Neuron Culture

Stress is an old, old companion

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 A nice short piece on “The Prehistory of Stress” by Matt Ford at Ars Technica (newly designed site worth checking out).

I have heard people say, on multiple occasions, that they think stress is a modern, Western phenomenon. While the psychological phenomenon known as stress has only had a formal name for just over 80 years, knowing when it was first suffered by our ancestors is a daunting task. Was life really better in the past? Is stress an entirely modern phenomenon?

Using modern forensic technology and a decidedly modern understanding of biochemistry, researchers from The University of Western Ontario have taken a look at stress levels in pre-Colombian Peru; their findings are summarized in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science. They found that stress has plagued humanity for at least 1500 years. The researchers were able to get the dead to give up not only their final secrets, but an understanding of their life for a few years before they shuffled off this mortal coil.

When humans get stressed, our bodies release a chemical known as cortisol, which appears in our blood, our urine, and even our hair. Of those three, hair is only one stands the test of over 1000 years of time, and provides a short history of the last years that its owner had. By examining hair strands from 10 individuals at five different dig sites in Peru, the researchers were able to determine how stressed people were, using the levels of cortisol in segments of their hair.

The team found that the time just before the individuals passed away was a stressful one–not an overly surprising result. But the majority of the individuals had lived through stressful periods in the years leading up to their death, suggesting that stress was a regular part of life in the pre-modern period. Perhaps this can be filed under “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Yet, like Ford,  I am surprised at how many people assume that life in earlier times was less stressful.   This colors our view of our typical reactions to stress — withdrawal, aggression — which we tend to see as anomalous and define as maladaptive.  But as the orchid or sensitivity hypothesis suggests, it makes much more sense to view these reactions as adaptive in many situations and maladaptive in other situations. Their value depends on their context.  Quitting school and doing a youth gang, for instance, can be a pretty adaptive move considered from a local context — one’s prospects in the immediate neighborhood and social structure — but a lousy move considered from a broader societal context. And all sorts of behaviors that are considered maladaptive within the particular constraints and values of our culture make sense when viewed with more sensitivity to human history.

The paper, by Emily Webb and others at the University of Western Ontario, is at the Journal of Archeological Science. You can find some other write-ups here.

Comments

  1. #1 linda
    December 18, 2009

    Thanks – really enjoyed reading about stress and not only the impact on our lives today, but also our ancestors. I always thought stress played a huge part in our history and the evidence of stress found in 1000 year old hair is quite interesting.

  2. #2 frog
    December 18, 2009

    Why would this be surprising? My, we have a short time line we’re thinking on.

    Maladaptive stress would be driven by maladaptation. That would be most likely to happen under conditions that differ significantly from the ancestral state over a short period of time.

    Ergo, you would expect maladaptive stress — long term elevated cortisol levels, for example — just as much under agricultural as industrial conditions.

    It’s no more natural to be a farmer than an office worker. Both’ll drive you crazy — unfortunately, returning to nomadism isn’t an option, either.

  3. #3 kim
    December 19, 2009

    How can anyone suppose that stress is an exclusively modern phenomenon?

    Let’s see:
    War
    Rape
    Famine
    Disease
    Political oppression
    Violence
    Poverty

    Any of these stressful, by chance? Any shortage of these in earlier centuries? I think not.

  4. #4 stripey_cat
    December 21, 2009

    I think the (perceived) difference is the ongoing stress that many people accept as normal in their jobs especially – stress in bad situations is one thing, but stress all the time is another entirely. Of course, to see if this is actually the case, we’d need samples of hair from modern people too, and then compare the stress levels /between/ the bad-stuff peaks.

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