This post delves into particular thoughts on the concepts introduced in the book - 'Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers' that was reviewed here.
Robert Sapolsky does a fabulous job of introducing us to our demons in a fairly humorous way. Look at how he opens up the first chapter.
It's two o'clock in the morning and you're lying in bed. You have something immensely important and challenging to do that next day - a critical meeting, a presentation, an exam. You have to get a decent night's rest, but you're still wide awake. You try different strategies for relaxing - take deep, slow breaths, try to imagine restful mountain scenery - but instead you keep thinking that unless you fall asleep in the next minute, your career is finished. Thus you lie there, more tense by the second.
When it's two-thirty on those mornings, I always have a brain tumor. These are very useful for that sort of terror, because you can attribute every conceivable nonspecific symptom to a brain tumor and justify your panic. Perhaps you do, too; or maybe you lie there thinking that you have cancer, or an ulcer, or that you've just had a stroke.
A major classification in types of stress is made: Acute (short-term) physical stress, Chronic physical stress (long term) and finally, psychological and social disruptions (both long and short). While the first two can't be helped when they occur, we, humans have something unique when it comes to the psychological ones:
Regardless of how poorly we are getting along with a family member or how incensed we are about losing a parking spot, we rarely settle that sort of thing with a fistfight. Likewise, it is a rare event when we have to stalk and personally wrestle down our dinner. Essentially, we humans live well enough and long enough, and are smart enough, to generate all sort of stressful events purely in our heads. How many hippos worry about whether Social Security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date?
... if you are that zebra running for your life, or that lion sprinting for your meal, your body's physiological response mechanism are superbly adapted for dealing with such short-term physical emergencies. For the vast majority of beats on this planet, stress is about a short-term crisis, after which it's either over with or you're over with. When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the same physiological responses - but they are potentially a disaster when provoked chronically. A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we so often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions.
The workings of Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous system in our body opens up to the possibilities of explaining many things - why it is advised to breathe deeply when angry or anxious, or why various forms of meditation tend to focus a lot on the breath, and how can someone hold off that climaxing for a little more. Sympathetic prepares the body for stress - the four Fs: Flight, Fight, Fright, and sex (Fuck). Para-sympathetic tries to bring it back to the restive and vegetative state. Breathing in causes the heart rate to increase a little due to the activation of sympathetic tone, breathing out activates the para-sympathetic (which is responsible for calming). Well, I tried that. I tried to see how my heart beat varies with breathing. (It's easy, check your pulse) It works! Except, not for long. When I tried to exhale for a longer period than what I can comfortably manage, the heartbeat kind of dropped initially and then, towards the end, resumed back to its regular rate. Similarly, while breathing in, the heartbeat kicks up during somewhere in the middle of the inhalation and if I try to hold my breath before breathing out, it levels off. Maybe, training the body to breathe deeper (and foremost, to have an equal rate of breathing in and out which seems not to be the case for a lay-person) can help us all. Probably that is why chanting should be done loudly and is rhythmically elongated (because one cannot really chant while inhaling, something that we can do when merely whispering).
Robert Sapolsky also manages to put in some hands-on examples too! Read this carefully:
As she melted small and wonderful in his arms, she became infinitely desirable to him, all his blood-vessels seemed to scald with intense yet tender desire, for her, for her softness, for the penetrating beauty of her in his arms, passing into his blood. And softly, with that marvelous swoon-like caress of his hand in pure sof desire, softly he stroked the silky slopes of her lions, down, down between her soft, warm buttocks, coming nearer and nearer to the very quick of her. And she felt him like a flame of desire, yet tender, and she felt herself melting in the flame. She let herself go. She felt his penis risen against her with silent amazing force and assertion, and she let herself go to him. She yielded with a quiver that was like death, she went all open to him.
This is excerpted from works of D.H. Lawrence. Then, he explains:
You haven't run up a flight of stairs, but maybe your heart is beating faster. The temperature has not changed in your room, but you may have just activated a sweat gland or two. And even though certain rather sensitive parts of your body are not being overtly stimulated by touch, you are suddenly very aware of them. You sit in your chair not moving a muscle, and simply think a thought, a though having to do with feeling angry or sad or euphoric or lustful, and suddenly your pancreas secretes some hormone. Your pancreas? How did you manage to do that with your pancreas? You don't even know where your pancreas is.
