Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Primates and stress

Yesterday I saw an interesting article at ScienceDaily titled Why Do Humans And Primates Get More Stress-related Diseases Than Other Animals?

Obviously the researchers don't write the headlines for these articles and press releases. (It's probably not the science reporters either. I'm guessing it's the editors.) News flash: Humans ARE primates; the headline is redundant. Had it said "Why do primates ..." or even "... humans and other primates ..." I wouldn't have twinged the way I did.

But to the article: Stanford University neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky claims that it's our higher intellect that causes our stress. He says that because we're super smart, we have all this extra time to make each other's lives miserable.

"Primates are super smart and organized just enough to devote their free time to being miserable to each other and stressing each other out," he said. "But if you get chronically, psychosocially stressed, you're going to compromise your health. So, essentially, we've evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick."

He backs up his assertions with baboon studies he's done. Why baboons you ask?

"The reason baboons are such good models is, like us, they don't have real stressors," he said. "If you live in a baboon troop in the Serengeti, you only have to work three hours a day for your calories, and predators don't mess with you much. What that means is you've got nine hours of free time every day to devote to generating psychological stress toward other animals in your troop. So the baboon is a wonderful model for living well enough and long enough to pay the price for all the social-stressor nonsense that they create for each other. They're just like us: They're not getting done in by predators and famines, they're getting done in by each other."

It turns out that unhealthy baboons, like unhealthy people, often have elevated resting levels of stress hormones. "Their reproductive system doesn't work as well, their wounds heal more slowly, they have elevated blood pressure and the anti-anxiety chemicals in their brain, which have a structural similarity to Valium, work differently," Sapolsky said. "So they're not in great shape."

Monkeys going around making each other's lives a living hell, where have I heard that before?

While he may sound like a fatalist, he's actually quite an optimist (at least for our species of primate).

"We are capable of social supports that no other primate can even dream of," he said. "For example, I might say, 'This job, where I'm a lowly mailroom clerk, really doesn't matter. What really matters is that I'm the captain of my softball team or deacon of my church'--that sort of thing. It's not just somebody sitting here, grooming you with their own hands. We can actually feel comfort from the discovery that somebody on the other side of the planet is going through the same experience we are and feel, I'm not alone. We can even take comfort reading about a fictional character, and there's no primate out there that can feel better in life just by listening to Beethoven. So the range of supports that we're capable of is extraordinary."

So primates are prone to life-shortening stress due to their superior intellect over other animals, while humans have the power to overcome this due to our superior intellect over other primates. I like that. Which reminds me: one more day of this self-imposed stress of "a new post every day for the month of February" even though I'm tired when I get home. I wonder if other primates bring stress upon themselves? I can't really complain though, I wouldn't have done this if it weren't fun.

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