Mar 18, 2022

Stress

Stress can give your body a boost - raising adrenaline levels, pumping blood to the muscles, heightening our senses. And those sudden superpowers can be a boon when you’re running from a lion. But repeatedly dipping into that well can make you sick, even kill you. Since it feels like there’s been an extra bit of stress going around lately, we decided to replay this episode, originally aired back in 2005, which takes a long hard look at the body's system for getting out of trouble. And how in our modern, hyper-connected world, that system misfires and takes us from the frying pan, right into another, albeit entirely different, frying pan.

Stanford University neurologist (and part-time "baboonologist") Dr. Robert Sapolsky takes us through what happens on our insides when we stand in the wrong line at the supermarket, and offers a few coping strategies: gnawing on wood, beating the crap out of somebody, and having friends. Plus: the story of a singer who lost her voice, and an author stuck in a body that never grew up.

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

LATIFF: Hey, it's Latiff, how are you sleeping? And then if you, if you are getting sleep, are still feeling exhausted? Maybe your ears have been ringing or you're short of breath before a big moment at work. Maybe you're gripped with an encompassing sense of doom that your very life depends on his presentation to a group of five people in a conference room.These are familiar feelings, especially today, but what exactly are they? Where do they come from? Are they good or bad for us? On this classic episode of Radiolab originally aired in one of our first seasons - and aptly named Stress. We examine those questions, take a breather, take a listen. Enjoy. Take care of yourself. 

 

[INTRO]

 

JAD ABUMRAD: This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad. We're gonna start today's program with a brief diversion to Midtown Manhattan, at the office of a neuropsychologist…

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR: Hey, good morning.

JAD: Good morning, how are you?

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR:  Good, thanks.

JAD: Jad Abumrad.

JAD: Cameron Fallahpour, a well-dressed man with a calm voice, calming presence, and uncanny ability to calm others, which is why we're here.

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR: Okay. Are you going to be the volunteer?

JAD: Yeah.

JAD: He walks me over to a small machine and asks for my left hand.

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR: Can I have your left hand? Okay, what we're doing right now, we're just putting a couple of sensors that measure, basically, the flow of electrons between the two fingers here.

JAD: That would be my index and middle fingers.

JAD: There are electrons going between my fingers?

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR: Oh, absolutely. Well, there are salts and minerals that are going to enable a very tiny electrical charge to travel from one finger to the other one.

JAD: And he explains the more anxious I am, the more sparks fly between my fingers. In other words, this is a stress test.

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR: Okay, so I'm going to start it and…

JAD: Am I going to feel something in my fingers?

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR:  No, you're not gonna feel anything.

JAD: But I will hear something. 

JAD: That whine in the background.

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR: So if this goes up, it means that you are more stressed. So let me just make couple of sounds here. You see that?

JAD: You're stressing me out, man.

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR: Okay, did you see that?

JAD: Yeah, that's ...

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR: Okay. Only with couple of snaps near your ear, changed…

JAD: I got all the way to the top.

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR:  Yes.

JAD: That's not good.

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR:  Well, that means that you need to relax and you need to bring it down.

JAD:  Techniques to bring stress down. That is what Kamran Fallahpour has promised us. His theory is if you can hear your stress, you can control it.

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR:  Okay, so what I'd like you to do is just to sit back and when you're ready, just go ahead and close your eyes. And for now, I'm going to actually get rid of the tone here for you. We can monitor from here. And I want you to just get as comfortable as you can get right now. And gradually start to take deep, slow breaths through your abdomen. Okay. Continue to breathe slowly and perhaps make your exhalations a little bit longer and more sustained. Then perhaps you can notice as you continue to breathe slowly that perhaps with each breath you feel a little bit more relaxed and a little more comfortable.

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR:  Relax ... relax ... relax ... relax ... relax ... relax.

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR:  And for now, there is nothing there to worry about.

JAD: Then the phone rings. Did you see that? Now I'm all the way at the top again.

