12 Jul '14

News This column will change your life: can you think yourself well?

'Quasi-magically, teachers appear capable of declining to get ill when they can't afford to, postponing the symptoms till later'The school summer holidays are upon us and for anyone who's a teacher, who lives with one, or who's merely friends with one, that means only one thing: Teacher Holiday Sickness Syndrome, a name I just made up for a phenomenon I certainly didn't. Within hours of the final bell, it seems, half the nation's educators contract a cold or something similar, necessitating several days of duvet-based self-pity. For anyone who's sceptical of the general idea that you can think yourself well "You'll never get over that ebola infection unless you stay positive!" this curious syndrome stands as a rebuke. Quasi-magically, teachers appear capable of declining to get ill when they can't afford to, postponing the symptoms till later. And it's not just teachers, or even humans: according to a new review in the Royal Society's flagship biology journal, animals from birds to monkeys seem to suppress the signs of illness when there's a really good reason, such as parenting duties, or sexual reproduction. Ailing male zebra finches become remarkably less ailing when there are female zebra finches around.One possible explanation for this may lie in how we think about sickness. The usual assumption is that illness deprives you of certain abilities: it's the evil microbes that sap your energy, rob you of your powers of concentration and make you not want to socialise. According to an alternative evolutionary perspective, though, these "sickness behaviours" are actually helpful: things the body does in order to conserve energy and focus on getting well, as part of "a highly organised strategy to aid in fighting the infection", as the review's author, Patricia Lopes, puts it. You feel like hiding beneath the bedclothes, in other words, so that you're motivated to do so, because that's the best place for you to be. And so it follows that, if there's something even more important for a creature to be doing in order to propagate its genes such as sex, or caring for infants it might not feel those symptoms at that moment. Continue reading...

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