprising. It seems only natural that suckling a baby will stimulate hormones that soothe a woman emotionally. But notice that the stress was produced, not through any physical experience, but by a cultural one: watching a movie. The film stimulated cortisol, a hormone that also affects one’s health. Thousands of have documented the harm done by stress. Probably throughout the day, your body is being damaged or helped as much by your cultural environment as by your physical environment. After all, fiction can both stress you and make you relax. A story can stimulate your oxytocin or your cortisol — as well as dozens of other bio-chemicals that you experience as emotions or moods.

Thousands of researchers routinely show film clips to their subjects in the laboratory, measuring the effects. But outside the lab, culture goes on all the time. People watch television several hours every day. How much cortisol are these images generating? How much oxytocin? If the effects were measured, we’d regard drama as a public issue comparable in magnitude, say, to the impact of smoking cigarettes, of consuming quantities of anti-oxidants, or of breastfeeding a baby. That research will make us pay attention.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Health and the Social Status of Movie Stars

Desires are not biologically given, but rather are formed socially. Socrates (or perhaps it was Plato, since we don’t know where the one ends and the other begins) saw in this the conditions for our personal growth. But René sees mainly its negative aspect — and so did Karl , who well understood the nature of relative comparisons. He wrote, “A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut. … Our wants and pleasures have their origin in society; we therefore measure them in relation to society….Since they are of a nature, they are of a relative nature.”

The can have immense, direct impact on reality. If your felt needs were based on reality, you’d be satisfied with the small house, regardless of the size and opulence of the house next door. But your desires are not realistic but rather imaginary in origin. It is only the imagination that makes you crave more because other people have more.

Yet I should not say it’s only the imagination, for imaginary needs can be even stronger than real ones. In order to demonstrate the significance of in our lives, I have to show the power of the imagination, for entertainment influences only our imagination. It does not alter our real circumstances and is therefore often discounted as trivial.

Make no mistake: The imagination is vastly consequential. Whatever shapes the imagination shapes the world as we experience it.

Now I’ll deliver today’s homily, which will make the point even more convincingly than Marx’s little metaphor about the small house and the palace. This story is about a study of — people who do live in palaces, but who are nevertheless profoundly affected by the size of the neighbor’s house. Indeed, their relative rankings of professional status evidently determines the of these privileged people.

Two University of Toronto epidemiologists carried out the research. They obtained the biographies of all the film actors who had been nominated for, or had won, in the Academy Awards through the year 2000, as well as another group of film of about the same age who had not been nominated. Almost half of the 1649 actors had died. Those who had won Academy Awards lived almost four years longer than those who had been nominated without winning. Some actors had won several Oscars, and they lived even longer than single winners. However, merely being nominated more than once did not increase life expectancy, nor did the experience of acting in a larger number of films without being nominated.

This is the obvious conclusion: High for outstanding professional competence (which is judged by ranking rather than objective criteria) can make people live longer and healthier lives — even if they already were doing outstandingly well.

Four years is a huge difference in life expectancy. As the researcher, Donald Redelmeier, notes, “If you were to cure all in all people in North America for all time, you would add maybe 3.5 years to life expectancy.”

Social status then has an enormous, direct influence on . This has been known for many years when it comes to whole populations. Understandably, people live longer than the poor. But these films stars are not poor, yet status affects them too. Is it stress? Does it hurt an actor to be nominated for an Oscar, but not win it? We don’t know. But in later entries I’ll explore how our own health is affected by vicariously feeling the of imaginary, fictional characters.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Education of Desire

is usually considered as the imparting of , theories, and methods of inquiry by a mature mind to a less fully formed mind. But there is more to it than that. Anything that inspires new in us is also a form of education. After all, we were not born with our current wishes already formed; they have come to us over time — almost invariably through social interactions.

To be sure, your body has certain needs and develops new ones throughout the life cycle, as for example when desires emerged at puberty. However, you had to learn to enjoy most things, such as olives and strong coffee. Other people educated your desires. Here I want to explore the experience of learning desires.