JAD: Isn't that appropriate? While you're trying to de-stress, make your life a little better, the phone rings, ruins it all, one fell swoop. Like life, really. At any moment, a dirty bomb could go off. You know this. You could get downsized, dumped, dented by a mad stroller pusher as you cross the street ... a street already swimming with naked hostility and fist-sized avian flu bugs. The point is, the phone could ring at any time.

JAD: I'm kind of already getting more stressed. It's like I can't stop.

JAD: We can't control stress. But what we can do is understand it.

KAMRAN FALLAHPOUR: Now if we lower the lights, too…

JAD:That's today on Radiolab. Conversations and stories about stress, from many different perspectives, starting with the science. When you are stressed out, these things inside you ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Digestion, reproduction, growth, your heart rate.

JAD: ... change drastically and a leading researcher will explain exactly how. And later in the program, a very famous and perplexing case of stage fright.

LINDA THOMPSON: It feels like somebody's strangling you from the inside.

JAD: I'm Jad Abumrad. Riding shotgun with me is Mr. Robert Krulwich.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Who, by the way ...

JAD: Yes?

ROBERT KRULWICH ... should immediately say that I think we should correct a prejudice here. You seem to be anxious about stress.

JAD: Well, maybe a little bit.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Stress is your friend. We need it. In midterms in eighth grade, if you didn't have stress, you wouldn't have gotten to ninth grade. You shouldn't quite just say, "Oh God, let's have less of it." Sometimes you want it to kick you in the butt.

JAD:All right, I think our first story gets at what you're saying. It comes from a guy named Colby Hall.

JAD: Colby, tell me what you had for breakfast so I can set the levels.

COLBY HALL: All right. This morning I had two hard boiled eggs.

JAD: I met Colby Hall at a party. Actually overheard him telling the story you're about to hear. It's an amazing story. So I asked him to come in and tell it to us in the studio. Now, if you are squeamish, you may want to consider turning the radio down for about seven minutes.

COLBY HALL: How's that sound?

JAD: Sounds good to me. And in your headphones?

COLBY HALL: Good.

JAD: All right, cool. All right, Colby, let me start by asking you. At what point in the story did you realize you were in big trouble? That your life was changing?

COLBY HALL: Well, when someone said, "Get a tourniquet."

COLBY HALL: Fourth of July weekend, up in Vermont. Doubles tennis, foothills of the Green Mountains, barbecues, beer, lake. It was perfect in every single way. We just said, "Let's go water skiing." So we load up the boat with towels and we all get on there, sort of excited to kill an hour and a half on a beautiful lake on just a gorgeous, gorgeous day. And just as we're sort of running up the boat, a canoe comes up to the dock and in the canoe is this family, this mother and father and their two little children. And they were staying in the house, and so we said, "Well, do you guys want to join us?" "Sure."

COLBY HALL: So the two little kids get in the boat and the father gets in the boat and we pull out from the dock and we get about 30 yards away from the dock and the boat driver stops. I have my little water ski devices belt on and it's kind of old school type, and I jump off the side of the boat and the force of me getting in the water, the water ski belt falls off of me. No big deal, I'm just gonna swim over. And I look up and the boat is closer to me than I had thought, and was actually moving towards me. I guess what the driver had done is he may have thought he had put it in neutral, but in fact, he put it in very slight reverse. And he didn't know that I was behind it. He was dealing with the rope. And so I'm in the water, buckling the water belt, and I look up and I notice and it's about ten feet away from me. So I yell, "Hey, stop the boat."

COLBY HALL: But it's a big boat and the wind is blowing and your head is sort of at the level of the water, so no one really heard me. I couldn't move out of the way, and it literally just came right up to me. So I put my hands out to protect myself and immediately I feel these punches on my legs, which was the boat propeller. People say living in the moment, like, it's amazing to me how many complex thoughts you have in a split second. "Wait, is this happening? Oh my God, it's happening. Wow, this is cutting my legs. I'm trapped. I need to get out of this situation. I'm gonna push up. I'm gonna go under the boat and let it go over me."

