Sapolsky began observing a particular troupe of baboons (up to 100 in a troupe) about thirty years ago. He looked at their social structure and hierarchy of dominance, and as he measured stress hormones through blood samples, he learned that dominant baboons had lower levels of stress hormones, and lower ranking baboons, who were picked on more (baboons can be pretty mean) and had less of a sense of control, had much higher levels of stress hormones. About ten years into this extensive research project the baboons found their way into a neighboring town’s garbage dump and ate meat that was contaminated with TB. As it turned out, all of the dominant, aggressive males died. (Perhaps through their dominance they got more meat?) Interestingly enough, after this occurred, the stress hormones dropped in all of the remaining baboons.
A few years ago I visited Stanford and talked with one of Robert Sapolsky’s colleagues, who originally told me about the study. I asked if the troupe became a matriarchal society, and he said no, all the duties were simply shared.
In Stress: Portrait of a Killer, Sapolsky went on to explain that not only did the troupe’s stress hormones lower, but they stayed low. He said that new males migrate into the troupe and within six months, they learn that things are different in this troupe; the group works together and is calm. The troupe has no high blood pressure or stress related diseases and has kept this culture of peace for 20 years.
Sapolsky reminds us that stress is not a concept; it is biological, measurable, and damaging, causing high blood pressure and arterial damage, destroying brain cells, and depleting the immune system. He tells us that its not just our rank, but how we feel about ourselves that affects our stress response. He said we must value stress reduction. His suggestions included having a positive attitude and being around positive people, focusing on giving, rather than receiving. He succinctly said, “Don’t bite anyone” and then added, “If baboons can transform in one generation, we can too”.
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