The Cultural Aspects

We are living through a pandemic of stress. So widespread has its presence among the urban crowd that it has paradoxically become a measure of success. If you are not stressed, you are probably not gainfully employed.

It is perhaps a logical sequence of the "busy" culture of the previous century. To be successful, you need to be busy in the first place. If you are busy, you definitely have a lot of things to do - more things to do than time permits.

Most of the things that keep us busy have got social footprints. You can’t be busy reading a book or watching TV.

If your cumulative social world is big, then the society considers you to be among the big contributors. And that is what success is all about.

The narrative looks quite logical if you take democratic values into consideration. Go back another century. You see power as an important determinant of success. With the transatlantic shift of global power from the kingdom to the states, the dominant value system also shifted. The dominant affliction of the mind also changed. In the nineteenth century England it was okay to be depressed, as much as it is okay to be stressed in the US of today.

Science, however, has a different take on it. It's a psychophysiological response to perceived threat to one's existence. While threat perception is purely psychological, the response to it involves a complex interplay between the brain and the body.
It is interesting to note that physical performance enhancement is the only option that a scared brain can come up with.

It is all about immediacy. Everything is optimized for speed than anything else. One may wonder why it works that way. Things which will stress me out today do not require a response at the speed of light. Just to be doubly sure let's see what is all on my radar right now:

  1. The Ukraine war, which may escalate, into the third world war
  2. The recession
  3. Inflation
  4. The novel Corona virus
  5. My blood cholesterol
  6. My neighbor's suspicious nocturnal activities

None of those, for sure, require an immediate response. But my brain uses the same response system against those as well.

During the prehistoric times, when the major architectural changes happened to the human brain, some threats that the immediate environment offered were:

  1. Flood
  2. Wildfire
  3. Avalanche
  4. Earthquake
  5. Storm

Again, a faster reaction would not be the determining factor for surviving those calamities.

The real threat was predators who ate early humans. Long before the rise of "the man the hunter", the greatest predator of all eras, humans were hunted and eaten regularly by some predators of the African savannah. To date, primates who missed the evolution bus get hunted by those ferocious animals regularly.

There were two distinct advantages those predators had over humans: factory-fitted weaponry and speed. The former gets most of our attention because of the overt lethality that they exhibit. Most of us are not aware that we are among the slowest animals in the world.

The following graphics compare Usain Bolt to other animals. He has just about beaten the black mamba snake to become the fastest man on earth. Usain Bolt has the best of quite a few things - physiotherapist, heath food, gym and shoes - which make him run fast - almost as fast as an elephant. Our ancestors did not have such a support system.

The Psychophysioloical Picture

So the body needs to somehow make the limbs move faster. More blood needs to pump to hands and legs. Also, the blood should have sufficient fuel to burn. Non-essential activities like immunity and reproduction should be prioritized.
Stress response is triggered by amygdala in the brain. It sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, the command centre of the brain. It first activates the short-term stress response mechanism. A hormone called adrenaline is a key player here. It is secreted from the adrenal glands in response to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system by the hypothalamus.

Adrenaline increases heart rate, which sends more blood to the peripheral muscles or limbs. This is the most critical part of the performance enhancement that I mentioned sometime back.

Next pancreas responds to increased levels of adrenaline by reducing insulin secretion. Insulin is the hormone that controls our blood sugar level. Less of insulin means more of glucose availability in blood. That's how the fuel supply is boosted.
Adrenaline has a half-life of 5 minutes. It is only suitable for a short-term performance boost. For long-term stress response, cortisol is used, which has a half-life of about an hour.
The effect of cortisol on heart and pancreas is like that of adrenaline. It suppresses our immune system, as it's a non-essential task compared to survival.

Health Issues
It harms our body when the alarm is perpetually on. When you are dealing with a long-term stressor, your blood cortisol level remains high. Cortisol affects multiple organs, as almost all our organs have glucocorticoid receptors. Cortisol is a glucocorticoid hormone.

The problem with it is that it is required by the human body to perform quite a few body functions. So one cannot just banish it from the body using some anti-cortisol drug. The cortisol level needs to be maintained within a narrow band, beyond which one sees negative effects either ways.

Since our problem is now of higher levels, let us look at the effects of high cortisol.
First, it is a direct antagonist of insulin, the hormone the absence of which causes diabetes. Diabetes itself damages multiple body parts.

Second, cortisol increases blood pressure by forcing the heart to pump harder, which is needed to prime the whole body for fight-or-flight activities.

Thus, cortisol makes both hypertension and diabetes happen simultaneously. Sufferers get a rare opportunity to see Hell on earth.

Higher levels of cortisol disturb our circadian rhythm. Cortisol level is at its highest when we wake up. Throughout the day, it keeps falling gradually to reach quite low levels at night, just before we sleep. Higher incidence of sleep disorders among people living with anxiety is a common problem.

The cardiorespiratory is excited to help with the performance of the musculoskeletal system. So it is but expected that the latter would be also badly hit by chronic stress. Cortisol has a catabolic (muscle breakdown) effect.