COLBY HALL: That all happened in a split second, and at the same time, you're thinking like, "Maybe this will just be a bad injury," or, "Maybe I'll lose the use of one leg." There's all these sort of weird deals that you make in your head. Like, "I don't want to die, so I'll just be in a wheelchair," or, "Maybe I'll just be really, really injured," or, "Maybe I'll never be able to play basketball again. Maybe I'll just always walk with a limp." The other side of this, this all happened one month to the day of my wedding. We had planned this really ... I mean, it was small, but beautiful wedding upstate and I wanted to walk down the aisle, I wanted to have the first dance. And it sounds odd to explain that you're having all those thoughts in that time, but you are.

COLBY HALL: So I come up on the other side of the boat and I sort of gasp for air and I say, "I'm hurt." It doesn't really hurt like you would think. That was the weird thing. It didn't hurt. I mean, I feel it. Treading water and my legs are kind of numb. I look up and my fiance is on the boat and she gets up and she sees me and she can see a ring of blood surrounding me. And the water up there is so clear that she could see through the water. She could see deep, red tissue on my legs and big flaps of skin sort of hanging off my legs, floating with the motion of the water. And it was at that point that she ... the look on her face.

COLBY HALL: And it's funny, sometimes you don't recognize how bad something is until you see it in the eyes of someone next to you. And so when she freaked out and had the look of absolute terror in her eyes, I kind of just took over the situation because I was ten seconds ahead of everyone else. So I yelled to the wife of the boat operator, whose name is Maureen, and I said in a very stern, serious, calm voice, "Maureen, turn off the boat." She turned the boat off and I realized that there were two little kids on the boat and the first thought that came to my mind was, "This is something that those kids shouldn't see." Before I came up, I said, "Maureen, these kids should not see this. You should hide their eyes. You should distract them." So she took the kids to the front of the boat.

COLBY HALL: I'm not a real strong person, I don't know how I got sudden upper body strength, but I was able to just pull my full body weight ... and I weigh like 210, 15 pounds ... and I just pulled myself up on the back of the boat and there were my legs. Layers of fat. I see muscle tissue. I mean, it's hard to sort of describe. My legs were wide open. There were big hunks of flesh sort of hanging off my leg, and the muscle's just sort of there, exposed to the air. The cuts went down to my bone. It's like you're at a fish market and you see someone cut into a fish. You just see the insides very, very clearly. And that's when John says, "Get a tourniquet." Because the injuries on my leg really looked like it warranted a tourniquet.

COLBY HALL: If I were to ask you to make a tourniquet right now, what would you do?

JAD: I have no idea.

COLBY HALL: Who knows how to make a tourniquet? Right. There's no Boy Scouts on the boat. So someone had taken their shirt off and wrapped it around my leg and I said, "No look, get those towels." And so they wrapped the towels around my leg and ...

JAD: What's happening between you and your fiance at that point?

COLBY HALL: My fiance thought that I was about to die, and she was doing all that she could to kind of keep it together. And I remember looking to her and rubbing her arm and saying, "This is gonna be okay. Now is the time for us to be really brave. This will be okay." If for nothing else, I just wanted to pretend that that was the case, 'cause I didn't really know.

COLBY HALL: My name's Colby Hall and I survived a fight with a boat propellor.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So he survived?

JAD: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It turns out the cuts he got were so clean and so deep that it allowed him to heal more quickly.

COLBY HALL: And as an aside, driving up to Vermont that weekend, we had stopped at the florist and had this big debate, my wife and I ... or she was my fiance at the time ... about the color of tablecloths. You would have thought on the drive up that the single biggest issue in our lives was the color of tablecloths at the wedding. It was that significant. The drive back from Vermont after this accident, we felt so lucky.

