On Stress-Part One-Sapolsky

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchBy Daniel Lende 

In my research in Colombia, I dealt with teenagers across the spectrum—kids from good families with futures they could see, kids who had gone through more shit than most people will see in their lifetimes.  One kid, let’s call him Rafa, came from a small town outside of Bogotá, his family not in the best circumstances.  In my talking with Rafa, he dwelled on the horrible process of social exclusion that he went through—first the whispers and bad looks, then problems at school, the violence and rejection at home, and the final demand from a coalition of men, powerful and dangerous men, that he simply leave.  Sure, Rafa was no saint himself, but that’s not the point.  The dwelling on what other people did, that was the hard thing in his life when I met him.  He didn’t deal with that in the best way either, finding support in hate-filled ideologies and drug-using friends.  I don’t think many adults had ever just taken the time to talk with him, to get to know him.  And he still got kicked out of the school, a school that took in kids that had had problems elsewhere, during that year I knew him.  I remember that administrative meeting well.  No teacher spoke up for Rafa, and I didn’t count as the anthropologist.  So Rafa ran out of chances once again.  Except that is the wrong expression—he ran into chances that bopped him around like the ball on a roulette wheel, only to end up on zero.  It was people that did that. 

So that’s the ethnographic moment. 

Let’s turn to some other research. Robert Sapolsky’s work is widely known.  His best-selling book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, is now in its third edition, and his Perspectives piece in Science has been cited 485 times according to Google Scholar.  He is acclaimed in biological anthropology circles because of his concern with mechanism, the elegance of his naturalistic studies with baboons in Kenya, and his consideration of the heavy stress-related costs of inequality.  The back cover of the Zebras book summarizes the core argument of the book, “When we worry or experience stress, our body turns on the same physiological responses that an animal does, but we usually do not turn off the stress-response in the same way—through fighting, fleeing, or other quick actions.  Over time, this chronic activation of the stress-response can make us literally sick.” 

Michael Blakey is better known for his critical archaeology work and his leadership with the New York African Burial Ground.  The work I will discuss, Blakey’s chapter “Beyond European Enlightenment” in the edited volume Building a New Biocultural Synthesis, has been cited 5 times according to Google Scholar.  His earlier chapter “Psychophysiological Stress as an Indicator of Disorder in Industrial Society” in the book Diagnosing America: Anthropology and Public Engagement has been cited all of once.  But it is Blakey’s work that has turned my mind around in the past few days in ways that Sapolsky never quite has.  These two posts will explore why the blurb on Sapolsky’s book is wrong and why that is important to what neuroanthropology can do. 

Today I will start with Sapolsky’s recent Science review “The Influence of Social Hierarchy on Primate Health.”  The article begins with the familiar “socioeconomic gradient,” where the “stepwise descent in socioeconomic status (SES) predicts increased risks of cardiovascular, respiratory, rheumatoid, and psychiatric diseases; low birth weight; infant mortality; and mortality from all causes.”  Sapolsky then provides a traditional review of the stress response—there are physical and psychosocial stressors, and both activate an “array of endocrine and neural adaptations.”  These adaptations are generally mobilized in response to challenges to homeostasis.  In response to “an acute physical challenge,” the stress response works through mobilizing energy, increasing cardiovascular tone, and inhibiting unessential anabolism; in other words, the classic “fight-or-flight” framing of stress.  Chronic activation, particular by chronic psychosocial stressors, can increase or worsen health problems ranging from “hypertension, atherosclerosis, insulin-resistant diabetes, immune suppression, reproductive impairments, and affective disorders.” 

Continue reading “On Stress-Part One-Sapolsky”

Neuroanthropology and Everyday Design

Today’s article by John Tierney, Why Nobody Likes a Smart Machine, from the Tierney Lab illustrates several points that neuroanthropologists should pay attention to.  It’s about the work of Donald Norman, best known for his book “The Design of Everyday Things,” and his analyses for why modern technology often frustrates people so much.  (By the way, I just bought my wife one of those picture frames mentioned in the article for Christmas—ah, a bundle of frustrating joy.)  So, in the course of the article, Tierney and Norman mention four different aspects of how we relate successfully or unsuccessfully to machines (and, from my point of view, much of the world).  They are: 

-Predictability (the pedestrian who keeps walking so the bicyclist easily avoids him)

-Being Understandable (human-sized signals like the whistle from a tea kettle; having an intuitive feel—read, culturally modeled, metaphorically presented, and visually and tactically available)

-Control (the clever solution to wrapping a wet paper towel around the electronic sensor on the bathroom faucet)

-Feeling Helpless (computerized shades that worked on their own without being able to be locally manipulated) 

These factors are tied up into three related phenomena—evolution, culture, and the brain—at the core of neuroanthropology.  In this case, they are (1) achieving behavioral success in often stochastic evolutionary environments, where acting on environmental information in goal-directed ways often led to good things (like food) (the evolutionary problem), (2) how culture built off human tendencies—our ability to apply learned, controllable, regular solutions in novel ways (but not badly designed ways—hence the problems with some technology) (the cultural side), and (3) the brain systems that handle stress, where unpredictable, uncontrollable stressors are the ones that make us react the most (the brain).  Hence, the predictable line of frustration, anger, and then simply giving up and making do the best you can with the present situation. 

