Mind-opening lectures on the physiology of stress

Stanford's Dr. Robert Sapolsky is a specialist in the physiology of stress, and two of his sterling lectures are available gratis through the iTunes music-store. When I quit my day-job on Jan 1, I finally got around to going to the doctor about all the little ailments that had plagued me for the years leading up, little patches of skin conditions, aches, pains and botheration, and as each was diagnosed and treated, I looked them up online and saw that they were all symptomatic of excessive stress.

Sapolsky's engaging, fascinating lectures trace all the ways that stress creates heretofore unseen ailments in a population that has largely cured all the fast-killing diseases and can now afford to contract slow and lingering ones. From psychogenic dwarfism -- children who stop growing and never go through puberty due to extreme abuse-stress, something that Peter Pan author JM Barrie suffered from -- to the effects of stress on the heart, brain, blood, and long term overall health, Sapolsky's research is mind-blowing to those of us who wear our stress and overwork like badges of honor.

What's more fascinating is Sapolsky's citations to empirical research on the factors that mitigate harm from stress, which are surprisingly simple and intuitive. All told, listening to these two lectures was the best audio experience I've had in months:

Saplosky related a story about a boy from a very psychologically-abusive setting who was hospitalized in a New York hospital with zero growth hormone in his bloodstream. Over the next two months he developed a close relationship with the nurse at the hospital-undoubtedly the first normal relationship he had ever had-and soon, amazingly enough, the growth hormone levels zoomed back to normal. The nurse then went on vacation and the levels dropped again, rising once more immediately after her return.

"Think about it," Sapolsky said, commenting upon the story. "The rate at which this child was depositing calcium in his bones could be explained entirely by how safe and loved he was feeling in the world." He added that while this standard textbook version of stressed dwarfism is rare, there is nevertheless "major league psychopathology" throughout society, retarding human growth.

"Major stress is the police and social workers breaking down the door of the apartment, finding the kids who have been locked in the closet for two months, the food slipped under the door. Total nightmare situations that turn out often in history. . . kids in war zones, kids in areas of civil strife."

Link to report on Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers lecture, Link to Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers on iTunes Music Store (free), Link to Stress and Coping: What Baboons Can Teach Us on iTunes Music Store (free) (Thanks, Gnat!)

Update: Avi sez, "I have a page with links to hard to find articles, interviews and videos of Sapolsky on Stress. Many have found them of benefit both tactically and to understand the wider context of Stess."

Update 2: Jason sez,

The statement that J. M. Barrie never went through puberty is simply untrue. Your source (Robert Sapolsky) might be a great lecturer and a competent endocrinologist, but he apparently can't be bothered to check the facts about the people he uses as historical examples to see if the diagnosis actually fits.

In an article based on the lecture you recommend, Sapolsky writes: "In the 1850's there was an eight year old boy growing up in Victorian England. One day he sees his beloved twelve year old brother killed in front of him in a horrible accident. This accident destroyed the family. There were no other siblings, and the older boy was the mother's favorite child." In the audio version he instead says "1870's".

But both are incorrect; JMB was born in *1860*, and lived in *Scotland*. His brother David died just before his *14th* birthday, when JMB was *6*. They had *six* other surviving siblings. (It is true, however, that Queen Victoria was on the throne, and that David was his mother's favorite.) Sapolsky talks about the mother shutting down for the rest of her life, and never talking about anything but David, which will come as a surprise to anyone who has read JMB's biography of her (a bestseller in its day). How can you believe his conclusions, when so many of his basic "facts" are wrong?

Sapolsky continues the misinformation, getting into the diagnostic particulars: "He lived to be 60 years old and 4'10". It was confirmed in his autopsy that he never reached puberty." He claims that JMB's balls never even dropped.

Where does he get this garbage? Barrie died at the age of *77*. His passport listed his height as *5 ft 3.5in* which is short but not abnormally so. And every existing photo of him shows a man with a big bushy mustache. I'm no endocrinologist, but I'm pretty sure you need to go through puberty to pull that off. Confirming (or rather, refuting) these basic "facts" is trivially easy.

Sapolsky goes on to says that JMB repeatedly got in trouble with the law for molesting little boys, which is complete and utter fiction. It's the kind of made-up crap that you read (or hear, apparently) on the internet. I don't know if JMB did anything (I suspect not), but there is no record that anyone ever actually accused him of it. The mother of the Llewelyn Davies boys even trusted him enough to leave them in his care when she died, and they each denied to their deaths the gossip that came along later that he'd ever done anything inappropriate. Sapolsky appears to have pulled this directly from his ass.

This smacks of intellectual dishonesty, plain and simple. Sapolsky wants a famous example to spice up his lecture, and apparently there are none, so he finds someone who kinda sorta comes close, fudges the facts, tosses in a few turds of complete fiction to confirm his diagnosis, and he's finished. Which certainly doesn't deserve your endorsement.