JAD: Colby Hall is a video producer for MTV and this is Radiolab. Today's topic is stress.

ROBERT KRULWICH:My oh my. What a story. It happens that inside that story you've got a classic example of what always happens in a traumatic situation. I learned this from one of the leading experts on stress, Robert Sapolsky ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Do you want me to incorporate your question into my answer, or does this run like a-

ROBERT KRULWICH: No, just a regular conversation, so you can do whatever you want.

ROBERT KRULWICH: who teaches at Stanford University, who pointed out to me that in these situations, your body is taken over, really, by stress hormones.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: That's that sort of alert, tunnel vision, time passage feels different, the eight seconds feel like it took for hours afterward.

??r: Is that what that's about?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY:That's the stress hormones, and that's mostly adrenaline doing that.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So if you're flailing in the water and hit by a propellor from the boat and your leg is severed, my imagination there's two people on the dock like, "Oh my God! Oh my God!" But you say, "All right, let's call the police." You somehow are the calm one. Is that part of this thing?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Often that's the case, and that's another piece of the stress response. You shut down pain perception.

COLBY HALL It doesn't really hurt like you would think. That was the weird thing. It didn't hurt.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Pain is a very subjective state, and if it's the right setting, you blunt it. And it's not just guys in battle who've been grievously injured and they think the blood has been spattered on them from the gun and the stump is just kind of tingling and then they suddenly discover it, but that's exactly what you do with pain perception when you twist your ankle in the company softball game and you hardly even notice it. So in the face of a major physical stressor, not only is there this tunnel clarity and sensory whatever, there's also blocking of pain, this in the moment-ness, and we all experience it at some point or other. Where were you when you heard that Gwyneth Paltrow had named her child Apple, that sort of thing. Those moments that just define our lives, and there's a physiology of it.

JAD:I know exactly where I was.

ROBERT KRULWICH:Where were you?

JAD: I don't know. Does he have any idea where that physiology came from?

ROBERT KRULWICH:I think he does. Yeah. He thinks all mammals have these things in us that we've got from evolution. So imagine, say, you're an impala.

JAD: What's an impala?

ROBERT KRULWICH: It's an antelope kind of animal.

JAD: Oh.

JAD: So you're bounding across the Savanna and you're being chased by a tiger. Now, you don't want this tiger to get anywhere near you, so your insides have to work hard to keep your outsides alive.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: You're running for your life, the predator's coming after you ...

ROBERT KRULWICH:Certain stuff happens.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: First thing, you need energy. Not energy tucked away in your fat cells for some building project next spring. Energy right now to go to whichever muscles are gonna save your life. Your adrenaline, other hormones go to your fat cells, pour out all the stored energy, feed it to your thigh muscles.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: In addition, you want to deliver the stuff as fast as possible, so you increase your heart rate. Another thing you do is you shut down everything that's not essential. And right now, this is no time to worry about ovulating, this is no time to worry about growing antlers, this is no time to digest breakfast. You shut down digestion, you shut down growth, you shut down reproduction. We all know, for example, with the digestive end, the first step of that, you get nervous, your mouth gets dry.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Everyone has this experience. You have to make a presentation in front of a large number of people and you're standing there and you're going, "Does it work? Ladies and gentlemen." You know, you can't ... if you say the word "dog," your tongue would get stuck at the top of your mouth 'cause you got nothing going on wet in your mouth. Your digestive system is shutting down, and the first step is those fluids that would help you digest a string bean aren't there anymore. This is like the antelope.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: In addition, you void your bowels, you void your bladder as well, get rid of the dead weight. That's why people are executed in diapers, typically. You shut down all these un-essentials.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So if you amp up all this stuff, if you say, "Okay, I'm not growing and I'm thinking faster and my heart is pacing so I can get all this stuff," and all these things are going on simultaneously, this is not a bad thing at all. This is-

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's a great thing. It's a great thing if you're stressed like a normal mammal.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So when people talk about stress, or stress diseases, or being over stressed, or the stressfulness of modern life, what does that mean?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Well, almost certainly it means it's got absolutely nothing to do with the impala running for its life. Very few parking spot fights are settled with axes. We don't have to wrestle people for canned food items in bombed out supermarkets. Our boss never-

ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, you haven't been to certain sections of New York lately.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Oh yeah, well, I love New York.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Anyway.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: When you're actually getting stressed in the way that we talk about in an everyday sense, we're not being physically menaced. What we're doing is turning on the stress response in anticipation of a stressor.

