The usual human approach: stress is a killer; modern social environments are high stress; lets “engineer” humans to be able to tolerate high stress. What about changing environments so that human beings experience less stress? Of course not: that would benefit the average human. This is about what the top of the hierarchy wants – change the peasants so that they can live with extreme stress –
This article has dire implications for those of us who are born “Asperger” or with other neurodiverse brains. We are AUTOMATICALLY in the “exile, submission, or death” category in the human social hierarchy.
Under Pressure: The Search for a Stress Vaccine
Baboons are nasty, brutish, and short. They have a long muzzle and sharp fangs designed to inflict deadly injury. Their bodies are covered in thick, olive-colored fur, except on their buttocks, which are hairless. The species is defined by its social habits: The primates live in groups of several dozen individuals. These troops have a strict hierarchy, and each animal is assigned a specific rank. While female rank is hereditary — a daughter inherits her mother’s status — males compete for dominance. These fights can be bloody, but the stakes are immense: A higher rank means more sex. The losers, in contrast, face a bleak array of options — submission, exile, or death.
In 1978, Robert Sapolsky was a recent college graduate with a degree in biological anthropology and a job in Kenya. He had set off for a year of fieldwork by himself among baboons… here he was in Nairobi, speaking the wrong kind of Swahili and getting ripped off by everyone he met. Eventually he made his way to the bush, a sprawling savanna filled with zebras and wildebeests and elephants…
Sapolsky slowly introduced himself to a troop of baboons, letting them adjust to his presence. After a few weeks, he began recognizing individual animals, giving them nicknames from the Old Testament. It was a way of rebelling against his childhood Hebrew-school teachers, who rejected the blasphemy of Darwinian evolution…
Before long, Sapolsky’s romantic vision of fieldwork collided with the dismal reality of living in the African bush. (The baboons) seemed to devote all of their leisure time — and baboon life is mostly leisure time — to mischief and malevolence. “One of the first things I discovered was that I didn’t like baboons very much,” he says. “They’re quite awful to one another, constantly scheming and backstabbing. They’re like chimps but without the self-control.”
While Sapolsky was disturbed by the behavior of the baboons — this was nature, red in tooth and claw — he realized that their cruelty presented an opportunity to investigate the biological effects of social upheaval. He noticed, for instance, that the males at the bottom of the hierarchy were thinner and more skittish. “They just didn’t look very healthy,” Sapolsky says. “That’s when I began thinking about how damn stressful it must be to have no status. You never know when you’re going to get beat up. You never get laid. You have to work a lot harder for food.”
So Sapolsky set out to test the hypothesis that the stress involved in being at the bottom of the baboon hierarchy led to health problems…“It struck most doctors as extremely unlikely that your feelings could affect your health. Viruses, sure. Carcinogens, absolutely. But stress? No way.” Sapolsky, however, was determined to get some data… Instead, he was busy learning how to shoot baboons with anesthetic darts and then, while they were plunged into sleep, quickly measure their immune system function and the levels of stress hormones and cholesterol in their blood….
A similarly destructive process is at work in humans. While doctors speculated for years that increasing rates of cardiovascular disease in women might be linked to the increasing number of females employed outside the home, that correlation turned out to be nonexistent. Working women didn’t have more heart attacks. There were, however, two glaring statistical exceptions to the rule: Women developed significantly more heart disease if they performed menial clerical work or when they had an unsupportive boss. The work, in other words, wasn’t the problem. It was the subordination. Women as a GENDER are subordinate.
One of the most tragic aspects of the stress response is the way it gets hardwired at a young age — an early setback can permanently alter the way we deal with future stressors. The biological logic of this system is impeccable: If the world is a rough and scary place, then the brain assumes it should invest more in our stress machinery, which will make us extremely wary and alert. There’s also a positive feedback loop at work, so that chronic stress actually makes us more sensitive to the effects of stress.
The physiology underlying this response has been elegantly revealed in the laboratory. When lab rats are stressed repeatedly, the amygdala — an almond-shaped nub in the center of the brain — enlarges dramatically. (See today’s post on amygdala, hippocampus) (This swelling comes at the expense of the hippocampus, which is crucial for learning and memory and shrinks under severe stress.) The main job of the amygdala is to perceive danger and help generate the stress response; it’s the brain area turned on by dark alleys and Hitchcock movies. Unfortunately, a swollen amygdala means that we’re more likely to notice potential threats in the first place, which means we spend more time in a state of anxiety. (This helps explain why a more active amygdala is closely correlated with atherosclerosis.) The end result is that we become more vulnerable to the very thing that’s killing us.