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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…..

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Written by asterix98

March 21, 2012 at 4:15 am

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