I’m tempted to lean towards the overblown and pronounce something like, “Everyone should read this book.” But I realize that not everyone is going to read it, and that’s okay. It’s non-fiction, pretty dense and scientific, and it’s hugely interesting. Maybe you’re not into that. It’s brilliantly presented, by the way. Parts are thick, with a multitude of hormone and receptor names, other sections with references to neurological and psychological research that spreads over the last century, and parts could be construed as depressing (not in the clinical sense of the word), but only if you stop halfway through the book, because there’s hope at the end (more on that later). Sapolsky’s writing is engaging, detailed, at times humorous, and it’s accessible, despite the depth and complexity of the subject matter.
I do feel like all kinds of people should read this book: if you are a teacher (and not just if you teach science); if you have kids of your own; if you’re married; if you work; if you’re curious about how the brain works; if you’re curious about stress; if you have stress; or if you really want to know what stress does to your body at the chemical and biological level… the list goes on.
I didn’t know about Robert Sapolsky until just recently, when I read that his Introduction to Human Behavioral Biology course at Stamford was available to watch online for free (thanks to OpenCulture: Biology That Makes Us Tick 3-28-11). I’m curious about his other books, A Primate’s Memoir, and The Trouble With Testosterone, because I really enjoy his writing style, (and I teach biology, so I happen to be interested in those topics). I also find him to be a fascinating lecturer. And once you watch the intro to Behavior Bio linked above (or watch the lecture on stress and depression below), you can absolutely hear his voice come through his writing. I imagine that when you write a book about a topic in your field (and revise it twice) that it becomes pretty familiar material. Whether it’s explaining the subject in front of a class or presenting his ideas in writing, he lays the case out clearly and persuasively (down to the same examples and phrases). The lecture below pretty much summarizes chapter 14 on stress and depression, which is staggering:
It’s incredible how far-reaching are the effects of stress and its attendant chemicals. They can save your life if you happen to be running from an actual lion (like the zebra of the title), but the case of humans is a bit more complicated because we tend to overthink things; the same chemical stress-response can get your hormones and body all worked up if you’re just anxious about running from a lion (or running from some metaphorical lion in your actual life). Elevated levels of glucocorticoids (a major focus of the book) can wreak havoc on your heart, blood vessels, reproductive and immune systems, sleep patterns, and general well-being. Elevated levels of stress hormones have been shown to have the same effect on your body that years of aging has. Oh, and they can also shrink your hippocampus and screw up your memory. Great.
But there’s hope.
The last section of the book is on dealing with stress. It’s possible. People actually do it, effectively even. And with the goal of “aging well” — not letting stress beat you down — Sapolsky presents some suggestions. Some of this stuff is unavoidable, due to the circumstances (genetic, environmental, and socioeconomic) that a person is born into — we don’t have much control over those things, and they are major influences (or potential risk factors, frankly). But under the heading of “control what you can control” he presents coping strategies that include exercise, maintenance and growth of positive social relationships (which do make a difference), meditation, religion, social support networks, and the importance of maintaining perspective. It doesn’t really end with fluff, and I hope I haven’t made it sound like that. It’s not a self-help book. Throughout the book Sapolsky presents clinical research, case studies, and work with rats and baboons that illustrate in remarkable detail how our brains and hormones (and those of all mammals, really) work. I feel that understanding the ways that the body deals with changes in the outside world (stressful things) can help influence the way we approach them. It might be tough to tell a “type A” personality to keep an even keel, but it turns out that it’s one of the more important things you can do.
You should totally read this book.
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