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Sapolsky's Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers: a charming tour of stress science

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Robert M Sapolsky
Times Books

PainSci notes

A fascinating, charming tour of stress science. Although it is detailed to a fault at times, Sapolsky’s attempt to make the topic palatable is downright heroic and relentless insightful and quotable. He is biology’s Richard Feynman.

The book’s main lesson is that stress is definitely a serious health issue. Humans have a unique capacity to react to imagined threats — psychological stress — but we differ dramatically in our vulnerability to them. To some extent that vulnerability can probably be managed, but “it’s complicated.” To the extent that we can reduce stress, “80 percent of the stress reduction is accomplished with the first 20 percent of effort.”

If the book has a significant flaw, it’s that Sapolsky only acknowledges that stress has been demonized for profit: “it would be utterly negligent to exaggerate the implications of this idea.” Unfortunately, he does not explore or condemn the tsunami of quackery, marketed with hyperbolic fear-mongering about stress (which, to be fair, was still relatively tame when he was writing). For contrast, Purser's much more recent book, McMindfulness, devotes a whole chapter to this topic.

Curiously, this book is cited or quoted more than any other single source on Sapolsky is referenced almost 200 times in about three dozen articles!

~ Paul Ingraham, PainSci Publisher

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