Throughout his career, the anthropologist and literary critic René has revealed the anti-social implications of imitative desiring. Most people deny his insights, preferring to believe themselves the source of their own wishes. Yet Girard has shown that we sometimes identify with another person who possesses what we find ourselves sorely lacking and, full of envy and admiration, we him — even his desires. We must then compete against him for the scarce objects that we both want. In this way, conflicts arise that would be unnecessary if our motives had not been acquired vicariously. Our vainglorious often have negative consequences, including collective social phenomena that range from wars to stock crashes to and fashions.

What I want to point out here is the similarity between Girard’s pessimistic account of how we acquire tastes and Socrates’s upbeat interpretation in Plato’s The Symposium.

Like Girard, points out that the only thing we ever desire is something that we feel that we lack. Our awareness of this lack arises in an emotional relationship with another person — initially usually a beloved whom we desire for his beauty. Our desire is far from regrettable, however, since it stirs in us a new appreciation of beauty and an urge to fill up what is absent in ourselves. According to Plato, a wonderful begins with our physical to someone whom we may regard as a lost “other half” of our self – a part that previously we had not realized was missing,

Through this emotional relationship, our educates us, making us wiser by leading us into higher kinds of awareness, as we recognize progressively higher levels of . Ultimately, we discover that we what we love is not an individual, but rather beauty itself. To Plato, this experience educates our desires and elevates our spirit.

What I want to point out is that our are the basis for this kind of education. Education involves more than verbal communications or mathematical proofs of factual truths. The heart can be educated too. Our cultivation of higher desires and motivations is an emotional transaction involving intimate sentiments. As described by Plato, our emulation of a significant other educates our desires, disciplines our hearts, and deepens our souls — quite a different outcome from the violence and competitiveness that Girard saw and deplored.

But in fact, both outcomes are possible. When we see another person enjoying what we ourselves seem to lack, our sharing of his motivations may educate our desires and enhance our capacities. Or, conversely, it may mis-educate our desires, make our hearts envious, and brutalize our souls. Either way, the education is emotional, not intellectual, and it involves an absence in oneself of something that can be filled only by what another person possesses.

I want to emphasize here the huge significance of our vicarious preoccupation with other persons’ lives. It shows both how we grow and how our personalities can be stunted. And, oddly, these vicarious involvements can immensely powerful even when the object of our admiration does not know we exist, or is even fictitious. People fall in love with they have never met, or with characters in novels and plays. Each such passion may either educate our desires or confirm our wretched lacks.

is no trivial matter, for entertainers are among the most impressive — and hence influential — persons alive.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Why People Don’t Help Save Our World

The doomsayers are right, unfortunately. We’re going to run out of oil in about 20 years, and no efficient renewable resource is likely to be ready in time to prevent a catastrophe. Other disasters are already underway: global warming, the massive of species, the pollution and misuse of existing , the depletion of forests and other carbon sinks, the renewed clamor to obtain and create new weapons, the cultural conflicts between resentful and the modern Western societies…

I could go on, but you know the story already. We, as a species, are likely to run into an irreversible catastrophe within a decade. It’s in the newspapers and movies, which we observe in a frozen, passive state, waiting for the inevitable but failing to mobilize.

We are all required, in this situation, to give our maximum energy and commitment to solving global problems. is everybody’s assignment — not just mine or yours. So why aren’t we devoting every ounce of our energy to meeting this stupendous challenge? Why isn’t everybody an activist?

Well, I personally am an and have been for decades. Most of that time I’ve been a full-time peace activist – teaching, writing, and editing a journal addressing peace, , and disarmament issues. But when I think back upon the mental steps that I went through in becoming an activist, I can see what keeps other people from contributing to some of these projects.

Let me tell the story of my “epiphany” and the lessons I’ve learned from it.

It began with the nuclear power plant accident in March 1979. A series of mishaps led to the overheating of fuel and the near melt-down of the reactor. The situation never became as serious as it might, and indeed nobody even became sick as a result. However, for a few days we had every reason to expect that there would be casualties – that everyone in the vicinity of the plant might have been exposed to dangerous — perhaps even lethal — doses of . If so, they would not feel the symptoms yet, but they would be “walking corpses,” for nothing could save them from eventual death.

