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.


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