Wednesday, December 8th 2010

Around the web: stress and social disparities

The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.

On the week we learned about stress and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, we didn’t just talk about Type A personalities or parachute jumping. Instead, I tried to apply our understanding of how acute and chronic stress impact the body by examining social disparities and racism. This led to all of us being confronted with some very harsh statistics about the health of people of color in this country and the long-term effects of systemic oppression, and powerful narratives about internalized oppression in first and second-generation immigrants.

I wanted to augment that lecture with some links on social disparities and racism. I have a TON of links for this topic, so enjoy!

Check my what?

First, some primers to help us contextualize social disparity and conversations about it. One of my favorites is “Check my what?” On privilege and what we can do about it. This is a post that does get updated from time to time, and it defines privilege, and instructs the reader how to identify one’s own privilege, accept it, and from that point of acceptance, move towards actions and attitudes that are pro-equality. I like this because of the way it implicitly explains the uselessness of the seemingly pro-equality stance of “not seeing color.”

A slightly more humorous, but still important, primer, is called Derailing for Dummies. I hope a reading of this primer will help people communicate respectfully around oppression.

Context matters

I also wanted to share a few posts about Western perspectives on mental health, because of the time we spent in class on immigration. Aspects of immigration and acculturation are stressful, and cultural contexts strongly influence behavior. Another issue to consider is whether Western perspectives on mental health overpathologize context-dependent behaviors (that is, doing things that make sense in context and are occurring in context, like a toddler tantrum, or grieving after losing a loved one). Take a look at these links: Will anyone be normal? discusses the overpathologization issue I just mentioned; Westerners vs. the World: we are the WEIRD ones brings population variation in behavior to light; and a related story interviewing Ethan Watters, Going Mad the American Way.

The science of oppression

In addition to the material we learned in lecture on race and immigration, I wanted to add some other good sources. Science of oppression I is a great primer from Racialicious. Scicurious also has a great researchblogging post on inflammatory responses to stress, particularly as they relate to social rejection. She reviews a particular paper that links immune health to neural sensitivity to social rejection (meaning, those demonstrating the most sensitivity to social rejection also had an increase in inflammatory markers), which is interesting since it demonstrates a relationship between the immune system and psychosocial stress.

This Jonah Lehrer article in Wired follows up on the Sapolsky article we read about stress vaccines. I also like this story (well, press release) from ScienceDaily on how stress relates to one’s coping method. I imagine this is also linked, in some ways, to the study Scicurious discussed on neural sensitivity. It seems as though if we can change some of our coping and sensitivity behaviors, we can probably alter the degree to which stress negatively impacts our health. I also wanted to link to this special edition of Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences that was exclusively on “The Biology of Disadvantage.” Really great articles in there. Finally, this post at Language Log critically analyzes some of the ways in which we misunderstand and essentialize disadvantage. An important read.

Random, unrelated, but always interesting, stuff

Patrick Clarkin has a great post on Evolutionary Aesthetics — basically, the idea that our concept of beauty is context-dependent in more ways than we may realize. I found it inspiring and insightful.

Here’s a weird story about mercury exposure and how it changes the sexual behavior of the ibis. See how flexible sexuality can be?

This is a piece I really enjoyed on the ways in which current journalism practices don’t get at the subtlety and complexity of science. It refers back to a kerfuffle earlier this year when Martin Robbins of the Lay Scientist wrote a very funny satire piece called This is a news website article about a scientific paper.

Finally, while it’s a bit belated, a nice Thanksgiving post by Krystal D’Costa over at Anthropology in Practice.


  1. Scott said:

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  2. Anonymous said:

    I think the inflammatory response is secondary to what probably causes the inflammation, which I suspect to be stress induced losses of extracellular norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, cortisol, and sodium. In this event, adrenergic receptors will then attempt to compensate for the loss. In the past, the chemicals produced by this reaction have been mistaken for playing a causative role in stress, but in reality, they're just markers—because catecholamines and cortisol will reduce TNF, for instance. Interleukin-6 levels, though, suggests that there's a glutamate—via Ca2 release—involvement, which judging by the mechanism of drugs that deliver the best response, is probably the most important target for stress reduction therapies. But glutamate is also one of the last results of the sequence that includes catecholamines as well. Together, they're part of a loop, because in the beginning, catecholamines will increase glutamate, but glutamate reduces the expression of their receptors. And by antagonizing glutamate receptors, dopamine and norepinephrine will be restored to more healthy levels. This interaction can be seen with administration of drugs like Memantine to Parkinson's patients, which helps to slow the loss of dopamine neurons—and sometimes increases their population.

    The release of Ca2 also interferes with blood coagulation, leading to vasoconstriction, which can influence a number of measures, including stress. Fortunately, though, the administration of an inexpensive vasodilator like aspirin can help reverse both of these effects. As would activities like exercise, which increase endogenous levels of chemicals that are vasodilatory—like endocannabinoids and opioids.

    Addressing the state of psychiatry, I think its practice has been harmed most critically by the pervasive disincentives to risk-taking, a failure to recognize the importance of disorder correlates, and a misguided focus on disorders—rather than symptoms.

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