This chapter is about the concept of search activity, which I mentioned briefly in the previous chapter about dreams. The concept of search activity was born of despair. Too many contradictions had crept into the study of stress and the science of the origins of psychosomatic illness. Psychosomatic illnesses are those in which psychological or emotional factors play a decisive role in their origin. It includes duodenal ulcers, high blood pressure, cardio-vascular disease, many allergies and some glandular disorders. More recently, tumours, especially of the malignant type, have been added to the list more and more often. Consequently, psychosomatic illnesses are among the most devastating and represent some the leading causes of death and invalidity.
It has long been a statement of the blindingly obvious that negative emotions damage health, while positive emotions are good for you. We all know from popular literature that negative emotions cause stress. And since we all know from our own personal experience, too, that escaping negative emotions is impossible, then we have to accept life under conditions of permanent stress as a given. If stress really does lead inevitably to psychosomatic illness, then we are all potential patients and we should just learn to live with it.
Learning to live with it is not, however, something we want to do. What we want is to find a way out of this logical trap. Yet when you begin to ponder some of the statements so readily accepted as axiomatic, the first doubts begin to appear. For example, war, which of all the known sources of stress lasts longer and affects larger numbers of people than any other, does not result in an increase in psychosomatic illness. In fact, during World War 2 the number of people suffering from psychosomatic illness among both those on active service and non-combatants dropped. It sounds like a paradox: a super-abundance of negative emotions, fear for oneself and one’s dearest, exhausting work, unlimited workdays, chronic shortage of food, yet psychosomatic illnesses dwindle.
An even more astonishing example is that of the health of concentration camp inmates. When the allies liberated the prisoners lucky enough to survive to the end of the war, doctors were astonished. Despite physical emaciation and huge nervous tension, the survivors had not only not succumbed to any new illnesses picked up in the camps, but quite often there were no signs of those illnesses they already had when sent to the camps. This is not suggest that concentration camps are an ideal place for curing psychosomatic illness. Very many died because conditions in the camps exacerbated such illnesses and they did not survive to see liberation. But if one and the same factor – camp stress – in some cases led to a deterioration in health and to death while in others it actually brought about an improvement in physical condition, it means that stress in itself explains nothing and we have to look for other, attendant circumstances which are decisive for health.
Another interesting phenomenon is worth attention in this respect: many former concentration camp inmates who were healthy on liberation became ill some time later, in a context of vastly more favourable conditions and improved state of mind. This phenomenon has long been known to medicine and been given the name – “diseases of achievement”. As long as a person is striving to reach some very important goal, be it a career, an idea or the affections of a particular woman, he stays healthy, even though the difficulties he encounters on the way frequently spoil his mood. Then he achieves his goal, victory is his. If it was a final goal, of the kind of which it is said “achieve and die”, the metaphor all too often becomes reality, depression, sometimes suicidal, sets in or psychosomatic ailments appear. We called this the Martin Eden Syndrome, after the Jack London hero who successfully overcame all life’s difficulties, but could not cope with success. My friends working in the Moscow Academic Polyclinic for Scientific Researchers had their own term for it – Post-dissertation Syndrome. A person would work on his dissertation, overcoming one obstacle after another, and remain in perfect health. Then he would reach his long-anticipated goal, defend his dissertation, and promptly wind up in hospital. Incidentally, this never happened if the dissertation was seen not as the finishing line of years of effort and the right to a well-deserved rest, but as the springboard to more creative work.
What is the general rule behind these observations? How can negative emotions sometimes be helpful to good health, and positive ones make it worse? Why can stress be not only harmful, but also beneficial?
The concept of search activity answers these questions. I created this concept in collaboration with the outstanding physiologist Dr. Viktor Arshavsky, extrapolating from research carried out on both animals and humans. Experiments on animals also showed that positive emotions can lower the resistance of the organism, while clearly negative emotions, such as fear or anger, can increase this resistance. The watershed divides not along the line of emotions, but the character of behaviour. As long as the person or animal, even if experiencing fear or anger, preserves search behaviour there is no threat to health.
What is search behaviour? It is active behaviour in conditions of uncertainty, when a person cannot forecast with one hundred percent certainty the outcome of his activity (regardless of whether the result is successful or not). However, he is able to assess adequately each intermediate result on the way to the final goal and correct his behaviour as required. Thus, search behaviour differs from panic behaviour, which also happens in conditions of uncertainty, but during which a person is unable to draw lessons from his mistakes or random successes. Uncertainty as to the final result is what gives this behaviour the character of search, since complete certainty in the result produces behaviour that is automatic and stereotyped. Interestingly enough, at a certain point panic acquires the character of stereotyped behaviour, and as a rule results in capitulation or depression, i.e. behaviour which is the complete opposite of search. Depression, melancholy, apathy, lack of initiative or vague anxiety, caused by repression from the consciousness of an unacceptable motive (see previous chapter) are all manifestations of renunciation of search. Renunciation of search lowers the resistance of the organism, even if the actual renunciation of search is not accompanied by negative emotions (as with diseases of achievement).
