Neuroanthropology

For a greater understanding of the encultured brain and body…

On Stress-Part Two-Blakey

Posted by dlende on December 20, 2007

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBy Daniel Lende 

The other night, my two year old daughter complained with a sleepy vehemence, then turned to my wife for comfort (yes, we are co-sleepers!).  She had been sick, unable to sleep well, and she sought out her mother for comfort and soothing.  It wasn’t that my daughter was physically stressed, but that her little mind seemed to get ahead of herself.  The terrible things bothering her?  Suddenly they are all right because of Mamá. 

What does this have to do with the fight-or-flight reaction?  Very little.  But anyone who’s tried to deal with a screaming baby knows that such a thing is very stressful for everyone involved.  And that’s the point.  Stress does not sit so easily into the category we imagine for it.  When my daughter screams, I feel my blood pressure rise and a lack of control if I am unable to soothe her.  Alternatively, calming her calms me.  These sorts of experiences do not fit easily into the stressor/stress reaction dichotomy covered in yesterday’s post on Robert Sapolsky.  But I had not really thought about it that way until I recently read the work of Michael Blakey, professor of anthropology at William & Mary. 

In his chapter “Beyond European Enlightenment,” Blakey opens with a discussion of how naturalism leads into ecological and evolutionary “explanations” that lie explicitly outside the social realm as well as to sexual, racial and genetic determinism (“natural” causes or differences, hence we just have to accept the present state of affairs).  Blakey is not against the documenting of human variation that good ecological or human biology research can highlight, say between a certain type of environment and a certain body type.  However, he is against this approach becoming the core focus of a discipline (say, biological anthropology) and quite aware of the dangers that the projection of biological explanations into the social realm plays in the communications and politics of a public anthropology. 

As he writes, “Naturalism as it informs empirical methods shows the human element in data analysis as contaminating, deviating from ultimate truth.  Culture, therefore, becomes a thing to be purged (or denied) in apprehension of legitimate truth (382).”  He sees the logical extension of such a view as: “The proper order of human life according to this view is to be found outside human society.  Whether the method is belief in gospel or systematic evidence, religion and natural science obtain an allure of being able to reveal knowledge from beyond human agency (382).”  


We saw aspects of this revelation in Sapolsky’s piece yesterday—the systematic coverage of evidence from nonhuman data, and the ending implication that humans do not have the same contingent variability in our Westernized socioeconomic gradient as primates have in their natural settings.  As I pointed out, Sapolsky does not develop the implications for social theory of the fact that rank dictates biology; he moves to document in enormous detail the physiological “end points.”  For me, the larger question is: Why does our social system produces these effects, and given that we create our own social systems, what are we going to do about that?  This is a more radical question, the kind that rarely appears in Science, but I believe will be a core part of what neuroanthropology can achieve. 

As Blakey writes, “An emphasis on social and economic causality might be preferred also, because social and economic variables are directly subject to human decision making and therefore may be altered comprehensively along with their biological effects by social policy  This brand of biology, therefore, becomes a source of systematic societal criticism, rather than apology.  It seeks change, tests its applications, and invites criticism and revision (389).”  It is a wonderful statement, a needed corrective to a documenting of endpoints.  And even if I believe that social and economic causality merge into neural causality (and actually would prefer to model the whole thing as processes, rather than causes), Blakey is right in his emphasis on how naturalizing what we do socially leads only to a reductive determinism.  This determinism in turn becomes ideological fodder for those in power.  To return to Sapolsky, it becomes part of the way that people are defined as being the “wrong” rank. 

But what does this discussion have to do with stress?  Everything!  Sapolsky provides us with the traditional view of stress—physical and psychological stressors, an array of hormonal and neuronal reactions, the importance of maintaining homeostasis, and the fight-or-flight reaction to “acute physical challenges.”  What Blakey points to is how this view of stress is overly naturalized, and worse, “based on erroneous and highly politicized notions about human evolution.”  We’ve rightly overturned the Man the Hunter view of human evolution.  But we still have a Man the Hunter view of stress, of either fighting or running away when faced with an acute challenge like a hungry lion.  Today we have views of human evolution based on food sharing, cooperation, and subtle social competition, as my colleague Agustin Fuentes has pointed out.  Where is the stress in a view of primate and human evolution based on Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Human Language 

As Blakey tells us, “The sociological, epidemiological and psychological literature [shows] consistently that stress effects resulted mostly from perceived threats of social separation, loss and alienation.  Although psychophysiological stress seems to be a generalized response, the most common and powerful anxieties in humans [are] those related to fears about one’s status within and effective control of important social relationships, relationships upon which the satisfaction of all biological needs depend in highly socially dependent hominoid species (396).”  In other words, it sounds like my daughter, my wife and myself! 

Blakey then summarizes his earlier research on stress in urban African-American communities, “The sensation of stress motivated the seeking of social support, and that required the acquisition of cultural behaviors that engender social acceptance.  Pathological distress in our society resulted from chronic frustration of those efforts to achieve a sense of social security and worth (396).”  That last sentence sounds like that adolescent boy Rafa I knew in Bogotá, described at the beginning of yesterday’s post.  He was socially excluded, and definitely exuded a pathological distress, yet he still sought ways to have some social security and worth through friends and ideology.  It just happened that drug-using friends and neo-Nazi beliefs put him even more at odds with the social structures that had classified him as wrong and unacceptable in the first place. 

