Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Sapolsky, and living in interesting times

Went to a talk by Robert Sapolsky yesterday; really fascinating stuff. He studies, among many, many other things, stress in wild populations of Olive Baboons. Kelly has a nice summary of the neuroscience here, so I'll be lazy and focus on the parts that I found most interesting: the primatology. Sapolsky has been studying hormone fluctuations in Kenyan Olive Baboons for decades. He compares hormonal indicators stress levels at baseline to those after certain kinds of stress.

The punchline is that olive baboons, like humans, exhibit maladaptive hormonal responses to social stress. Basically, these hormonal responses (glucocorticoids) release as part of a stereotypical flight or fight response to stress. This response ramps up your ability to flee if a lion is about to eat you, for example. But, as Sapolsky put it yesterday, if you're stressed because need to run away from a predator, your body sends energy to your thighs. Great. But if you're stressed because you're a baboon who's trying to form fragile alliances....your body sends energy to your thighs. If you're stressed because you're on a blind date....your body sends energy to your thighs. Not quite so helpful in these contexts. What's more, your body does this with hormones that can negatively impact your stress levels long term.

If you're a low-ranking olive baboon, your situation is especially bleak: your life is super-stressful, since everyone can beat on you, and your body is constantly throwing stress hormones at your brain over things it doesn't need too. This means you're constantly reinforcing your stress response, creating a "learned helplessness" very like human depression. The happiest (and often highest ranking) baboons are the ones that know what actual stress is, minimize their stress at other times, use coping behaviors (apparently grooming is as good as smacking someone else around), and take control of stressful situations.

It seemed particularly appropriate to me that this talk was being given right now. It's an "ancient chinese curse" kind of year, in a lot of ways: we live in interesting times. When people talk about the Great Depression and WWII, they talk about the way these things affected entire generations, and built a sort of shared identity based on responding to hardship. In some ways, I suppose that respoding was empowering, but to me it still sounds a bit like being a low ranking baboon. I think it's fairly likely that things like the recession, climate change, and maybe swine flu might create a shared identity for my generation, and the notion of solidarity is appealing, but I dislike the lack of control that goes with it.

That sort of thing is a lot of the reason I do the sort of research I do. I like the notion that no matter what generation I belonged to, the things I do in my life are interesting, and that's something I took control over. You don't become a primatologist because of things happeneing to you, which fosters a fascinating work environment. I was talking with a fellow primatology grad student and we realized if we were to catch some fatal disease tomorrow, we wouldn't look back and think we hadn't done anything.

People like that make for a great work environment, even if we all probably sat through that talk thinking about how similar to the life of that low ranking baboon things can be sometimes, and maybe have been lately. Either way, at least some of my times are interesting because I wanted them that way.

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