The search component is also absent in stereotyped behaviour, when a human or animal is active enough, but can forecast the results of the activity with one hundred percent certainty. Outside a stress situation, this behaviour can be perfectly adequate and adaptive, but it does not raise the resistance of the organism to stress.
There is a profound philosophical meaning behind this fundamental law connecting search behaviour with health. Search behaviour in itself requires serious effort and large expenditures of energy. It pushes a human or animal to search for something unknown, new, unfamiliar, potentially dangerous even. It is easier not to search, easier to live by stereotypes, in certain knowledge of the consequences of every step. But if every member of a community renounces search, then not only will he come to a halt in his inner development, but so will the entire progress of the population as a whole, and if we are speaking of human society, then the development of civilization. Even the brain development of each individual depends to a large extent on search behaviour, and at the same time a highly developed brain has more capacity to organize such behaviour. When we say behaviour, we mean behaviour in the widest sense: it also embraces ‘psychological behaviour’, thoughts, fantasies, creativity. The important thing is that the thought process should not have a stereotyped, routine character.
Probably, search behaviour has such a close connection with health precisely in order to compensate for and justify all the troubles and difficulties that it brings. Health is the gold coinage with which nature rewards those ready to take risks (intellectual included). It’s no coincidence that a special study has shown that the majority of outstandingly gifted people, whose achievements have earned them entries in the encyclopedias, lived longer than their average contemporaries. It’s also clear that concentration camp survivors kept their health as a result of their ceaseless daily struggle to preserve their life and dignity. In the camps such a struggle demanded a high level of search activity. It also explains the diseases of achievement. If a person stops search activity of his own free will, especially if it was very intensive beforehand, such a dramatic decrease has serious implications for health.
As far health is concerned, it doesn’t matter which direction the search behaviour is headed. Search by a huckster or a fraud, search that advances one person at the expense of others, protects the health as surely as search for answers to the questions that trouble mankind. Nature is amoral. However, the destructive search of egotists and psychopaths does provoke resistance from others.
It’s important to remember that the actual process of search has more significance for health than its practical outcome. You may not arrive at a successful solution to the problem, but as long as the search process continues, health is maintained and hope is preserved. A renunciation of search kills both.
If search activity is so important for the individual and, further, for the development of the population at large, then why has renunciation behaviour not disappeared during the process of evolution as something harmful and superfluous? Most likely because each individual, at an early stage of his development, in childhood inevitably exhibits passive, dependent behaviour: his own physiological and psychological possibilities for search behaviour are not yet formed, they develop only gradually and with the active support of parents. If stimulatory support, helping overcome an initial fear of search, is not expressed strongly enough, this strengthens a passive position, which will in future, whenever difficulties are encountered, encourage renunciation behaviour, capitulation. Consequently, the way we bring up our children influences not only their behaviour, but also their health.
All the consequences of early separation from the mother stem precisely from the absence of emotional contact and emotional support. Studies of young monkeys have shown that separation at first brings a reaction of protest and fear, which is quickly replaced by panic. Then apathy sets in, all primary attractions are diminished (appetite, for example), search activity decreases sharply and, most catastrophic of all, the process is often irreversible. Even the return of the mother fails to restore either the emotional contact with her or active behaviour. There is a critical period in the development of highly developed animals when the change to active search is about to happen, and if at this time the animal experiences trauma connected with the absence of parental support, this will leave a lifelong mark. Remember the significance Freud ascribed to early psychological traumas in the development of neuroses. The concept of of search activity helps connect the theoretical postulates of psychoanalysis with modern biological concepts.
Frequent punishment, especially the crushing of initiative, also blocks search behaviour, as does the unconditional and unlimited giving of rewards, or efforts to protect a child (or even an adult) from any exertion. The fate of the USSR, that grandiose social experiment, shows what happens when search behaviour is blocked. A renunciation of search characterized both upper and lower reaches of the Soviet social structure. The lower orders would not, could not live either in the old way or a new one, while the upper echelons could not rule either in the old way or a new one. For too long the road to the top lay not in using initiative, but in observing stereotyped rules of the game.
Suppressed search activity will always exact a terrible revenge both on the fate of a single individual and on a society.
What are the psychological mechanisms that support search behaviour? And the other way round, what characteristics of personality can lead to a stubborn renunciation of search, even if there were no grounds for this in the experiences of early childhood and the child received the necessary support from its mother? This is a very interesting and serious question, which has a direct connection with education and also with the mechanisms of psychological defence about which I wrote in Chapter 1. It requires special discussion and we will discuss it in the next chapter.