Get Smart: Go Dirty

The advantages of getting down and dirty.

Posted Jul 26, 2018

Sharon McCutcheon/pexels
It's fun to play; it even gets you a smarter body.
Source: Sharon McCutcheon/pexels

To prevent cancer, change early childhood education. Not the book-kind, but  the biologically intelligent kind. If you do, you might change the incident of type I diabetes, asthma, peanut allergies, and Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

That’s the conclusion drawn by Mel Greaves of the Institute of Cancer Research in London, and now many other researchers. Decades of varied studies demonstrate that the immune system learns in a specific way.  Give it the right education and it learns new ways that not just help fight cancer but prevent many major diseases.

The main teaching tool is dirt–especially dirty kids.

The ALL Story

Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) is very important in the history of oncology. Affecting primarily children, it was the first tumor to truly be “cured” by treatment, starting in the late 1950s. Now it’s pointing the way to not just cancer treatment, but prevention.

Greaves believes, and many agree, that ALL is environmentally regulated. But not by power plants and wires or internet use–by childhood play.

The idea is that ALL first starts with a mutation that affects perhaps five percent of kids. If they much later develop a certain kind of infection, generally a viral flu or cold, they develop another mutation which sets them up for ALL. But if in the first few years of life they encounter many kinds of infections, from adults and other children, and get to play in the dirt, they don’t get ALL.

Get the right infections at the right time, and you don’t get cancer. The immune system has to learn a trick or two, and it needs a dirty environment to do it.

And that’s not just true for ALL.

Exposure and Learning

It’s been known for a long time that kids on farms have far less asthma than city kids not exposed to the many antigens (immune stimulating substances) found in agriculture. For many years researchers were stumped by why MS was more common in affluent communities that poorer ones. Greaves looked at ALL and saw a familiar pattern: very low rates in the poorest countries with less fastidious early hygienic practices.

There were major outliers. One was Costa Rica. Not very rich, but with lots of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Type I Diabetes, and ALL.

But Costa Rica had spent much of his health dollars on an extensive health care system. With economic development, family sizes decreased by nearly seventy percent. There were a lot less siblings around, and much greater social pressure to maintain a “first world” kind of home.

So it was time to extend the hypothesis, and at animal experiments. Greaves and others created genetically modified mice with an ALL inducing mutation. Those kept in sterile conditions and let out in a “dirty” environment developed cancer. Those kept in normal conditions, did not.

This doesn’t mean all infants should immediately spend most of their lives in the community sandbox.

Smart Body

Biological Intelligence, how your body creates and uses knowledge, is a neglected subject. One reason is that most of biological learning does not involve language or books, or cognitive matters.  The textbook for your immune system, your heart, your lungs, your muscles, is the place where you live.  And most of that learning will not be conscious. Just as you don’t see your immune system destroy potentially fatal tumor cells, you don’t watch your arm muscles learn to throw a baseball.  Most of what goes on in your brain isn’t conscious.

Just vital to your survival and enjoyment of life.

ALL, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, asthma, MS, all seem to have a similar story to tell about biological intelligence. Their teachings include:

  1. You learn very different things in different environments, including "standard" cognitive learning. Putting students into three carrels to study for an economics test, rather than just one for the same study period, improved scores. Much of school learning is affected by “unconscious” environmental factors.
  2. Sequence counts. Encounter a virus early in life and it may prevent you from getting MS when you’re forty. 
  3. Education starts at birth. Being around other infants does not just educate kids socially but immunologically, physically, and mentally.  Our sociality as a species has many health implications throughout our lives.
  4. The present fascination with “germ free” environments can be overplayed. Bacteria and viruses are not just on table tops and kitchen sinks.  They’re everywhere. Outside of the many nasty pathogens found in hospitals that are now bacterially resistant, you may not need to scour your desks and doorknobs all the time. Our fascination with “germ free” environments may be creating more antibiotic resistance at a time when our antibacterial armamentarium is highly compromised.  And what really counts may not prove what pathogens we constantly run, but the robustness and flexibility of our immune response.
  5. Perhaps the most important teaching is that health is learned. The environment changes, we change. All the actions of our lives are potential teaching moments.  All of them can make us smarter.

A smart body is often well served by exposure to many different environments, with different physical, mental, social and spiritual elements. That’s not just true of politics. It’s also part of what helps you survive.