Health & Well­ness:

The Power of the Flower

PS Magazine - - NEWS - by KATHER­INE ADAMS

There was, at some un­known point in the his­tory of hu­man de­vel­op­ment, a time when we first be­came at­tracted to flow­ers and ad­mired them for their beauty. As a PBS spe­cial based on jour­nal­ist Michael Pol­lan’s book, The Botany of De­sire, makes clear, we have cul­ti­vated flow­ers for thou­sands of years, sur­rounded our­selves with them in gar­dens and in our homes, spent bil­lions of dol­lars on them, though flow­ers serve no use­ful pur­pose at all.

How­ever, sci­en­tists now spec­u­late that flow­ers have evolved to be de­sir­able, not

“Flow­ers have evolved to make us happy, and we have evolved to find beauty in flow­ers.”

just to the in­sects and an­i­mals that fer­til­ize them, but to us, as well. A study con­ducted by sci­en­tists Jean­nette Hav­i­land- Jones and Terry McGuire at Rut­gers Univer­sity in 2005 showed that fresh flow­ers, when given to the par­tic­i­pants of the ex­per­i­ment, pro­duced “im­me­di­ate and longterm ef­fects on emo­tional re­ac­tions, mood, so­cial be­hav­iors, and even mem­ory for both males and fe­males,” and, fur­ther, sug­gested that cul­ti­vated flow­ers have “evolved to rapidly in­duce pos­i­tive emo­tion in hu­mans.”

Flow­ers are part of what Drs. Hav­i­land- Jones and McGuire call “the evo­lu­tion­ary niche for emo­tional re­wards”. Across cul­tures and across time, hu­mans have in­cor­po­rated flow­ers in burial and re­li­gious prac­tices, and in per­sonal adorn­ment. Flow­ers have been used to ex­press emo­tions such as sym­pa­thy, love, and ro­man­tic in­tent. Their scents have been cap­tured for our own en­hance­ment in oils and per­fumes, sug­gest­ing that their smell, not just their ap­pear­ance, en­hances our moods, ex­cite us, and give us plea­sure. In other words, flow­ers have evolved to make us happy, and we have evolved to find beauty in flow­ers.

As hu­mans, we are not alone in this. Flow­ers have of­fered un­usual ben­e­fits to in­sects and other an­i­mals be­sides food. Hawk moths, for ex­am­ple, go to Datura flow­ers for the hal­lu­cino­genic ef­fects they have. Many or­chids make very lit­tle nec­tar to at­tract bees, but of­fer other re­wards. One, for ex­am­ple, pro­vides a pheromone that the bees col­lect in pouches and use to at­tract mates. Other or­chids en­tice bees to “mate” with them. Flow­ers re­ally do have power.

Of course, it’s not all pri­mal in­stincts. There are learned be­hav­iors at play. Flow­ers evoke spe­cific mem­o­ries of cel­e­bra­tions and happy oc­ca­sions as well as gen­er­al­ized as­so­ci­a­tions with beauty and abun­dance. Re­search into the place­ment of flower ar­range­ments shows that most

house­holds put fresh flow­ers in the en­try­way, foyer, or liv­ing room, in­di­cat­ing there is a so­cial as­pect to flow­ers that sym­bol­izes wel­come and warmth. Flow­ers have ar­tis­ti­cally de­vel­oped aes­thet­ics de­signed to ap­peal to us, which be­come ap­par­ent in gar­dens, im­ages (both fine art and de­sign), and flo­ral ar­range­ments. And, they have cul­tural caché.

One case study ex­plored by Mr. Pol­lan is the tulip, which was cul­ti­vated in the Nether­lands in the 17th cen­tury, and in­cited such de­sire for them that a sin­gle bulb could cost more than an en­tire home. The tulip was in­tro­duced to Europe from the Ot­toman-ruled court at Con­stantino­ple in the 16th cen­tury, mak­ing its way to Vi­enna, then sup­pos­edly brought to Am­s­ter­dam by a man named Caro­lus Clu­sius, who jeal­ously guarded his tulips from oth­ers un­til they were stolen from his gar­den one night. From there, tulip seeds were spread all over. But that is not the end of the story. Left alone, the tulips quickly mu­tated un­til those that were no­tice­ably ex­tra­or­di­nary—per­haps with more petals, or with frills, or with deeper or un­usual color—were cov­eted. In or­der to prop­a­gate a cer­tain mu­ta­tion, one had to pos­sess the bulb, not just the seed, and com­mence a very slow process, re­sult­ing in out­stand­ing de­mand and lit­tle sup­ply.

In the last decade there have been more stud­ies into the ef­fects of flow­ers. In a 2008 study, post­op­er­a­tive pa­tients who re­cov­ered in hos­pi­tal rooms with flow­ers re­quired less pain medicine than those placed in rooms with­out flow­ers. Ni­co­las Guéguen of the Univer­sité de Bre­tagne- Sud in France pub­lished his find­ings in 2011, show­ing that when women watched videos of men, they found the men more at­trac­tive if there were flow­ers in the room. Sim­i­larly, women were ap­par­ently more re­cep­tive to male at­ten­tion when there were flow­ers present. A Har­vard study con­ducted by Nancy Et­coff showed that peo­ple who do not con­sider them­selves morn­ing

“Post-op­er­a­tive pa­tients who re­cov­ered in hos­pi­tal rooms with flow­ers re­quired less pain medicine.”

per­sons felt more en­er­getic and pos­i­tive if they saw flow­ers first thing in the morn­ing.

The so­cial and mon­e­tary eco­nomics of the flower have, in the mod­ern era, be­come in­ter­twined. To­day, florists are cash­ing in on the pos­i­tive psy­cho­log­i­cal ef­fects of flow­ers, mar­ket­ing their prod­ucts as to brighten their cus­tomer’s day. And there are good rea­sons to be­lieve them. In Drs. Hav­i­landJones and Maguire’s ex­per­i­ment, 100% of their study group dis­played gen­uine hap­pi­ness at re­ceiv­ing flow­ers (as de­ter­mined by the Duchenne smile, a true smile), which is prac­ti­cally un­heard of in sci­en­tific data. Be­cause flow­ers in­duce hap­pi­ness in the im­me­di­ate— and im­prove mood in the long-term, flow­ers have been shown to re­duce stress and anx­i­ety, as well as al­le­vi­ate de­pres­sion and fa­tigue. If these nega­tive moods are al­le­vi­ated, as science has shown re­peat­edly, mem­ory and cog­ni­tion im­prove. An emo­tional re­sponse that re­curs in re­cent find­ings is that flow­ers make peo­ple more com­pas­sion­ate.

Fi­nally, the pos­i­tive ef­fects of flow­ers on older adults are strik­ing. In one ex­per­i­ment, a group of older women in se­nior liv­ing com­mu­ni­ties were given either no flow­ers, one, or two bou­quets of flow­ers over a two-week pe­riod. Those who re­ceived one bou­quet of flow­ers re­ported more pos­i­tive moods at the end of the study than at the be­gin­ning. Those who re­ceived two bou­quets were sig­nif­i­cantly less de­pressed than those re­ceiv­ing just one, while those who re­ceived no flow­ers at all were more de­pressed than those who re­ceived just one. ■

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