Bread, Circuses and Bogeymen
When I was growing up, and on various occasions expressing an interest in biology or medicine, my dad would sometimes tell me stories that became his versions of ‘no-longer-a-little-kid’ but ‘not-yet-an-adult’ fairy tales. These were genuine attempts on his part to try to relate to me as an equal, to teach me as much as he could at the level of understanding I had. For those of you with kids 10 and under – you MAY be surprised how well and with what detail kids remember the most technical aspects of your explanations.
I would get myself into trouble, by insisting on something that was scientifically and technically quite true – but not common knowledge. I knew the fact itself, and the reason I believed it (why? my dad told me so, silly…) – but could not always adequately, or at least convincingly, explain the underpinnings of the WHY. I distinctly remember at age 9 or so getting into an argument with a small group of older boys about what kind of acid was the strongest. One guy said ‘hydrochloric acid’, the other guy insisted it was ‘sulphuric acid’. I would not back down from my insistence on fluoric acid (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrofluoric_acid) -- despite the disbelief, then ridicule of my teammates, who had never heard of it – the only type of known acid that could easily dissolve glass, which in fact is USED to etch glass. In my mind, that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt its superiority to all the others, which could so easily be contained by such a simple and fragile container. Lacking access to (or even the existence of) the internet or a chemistry textbook on the way home from rowing practice, I eventually gave up trying to convince them that it was the only type of acid which could NOT be stored in a glass bottle. If I had known about the existence of aqua regia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aqua_regia) I might have tried to argue for that with more luck, but alas that came later…
In any case, I wanted to tell you one of these ‘tall tales’ about a young Eastern European doctor (http://www.stress.org/about/hans-selye-birth-of-stress/) . As a medical student during the Great Depression, he noticed a set of symptoms that were common in patients across a REALLY wide spectrum of ailments, from peptic ulcers to tuberculosis. Regardless of the specific ailment, he observed a common set of physiological changes in the people he treated. While his observations were not in an of themselves new or unique – we have all seen that people look different from their usual self when they are ill, we all know that every encounter with medical personnel generally begins with a measurement of blood pressure and pulse -- he wanted to know the WHY, the underpinnings, the effect mechanism, if you will.
Well, this young doctor went on to specialize in neuroendocrine medicine (among other things), and soon had experimental backing to his early observations. At age 29, he managed to get published in Nature, which though perhaps not as widely known, was already a quite respected publication in 1936. The unassuming letter to the editor read as follows:
Nature 138, 32-32 (04 July 1936) | doi:10.1038/138032a0
A Syndrome produced by Diverse Nocuous Agents
EXPERIMENTS on rats show that if the organism is severely damaged by acute non-specific nocuous agents such as exposure to cold, surgical injury, production of spinal shock (transcision of the cord), excessive muscular exercise, or intoxications with sublethal doses of diverse drugs (adrenaline, atropine, morphine, formaldehyde, etc.), a typical syndrome appears, the symptoms of which are independent of the nature of the damaging agent or the pharmacological type of the drug employed, and represent rather a response to damage as such.
Though he (and the few readers of the publication at the time) did not have the word for it yet, he was talking about the definition of physiological stress – the reaction of a living organism to any internal or external event that threatens its existence through seriously disturbing its natural, self-sustaining equilibrium. This event could be internal -- a parasite (virus, bacterium) or a poison (whether socially acceptable, such as too much alcohol, or one more intentionally lethal). It could be an external injury, a physical blow, the appearance of a predator, a shocking/traumatic/sudden event -- a collision, or even a narrow avoidance of one. The sound/shock of an explosion. Later, as he (and other researchers) dug deeper, they realized that psychological pressure/shock was also a factor which could cause such a reaction in the body – essentially anything that the living being’s nervous and hormonal system interpreted as a potentially mortal threat, which elicited a fight-or-flight response.
General adaptation syndrome
Physiologists define stress as how the body reacts to a stressor, real or imagined, a stimulus that causes stress. Acute stressors affect an organism in the short term; chronic stressors over the longer term. General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), developed by [János] Selye, is a profile of how organisms respond to stress; GAS is characterized by three phases: a nonspecific mobilization phase, which promotes sympathetic nervous system activity; a resistance phase, during which the organism makes efforts to cope with the threat; and an exhaustion phase, which occurs if the organism fails to overcome the threat and depletes its physiological resources.
