A new study published in the journal science yesterday got a lot of attention since it seemed to stand in the face of decades of modern medicine and its understanding of stress, ageing and survival strategies. The study concluded that being the alpha male in a pack of baboons presented more stress and a higher predilection to the diseases of aging than being a beta male.
Almost all studies since World War 2 had pointed to the luxuries of dominance; that alpha males are so comfortable and have access to everything from more mates than they can handle, to more luxurious life style to better access to healthcare etc… that they live longer and healthier than most other people who are not as fortunate. Almost all studies went on to indicate that the lower someone’s rank in the hierarchy, the worse off he is. Stress is progressively higher, diseases of aging are progressively more prevalent and inevitably, these saps die prematurely after living a miserable and unhealthy life.
One of my idols, Dr Robert Sapolsky has been a major driving force for this line of thinking. The man has been commuting between Stanford and Kenya for the last 30 years to drive in this particular point. Alpha males have it good and everyone else lower ranking in the hierarchy has it relatively bad.
So what happened, and how did these Princeton brats suddenly invalidate a body of work like that of Sapolsky. I mean the loss of book sales revenue alone could bring the man from alpha male status to beta male – at least from his wife’s and colleagues’ perspective.
We are undoubtedly indoctrinated into glamorizing authority figures and following “the man” as an infallible entity. Moreover, among the things we are told is that it is not only good to be on top, but it has it material and longevity perks too. We are told that dominance is good, and perky and that there is no downside to it. Now we are getting a rude acquaintance with a long ignored fact of life, the PRICE OF DOMINANCE.
Can both schools of thought coexist or are they contradictory that we have to go back to the drawing boards. Well, there is a fundamental problem with both schools of thought, which once rectified both theories can coexist. The assumption most of these studies have made is that baboons in a pack are defined by their dominance and place in the pack only, when in fact the strive for dominance is but one aspect of someone’s personality. No attention has been given to the inherent personality of the participants.
I mention basic personality of everyone in the pack since it determines how different people respond to being dominant or submissive, or somewhere in between. That difference is clearly laid out in the Personality SpectrumTM as we at Sovereign Research, LLC have found out. Individuals on the right side of the spectrum, mostly insensitives, less sensitive and ADHD personalities respond quite well to being in the middle of the hierarchy or somewhere away from the extremes. Such individuals show signs of distress and accelerated aging when at the very bottom or the very top. Otherwise, they do fine.
On the other hand, individuals on the left side of the spectrum, the highly sensitive, asperger’s and autistic thrive mostly when they are the center of attention. In other words, such individuals experience the least amount of stress when they are at the top of a hierarchy. They have the hardest time when they are in the middle of a hierarchy or near the bottom. When highly sensitive individuals are not at all part of the pack but just roaming in solitude, they seem to fair quite well too.
So, what have we learned here? First, both schools of thought have merit. Second, it all depends on how a particular individual responds to his (or her) place in the hierarchy. The more sensitive naturally prefer being at the top or being lonesome (outside the paradigm altogether) while the less sensitive naturally prefer being in the middle of a hierarchy.
When you factor in the different archetypes based in sensitivity to sensory stimulation, then you find out that not all bosses are doomed like the Princeton study found and not all those in the middle of the hierarchy are doomed like the traditional thinking has given us. However, if you find yourself hopelessly at the bottom of the hierarchy, you better get out, run fast and do not look back because you are doomed to get all he diseases of aging, to get them fast and get them young. If you are at the bottom and you are sensitive, you have to leave the hierarchy you are in; immediate negative impact or perceived impact on your life style notwithstanding. There is no safe place at the bottom.
This is the link to the recent study that seemed to change how we think about aging:
And here is the link to Sapolsky’s impressive, yet defective body of work:
Rami Serhan, MD
Author, Psyche-Smart Autism; Integrative Medicine Consultant
(206) 659-1ASD (273)
Psyche-Smart Autism Book
- Sensitivity based Personality Spectrum, everyone according to their inherent character
For someone new to the field of autism, the application of “theory of mind” stands out as a towering psychological concept, which focuses on a central component of the autistic personality, empathy or lack thereof. Theory of mind, as it applies to autism, was developed by honest doctors who are frustrated by their inability to understand autistic behavior. Going to their strongest attribute as scientists, they observed that many autistic children seem indifferent to human suffering occurring in their immediate vicinity. This observation was consistent among sufficient number of children with varying levels of functionality, that theory of mind was thought to apply. So many doctors are on a mission to introduce some empathy and “knowledge of the world” into the minds of autistic children because of it. So many members of the public, even families of autistics believe it to be true.
However, I will try to focus beyond superficial observations and delve into the heart of the problem. When autistic children (or adults) learn about distant human suffering, they do react, and many are sufficiently moved that they try to do something to reverse the injustice or to ease the pain. Many autistic adults become activists for social justice; and try to help people they never met. So, how come when a significant person in their lives is hurting, they cannot seem to show signs of involvement.
This takes me to another brain phenomenon, cortical activation/cortical inhibition. When faced with a challenge, most people including autistics, recruit their mental faculties in order to handle the challenge they are faced with. Recruitment of mental faculties is cortical activation. But what happens when the challenge has an overwhelming emotional and/or sensory component? This is where cortical inhibition takes place i.e. the judgment centers in the brain shut down temporarily giving way to a blank stare, and sometimes erratic and inappropriate behavior.
When an autistic person in the US hears about suffering in Darfur for example, the emotional component is pretty weak and therefore empathy and even action aimed at relieving the suffering takes place. However, when an autistic person is faced with suffering emanating from someone they know and relate to, the emotional and sensory input is usually too overwhelming to allow for the expected response. This does not mean that an autistic child cannot relate to her mother’s crying or that an autistic adult cannot relate to their spouse being fired for example. This only means that when the suffering hits close to home autistics tend to shut down since they need to process the emotional input before they can respond.
Neurotypicals who can usually empathize instantly, are able to do it because they are able to detach from another person’s suffering no matter who this person is. In a way, lack of empathy is more applicable to neurotypicals than to autistics. At their core autistics feel as bad themselves watching a mother cry or a spouse agonize as does this mother or this spouse. Neurotypicals are able to offer support and listen and analyze because they don’t internalize the other person’s suffering. It all stays at the surface for them and they are not personally affected by it.
It is so unfortunate that supposedly learned doctors and researchers tend to ignore such central facts in investigating empathy and other issues related to autism. However, the challenge to most mainstream doctors is the ability to take a broad view of the topic they are investigating. Their training leads them to have a laser focus on a small portion of the topic under investigation that they can easily miss the bigger picture. In fact, most mainstream scientists assume that putting together the full picture is always someone else’s task. More often than not though, it ends up being no one’s task and the big picture is lost. And yet, somehow, society buys the drivel that comes out face value. I would have no problem with some misguided conclusions, if they were not used to discriminate against and to dismiss autistics as lesser humans. However, school teachers, friends, employers and even family members erroneously look at autistics as defective people and theory of mind/perceived lack of empathy is one of the main reasons for this mistreatment.
I always warn my clients that discrimination is not only about race. Discrimination is primarily about “different”. Skin color and ethnicity are only applications of different. As proof, the majority of autistic children are born to upper middle class white families. Yet that does not seem to help curb the discrimination against people on the spectrum.
I know we have a long way to go before autistics are accepted as just members of society, and that the stigma is long way from being abolished. However, it is never too early to get the word out.
Rami Serhan, MD
Author, Psyche-Smart Autism
(206) 659-1ASD (273)