Possibly, it did not have that exaggerated effect on you, but while in the thick of reading a serious book, situations happen. But:
Getting an erection to work properly is so incredibly complicated physiologically that if men ever actually had to understand it, none of us would be here. Fortunately, it runs automatically...
What happens next, if you are a male? You are having a terrific time with someone. Maybe you are breathing faster, your heart rate has increased. Gradually, parts of your body are taking on a sympathetic tone... After awhile, most of your body is screaming sympathetic while, heroically, you are trying to hold on to parasympathetic tone in that one lone outpost as long as possible. Finally, when you can't take it anymore, the parasympathetic shuts off at the penis, the sympathetic comes roaring on, and you ejaculate. (Incredibly complicated choreography between these two systems; don't try this unsupervised). This new understanding generates tricks that sexual therapists advise...
Well, good to know, heh?
Why can't you tickle yourselves? Imagine asking this question to a scientist and him going around doing all sorts of sophisticated experiments just to find the right answer. Well, that has already happened. For us, it seems like a silly question without consequences, but for a scientist, it isn't. And no, it has repercussions - do you know what 'consent' means?
I like my sleep in one solid chunk. Anything on top during the day is an add-on that doesn't really count. During times of illness, or careless vacationing at home with nothing better to do, I have noted that once my long sleep is done, all other sleeps have the consistency of being fairly 90 minutes long. This book just showed me some research that this indeed is the case, and what more, the one that I call my long sleep is also such cycles stacked back to back. (So, if you're trying to hack it, do it in 90 minutes chunks, plus the time taken to sleep). Now, when I wake up, I sometimes try to ascertain my sleep cycle stage when I was roused out of it. A matinee show was on? REM stage; I jolted up straight, unaware and confused about time and space, probably I was sinking back into sleep and was in the shallow phase? It's pretty interesting. Few of my future reads are actually going to be about sleeping. I find it fascinating! But to try and hack it (like it seems to be the fad these days - sleep hacking) is something I would consider as sacrilege; particularly when it helps solve problems of the types I am sometimes engaged in (remember why we have bladders?). But, during my waking hours, I am game for learning to hack around. So, I find it deeply intriguing when I discover that all this game goes on in the organic world too!
The process of the immune system sorting self and non-self usually works well (although truly insidious tropical parasites like those that cause schistosomiasis have evolved to evade your immune system by pirating the signature of your own cells.)...
(latent viruses) The classic example are herpes viruses which, after infecting some of your neurons, can go latent for years, even decades, before flaring up out of latency. This is a clever tactic that viruses have evolved. Infect some cells, replicate, burst the cells open in the process, make the sort of mess of things that sets off all sorts of alarms in the immune system and, just as those activated immune cells are about to pounce, burrow into another round of cells. While the immune cells are cleaning up, the virus goes latent again. The next clever things that viruses have done? They don't reactivate at any odd time. They wait until the immune system of the host organism is lousy, and then gun for some quick rounds of replication... Herpes doesn't measure how your immune system is doing. It measures something else that, for its purposes, gives it the information it needs - it measures your glucocorticoid levels... Now for something even more fiendishly clevr. You know what else herpes can do once it infects your nervous system? It causes your hypothalamus to release CRH which releases ACTH which raises glucocorticoid levels. Unbelievable, huh? So you don't even need a stressor... And we think we're so clever with our big brains and opposable thumbs.
Everyone that is surviving is becoming more intelligent!
There's one funny thing that I don't really understand if it was intentionally done for the readers to find out, or what. The author talks about how some memories are literally etched in our heads. He then talks of a description (also puts up an image from the same day) of the V-Day (when he wasn't even probably born) and then declares it as the day 'they brought back the original Coke'. Maybe it was to demonstrate the strangeness of memory.
