In slang vernacular, saying something is “bad” actually means that it’s really, really good. In a similar mind-flipping reversal, though your natural instinct may be to “see no illness, hear no illness,” it turns out that in order to stay healthy, it may be advisable to look at sick people…on occasion.
Researchers from the University of British Columbia came to this conclusion after showing volunteers a series of 10-minute slide shows on two different days. On the first day, the volunteers viewed slides of furniture, and not surprisingly, nothing much happened. On a subsequent day, they were shown slides of sick people manifesting various forms of illness and decrepitude — including graphic shots of pox and oozing skin lesions, mucous running out of noses, and so on. Or, they watched slides of guns pointed directly at them.
Before each slide show, the researchers drew blood from the volunteers. After the subjects watched the slides, the researchers drew blood again, and then they mixed bacteria into both the before and after blood samples to test immune response. Normally, white blood cells react to bacteria by producing a substance called interleuken-6 (IL-6), which fights infection. The stronger the immune response, the higher the levels of IL-6 that the white blood cells generate.
Those people who viewed the slides of sick people showed an incredible immune boost of 23 percent. Those who watched the gun slide show also had a spike in immune levels, but only by six percent. In other words, viewing the slides of sick people was about 400 percent more effective in boosting immune function than was watching slides of murderous criminals, though both endeavors improved immune function (keeping in mind that the generic furniture slides shown the day before provided no boost at all). Study director Dr. Mark Schaller says, “It seems that there is something specific about seeing people who look diseased that triggers the immune system to kick it into a higher gear.”
Earlier studies found that when people see someone who shows clear signs of illness, they feel disgusted and want to avoid that sick person. (You’ve got to wonder what funding organization actually thought we needed a study to establish that fact!) This creates a bit of a biological conundrum, because on the one hand, running away from the sick individual does allow the healthy person to avoid exposure, but turning tail before getting a good look at the ailing individual means missing a chance to boost immune function. From the standpoint of pure self-preservation, the best scenario would be to get a really good look at the sick person, and then skip out before breathing in any microbes.
But while an immune boost might be a good thing in the short run, experts say that too much exposure to sick people might be bad, and not just from the point of view of contagion. When the immune system constantly is on alert, it becomes exhausted, according to Dr. Schaller. “It’s like a car engine. If a car engine is constantly revving at a high level, at some point down the line, it’s just going to fail.” And so, constantly being around sick people, even if they aren’t contagious, might initially trigger the immune system and then keep it revved, eventually depleting it. In other words, the self-preservation scenario needs a rider that makes clear that you should look at sick people to get your immune system going, but only occasionally.
But how does this recipe square with the fact that so many people spend hours watching medical dramas on television? Grey’s Anatomy, for instance, which is enormously popular, features one medical emergency after another, as does the equally popular House. Can shows like these exhaust the immune response? It sure makes sense that if a slide show excites an immune response, so would an action-packed drama, and maybe even more so. And the study also raises the question of how medical professionals fare in terms of immune exhaustion, given that they constantly look at the infirm.
In any event, the researchers speculate that the immune system evolved to rev up in the presence of sick people as a protective mechanism. Here’s powerful evidence of the spectacular wisdom of the body. Even though subjects rated the gun slideshow as far more threatening than the slideshow of sick people, they had a far greater immune response to pictures of those who looked contagious than they did to pictures of those who merely looked dangerous. The body seems to “know” that secreting IL-6 won’t help much if a bullet tears through your body, while it also seems to “know” that a bit more IL-6 just might stop an aggressive pathogen.
Meanwhile, researchers are busily investigating other aspects of how the mind affects health, researching whether hearing phrases like “this might pinch” has an effect on the experience of pain, for instance. Of course, they could just read the chapter in Lessons from the Miracle Doctors (“It’s the Thought that Kills”) that first explored the topic of mind/body integration in great detail over a decade ago. And perhaps while they’re at it, the researchers can check if the principles apply to finances. Would looking at photos of street people for brief interludes boost the ability to make money, for instance? This seems as good a question to snag some funding around as the aforementioned question of whether seeing a dripping nose boosts the immune system.
PS: And don’t complain about the pustule laden face of Baron Harkonnen from Dune at the top of this blog. It may be revolting, but I did just boost your immune system — no need to thank me.