In an Ideal World...
In an ideal world, we may suddenly get the ability to face the simple truth that the response to threat can be of different types, with none requiring the help of a primitive cerebral system that pumps oxygen-rich blood to limbs at a higher rate.

  • It may be heuristic. You are stuck in a traffic jam with a critical customer meeting scheduled ahead. You need to take an alternative route which potentially requires driving fast or call up the customer to wait for some time. Which option is less damaging?
  • The response may require leveraging your social skills. A project starting soon has a key position, that of the architect's, unfilled. All your efforts at hiring one through traditional channels came to a knot. Now you need to delve deep into your social network to solve the problem.
  • Your path to the position of COO has a stiff competition from a long-time rival of yours. Losing the race would endanger your position within the company significantly. Your best response would be to use your political skills.
  • Your family business is in a terrible shape. You can revive it by marrying the daughter of a business rival. Your romantic skills would probably save the day.

In a complex world, threat response has to be sufficiently nuanced to qualify for the label of "optimum". When our mind resorts to a fight-or-flight response, it looks silly, primitive and dangerous, too. It surely looks to be the product of an untrained mind.

Now the question arises: How could we leave the human mind untrained to handle threat? Cultures across space and time have done a phenomenal job of getting the human mind rid of Stone Age habits.

  • The super sedentary class realized long ago the instinct of eating much and, as fast, was quite harmful to the digestive system. The "proper" way of eating found its way into cultures all over the world. Also, it was used as a class designator.
  • The primitive man's libido was of infinite proportions. Freud got obsessed with whatever traces it had left in our unconscious mind.
  • Every culture put in place elaborate taboos and rules and obstacles to rein in the primitive man's libido. Without those, civil society would not have existed.
  • Our hunting past made men naturally desirous of violence. Today's Africa is a significant proof of the presence of this trait.

Every country has taken cognizance of the last trait and has made elaborate legal arrangements to maintain peace. The African nations fail because of their limited financial resources to arrange for full implementation of law; not because they want to stay in the Stone Age.

Deliberate Oversight?.
I can't believe that the primitive threat response system was kept untouched inadvertently. It lived on as individuals, families, institutions, nations found it useful - paradoxically so.

It was discovered quite early that when a man is in fight-or-flight mode, but is neither fighting nor fleeing, he feels quite uncomfortable physically and mentally. The pressure built up in his circulatory system by various stress hormones can only be released by moving limbs like crazy.

So scaring someone was a "non-violent" and even civilized mode of torture which could be eternized. And torture, as we know, brings about compliance quickly.
The ancient civilizations were dominated by kings and priests. While the former kept control over the mass using weapons, the latter did it by using fear in carefully and cleverly crafted ways. In the middle ages, those two classes cooperated with each other to create some of the most oppressive societies.

Ironically, our deeply flawed threat response system is "useful" for an individual, too. Most of the threats that we face as individuals demand the ability to predict the future accurately. Without a clear picture of the future, you cannot take any useful preventive measures.

Complex systems make prediction impossible even if you have complete information. A good example is our weather prediction system. It is still deeply flawed and is often the butt of many jokes.

The core issue is that with emergence, which is defined as the strange phenomenon of small components, having a set of properties, interact with each other in complex ways to form a complex system, the properties of which cannot be derived from the properties of the base components.

Water has this unique property of wetness. It clings on to the surface it comes in contact with. Scientists could not link wetness to the molecular structure of water. The molecular structure is quite simple: two hydrogen atoms bound to one oxygen atom by electrovalent bonds. Apply all the equations of physics to that and try to derive computationally the properties of water as we see and feel.

An appropriate example would be the emergence of various variants of SARS-CoV-2. Even after amassing a humongous amount of data and having supercomputers at disposal and limitless funding, scientists have been unsuccessful in predicting the evolution of new variants.
The same thing happens to the stock market analysts. They too have everything - hardware, software and data - one needs to predict the price of scrips.

In the absence of a logical solution, the human mind resorts to imagination to get a view of the future. And using that process as a threat response tool is a terrible choice.
Moderate imagination would stretch the current Ukraine-Russia war to the third world war. Using a bit more of imagination, we go to the point of nuclear apocalypse.
Vivid imagination would probably start from a long running internet myth of Putin being an alien. So a picture of the future would be an alien vs human war.
When human imagination, a powerful tool, goes haywire, the brain can even go to the extent of self-harm, which, however alarming, is a common trait of schizophrenia patients.

Before things get out of hand and a chain reaction starts, amygdala, the fear center of brain, triggers traditional fight-or-flight response and hijacks prefrontal cortex, the place of higher order thinking like judgement, abstraction, imagination, etc. With the fight-or-flight response kicked in, we get too preoccupied with the mental and physical discomfiture.

Use - or misuse - of the faulty fear response in child raring is of utmost importance. A child who is not scared of ghosts, goblins, cops and vampires would be very difficult to tame.