Blakey wraps up the section on stress by writing, “According to the ‘fight-or-flight’ model, humans are increasingly stressed in the industrial world because their innate, formerly adaptive tendencies to fight or flee in the face of danger could not be applied to the kind of stresses that were prevalent in civilized life.  Thus, those where were the most stressed (least ‘modernized’) were constructed as those who were least able to contend with civilization effectively (396).”  Hence the administrative school meeting where Rafa did not meet the academic and behavioral standards of the school—he couldn’t contend effectively, and disrupted many of the others who might still be “contenders.” 

Blakey concludes: “On the other hand, if suppressed hostility is shown to be in the etiology of essential hypertension in African-American men (Harburg et al. 1973), ‘is it that the beast within black men is unable to contend with a civil world; or is it that all humans are equally sensitive organisms, frustrated and enraged by the inaccessibility and unpredictability of social gratification and security in what, for some, must be a beastly world?’ (Blakey 1994a, 160) (396).”  It is a crucial question to ask ourselves as we continue to forge ahead with trying to bring together the neurosciences and anthropology.  It is the right question about people in the “wrong” ranks. 

I came away from reading Blakey’s chapter challenged in the ways I have described above.  I also see direct implications for the future of neuroanthropology.  The localized view of the stress response, that it involves the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands, is too mechanical and essentialized.  In my mind, it the corresponding “physical” representation to the fight-or-flight metaphor.  For intensely social species like many humans and other primates, we need to begin with an understanding of what stress does and does not do, and match that to what we know about the brain.  Put differently, we need to incorporate the social and the meaningful directly into what stress means and what it is biologically.  This approach is actually the accurate evolutionary view, one that predates human evolution, rather than the mythic fight-or-flight representation that we presently impose on the past.

10 Responses to “On Stress-Part Two-Blakey”

  1. gregdowney said

    Fascinating post, especially the discussion of Blakey’s ideas. The concentrated focus on stress to me highlights that one of the the things missing from the ‘socio-cultural ingredients’ into neuroanthropology isn’t just an unreformed cultural anthropology. At the moment, I don’t know where we’d even look for ‘models’ of culture and social relations that could contribute to a systems model of stress, for example. In the wake of interpretive anthropology, considering how one might ‘model’ the relation between individuals, institutions, mores, and social interaction patterns seems anachronistic, but I think it’s something we will have to talk about.

    The point wouldn’t be to create sweeping models of society (I’m thinking of Talcott Parsons, but I don’t want to heap blame on him as I’ve always found his work more subtle first hand than the accounts of it. Rather, I suspect that we will likely need to create partial models of particular processes rather than models that try to explain all social phenomena. The example that really occurs to me is work by Peter Taylor (which I’ll try to discuss in a later post) and a fantastic article by Anne Fausto-Sterling on the complex dynamic that produces ‘osteoporosis’ (including introductions of medical instruments and diagnostic criteria as well as cultural patterns of the sports that girls participate in, or don’t). I’ve been trying to reproduce Fausto-Sterling’s example in my own work on the equilibrium system.

    But this discussion of stress seems to be one of those ideal cases where a sprawling, causally linked, dynamic model could be sketched out, which – although still partial and open to the inclusion of new influences – might go a long way toward illustrating the sort of complexity and enculturation of the nervous system (including the autonomic system). Daniel, I’m glad you’re doing it because, in general, emotion and the endocrine system scare the shit out of me. I tend to stick with motor and perception because I feel like they’re less complicated. The example of stress is a great one though.

  2. gregdowney said

    Oh, I forgot the references:

    Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2005. “The Bare Bones of Sex: Part 1—Sex and Gender.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30 (2): 1491-1527.

    Taylor, Peter. 2001. “Distributed Agency within Intersecting Ecological, Social, and Scientific Processes.” In Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Susan Oyama, Paul E. Griffiths, and Russell D. Gray, eds. Pp. 315-332. MIT Press.

    I’m sure I’ll write more on these two in the near future.

  3. [...] On Stress-Part Two-Blakey [...]

  4. [...]  This approach is certainly amenable to a neuroanthropology that is attentive to brain development, the local demands and opportunities of an environment, and an awareness of the structuring processes that often put black children in unequal circumstances, say, both the “wrong” local rank and socially stressful environments to go back to my posts on Sapolsky and Blakey.    [...]

  5. [...] These assumptions come out of the dual British traditions of utilitarian analysis and life as “nasty, brutish and short.”  Play has a hard time fitting into either tradition, which has made it such a bugaboo for evolutionary theory.  But these assumptions block a more robust evolutionary view, the same way that assumptions about the “fight-or-flight response” limit our understanding of stress (a position I critiqued in my post on stress and the work of Michael Blakey).  [...]

  6. [...] drinking too much, getting angry, and getting depressed, as I have discussed before in posts on stress and social status, inequality and substance abuse, and [...]

  7. [...] and negative mood (for more on that, see previous stress and inequality posts on Sapolsky and Blakey). In turn, inequality feeds into the obesity epidemic through both social and cultural [...]

  8. [...] wrote two posts on building a new view of stress by synthesizing the work of Robert Saplosky and Michael Blakey. He also looked at the neuroanthropology of interaction in video games and anthropology and MMORPG [...]

  9. [...] “flight-or-fight” (which I’ve critiqued here with Sapolsky and more importantly here with Blakey). On the cultural side, we can look more specifically at one example. The 4-item perceived stress [...]

  10. [...] ideas about activation of the stress system. As I’ve argued before, stress is actively social and intimately meaningful. These are not outside the perspective of the brain – they become part of how the brain [...]

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