I remember going to bed that first night imagining what those people felt like — those who supposedly had been irradiated. If I were one of them, what would I be planning to do? Knowing that I was going to die anyhow, regardless of any medical interventions, I was sure I’d want to put the remainder of my days to good use. Since I would no longer have any reason to protect myself, I would without hesitation for any risky, even life-threatening, mission that might allow me to be useful. I’d want, above all else, to use the last few weeks of my life contributing something of value to society. I’d do anything, anything at all, to make such a contribution.

But what? What exactly could I do, as a mortally wounded person — or even as a healthy person — that would be worth the sacrifice of my life? I thought hard about that and realized that clear-cut, unmistakable opportunities to contribute are actually quite rare, whether or not they involve serious bodily risks. In fact, if I knew of anything that was definitely worth giving my life for, I’d do it, even as a healthy person with a good life expectancy.

So that’s the problem! I can’t be a heroine because opportunities for are so rare. Mostly we can’t be confident that the outcome of our deeds will be even moderately useful to society, much less worth sacrificing our life.

Then it occurred to me that I’m no different from other people in this regard. I would give my life anyhow if something were clearly worth it, and so, probably, would you. The trouble is, we don’t know what’s worth doing. Hardly ever can we see a problem that is almost certainly worth devoting our lives to solve.

Yet life is most richly meaningful for those who are engaged in a project of such importance. At that moment, I decided to look for problems that are worth everything that may be required to solve them.

That decision changed my experience somehow. I had no commitment yet, but I was searching for one — and my readiness made all the difference.

The search took about four years. In 1983 I learned a dramatic new fact: that there were 50,000 nuclear on the planet. If anyone had asked me to estimate how many existed, I might have guessed fifty. I had no idea! Clearly, this was a challenge that was worth my life. I didn’t know whether it might cost my career, say, or my life savings, or my family ties to work toward nuclear disarmament, but whatever the cost, I knew I’d be willing to pay it, to help get rid of nuclear weapons. Even if we failed, the effort would be worth it. And so I jumped into the campaign and worked on the problem most hours of my waking life for a number of years.

Why doesn’t everyone do the same — for nuclear or any of the other global problems that threaten the survival of humankind?

I think many others might do so, if they could be sure what was worth doing. But that’s hard. Nuclear weapons are so unmistakably destructive that I could have no doubt about the goal, but I did have doubts about the means. What was the most promising approach to abolishing those bombs? That’s a pragmatic problem.

And when it comes to solving the other global problems, we are even less certain just what steps to take. For example, we know we need to stop burning fossil fuels — but how can we do so? What can I personally do to assist effectively in developing alternatives? As individuals, we can’t see any specific course of action that make a difference. I won't get enthusiastic about futile gestures. We never get a chance to be heroes. Indeed, we aren’t even looking for such a chance. And because we don’t look, the opportunity is even less likely to appear.

What we need to do is start looking actively for opportunities to make a difference, to contribute to the survival of humankind — and when we do look, at least three concrete possibilities are obvious.

Here’s the first clear-cut service to perform: study the facts and clarify the probable solutions for at least one global issue. Without that clarity, people can’t be expected to dedicate their lives to working on it. Your participation in policy-making dialogues is a real contribution to others. When they see a clear, well-thought-out path that promises to be helpful, you've created an opportunity for others to become heroes.

The second service is this: those clear solutions. If people don’t know that there are answers, they can’t act on them. And because most serious problems are so complex, they won't independently stumble across the promising solutions that exist unless someone goes out of the way to point them out and disseminate the practical means of contributing.

The third valuable service is to stimulate others emotionally to take on big chores with courage and optimism. People who believe that their lives don’t make a difference turn out to be right. They won’t make a difference. Anything you do to remind people that they count helps them begin their search for ways of contributing. This third type of emotional service can be fulfilled in a variety of ways. In later blogs I’ll discuss preparedness, and explore ways of fostering it — especially through productions, which I consider the most promising way.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Entertainment as Education through Love

Every — from King Lear to Robinson Crusoe to Little House on the Prairie — conveys messages, whether or not they are intended. Each story discloses something about the storyteller’s and, if it’s effective, sways the audience, partially or temporarily bringing us around to a new point of view.

gives us adventures inside a hero’s skin. It can be fun, while also deepening our hearts and souls — though that is certainly not inevitable, for much just wastes our time. Or worse: it can make us suffer vicariously and adopt foolish opinions. It can shock and appall us. It can teach us how to cheat other people. It can even persuade us to accept wretched conditions instead of seizing splendid opportunities that lie within our grasp.

