Nicholas Humphrey [12.5.11], Monday, Dec 05, 2011
Now almost every month’s issue of Psychological Science, for instance, reports some striking new finding about how cues from the surroundings can change people’s nature. Moral judgments, reasoning skills, personal hygiene, political attitudes —you name it—are all proving to be unexpectedly malleable, as people respond to the social and physical weather signals that their brains (if not their conscious minds) pick up on.
It’s been a tremendous surprise for experimental psychology and social psychology, because until now it’s been widely assumed that people’s characters are in fact pretty much fixed. People don’t blow with the wind, they don’t become a different kind of person depending on local and apparently irrelevant cues . . . But after all, it seems they do.
Some years ago I drew attention to the “paradox of placebos”, a paradox that must strike any evolutionary biologist who thinks about it. It’s this. When a person’s health improves under the influence of placebo medication, then, as we’ve noted already, this has to be a case of “self-cure”. But if people have the capacity to heal themselves by their own efforts, why not get on with it as soon as needed? Why wait for permission—from a sugar pill, a witch doctor—that it’s time to get better?
Presumably the explanation must be that self-cure has costs as well as benefits. What kind of costs are these? Well, actually they’re fairly obvious. Many of the illnesses we experience, like pain, fever and so on, are actually defenses which are designed to stop us from getting into more trouble than we’re already in. So “curing” ourselves of these defenses can indeed cost us down the line. Pain reduces our mobility, for example, and stops us from harming ourselves further; so, relieving ourselves of pain is actually quite risky. Fever helps kill bacterial parasites by raising body temperature to a level they can’t tolerate; so again, curing ourselves of fever is risky. Vomiting gets rid of toxins; so suppressing vomiting is risky.
The same goes for the deployment of the immune system. Mounting an immune response is energetically expensive. Our metabolic rate rises 15 percent or so, even if we’re just responding to a common cold. What’s more, when we make antibodies we use up rare nutrients that will later have to be replaced.
Given these costs, it becomes clear that immediate self-cure from an occurrent illness is not always a wise thing to do. In fact there will be circumstances when it would be best to hold back from deploying particular healing measures because the anticipated benefits are not likely to exceed the anticipated costs. In general it will be wise to err on side of caution, to play safe, not to let down our defenses such as pain or fever until we see signs that the danger has passed, not to use up our stock of ammunition against parasites until we know we’re in relatively good shape and there’s not still worse to come. Healing ourselves involves—or ought to involve—a judgment call.
It makes sense that our brains should have come to play a crucial part in the top-down management of bodily health. As I see it, what the health management system has evolved to do is to perform a kind of economic analysis of what the opportunities and the costs of cure will be: what resources we’ve got in reserve, how dangerous the situation is right now, what predictions we can make of what the future holds. In effect the system acts like a good hospital manager who has to decide just what resources to keep in store, how quickly to treat a patient, how long before discharging them, etc., overall trying to produce an optimal outcome on the basis of a forecast about what’s coming down the road: whether there’s another epidemic looming, for example, or whether we’re entering a season where there won’t be enough food available.
There’s plenty of evidence that we have just such a system at work overseeing our health. For example, in winter, we are cautious about deploying our immune resources. That’s why a cold lasts much longer in winter than it does in summer. It’s not because we’re cold, it’s because our bodies, based on deep evolutionary history reckon that it’s not so safe to use our immune resources in winter, as it would be in summer. There’s experimental confirmation of this in animals. Suppose a hamster is injected with bacteria which makes it sick—but in one case the hamster is on an artificial day/night cycle that suggests it’s summer; in the other case it’s on a cycle that suggests it’s winter. If the hamster is tricked into thinking it’s summer, it throws everything it has got against the infection and recovers completely. If it thinks it’s winter then it just mounts a holding operation, as if it’s waiting until it knows it’s safe to mount a full-scale response. The hamster “thinks” this or that?? No, of course it doesn’t think it consciously—the light cycle acts as a subconscious prime to the hamster’s health management system.
So now, where does the placebo effect fit in? Placebos work because they suggest to people that the picture is rosier than it really is. Just like the artificial summer light cycle for the hamster, placebos give people fake information that it’s safe to cure them. Whereupon they do just that.
