The observable examined

Archive for March 2012

stress or stimulation

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Robert Sapolsky was on KQED’s Forum a couple of weeks ago. The actual interview is available here 

He is a pretty interesting guy. In the first part of the interview, he discussed stress a lot. Stress is not good for the brain. In the animal kingdom, in general, short term physical stress is the norm (as evidenced by flight or fight type of responses). But “smart” primates invented psychological stress (presumably by running what-if scenarios). The problem is these mental gyrations elicit the same physiological response. If they are transient in nature then we are ok, as in watching scary movies or a roller coaster ride. When the context is controlled or safe, it even elicits pleasure or is rewarding (dopamine at work). These situations then are not stressful but stimulating. It becomes pathological when prolonged over extended periods of time.

It gets even more interesting. Stress in baboons has the same physiological signature  as humans (elevated BP. Increased levels of cortisol). Baboons kill and so do chimps. They can do so “competitively, premeditatively, gratitiously…”.  Fascinating!  In fact, so do many others. Sapolsky observed that baboons engage in displacement aggression (which is really a fancy term for bullying) by beating up the weaker and smaller. (If we didn’t have culture or social norms, as Hobbes noted, we would have degnerated  into, I suppose, baboons. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that we still do behave like baboons) . Supposedly per Sapolsky, baboons only work hard for about three hours to obtain food, so they have plenty of leisure in which to generate psychological stress and relieve it through aggression – somewhat reminiscent of an idle mind is a devil’s workshop.

So why don’t Zebras get ulcers? (Sapolsky has a book by this title). Because, they are not smart enough to make themselves sick through anticipatory or psychological stress. Their stress is transient:  Run like hell when a predator is attacking. If that turns out ok, go back to grazing. Simple – no anxiety over the lion’s next move. Sort of out of sight, out of mind.

The deeper insight here is that our psychological smarts, the crowning glory of evolution, comes with many strings attached. Stress being one of them.

He also discussed human ranking systems. One study, of British civil servants, is remarkable, in that the lower you are in that hierarchy, the more unhealthy you are. Pfeffer, also from Stanford, who studies power, has noted the more powerful you are, the less stressed you feel, in essensce generalizing this idea.

Theory of mind is yet another of the subjects he touched upon. There is a fascinating study, of a high ranking and a low ranking chimp, both of whom are placed in a enclsoure with a banana that is either visible or not visible to the high ranking chimp. How the low ranker behaves in this situation is indicative of strategizing based on the anticipated behavior of the high ranker. Very clever study indeed. There is more where this comes from but you will have to listen to the interview……

After listerning to the interview, I was looking around for more and found this video put out by Stanford. Sapolsky addresses a graduating class. It is a very entertaining lecture but touches on more or less the same topics as the interview.Be warned that there is a fairly graphic image of an example of displaced aggression by the alpha male baboon…..


Written by asterix98

March 21, 2012 at 4:15 am

political campaigns then and now

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From the period of human history  we mark as BC  nearly 2000+ years ago, to now, somethings have not changed. Here is how a journalist may report on the current Republican nomination contest and the attendant political campaigns….

“It was a bitter and volatile campaign, with accusations of inconsistency, incompetence and scandal filling the air. Candidates competed to portray themselves as the true conservative choice, while voters fretted about the economy and war threatened in the Middle East. …”

In fact, Philip Freeman opens his piece, Dirty Tricks, Roman Style, with these very words but is describing a political campaign from 64 B.C !! In the rest of the article, Freeman documents the advice Quintus Cicero gave his older brother, Marcus, when he ran for the highest political office in Rome.  Freeman lists the top five

  1. Promise everything to everyone
  2. Call in all the favors
  3. Know your opponents weaknesses and exploit them
  4. Flatter  voters shamelessly
  5. Give people hope

He goes on to describe Quintus’ justification for why these are key elements for a successful political campaign. It is a very interesting read. I was struck by how remarkably little has changed in politics, and human nature, in general, in all these years.

Written by asterix98

March 18, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Scars run deep

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I had been having trouble with my bite for the past few weeks and it did not seem like it was going away anytime soon.  The symptoms all pointed to some variant of TMJ.  For something like this, your consulting options are your PCP, dentist or a TMJ specialist.  I decided to visit my PCP. I was able to get an appointment right away.  It was a fairly routine visit. We exchanged pleasantries. I then explained my problem. She examined my jaw, felt around for any glands, and found nothing amiss. Her suggested course of action for me was: cold presses as many times as possible during the day and potentially some over the counter medication to help with the inflammation.  She also thought it would be a good idea for me to visit my dentist too and get a second look. I thanked her and was on my way. I didn’t think much of it and filed it away as a very routine visit with the doctor.

I did the usual things for the remainder of the day, read before retiring for the night. In the middle of the night, I woke up, startled.  I just had a dream. The setting for the dream was a hospital. There were three people in a room. My wife lay on the bed, resting, and recovering from a fresh surgery.  Just out of earshot, I am having a conversation with her doctor. Although he has removed the tumor, he says another one has just grown. Just as he is describing this, I look towards my wife and I see even more tumors appear, spontaneously. She doesn’t know any of this yet. I start to dread what is in store for her, thinking about the painful surgeries to follow and the torturous recovery and follow ups she has to endure. I think this is just not fair. That’s when I woke up. A great relief came over me as soon as I realized that it was a dream and she would be spared the agony.

I don’t remember too many dreams since my wife’s passing that involve her. What was particularly striking about this dream was its proximity to my own hospital visit. I least expected it, but there it is, the subconscious processing the day’s events. As I reflected on it, it was a stark reminder of the stressful times we had been together, the intense pain and suffering she had endured, and I as a caregiver, had witnessed. It also reminded me why, at that time, I had made peace with the idea of letting her go.

The empathy for another’s suffering and the intensity of grief we feel for the loss of someone dear, is a uniquely human trait.  The scars of a traumatic event run very deep indeed.

Written by asterix98

March 5, 2012 at 1:05 am

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