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Lessons from Centenarians

Updated: Jan 2

Human Longevity Research?

Longevity research with rats and worms is zoology lacking the cultural meaning-making component unique to centenarians. There's no magic bullet to extend the quality of human life because we are self-organizing bioinformational fields seeking significance beyond survival. At best, animal research may be contributory, but never sufficient for human healthspan.

Admittedly, animal research has its place in testing methods that would not be possible with humans because of the potential dangers and violations of bioethical principles. Jonas Salk tested his vaccine for polio with monkeys before applying the research findings to humans. A brilliant discovery responsible for protecting millions of children from the dreadful poliomyelitis virus.

My argument, however, is not against animal research, but rather the assumptions made when applying the results to humans. The biochemistry of animals lacks the effects that meaning-making has on human biochemistry. When we smile at others and they smile back, we secrete oxytocin (a neuropeptide with powerful health benefits), when we feel helpless against adversity, we reduce our natural killer cells (immune cells that fight pathogens, including cancerous tumors), when we are shamed, we trigger tumor necrosis factors (TNF) and c reactive proteins (inflammatory markers that negatively affect longevity), and much more from research with humans based on over forty years of psychoneuroimmunological evidence.

A vivid example of moving from animal research to humans without the meaning-making factor, was B.F. Skinner's behaviorism, that unfortunately, strongly influenced psychology in the 1970's. Skinner, psychology professor at Harvard, concluded from teaching rats and pigeons to perform using food pellets as "reinforcers," that the human brain was merely a "black box" where stimulus and response were all that was required for behavioral change.

Fortunately, I had the privilege, as a graduate student at Vanderbilt University, to witness how my thesis professor, John Bransford, debunked the Skinnerian black box nonsense by demonstrating how meaning-making affects our behavior. Bransford, from cognitive psychology, and Noam Chomsky, from psycholinguistics, where able to show that, rather than a black box, our brain is the interpreter of our world. Later, George Solomon at UCLA, also one of my mentors and father of psychoneuroimmunology, demonstrated how our interpretations (beliefs) affect our immune system.

Returning to longevity research, in the past 25 years of investigating healthy centenarians, worldwide, I found how their outlier meaning-making contributed to their healthy longevity, without consulting rats and worms. I propose that animal research can advance understanding the microbiology of human longevity, as long as it includes the meaning-making factor when extrapolating their results to humans. Otherwise, animal researchers will remain zoologists at the micro level, and Skinnerian reductionists at the macro spectrum of human biocognition.

In Search of Meaning

For more information read my bestseller The MindBody Code

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