This suggests we should see the placebo effect as part of a much larger picture of homeostasis and bodily self-control. But now I’m ready to expand on this much further still. If this is the way humans and animals manage their physical health, there must surely be a similar story to be told about mental health. And if mental health, then—at least with humans—it should apply topersonality and character as well. So I’ve come round to the idea that humans have in fact evolved a full-blown self management system, with the job of managing all their psychological resources put together, so as to optimise the persona they present to the world.
You may ask: why should the self need any such “economic managing”? Are there really aspects of the self that should be kept in reserve? Do psychological traits have costs as well as benefits? But I’d say it’s easy to see how it is so. Emotions such as anxiety, anger, joy will be counterproductive if they are not appropriately graded. Personality traits—assertiveness, neuroticism, and friendliness—have both down- and up-sides. Sexual attractiveness carries obvious risks. Pride comes before a fall. Even high intelligence can be a disadvantage (we can be “too clever by half”, as they say). What’s more—and this may be the area where economic management is most relevant of all— as people go through life they build up social psychological capital of various kinds that they need to husband carefully. Reputation is precious, love should not be wasted indiscriminately, secrets have to be guarded, favors must be returned.
As we’ve seen, placebo medication works by tricking the subject with false information into believing the situation warrants a reduction in pain, for example, or the mounting of an expensive immune response. Yet it’s precisely because our environment today is less dangerous than it used to be, that responding to this trick no longer puts us at an unacceptable risk. Today we live in a world which is much safer from infection,, safer nutritionally, safer from all the other dangers which might have assailed us. So we can now take the risk of dropping our defenses when the snake oil, the psychoanalysis, the orgone box, or whatever it is encourages us to do so. That’s why placebo medicine today can in fact be counted an unqualified boon.
But now, because the same kind of improvement has occurred in our social lives, the same goes for the risks with managing the self. In the “environment of evolutionary adaptiveness”—the social and physical environment, 100,000-10,000 years ago, in which many of our biological adaptations were laid down—our ancestors lived in very small scale societies, where individuals were monitored all the time by the group, and it was essential to conform to others’ expectations.
There’s still evidence enough of this in modern times. Self-stereotyping provides a depressing example. Dozens of studies show how even today people respond to reminders of racial or gender or age stereotypes by becoming more like the model. Put up a poster of a naked woman anywhere in the vicinity of where a woman is taking a math test and her score goes down. Actually even just ask her to state her gender at the top of the exam page and her scores go down.
But, as I said, the world has changed—or at least is changing for most of us. We no longer live in such an oppressive environment. We no longer need to play by the old rules, and rein in our peculiar strengths and idiosyncrasies. We can afford to take risks now we couldn’t before. So, yes, I’m hopeful. I think it really ought to be possible to devise placebo treatments for the self, which do indeed induce them to come out from their protective shells —and so to emerge as happier, nicer, cleverer, more creative people than they would ever otherwise have dared to be.
And then what about the messages we pick up from the natural world? I’ve become particularly interested in how nature itself may provide placebo information, by seeming to suggest that we’re in the presence of a great designer, a creator, God. Wherever we look, there’s no question the natural world shouts “intelligent design”, shouts of a great artist in the sky. And, admit it or not, I’m sure this can provide a powerful subconscious prime. It can make us believe that we’re in the presence of a loving father, or perhaps a loving partner, someone whom we should look up to and want to get closer to—but who gives us permission to be such selves as we wouldn’t be otherwise. If overt religious messages can act as placebos, then so too can the beauties of nature, so too can the sun and the moon and the stars.
There’s so much to explore here, once we start thinking about the forces that make us who we are. Of course we shouldn’t overdo the evolutionary heritage, as if inheritance is determining everything that matters. But there’s no question it’s real and important. When I think about how events in our evolutionary past still shape our lives today, I like to draw a parallel with the echoes of the Big Bang, the background microwave radiation, which can still be detected in the telescopes we send to space. Likewise, the human genome carries vibrations from the deep, deep childhood of our species, which still show up in contemporary behavior. Every one of us brings the past into the present.