ROBERT KRULWICH: You mean it's literally like ... you're sitting there in the bed thinking, "Oh God, oh God, oh God, I have this sales meeting tomorrow," and flushing through your body are the same stress hormones and everything else that would be flushing through the impala being chased by a lion? Or you mean sort of like that?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah, actually, here's one of these try it at home exercises. Lie in bed when you're nice and sleepy and relaxed and your heart's beating nice and slow. Very carefully think, "You know, that heart isn't going to beat forever." And most likely, you're gonna turn on the exact same stress response as if you were running for your life. Same hormones, same physiological changes, same all of that. That's the-

ROBERT KRULWICH: Just from the thought, "Oh my God, one day I'm gonna die"?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: If it really has the right impact on you and the punchline of the entire field is, that's not what the system evolved for.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So if you're a human being and you're a nervous one and you ever get scared in the nights, in your body, what's going on that will eventually make you sick?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Exactly the same thing. And all you have to do is that sprint across the Savanna kind of writ large and out of it pops a whole bunch of diseases. If you're constantly mobilizing energy for those thigh muscles that are preparing to run you across the Savanna, as you wonder, "Is social security gonna be there in 30 years?" If you're constantly doing that ...

ROBERT KRULWICH: You've got a really nervous person in your head.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yes, well. I study this subject. It's not by chance.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Okay, okay. I believe you.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: What, do you think this was a coin toss? I worry about being ethnically cleansed by Serbian Croats, that sort of thing, and I'm sitting here in Palo Alto. If you constantly mobilize energy, you don't store it. And for really complex reasons, you're more at risk for this disease, adult onset diabetes. This is one of those great diseases that our great, great grandparents never heard of.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: A much more accessible version is, increase your blood pressure out the wazoo to run for your life. This is not a big deal for three minutes. Increase it chronically every time you come to work and stress-induced hypertension, you're gonna damage the walls of your blood vessels.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Now not everybody in the world reacts to everything as though they were an antelope being chased across the Savanna. I mean, some people can handle all kinds of stress and get through the day, and other people succumb, and that's where we ought to go next, I think.

JAD: Coming up, a particular piece of furniture and its remarkable impact on public health.

JAD: In a heartwarming tale of a baboon who changed his ways and in the process discovered the secret to longer life and lower stress. This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad. Robert Krulwich and I will continue in a moment.

 

[STATION ID BREAK]

 

JAD: Jad here. This is WNYC's Radiolab. Prior to the station ID, we were listening to a conversation between two Roberts. Robert number one is right here with me. Mr. Krulwich?

ROBERT KRULWICH: Mm-hmm.

JAD: And Robert two is ... Well, we'll hear from him more in a moment. Robert Sapolsky, Stanford University professor. The topic of that conversation and of our show is stress. Stress then and stress now. As we heard, stress then would count as something like being chased across the Savanna by a saber tooth tiger. Stress now, standing in the wrong line at the supermarket. Very different kinds of stress, separated by thousands of years of human experience. But to the body, they are the same, and too many false tiger alerts will make you sick.

JAD: Now that right there, the connection between stress and sickness, how that connection was made, is an interesting story which involves lots of people. But let's start with one.

DR PAUL ROSCH:l I'm Dr. Paul J Rosch. I'm president of the American Institute of Stress, and I've been involved in stress research for well over 50 years.

