This post is the first one of a series that I have in mind to bring attention to the fact that we are connected to others and to our environment, and we can either influence and be influenced by what happens around us. In this opening post I want to highlight the relevance of our surroundings (human and physical) on our health, for good and for bad. Al turrón!
We are social organisms. I don’t think you are astonished by this affirmation. Anyway, did you know that you could actually die if you don’t have social contact with other humans? Maybe not at your age, my dear old reader, but it has been described that children at hospitals may suffer from physical and psychological underdevelopment if they don’t receive enough human stimuli. We need a mother figure in order to grow up in a healthy way. It can be either your biological mother or somebody else taking care of you, but we need a model to learn to be a person.
This observation is not new, it was described scientifically a century ago when somebody noticed that in poorer hospitals which couldn’t afford incubators the infants suffered less of these symptoms (physical and mental retardation) due to the fact that caretakers had to hold them regularly. This effect of the lack of affection on the development of infants was studied in-depth by René Spitz specially in orphanages and hospitals, naming this pathology anaclinic depression or hospitalism. Interestingly, he found that this is reversible if the child’s mother comes back (after less than six months) and offers affection again.
Further in the past there are a couple of horrible experiments showing the same fact: love is vital. They say than a pharaoh tried to raise children far from their mothers with the theory that without human contact they would become soldiers without feelings: perfect for war! The idea was kind of clever (in a way) but it happened that all the children died. Touché, pharaoh!
In the 18th century Frederick the Great, king of Prussia and one of the main exponents of the enlightened absolutism, had a similar enlightened idea of raising children without social contact. This time the purpose was to identify the original language, speculating that without human influence the first words of the babies would come spontaneously and it should represent the adamic language. To test his theory Frederick the Great (Asshole) ordered to enclose 30 newborns in a room, giving them the best possible care for the period in terms of food and medical attention, but the nannies had to wear masks to not show emotions, and of course not talk to them. The result: without the possibility to create an attachment with a particular caregiver (the mentioned mother figure) and without social stimuli, all the babies died without exception.
Thus it is proven that we need human contact to become humans, at least in our early age. But, what happens later on in life? So far it seems that the current health system is mainly worried about the babies’ human needs, what is a good thing, but somehow it is forgetting about the need of affection of the adults, while we are the ones who pay the taxes (or the bills if you are in the USA). Is it because we grown-ups are independent from social needs? Well, at least you don’t die that fast, but of course we need a positive environment for a healthy life. Next question is: are our hospitals taking care of this? My impression is that in general not. If you go to a hospital, you’ll surely notice how the only colourful area with cartoons in the walls, toys, music… is the children area (I insist, what is a good thing). But modern healthcare system tends to ignore the other needs of adult patients, apart from drugs and expensive medical devices. Luckily there are many professionals that cover that area with passion for their work and a lot of empathy. And even more luckily, some of them think out-of-the-box and are implementing measures to better fulfil those other needs and make the stage of the patients and their recovery as good as possible. Remember that a nice environment affects everybody, patients and caregivers.
This effect of how a positive environment can influence ourselves is specially remarkable with music. Many initiatives in hospitals have shown this healing effect of music therapy in patients in ICU (Intensive Care Unit). You just need to google “music therapy in ICU” and have a look to some of the results. It is clear that it results in reduced anxiety of the patients and a lower need for sedatives. A good example was studied in a hospital in Latin America, where after implementing music in a certain ICU the patients recovered in average 2 days earlier. Imagine this for you as a patient and/or as a taxpayer, because a day in ICU might be around 1000€ in costs. And one day at ICU sucks, for the patient and his/her beloved ones. So why not all our hospitals have music in their ICU?
To me it was particularly impressive the effect of music to overcome dementia, alzheimer, and other cognitive disorders shown in the documentary “Alive inside: a story of music and memory” (available in Netflix). It is the story of a human called Dan Cohen, founder of the Music and Memory foundation, who thought that it was possible to use customised music from people’s happiest life periods to bring back their lost memories and reconnect them with the world. And it happened, old people suffering from different mental disorders responded in an amazing way. Check the documentary if you can, or here it is a short clip, and the trailer below:
This is a clear example on how one can improve the quality of life without the use of drugs or chemicals, just creating a more positive environment. “There is no pill that does that”. But for this there is not only music. The visual is also important, that’s why children’s hospitals are colourful and have The Paw Patrol in the walls, as discussed before. But why not the adult areas? Well, it’s coming slowly. I’d like to introduce you a beautiful example from a friend of mine, José Sánchez, who is the director of the radiotherapy unit in a Hospital in southern Spain, who considered this issue. The point is that to get radiotherapy treatment one needs to go into a “bunker” to avoid the radiation to spread around. And classically the bunkers are not famous for being colourful and charming. His concept is that this fact influences the way patients enter into the radiotherapy room, because walking a corridor with all-concrete walls surely bring a negative feeling. To induce a positive change in patients’ emotions he was thinking in bringing the beach inside the hospital, in his words. So he decided to cover the walls of that corridor with a nice theme. And what is nicer than a local beach? Also they included a part of a poem from Juan Ramón Jiménez, the Nobel price in Literature in 1956, born nearby (Moguer, Huelva, Spain) and whose name was given to the hospital at issue. My translation of the poem would be something like: “Love, kindled rose / you took well too long to blossom / the fight healed you / and now you are invincible“.
And they did it, they brought the beach inside the hospital. Somebody from the company that made the technical work wrote in their blog that after the installation of the corridor he asked for her opinion to a 70 years old patient leaving the radiotherapy room, and she answered with shiny eyes: “God bless you, for some moments I managed to forget where I was entering…”.
Check the result in the following video.
TL;DR: Surround yourself of positivity. Love and be loved. You’ll live better and longer.