Last week, two studies that caught my eye seemed to answer fairly basic questions about the nature of the social group and the power of the social contract, and why all this related to the power of group intention.
The study, recently published in Cancer Prevention journal, represented some groundbreaking collaboration between cancer specialists at the University of Chicago and behaviorist psychologist Martha McClintock, founder of the Institute for Mind and Biology at the University of Chicago. McClintock had been fascinated by the effect of social isolation on disease and aging.
As usual, the study involved mice (and I will state here my continual objections to animal research like this – this study could have been done on humans). The Chicago scientists gathered together infant mice that were genetically predisposed to breast cancer and identical in every way, and divided them into one of two groups. One was then raised within a group of mice, and the others were raised on their own.
They then studied genetic expression in the mouse mammary tumors over time. Before long, the Chicago scientists discovered that the mice that had been isolated grew far larger tumors. They were also found to have developed a disrupted stress-hormone response and behaviour indicative of chronic stress.
The researchers then wished to examine the precise biological consequences of the stressful environment. When they studied the gene expression in the mouse mammary tissue over time, they found altered genetic expression levels of metabolic pathway genes in the isolated mice. The environment had altered the way in which their genes were ‘turned on’.
Suzanne Conzen, associate professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, and lead author, was stunned by the results. “I doubted there would be a difference in the growth of the tumors in such a strong model of genetically inherited cancer simply based on chronic stress in their environments, so I was surprised to see a clear, measurable difference both in the mammary gland tumor growth and interestingly in accompanying behavior and stress hormone levels.”
Conzen and her colleagues concluded with a statement that would have been heretical to most biologists and geneticists – namely that ‘the social environment, and a social animal’s response to the environment’ can alter gene expression – that is, turn them on or off – in a wide variety of tissues in the body, including the brain.
In the case of the mice, they permanently stressed by being on their own and the stress of isolation altered their genes and made them ill.
I then came upon another extraordinary study, this time of Oxford University rowers. In this instance, a group of anthropologists from the University of Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology asked a group of 12 rowers to work out in a virtual boat in a gym used for normal training. In each of four tests they were to row continuously for 45 minutes, first as members of one of two teams of six, and then in separate sessions as individuals unobserved by the other members of the team.
Exercise has long known to increase a person’s ability to tolerate pain. So after each session, the scientists measured the rowers’ pain thresholds by measuring how long they could tolerate an inflated blood pressure cuff on the arm. Although the rowers evidenced increased pain tolerance after every one of the sessions, they had significantly larger tolerance to pain after the group training, as compared with the effect of exercising individually.
Professor Robin Dunbar, head of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford, concluded that although all physical activity results in a release of endorphins – the feel-good chemical - the synchrony of the shared physical activity appeared to create a ‘ramped up’ endorphin release, which may have something to do with communal bonding.
So when we do things in groups, we feel a rush of ‘we’re-all-in-this-together’ elation that actually allows us to resist difficulties, including pain.
Said Dr. Emma Cohen, the lead author in the study, which was recently published in the UK’s Royal Society journal Biology Letters, a growing body of evidence suggests that ‘synchronized, coordinated physical activity may be responsible’ for this phenomenon.
The power in numbers
The real takeaway message here is the extraordinary power of the group. These two studies support the central thesis of The Intention Experiment: that group intention creates, in essence, a sacred circle that magnifies the effect.
To my mind, these two studies together answer some vital questions about the power of group intention to ‘ramp up’ the effect of individual thought. If the mouse studies can be applied to other species, including humans (and of course there is no evidence they can be) the lifeblood of most living things is a social group.
Indeed, it appears necessary for survival. Although the mice contained a genetic ‘blueprint’ for mammary cancer, the only factor that turned on the genetic expression of it was social isolation. For the mice raised with other mice, the social group created a ‘field’ that proved protective of cancer.
In the case of the rowers, the group created a ‘field’ that magnified individual efforts and overrode individual limitations. Within the field, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
This is why we feel something extraordinarily akin to magic in our intention circles; we glimpse the essential bond that is our birthright.