The theory, from its humble beginnings as a medical resident’s letter to the editor, has since made the rounds through the Western medicine (much to the amusement of Eastern medical practitioners, I am sure, who had likely known and used this knowledge long before), and is today standard part of pathological study (and self-help books, popular lifestyle magazines and daily parlance) (http://www.selyeinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/The-legacy-of-Hans-Selye44.pdf). While he never won a Nobel prize, (never the bride, always the bridesmaid – nominated 10 times), another group of scientists who isolated and synthesized the hormones involved in the stress response did win in 1950. This is the physiological basis for explaining a whole host of ‘civilizational illnesses’, for the ever-increasing rates of diseases both physical and mental. This is the basis of PTSD, which was MUCH earlier known, then apparently re-named in each era, from Gilgamesh through Old Testament, then the Greeks at Marathon all the way to the Napoleonic Wars and beyond – direct exposure to massive death of others and imminent death of one’s own can and does create (semi)permanent ‘stress’. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181586/)
The concept is actually not that easy to explain, and one of the reasons is, ironically, the extremely widespread use of the term in everyday language across the world – and because of its alternate, previous meaning from physics. Stress is the state of the organism (for the moment, we will focus on humans) that is a REACTION to some event, factor or condition that threatens its well-being, or at least its internal equilibrium. The factor causing the upset is the STRESSOR, the negative version (to an upsetting, harmful factor) is DISTRESS, the ‘positive’ version is EUSTRESS (though I have yet to hear anyone actually utter that one in conversation) – think of the body’s reaction to extreme amorous arousal, or perhaps a less long-term positive of a drug high. Here is the good doctor trying to explain in a few sentences, watch the interviewer’s face:
The process, to begin with, is perfectly adaptive. It marshals the body’s resources to combat the threat at hand. It creates the fever, which raises metabolic rate to fight illness. It ‘girds the loins’, so to speak – shutting off digestive and reproductive systems, activating ‘battle vision’; and sends glucose pouring into the bloodstream that is pumped faster and harder by a heart prodded judiciously by adrenaline.
The problems begin when the threat remains, even after the body is tired, its reserves spent, its muscles or white blood cells used up. If the threat remains, this is the part that leaves to what is called the exhaustion stage – the part that makes those sick ‘look sick’.
The real problems, though, come from the prolonged, unrelenting exposure to the stressors which generate this response in the body (and mind). The chronic illness, the kind of workplace that either never lets up, or re-creates crises (or ‘crises’) – or the prolonged stay in a combat zone, say. THIS is what degrades the immune system, damages the heart and circulatory system, ages tissues and organs. Just take a look at any president before and after a term or two in office.
It’s important to note that people react to stressors differently – and different stressors create reactions in me than in you. Ultimately it is the body (through the brain) that decides IF a situation is a threat. And people will have different capacity and tolerance for stress – both how much they can bear, or perhaps more accurately how well they can cope (e.g. reduce/reverse the stress response before exhaustion is reached).
It is often said that many/most of the ailments so common in society are civilizational – caused by the artificiality of our surroundings, by the lack of regular exercise, by the disruption of our natural circadian rhythms and thus sleep cycles. Of course, the (over)processed foods, the refined sugars, the genetically manipulated vegetables and crops (and soon animals) don’t help. Not to mention the pharmaceutical cocktails passing through so many bloodstreams, the lack of clean air in so many if not most large cities.
But I would add to this list one more – the constant, unrelenting stream of media coverage – whether news, ‘news’ or straight-up advertising. Coverage meant to put you on edge, meant to convince you need that strong president to protect you, that superior car insurance, that better car, that increased military appropriation, that stronger local police force (with MRAPs, hi-cal automatic firearms and no-knock warrants). The advertising that is meant to exploit your base, often subconscious fears (along with the drives and desires) in the quest to sell you more stuff – and the news playing on insecurity and herd mentality in the quest to sell you an ever decreasing set of freedoms and less self-determination.
