Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Collingwood on Magic

While discussing what connects art and magic, R. G. Collingwood writes
I am suggesting that these emotional effects, partly on the performers themselves, partly on others favourably or unfavourably affected by the performance, are the only effects that magic can produce, and the only ones which, when intelligently performed, it is meant to produce. The primary function of all magical acts, I am suggesting, is to generate in the agent or agents certain emotions that are considered necessary or useful for the work of living; their secondary function is to generate in others, friends or enemies of the agent, emotions useful or detrimental to the lives of these others.

To any one with sufficient psychological knowledge to understand the effect which our emotions have on the success or failure of our enterprises, and in the production or cure of diseases, it will be clear that this theory of magic amply accounts for its ordinary everyday employment in connexion with the ordinary everyday activities of the people who believe in it. Such a person thinks, for example, that a war undertaken without the proper dances would end in defeat; or that if he took an axe to the forest without doing the proper magic first, he would not succeed in cutting down a tree. But this belief does not imply that the enemy is defeated or the tree felled by the power of the magic as distinct from the labour of the 'savage'. It means that, in warfare or woodcraft, nothing can be done without morale; and the function of magic is to develop and conserve morale; or to damage it. For example, if an enemy spied upon our war-dance and saw how magnificently we did it, might he not slink away and beg his friends to submit without a battle? Where the purpose of magic is to screw our courage up to the point of attacking, not a rock or a tree, but a human enemy, the enemy's will to encounter us may be fatally weakened by the magic alone. How far this negative emotional effect might produce diseases of various kinds or even death is a question about which no student of medical psychology will wish to dogmatize. (The Principles of Art, OUP 1938, 66-67)
I see that tonight on BBC Radio 4 there is a programme called Metaphor For Healing about the ways linguistic phrasing may impact on medical therapy. We might say that this points to the magical (in Collingwood's sense) dimension of speech.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Social Regulation of Human Gene Expression

I will revive this blog once my current philosophy of mathematics phase wanes. For now here's an article to which Andy Fugard kindly pointed me:

author = {Steve W. Cole},
title = {Social Regulation of Human Gene Expression},
journal = {Current Directions in Psychological Science},
year = {2009},
volume = {18},
pages = {132--137},
number = {3},
abstract = {The relationship between genes and social behavior has
historically been construed as a one-way street, with genes in control.
Recent analyses have challenged this view, by discovering broad
alterations in the expression of human genes as a function of differing
socio-environmental conditions. The emerging field of social genomics
has begun to identity the types of genes subject to social regulation,
the biological signaling pathways mediating those effects, and the
genetic polymorphisms that moderate socioenvironmental influences on
human gene expression.}

Reporting on a recent experiment, Cole explains how

Among the 22,283 genes assayed, 209 showed systematically different levels of expression in people who reported feeling lonely and distant from others consistently over the course of 4 years. These effects did not involve a random smattering of all human genes, but focally affected three specific groups of genes. Genes supporting the early "accelerator" phase of the immune responseinflammationwere selectively up-regulated; and two groups of genes involved in the subsequent "steering" of immune responsesgenes involved in responses to viral infections (particularly Type I interferons), and genes involved in the production of antibodies by B lymphocytes—were down-regulated. These results provided a molecular framework for understanding why socially isolated individuals show heightened vulnerability to inflammation-driven cardiovascular diseases (i.e., excessive nonspecific immune activity) and impaired responses to viral infections and vaccines (i.e., insufficient immune responses to specific pathogens). A major clue about the psychological pathways mediating these effects came from the observation that differential gene-expression profiles were most strongly linked to a person’s subjective sense of isolation rather than to their objective number of social contacts.
Several studies have shown that social influences can penetrate remarkably deeply into our bodies. The nervous system plays a key role in perceiving and responding to social stimuli, and social conditions have been found to regulate the expression of neural genes such as the nerve growth factor (NGF) gene (Sloan et al., 2007) and the glucocorticoid receptor gene (Zhang et al., 2006). More surprising is the discovery that key immune system genes are also sensitive to social conditions (Sloan et al.,2007)...One recent study of women with ovarian cancer found more than 220 genes to be selectively up-regulated in tumors from women with low levels of social support and high depressive symptoms (Lutgendorf et al., 2009).
Something to ponder is how best to tell the psychological part of this story.