Robert Sapolsky on Stress: An Interview

Prof. Robert Sapolsky on Coping with Stress (Audio link) Photo Courtesy of Indiana University

Robert Sapolsky is a Professor of Biological Sciences and Neurology at Stanford University. He is the author of A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons.

Avi Solomon:

What event or person influenced your decision to study Primatology?

Robert Sapolsky:

Reading The Year of the Gorilla, by George Schaller, when I was in middle school. Schaller was the first person to do field work with gorillas (long before Dian Fossey). I had a vague sense of wanting to do primatology before that (sufficiently so to be reading the book), but that book cemented it.


What led you to research Stress?


My roots, in college, were in behavior in the context of evolution. If you are in that world, evolution really feels like it is about adaptation – when there are changes in the environment, new challenges, the critical issue becomes whether there is the genetic variability in a population that will allow for survival – will there be individuals with the means to adapt to the changing environment?

As I became more interested in behavior from the standpoint of neurobiology, the stress-response became really interesting. What stress physiology is about is – when there is a new environmental challenge, how does an individual adapt? It seemed like a natural transition.

Another reason is intellectual temperament. There is a classic study (by Tversky and Kahneman) in which people are given two scenarios. You have a population in which there are two diseases; each disease accounts for 50% of the deaths. Scenario A: you come up with something which completely cures one of the diseases, without having any effect on the other. Scenario B: you come up with something which cuts the mortality rate in half for each disease. The two are equivalent: 1 x 50% = 2 x 25%. The vast majority of people prefer Scenario A, for the sense of closure that it gives. My temperament has always been more for Scenario B. Stress, all on its own, doesn't directly kill people in the way that, say, cancer does. What it does is make lots and lots of different diseases 2% worse, 5% worse, whatever. Distributed impact. Going after that is much more to my taste as an intellectual problem (rather than, say, coming up with a vaccine or identifying a mutation that underlies a disease – those are Scenario A's).


How do you define Stress? Is Stress necessarily a bad thing?


If you are a normal mammal, a stressor is a challenge to homeostatic balance – a real physical challenge in the world – and the stress-response is the adaptation your body mobilizes to re-establish homeostasis.

For a cognitively complex species (like humans and other primates), stressor is also the ANTICIPATION that a a real physical challenge is about to happen. If there really is not the threat of a physical stressor coming, then you are setting yourself up for increased risk of stress-related disease.

Is stress always bad? No – if a stressor isn't too extreme, is only transient, and occurs in what overall feels like a benevolent environment, it's great, we love it – that's what play and stimulation are.


Why are Baboons good human analogs for the study of Stress?


Baboons are perfect models for the ecosystem I study. They live in the Serengeti in East Africa, which is a wonderful place for a baboon to live. They're in big troops, so predators don't hassle them much. Infant mortality is low. Most importantly, it takes baboons only about 3 hours of foraging to get their day's calories. Critical implication of this – if you are spending only 3 hours in a day getting food, that means you have 9 hours of free time each day to devote to being miserable to some other baboon. Like us, they are ecologically privileged enough so that they can devote their time to generating psychological stress for each other. If a baboon in the Serengeti is miserable, it is because another baboon has worked very hard to bring that state about.


What are the most important science-based strategies for coping with Stress?


Successful stress management heavily revolves around combating the building blocks of psychological stress – a feeling as if you have no control over the adversities in your life, a feeling that you have no predictive information about the stressors, if you lack outlets for the frustrations caused by the stressors, if you have no social support.


How do you use them in your own life?


As for me – I'm terrible at applying any of this. Why else would I study the subject?


How has doing regular fieldwork in Africa affected you?


It has been one of the most important things in my life. I am very very happy when I am there.


You grew up an orthodox Jew in New York. What is your opinion of God now?


What's God? For me, God died when I was around 14, and I haven't been capable of anything resembling "spirituality" since then either. I wish I could—life would be easier—but I can't.

Previously at Boing Boing

Toxoplasma (cat-poo parasite) hypnotizes rats by making them horny for cat pee

Sapolsky's outstanding Stanford lecture on "The Uniqueness of Humans"

Stanford's Sapolsky on primate sexuality: funny, fascinating, educational

Sapolsky on primate sexuality part two: required viewing for the horny

Evolution, religion, schizophrenia and the schizotypal personality

Stanford's Sapolsky and National Geo produce a documentary on stress

Mind-opening lectures on the physiology of stress