The book also reflects on how policy making for the masses is such a complex task - one because of the gigantic scale itself, and other because of the variability of each individual. One cannot go around delivering lectures in biology and endocrinology to the masses - one, less people would understand it, and two - it doesn't necessarily change things. Besides, what of it? I was assigned a task today that is due yesterday. I know it contributes to the gunk that might deposit on the walls of my arteries, but one's gotta do what one's gotta do! So, policy-making becomes a huge part of the game where one has to sidle the technical information and instead, emplace real actionable things. For example, the nutrition policy of nations (or U.S. to be specific in this context) advice at least 150 minutes of aerobic physical activity per week. It also issues nutritional guidelines and regulates materials - for example, people are now pushing to make sugar a controlled drug to curb the obesity epidemic. Welfare is difficult.
Women. This book has a lot to offer. From how men and women are wired, to how the sexes are often different in handling stress, to why men have greater chances of heart attack among men and women of the same age (or why is it delayed in case of women), there is a lot to know. But there is also another interesting fact about the female reproductive systems and the problems now afflicting more women in the western world (and not just women, but bred-in-captivity female animals too). Is there a right age to get married? A modern woman might say no, a veteran might say yes, but from a biological perspective, there seems to be some range and this has got to do with how the menstrual cycle and reproductive system works and what it entails in the long term and repeated use.
[Prolactin] is extermely powerful and versatile; if you don't want to ovulate, this is the hormone to hav lots in your bloodstream. It not only plays a major role in the suppression of reproduction during stress and exercise, but it also is the main reason that breast feeding is such an effective form of contraception... There is a reflex loop that goes straight from the nipples to the hypothalamus. If there is nipple stimulation for any reason, the hypothalamus signals the pituitary to secrete prolactin. And we now know, prolactin in sufficient quantities causes reproduction to cease. The problem with nursing as a contraceptive is how it is done in the Western societies. During the six months or so that she breast-feeds, the average mother in the West allows perhaps half a dozen periods of nursing a day, each for 30 to 60 minutes. This is not how most women on earth nurse... Bushman males and females have plenty of intercourse, and no one uses contraceptives, but the women have a child only about every four years... When a hunter-gatherer woman gives birth, she begins to breast-feed her child for a minute or two approximately every fifteen minutes. Around the clock. For the next three years. The young child is carried in a sling on a mother's hip so he can nurse easily and frequently... Think about it: over the course of her life span, she has perhaps two dozen periods. Contrast that with modern Western women, who typically experience hundreds of periods over their life span... Perhaps some of the gynecological diseases that plague modern westernized women have something to do with this activation of a major piece of physiological machinery hundreds of times when it may have evolved to be used only twenty times; an example of this is probably endometriosis (having uterine lining thickening and sloughing off in places in the pelvis and abdominal wall where it doesn't belong), which is more common among women with fewer pregnancies and who start at a later age. Remarkably, the same is now being reported in zoo animals who, because of the circumstances of their captivity, reproduce far less often than those in the wild.
Finally, there is this topic of medical depression and how it isn't received very well in society. As an off-shoot from that topic, I have a question - how much pain should one bear before seeking help? Or as Dylan sang "How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?" There is this temptation - you never know how strong you are until you bear it. But, how do you know when any further increase in burden will be more than you can handle? Where do you set your benchmark? And with the elasticity that is ingrained into human psyche, how do you know if it is correct, or was it just a deviation? Culture sets the tone of overall expectations and images associated with each personality. And experience builds up strength too - a funny trait, but where do we draw the line? I have no answer. I guess, it is just 'blowing in the wind', an in-between.
In the book, I noticed how research has been done on rats, and baboons, and monkeys (and during wartimes, on humans). Today, there are organizations that call it animal brutality. It indeed seems to be so - separating baby monkeys from their mothers and instead providing them with surrogate artificial mothers which either gave them milk or warmth just to find our why we love our mothers does indeed sound brutal. Injecting glucocorticoids artificially in rats to see the stress response is brutal, but the absence of this pushes research back many decades. Human experiments are banned, only after being tested on rats, rabbits and monkeys are medicines okayed for human trials before becoming commercially available. On a large scale, lives don't matter - and when we talk of the corpus of knowledge, it does seem that the scale is huge. But, it does raise ethical questions - why doesn't our empathy transcend humans - or at best, some pets. Again, I suspect that the answer is an 'in-between'. Simulations are a great help though!