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Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Third Edition Paperback – August 26, 2004
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"Robert M. Sapolsky is one of the best science writers of our time."―Oliver Sacks
For the first edition of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers:
Sapolsky succeeds in interpreting technical material in a way that leaves readers with an understanding of how the same physiological responses, so well suited for dealing with short-term physical emergencies, can turn into potential disasters when chronically provoked for psychological or other reasons....The author has a way with words and images....you'll find plenty to intrigue you. ―The Washington Post
Robert Sapolsky wittily dissects the anatomy of human stress-response. ―The Wall Street Journal
About the Author
Robert M. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and a research associate with the Institute of Primate Research, National Museum of Kenya. He is the author of A Primate's Memoir and The Trouble with Testosterone, which was a Los Angeles Times Book Award finalist. A regular contributor to Discover and The Sciences, and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, he lives in San Francisco.
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Top Customer Reviews
Yes, it's all about the zebras, their lack of affinity for ulcers.
Yes, the book is a truly amazing (amusing, exhausting) chronicle of social- / neuro- biology, what we have learned / surmised / imagined about the nervous system, its basic anatomy / physiology and the way stress affects it (as well as the rest of the body, social group, culture, world) both short and long term (talk about consequences!); the related manipulative / corrective strategies of pharma, physicians, general and psycho-neurologists, clinical psychologists, arm-chair psychologists, alpha-baboons (executives), sociologists, artists, partners, healers, rumor-mongers, and general purveyors of social capital; the sociology, changing views, solutions. Genetics: questions of cause / effect, relationships, heritability, the future re medicine / sociology / profits to made, heading off disasters of exuberant approach. Principles ("Homeostasis is about tinkering with this valve or that gizmo. Allostasis is about the brain coordinating body-wide changes, often including changes in behavior"). How all this resonates, from/through microscopic to footed-creatures, with a special fixation on humans. All that. Important, wonderful and often course-correcting stuff. (Source, myth, questions of how and why things get mangled.) Politics, geopolitics, (Biopolitics?) .... the idea (quaint, being that of one mid 19 C physician Rudolph Virchow) that "Medicine is social science, and politics nothing but medicine on a large scale... Physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor." The factors / considerations about how poverty might affect all this, and the important (spun, remembered, neglected) corollaries of how attitude, social and personal, might (rich, poor) be surprisingly / cynically relative.
All this. Delivered with humor and humility, questions ever begetting questions. ("Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it.")
Sapolsky really is one of my heroes.
But what I really learned from this book is exactly (especially the last paragraph) what I need to learn and apply. To ME. From his conclusion:
Sometimes, coping with stress consists of blowing down walls. But sometimes it consists of being a blade of grass, buffeted and bent by the wind but still standing when the wind is long gone. Stress is not everywhere. Every twinge of dysfunction in our bodies is not a manifestation of stress-related disease. It is true that the real world is full of bad things that we can finesse away by altering our outlook and psychological makeup, but it is also full of awful things that cannot be eliminated by a change in attitude, no matter how heroically, fervently, complexly, or ritualistically we may wish. Once we are actually sick with the illness, the fantasy of which keeps us anxiously awake at two in the morning, the things that will save us have little to do with the content of this book. Once we have that cardiac arrest, once a tumor has metastasized, once our brain has been badly deprived of oxygen, little about our psychological outlook is likely to help. We have entered the realm where someone else--a highly trained physician--must use the most high-tech of appropriate medical interventions.
These caveats must be emphasized repeatedly in teaching what cures to seek and what attributions to make when confronted with many diseases. But amid this caution, there remains a whole realm of health and disease that is sensitive to the quality of our minds--our thoughts and emotions and behaviors. And sometimes whether or not we become sick with the diseases that frighten us at two in the morning will reflect this realm of the mind. It is here that we must turn from the physicians and their ability to clean up the mess afterward and recognize our own capacity to prevent some of these problems beforehand in the small steps with which we live our everyday lives.
Perhaps I'm beginning to sound like your grandmother, advising you to be happy and not to worry so much. This advice may sound platitudinous, trivial, or both. But change the way even a rat perceives its world, and you dramatically alter the likelihood of its getting a disease. These ideas are no mere truisms. They are powerful, potentially liberating forces to be harnessed. As a physiologist who has studied stress for many years, I clearly see that the physiology of the system is often no more decisive than the psychology. We return to the catalogue at the beginning of the first chapter, the things we all find stressful--traffic jams, money worries, overwork, the anxieties of relationships. Few of them are "real" in the sense that that zebra or that lion would understand. In our privileged lives, we are uniquely smart enough to have invented these stressors and uniquely foolish enough to have let them, too often, dominate our lives. Surely we have the potential to be uniquely wise enough to banish their stressful hold.
It's the wisdom of Sophocles: Bend, not break.
In almost 600 pages, arranged into 18 chapters, Sapolsky covers human stress in fine detail. While it’s a book written for a lay audience, it’s not a quick and easy read. The book discusses topics like the action of neurotransmitters and hormones, and, while it assumes no particular science background, it does assume a broadly educated and curious reader.
The chapters begin by looking at the stress mechanism from a physiological perspective. It then considers stress with respect to specific illnesses, the relationship between stress and various other topics in human being (e.g. sleep, pain, and memory.) The final chapter offers insight into how one can reduce one’s bad stress and one’s risk of stress-related illness. Among the most interesting topics are what personalities are particularly prone to stress-related illness and why psychological stress (as opposed to stress based in immediate real world stressors) is stressful.
Sapolsky has a sense of humor and knows how to convey information to a non-expert audience, but this isn’t the simplest book on the subject. It’s an investment of time and energy to complete reading this book, but it’s worth it if one’s interest in the subject is extensive enough. One of the strengths of the book is that it stays firmly in the realm of science. Because stress has been wrongly considered a fluff subject, many of the works on the topic—even those by individuals with MD or PhD after their names—have been new-agey or pseudo-scientific. This book stays firmly in the realm of science. Sapolsky explains what the studies have shown, and he tells the reader clearly when there is a dearth of evidence or contradictory findings.
If the reader has a deep interest in stress-related health problems, I’d highly recommend this book.