Photography, as a cultural activity, could be one of the causes of cheating your genes for the better and leading a healthier and longer life than your genes have programmed you for.
Ever heard of Lars Olov Bygren? Probably not and what’s more he’s got absolutely nothing to do with photography. And yet he’s very well known in the scientific world for his studies into epigenetics; so what’s epigenetics?
Let’s start with Darwin. Unless one lives in the bible-belt most people have a rough idea of what evolution is about. Genetic changes take place over countless generations and we are what we are because of our genes. Well, it now seems we are and we aren’t. In effect genes, for better or for worse, can be cheated through epigenetic change. One of the causes of cheating your genes for the better and leading a healthier and longer life than your genes have programmed you for, is culture.
So it’s not just a matter of diet and a healthy happy childhood although these help too but also of taking part in cultural activities, both passively: going to the theatre, reading, visiting exhibitions etc but also actively: painting, writing, acting, singing, taking up photography and developing your art as well as your skills. But the change brought about is not just psychological, ie feeling better, but physical.
Epigenetics can be traced back to Darwin’s predecessor Lamark who propounded that lasting behavioural traits could be passed on in the space of just one generation. For a long time he was rubbished by the Darwinians but now Bygren says they are both right. He has spent his life researching into how the experiences of an individual can be transmitted to subsequent generations. He has found that the human Genoma which consists of about 25,000 genes is capable of producing hundreds of thousands of proteins.. “Each gene” he says “is capable of codifying at the same time more than one protein and this codifying depends on chemical signals received resulting from the life style of the individual.”
Cultural activities were found to better the health of the brain and in the final analysis the whole organism. He goes on ” The exercising of cognitive capacity guides the development of stem cells in the ‘primitive’ area of the brain, creating new neurones which in turn create new synapses.” The brain in effect behaves as if it were a muscle, which if stimulated conserves and strengthens its functions, especially in the hypothalamus which serves in the formation of memory, and in the hippocampus which amongst other things is involved in the expression of emotional states.
Bygren has shown in his researches that the ‘anabolic’ or strengthening effect of culture can increase life-span by years – if not decades. What’s more the more time one dedicates to cultural activities the better one feels. Thank goodness digital photography, once one has the kit, is a relatively inexepensive cultural activity.
All this rather begs the question, what is culture? Hermann Goering famously said that when he heard the word he reached for his revolver; the photographer should reach for his camera, and his computer (or the software manual). In fact the difference between culture and entertainment is that the latter does not stretch your mind. In order to improve your game you have to put in the hours certainly, but you have to stretch yourself too.
Photographers are a long lived bunch; here are some of my favourites none of whom were exactly spring chickens: Steichen died at 93, Horst 93, Cartier Bresson 95, Irving Penn 92, Karsh 93, Alfred Eisenstaedt 86, Stieglitz 82, Avedon sadly cut off in his prime at 81…. longevity must go with the job.
An article in Vanity Fair from 2001 about old, but at that time still living, veteran photographers Shooting Past 80
I once read an article about the life expectancy according to statistics of different creative types from poets to composers . Poets and writers generally do badly (too much time on their own and recourse to drugs).To be frank I can’t remember where photographers came although I would imagine quite high given the examples above, but the longest lived of all were conductors. Apparently they don’t undergo the stress of the composer (Mahler was a conductor but it would seem the stress of composing killed him) but, and this may be it, they get all the applause. Conductors work till the very end and they are constantly learning – just like photographers. Admittedly photographers don’t get much applause in the clapping of hands sense but through exhibiting and getting your work out there and seen, well that comes close to applause.