Saturday, August 07, 2010

A Vaccine for Stress

Human beings are wired to see patterns, whether they exist or not. That's why so many people believe in astrology, or think they can sense where the roulette ball is going to land on the next spin.

There's a simple evolutionary explanation for this: understanding patterns was a huge help to our ancestors. If a caveman could recognize which plants tended to kill people who ate them... then he had an advantage in surviving and procreating. If he saw non-existent patterns... e.g. believing that if he danced a certain way it would bring rain... it led to excessive dancing, which was hardly catastrophic.

From the viewpoint of our DNA (which only wants to us to survive and procreate), seeing patterns and sensing danger is clearly the way to go. This leads to stressful lives, as we've evolved to metaphorically see a saber-tooted tiger hiding in the bush, whether or not it's really there. Just in case.

I've been thinking about this after reading the article US scientists developing vaccine for stress (thanks, Brian):
THE world's first vaccine for stress was undergoing development today, as Californian scientists worked on a single injection that would help people relax without slowing down.

The quest for the lifetime cure to stress was led by Dr Robert Sapolsky, professor of neuroscience at Stanford University [...]

Dr Sapolsky said he was on the path to a genetically engineered alternative to yoga, pills and friends urging others to relax - itself a recognised cause of tension.
Evolution is an insanely slow process. It's entirely trial and error... evolution gathers information purely based on which individuals last long enough to procreate. Over an unimaginably long time period, it's determined that high stress levels (seeing tigers in the bushes, enemies under the bed, evil spirits all around) is the optimal survival strategy.

Many would argue that we're at a key point in evolutionary history, as we ourselves start to alter the mechanism of evolution. Millenia of trial-and-error say that high stress is necessary. But we have the means to use our nifty rational minds to explore alternatives. Testing the what-if scenarios of our thinking is a jillion times faster than waiting for evolution to change things.

On the one hand, we can easily make mistakes in our haste. If I got a stress vaccination, I might have even more difficulty finding the motivation to move my sorry ass. But hell, why not? My DNA may favor high stress, but must I agree with my DNA? Those genes care only about survival. Maybe that can be over-blown. How about perceiving this body, this "I", as a floating cloud that appears, exists for a little while, then disappears, no problem? That doesn't seem so stressful.

In any case, don't stress out waiting for your local Walgreens to start offering the stress vaccine. The article concludes:
"To be honest, I'm still amazed that it works," Dr Sapolsky recently told Wired magazine. He warns that human trials are years away
In the meantime... in 3 months, Californians may vote to repeal laws against pot. Human trials would begin immediately.

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