I didn’t see North Country this weekend, for a good reason. What I needed was about thirty or forty good laughs. I’d been working at the computer for days, pretty successfully, but feeling hardly any emotions. Now I seemed to be coming down with a cough. My friend Danni phoned and suggested dinner and a movie. Unfortunately, Danni has a variant of the thrill-seeking gene, Dopamine-receptor D4 (DRD4). She loves films about distressing, dangerous situation, which fill her strong need for adrenaline. This is a woman who hiked alone all over Africa, sleeping outdoors on the ground where there are snakes and wild elephants. That’s not for me – especially when I’m low on Immunoglobulin A (IgA), the biochemical that fights off colds and other infections. We negotiated on the phone for half an hour without agreeing on any film that’s in the theatres now. Eventually we agreed to eat in a restaurant near her place, then rent a video.
There aren’t many tapes in Blockbuster anymore and Danni doesn’t have a DVD player. But fortunately, we found one old 1971 movie that has always been one of my favorites: Harold and Maude. (See photo.) It was a hoot. I’m feeling better today. We laughed about thirty times, boosting our IgA significantly. I don’t suppose Danni was as gratified as I, though, because she got no adrenaline or cortisol all weekend, and she needs that as much as I need IgA. In fact, because she gets so little of it in Toronto, she’s considering moving back to Africa. A lot of stimulation is required to pump Danni’s cortisol and adrenaline levels up. On the other hand, the slightest arousal will throw me into anxiety. I sometimes walk out of horror or war movies, just to keep from being overwhelmed by the stress. This wasn’t the right weekend for me to see North Country.
Our negotiations reminded me of a fact that I tend to forget: People really do differ. Our tastes will never coincide, if only because of the hereditary physiological variations among us. True, everybody needs certain biochemicals that are produced by particular emotions – dopamine and oxytocin, for example — though we may need them in differing amounts. And at different times, every person needs different emotions. That’s one thing that entertainment is for: to give us the emotions we need. We shouldn’t necessarily compromise in selecting our entertainment for the weekend.
We do compromise, of course, just because we don’t consider entertainment important. I used to go along with any friend who particularly wanted to see a film. Nowadays, though, since I’ve become aware of the health effects of the various peptides — the “molecules of emotion” — that we produce internally, I’ve become more choosy about my entertainment. I foresee a day when everyone will consciously select their entertainment according to their individual needs for mood management. A smart doctor could already begin prescribing particular kinds of films and television shows, tailored to produce the biochemical changes that each patient requires.
Ordinarily we want to minimize stress. In fact, people with heart disease should always minimize emotional stress. You should give yourself a good physical workout, stressing your cardiovascular system by walking or playing tennis, for example, but avoiding emotional stress. The cortisol and adrenaline can give you arrhythmia and a lop-sided enlargement of the heart. There have been hundreds of studies of the effect of different kinds of films. Watching the opening battle scene from Saving Private Ryan harms the endothelium that lines the blood vessels and constricts the circulation of blood by about 35 percent. Watching a comedy, on the other hand, improves the blood circulation by almost that same amount above your base line.
The same goes for the immune system. You have various cells in your blood — NK or Natural Killer cells — that are supposed to destroy foreign cells, tumors, and the like. If you’re depressed, your NK count falls and you get sick more easily. Laughter and positive emotions such as love will restore your cell counts to the normal range.
This is not new. Psychologists have known these facts for many years. The way they conduct their studies is usually by showing films to subjects who are hooked up to electronic and blood testing devices. They pick films that induce particular emotions, but they don’t consider the fact that we are constantly “medicating” ourselves in daily life with doses of emotion from our own TV sets. This is a public health issue, not just a matter of cultural appreciation. By and large, we should avoid stress — and we do so, except when we’ve been bored by routines so much that we need some excitement. Then we may pick a thriller. And those who have the DRD4 gene will pick thrillers much more often than the rest of us, and will prefer stories that would give nightmares to me.
My advice: Either pick your friends carefully — ones that like the same shows as you — or go to films alone and spend your socializing time doing something that you and your friends can enjoy together.