Looking at Sick People Boosts Your Immune SystemS

Next time you're afraid you might get sick, don't bother with Airborne or Emergen-C or some other bullshit preventative elixir. Do what science tells you and look at pictures of sick people.

What is the difference between science, and that lady in your office? Science has peer-reviewed studies that use the scientific method to come to evidence-based conclusions, while that lady in your office just heard something from an email forward about how plastic water bottles will give you cancer. So when that lady in your office says that mega doses of vitamin C will help prevent illness, and science says uh, no they won't, you should believe science. And besides, science has a better way of boosting your immune system: look at pictures of sick people.

A group of researchers at the University of British Columbia had test subjects watch slideshows of "unpleasant images," and tested their immune response by taking blood samples before and after. Some of the slideshows featured pictures of sick people blowing their noses, coughing into handkerchiefs, dealing with various gross poxes and rashes. And guess what?

IL-6 is a proinflammatory cytokine that white blood cells make when they detect microbial intruders. More IL-6 indicates a more aggressive immune response to infection. So, by measuring IL-6 before and after the slide show, the researchers were able to determine whether seeing pictures of disease-y people actually stimulated the immune system to fight infection more aggressively. And it did.

That's right: pictures of sick people seem to help promote your immune system. And what does not stimulate immune response?

We didn't just ask people to look at disease-y photos. We also had a control condition in which participants looked at photos of people who were brandishing guns (most of which were pointed right at the camera, which means they were aimed right at participants themselves). Our participants rated those guns pictures as more distressing than the disease-y pictures. But, the guns pictures stimulated barely a 6% increase in IL-6 production, which is pretty negligible.

So, to sum up—zinc, vitamin C, echinacea, pictures of people pointing guns at you: worthless. Pictures of sick people: possibly life-saving. Thank you, science!

[Psychology Today via Boing Boing; photo by Morgan DDL/Shutterstock]