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Baboons, humans and stress: the cost of being an SOB

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2007 - Winter


Baboons in Africa’s Serengeti Plain spend just three hours a day finding food, said Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D. “That leaves nine hours of daylight for them to be really crappy to the other baboons,” Sapolsky said, adding that such behavior carries a cost. “Physiologically, it’s very expensive to be a bastard all day long.”

In his keynote talk at a symposium in October sponsored by the Department of Psychiatry, Sapolsky, a professor of biological sciences and neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University, described how chronic stress—in humans as well as baboons—can cause or contribute to physical and mental afflictions ranging from heart disease, ulcers and memory loss to infertility and even diminished growth. “If stress goes on too long, it becomes pathogenic,” he said.

But Sapolsky, who studies the relationship between personality and stress-related disease in wild baboons, found cause for optimism. Male baboons have “pungent individualistic personalities,” he said. Some handle stress well; others don’t. There is compelling evidence that the same is true for humans. “If some baboons see the watering hole as half full, so can we,” he said.

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