Researchers prove that awe lowers level of proinflammatory cytokines

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Guests view art at the Spoke Art Gallery in 2012. A study shows connection between such awe-inducing activities and health.

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Researchers published a study done on UC Berkeley’s campus that shows that positive emotions — such as awe, content, pride and joy — are beneficial for human health and the immune system.

The purpose of this study was to find out if the experience of positive emotion was associated with lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines, which are proteins that signal the immune system to work harder and aid cell movement to sites of inflammation and trauma. The study also looked at whether certain positive emotions are more strongly associated with health than others.

Jennifer Stellar, lead author of the study and current postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto, said that in a healthy sample, lower levels of proinflammatory cytokines are good because high levels of cytokines are unnecessary unless the individual is sick or injured. For acute responses to illness, infection or injury, proinflammatory cytokines are useful, but not when they are chronically elevated.

According to Stellar, the tendency to experience awe had the strongest association with lower levels of cytokines.

Participants in the study came into the lab and reported their emotions in questionnaires, and researchers then used scales to assess the positive emotions. Researchers then took cheek swab samples from each participant to determine the levels of cytokines in the subjects.

“We analyzed these samples in our collaborator’s lab at UC Berkeley to measure interleukin-6, a key pro-inflammatory cytokine,” Stellar said in an email. “We distill the sample so we can measure the levels of IL-6.”

Emotions affect cytokine levels and vice versa, which Stellar said is a bidirectional relationship.

Co-author Neha John-Henderson, a current researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, said cytokines like IL-6 are an important component of our ability to fight against infections or intrusions.

When there is dysregulation of inflammatory processes, there will likely be chronically elevated levels of inflammation, such as higher levels of IL-6 in the absence of an infection or illness, which could lead to increased risk for a host of diseases.

“If these findings persist in measurement of systemic levels of inflammation in blood, then we will have further evidence of how positive emotions, experiences and, in particular, awe could impact health trajectories,” John-Henderson said in an email.

John-Henderson said the next step in the research will be to replicate these findings in blood, since the IL-6 levels in this study were measured in an oral fluid — oral mucosal transudate or OMT.

Amie Gordon, a UC Berkeley graduate student who helped collect data for the studies, said that although research often focuses on how negative emotions hurt people’s physical health, this set of studies provides evidence that emotional positivity is ultimately linked to people’s health and well-being.

Robert Tooke covers research and ideas. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @robertono_t.