The thing of it is, it’s hard to differentiate between callous indifference and criminality. No need to create a conspiracy theory about ill intent, when an explanation of incompetence or stupidity will do just as well. But I would argue that in the case of the media bombardment of our senses, we are dealing with a case of confluence of both. Advertisers on one hand don’t care about our well-being (insofar as it does not unduly hinder our capacity to consume) – and those who would sway our opinions to gain more power (though some would say I repeat myself) are only HELPED by a populace in a state of reduced resistance. One prone to more illnesses, both physical and psychological.
Heightened anxiety, reduced capacity for rational thought and decisions, greater likelihood of reverting to the mental shortcuts of stereotypes, heuristics and biases – just what a propagandist needs, when there is a populace whose hearts and minds need swaying. I imagine that I feel the tenor and tempo of this ‘music’ rising, day by day. Soon, I should think, we will be presented with the next BIG EVENT, a display, a spectacle. An external (or externalized) threat that EVERYONE will be able to recognize and, and coalesce against. Whether that bogeyman is North African/Southwest Asian/ Central- and South American immigrants, the repo men coming after the subprime-financed auto in loan default, whether it is the ‘arrogance’ of people who do not want their earnings redistributed to those who ‘are in greater need’, the spectre of a heroin epidemic, the threat of… WHATEVER. Projecting bogeymen to garner support, silence opposition and consolidate power? It’s a tactic as old as civilization itself. Just the like body mounts its stress response – so does society as a mass of people. And just like the body gives up higher-order functionality to focus on an immediate existential threat (whether real or merely perceived), so too does society as a whole.
For some examples and elaboration on this, check out The Power of Nightmares and Century of the Self from Adam Curtis, and Psywar.
The challenge with all of this? The intent and integrity of the news sources is not necessarily a saving grace. Given enough bad or distressing news (honest or not), the effect will still be the same. It’s why I can’t really read Zero Hedge nearly as regularly as I once did. Certainly part of the reason I can’t willfully bring myself to actively analyze events as much as I used to. While all of us – erstwhile contributors, readers, participants in conversations here in Turdville – may have different reasons, different sources of business and different new areas of focus to make demands on our time – I think this is a factor that weighs on us all. How can one remain constantly alert, constantly vigilant? How can we ALL remain indignant, outraged, critical in all ways, ready to sort wheat from the chaff? How can one maintain unwavering focus, the level of energy needed to absorb, process and internalize all this information?
Yet I sometimes feel that this, too plays in to the hands of the proverbial ‘powers that be’. I don’t mean to include honest journalists, the investigative bloggers, the whistleblowers, those actually trying to take a stand to change the state of affairs for the better. But the months and years of unrelenting low-grade anxiety punctuated with regular instances of severe crises – whether it be financial breakdowns, civil unrest, trrrrist attacks real or staged, images of mass death and depradations on television and in print – put together have a substantial effect, over time. Those most perceptive, those actually paying attention, those invested in understanding what is happening, and trying to prepare for the future – are the ones who are most deeply affected. And when actual, acute crisis finally arrives? Will we be better prepared, more hardened, ready to go? Or worn down, worn away, more passive and less capable?
While making popcorn to watch the main event unfold sounds perhaps heartless, as if one was taking pleasure or amusement from watching the failure of the great experiment -- think of it more are watching from a slight distance, from a perch of safety. I have a feeling we'll ALL know when the time has come to fully re-engage
What can be done? Shutting our eyes and ears, humming to pretend we hear nothing is not an option. Just because it is not a pleasant reality out there makes it no less real. But to paraphrase my favorite author – there is no need to live in trouble until trouble comes. Be aware of the dangers of the constant pressure – but be more like the reed than the oak tree. Bend sometimes, rather than stand up to every gust and gale. Take pleasure and relief in good tidings, company of family and friends, success well earned. Build, rather than deplete, the inner reservoir of good karma, meaningful relationships, and yes – even optimism. Humor, in all its manifestations, in abundance, whenever possible. Regular physical exercise – it’s not just for health nuts, it’s a survival necessity. Mens sana in corpore sano – known for ages, more relevant than ever today. Meditation, hobbies (perhaps ones that can be profitable/useful as well as distracting?), music, chess, nature in its splendor or starkness – or whatever allows you to relax, recharge. Make time for some each day.
(PS: Sorry about the lack of illustrations and the ugly-looking, spoiler-making pasted-in links, I am for the moment unable to work with the html editing tools the site generally provides.)