This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

25Aug/10

Stress and Stratification

So it's been a while since I've last posted, and for this I apologize, but unfortunately it's pretty difficult to write material for your blog while you're stuck in the middle of Nevada trying to get to the West Coast before you perish of boredom.

Anyways, I've arrived in Berkeley which means that I have some more time to share some interesting articles and insights with you all...like this one, a piece detailing the life of Robart Sapolsky as well as his interesting thoughts on stress and its effects on our lives.

Now, I know that everyone hears a lot about stress.  They know it's bad, know it should be avoided, and know the kinds of situations that might increase or decrease its effect on your life.  However, Sapolsky takes our knowledge of the causes of stress to a new level.  Interestingly, he accomplishes this by studying baboons.

To clarify, we're not talking about the "oh my god I almost ran over that old lady" stress (aka "acute" stress).  We're talking about the day to day toil.  The never-ending, soul-crushing droll that causes many people to suffer from so-called "chronic stress."  While the former is tied with particular events that are especially nerve-racking, the latter describes a much slower and ultimately more dangerous process, one that has many interesting causes.

Perhaps the most interesting nugget of information to come out of Sapolsky's research on monkeys in Africa is the extent to which daily stress, social status, and overall mental and bodily health are inextricably connected.  He monitored the activity of wild baboons, observing behavior, physical condition, and occasionally taking samples of stress hormones circulating throughout their systems.

What he found was that those baboons at the lower end of the monkey social hierarchy were less physically fit (seriously unhealthy in some cases), had bad personal habits, and had significantly larger numbers of stress hormones (their version of what we call "glucocorticoids) in their system.

He hypothesized that if chronic stress (a result of low social hierarchy) was causing all of these problems in baboons, then it must be wreaking havoc on the bodies and minds of human beings, who are constantly assaulted by a vast and complex stream of stress each day.  What he found was that high levels of stress was significantly associated with a large number of problems such as heart failure and anxiety.

Ultimately, these glucocorticoids are meant to play a positive role in our lives, allowing us to appropriate our bodily resources to the task at hand when a particular stressor makes it absolutely necessary.  However, when we are hit with multiple stressors over long periods of time, these chemicals cause us to shift our body's focus away from maintenance and construction, and towards dealing with this constant and unstopping stress.  The result: poor health, mental deterioration, and a slippery slope towards more anxiety and stress.

Sapolsky is working on a number of methods to try and fix this problem - most of them involve developing a treatment that will suppress the release of glucocorticoids during particular kinds of stress.  However, I'm inclined to believe that we will never find a solution to this problem until behavioral changes are made on the part of individuals.  Certainly, there will always be life's doom and gloom to make your day a little more unpleasant, but there are also plenty of ways that a person can add some positivity to counteract the stressors of daily life.

Maybe chronic stress can be cured with a drug.  Maybe it requires a different daily schedule.  Maybe it's an incurable aspect of modern life.  I'm not sure what the correct answer is, but with the likes of Robert Sapolsky around, I'm confident that we're making progress.

via Wired Magazine

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16Aug/10

Power tripping

The last few posts I've made have looked at how your own subjective opinions and beliefs can color the world around you, but it's also important to point out that the external world has an equally powerful effect on your subconscious.

In this weekend essay, Jonah Lehrer discusses the kinds of characteristics that allow people to rise to power, and the extent to which they lose those characteristics once they are there.

People in charge are often easy to hate, but why is this?  Why would we allow them to get there in the first place if we didn't like the way they do things?  Well, studies in psychology and sociology suggest that this might be because we have two very different personalities when we are in and out of power.

Such an effect has been well-known for a long time - just look at the bevy of corrupt villains and politicians in modern and historical literature - but this may not simply be a matter of specific "fringe benefits," rather a subtle and subconscious shift in the way that we deal with other people.

Research suggests that, in fact, being more friendly and likeable is more likely to propel you to the top of the social and professional ladder, but that once this end is achieved, the same characteristics tend to vanish.  This is not to suggest that successful people are plotting this personality switch from day one, but that it reflects a natural response to finding one's power relationships shifted in their favor.

I think this is an important point to make, because understanding it entails shifting our focus towards a different kind of problem in the workplace as well as in politics.  If we are unhappy with leadership, it is not as easy as "electing better people" and waiting for everything to get better.  Instead, we must maintain an active role in our relationship with already-elected officials and try to shape their own evolution from subordinate to top dog.  This might include a more open dialog, more transparent views of leadership activity, and a different method of accountability rather than just the threat of losing the next election.

If coming into power subjects anyone to transformative pressures and opportunities to redefine themselves, it is our job to make sure we still play a role in that process.

via The Wall Street Journal