Entertainment puts us through vicarious suffering that is consequential. When you the of another person, you truly experience it — at least in an attenuated form, and perhaps vividly. Do you really want to feel another person’s pain? It can actually hurt, producing the same in your body as if your own flesh were wounded. Stressful emotions are bad for your , while laughter, joy, love, and pleasure are good for you, measurably extending your life expectancy.

But you sometimes choose entertainment that is stressful rather than pleasurable. , creepy ghost stories, scenes of autopsies, car wrecks, and torture, for example. Why do you pay to be put through such anguish? Philosophers have speculated extensively about that question, without arriving at any single obvious explanation, for our motivations are multiple and contradictory. Painful stories do hurt, but sometimes they also make us wiser and more compassionate toward people whom we might otherwise disdain.

Occasionally we may even feel love for a character whose shortcomings are obvious. These moments of tenderness may enrich our own emotional and social capacities in lasting ways. Such experiences are “educational“ — and indeed, more than that. Besides cognitively expanding our horizons, whenever we feel love for a fictive character, our is deepened. There are health benefits and spiritual, psychological benefits as well, for our hearts are opened to lives beyond our own.

Remarkably, an imaginary character or event may touch us more profoundly than anyone in our own “real“ lives, occasionally even making us question our previous , so that we adopt new commitments that last a whole lifetime. That phenomenon proves the power of stories. This is under-used. I want us all to cultivate and employ it for the benefit of humankind.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Entertainment, Emotion, Love, Empathy, Ethics, and Saving the World

I have finished writing a book about entertainment, which will be published by Paradigm Publishers in February, 2006. Its title: Two Aspirins and a Comedy: How Television Can Enhance Health and Society.

But I haven't said everything important on the subject. In cleaning my office space I was about to dump all the papers and clippings I had saved for seven years as potential sources for my writing, but it felt like an impending loss. I had squeezed my text ruthlessly, eliminating much fascinating material. Instead of sending my research documents to the dumpster, I am going to use this blog as a way of sharing some of what I've learned, revealing connections that most people have not noticed. Actually, I keep running across more new material on these topics every couple of days. I’ll explore the multiple effects of entertainment -- at least the kinds of entertainment that involve telling stories. People rarely recognize the enormous impact of fiction and drama, and certainly we don't use it much for motivating the public to engage in the necessary social reforms to save our planet.

But before addressing the societal impact of entertainment, I’ll mainly focus on the intrapersonal physiological level, since it is only through our imagination that fiction works its magic. And the most obvious impact of the imagination is on the workings of the body -- notably the arousal of our autonomic nervous system, which also affects our immune and endocrine systems. Watching a particular movie can affect your health in a major way, for good or for ill, just as your social relationships affect your health. In fact, you can experience intense personal relationships with imaginary characters who are as important to you (or even more so) than the real persons in your life.

This experience of attachment and closeness to the characters of a show is often considered pathological, but it is quite normal. Indeed, individuals who form intense "parasocial" relationships with fictional characters tend also to have extremely close relationships with their real friends and lovers. Imaginary relationships with, say, soap opera characters do not substitute for genuine intimacy, but usually accompany it. instead of regarding this as a psychological disorder, we might more appropriately encourage it.

What makes fiction and drama powerful? Our empathy for the characters. And philosophers prize empathy as essential to moral development. It is certainly true that a good movie about a complex but flawed personality may broaden the minds of viewers, making us more insightful, tolerant, and compassionate. However most shows and novels do not set out to do this; it is far more common for writers to encourage viewers or readers to blame someone in the story. For example, crime and war shows are all about finding some culpable person or group who supposedly should be incarcerated or killed. This lends excitement to a plot, but without necessarily fostering wisdom, compassion, or problem-solving behavior in the audience.

So if you're interested in these topics, check in with me from time to time. I intend to write an entry two or three times every week — partly because I am so interested in the topic that writing a normal-sized book is not enough. I must keep going!

Perhaps I should say a word about myself. I'm a retired female sociology professor from the University of Toronto. I coordinated the peace and conflict studies program at my college during the last 13 years of my career and am continuing to edit an independent publication, Peace Magazine.