Plus Norman did participant observation and interviewing as his methodological approach!  If you want to talk more, just email me at dlende@nd.edu.  Best, Daniel Lende

Two chapters in new Harris volume on Knowledge

harrisways.jpgI just received a copy of a book edited by Mark Harris of the University of St. Andrews, Ways of Knowing: New Approaches in the Anthropology of Experience and Learning. If you’re interested, it’s being published by Berghahn (Berghahn Amazon). Harris does great fieldwork in the Amazon and theoretical work on skill acquisition, religion, history, and knowledge. He put together a conference in January, 2005, that included a great line-up of scholars who provided chapters in the volume. There’s many of the anthropologists that I’ve certainly drawn on in my own work and thinking: Tim Ingold, Michael Herzfeld, Cristina Grasseni, Dominic Boyer, Otávio Velho, Paul Stoller, and a number of others. The whole volume is worth checking out, and I’m loathe to single out any particular chapters, but two specifically discuss relationships between the anthropology of knowledge and research in the neurosciences (the subject of this blog).

The chapters by Trevor Marchand (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London) and me (Greg) specifically deal with neuroanthropological concerns. As Harris describes in his introduction:

…biological processes also mediate experience. What place should they have? Recently, a number of influential anthropologists who have written on knowledge have shown that an outdated theory of cognition lies implicit in many anthropological texts which see the brain as a computer running programmes and processing information (Sperber 1985; Bloch 1998; Toren 1999; Whitehouse 1999; Ingold 2000). This view of the brain is indefensible since it implies a series of assumptions about biology and culture, the individual and society, sensation and perception, which are not always consistent with each other or supported by analyses from beyond anthropology. (Harris 2007:2)

Later in the introduction, Harris gives Marchand and me credit for attempting ‘a response to the challenge work like [Maurice] Bloch’s presents’ (ibid.:14): that is, to offer anthropological accounts of knowledge that deal responsibly with biological and psychological dimensions of knowing. Whether or not readers think we are successful, both Marchand and I do try to incorporate new research in the brain sciences into anthropologically and ethnographically informed accounts of knowledge practices. For Marchand, the discovery of mirror neurons and dynamic syntax models provide a foundation to better understand how masons working on temples in Mali communicate as the coordinate their efforts. I can’t do it justice, so I’ll just have to hope that Dr. Marchand provides us with a richer discussion at some point; in the meantime, check out, ‘Crafting Knowledge: The Role of “Parsing and Production” in the Communication of Skill-Based Knowledge among Masons.’

Continue reading “Two chapters in new Harris volume on Knowledge”

Keeping Brains Agile

This article from The New York Times, Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile, illustrates a central point that Greg Downey and I want to make with neuroanthropology.  First, what you do with your brain, how that doing plays out in an environment, and how that playing out feeds back into the workings of your brain are a central part of what makes us human—and thus is a central part of how anthropology should approach the study of ourselves. 

What You Do: Having an active brain over your life course means that less neurons are likely to be lost and more connections actively generated and maintained.  The brain, like your muscles, is use-it-or-lose-it—we have the most neurons that we’ll ever have when we are children, and as children, we go through a lot of “selective pruning”.  That said, research has also shown the we keep producing new neurons throughout our lives, overturning a long-standing idea that we only get one set of neurons for life. 

Doing in Environment: As the article notes, “there is no ‘quick fix’ for the aging brain, and little evidence that any one supplement or program or piece of equipment can protect or enhance brain function — advertisements for products like ginkgo biloba to the contrary.”  Despite our wishes to the contrary, we need to do plenty of stuff in a challenging environment to maintain our cognitive reserves. 

Playing Back into the Brain: Both social relationships and physical activity make a difference to your brain.  Greg likes the physical side, so I will just highlight one quote here: “Long-term studies in other countries, including Sweden and China, have also found that continued social interactions helped protect against dementia. The more extensive an older person’s social network, the better the brain is likely to work, the research suggests.” 

That said, we can also draw two other lessons from the article.  First, as I pointed out briefly in my Introduction, we should avoid over-localizing function and pathology in any one area.  Brains are not as hard-wired as computers; people’s physiology is variable (including their brains).  We are soft wired, or “wet wired” to draw on the metaphor of a 1995 book.  As the article states, “up to two-thirds of people with autopsy findings of Alzheimer’s disease were cognitively intact when they died.” The second point, and a crucial one for neuroanthropology, is the implicit framing of the article.  The title reads “Mental Reserves Keep Brains Agile,” re-using a very old mind/body metaphor.  While Jane Brody speaks of social and physical activity, the main causal concepts are cognitive and physical: the cognitive reserve, the number of neurons present.  Subsequently, Brody has our social, physical and symbolic worlds revolve around the mind/body dichotomy.  Neuroanthropology needs to develop the research, the language, and the popular models to show what this article actually tells us: people’s social lives, from walking in malls to playing bridge, make a difference in the blood flow and neuronal connections of the brain.  Our lives play back into our brains.

Paul Mason on Neuroanthropology

Paul Mason is currently in the field in Indonesia, conducting research on Pencak Silat toward his PhD in anthropology here at Macquarie.  He doesn’t always have the best Internet connections from Indonesia, so I may be posting stuff for him until he’s able to really use his own account (if he’s not lucky, as his advisor, I may see if he can help with any sort of coordination here, too—hard to say ‘no’ to your advisor…). I’ll have a number of thing to post from him, but one of the first is a link back to his own blog to the page where he discussed ‘neuroanthropology’ long before I took up the term.So here’s a link to some of Paul’s reflections on the subject.