JAD: And it was around 50 years ago that Dr. Rosch and a few colleagues made an interesting discovery. They took a bunch of rodents and did some, well, not so nice things to them.

DR PAUL ROSCH: Like sewing back the eyelids of mice and shining lights in their eyes, and deafening noises. We put them on treadmills. We left them out on the roof of the medical school in the cold wintry Canadian blizzards. We'd throw the animals into water so they would have to constantly swim. We would do that for hours or days until they were too weak and then measure their hormonal secretion. Anything that would be a severely noxious threat or challenge.

ROBERT KRULWICH: If there's any justice in the world, this guy's going to rat hell. There's gonna be some rodent named Alice stitching his eyeballs back. But let's go on.

JAD: But in the name of science, what Rosch and company noticed is that every different type of cruel torture technique they did to these poor rodents resulted in the same outcome. They got sick, and sick in the same way. Sort of flu-like symptoms. Furthermore ...

DR PAUL ROSCH: We quickly learned that it wasn't necessary to do these horrible things to get almost the same effect.

JAD: No, they could get the same effect by merely frustrating the rats. Put their food out, and then before the rats get it, take it away. Then put it out again, then, "Ooh, thought you had it," take it away again. Just by doing that over and over, that would make some of the rats sick.

ROBERT KRULWICH: And some of them could cope.

JAD: And some of them could cope, yeah.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, this is ... Robert Sapolsky, the professor who's been helping us along, says that human beings break down in pretty much the same categories. There are some people who can be challenged by all the daily experiences and they just kinda glide through it. And there are other people ...

JAD: Like you.

ROBERT KRULWICH: ... who get furious, just furious.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: The key thing, really, is the hostility. It's the hostility, and it's a particular style that may seem very familiar to our New York metropolitan area listenership. And I say this as a native New Yorker. But it's the style called toxic hostility ...

ROBERT KRULWICH: Toxic hostility.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: which is everything in the world around you confirms they're out to get you, they're out to get you preferentially. Every elevator door that closes before you get there is proof the person inside who could have stopped it but chose not to is out to stab you in the back and this is a really, really hostile world out there.

ROBERT KRULWICH: This is a way of life.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: To which everyone says, "It is, it's true. That is how the world is."

ROBERT KRULWICH: But some people have this in a dire sort of way.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: In a dire sort of way.

JAD: And I suppose his point is that the people who do have it in a dire sort of way get sick.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah, there's a kind of anger in style that is so bad for your nervous system that's like worse than smoking. I mean, literally. This is what is famously called Type A behavior.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Type A was first described by these two cardiologists, Friedman and Rosenman.

ROBERT KRULWICH: That's Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, and they came up with this idea in the 1950s.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Their original version was you're hostile, time pressured, impatient, low self esteem, joyless, striving, all you live for is to check things off your to do list. And this is what they were originally saying greatly increases your risk of heart disease. And cardiologists hated these guys for the simple reason, you're some Ozzie and Harriet, Eisenhower era cardiologists and all you think about is heart valves and blood lipids, and here's these guys saying, "No, you gotta sit down your patients and talk to them and find out if they've picked the wrong line in the supermarket, do they go berserk at that point." And it took decades for it to become clear that this really is for real.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Here are two cardiologists proposing that you are more likely to get a heart attack not based on the size of your veins or whatever's passing through you, but on the kind of guy or kind of gal you are.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Exactly.

ROBERT KRULWICH: How did they come to this peculiar insight?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Okay, this is where this great story comes from, and I wouldn't have believed it except it was told to me by Friedman himself, and appropriately, sheepishly. So this is back in the 50s, and they've got this cardiology practice. Everything's going great, except apparently they had this one problem which they were having to spend a fortune reupholstering the armchairs in their office.

ROBERT KRULWICH: In the office?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: In their waiting room.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Oh.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: What's this about? They had no idea. They paid no attention to it. It's part of the overhead. They had this upholsterer who comes every month, gotta fix a couple of chairs.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Every month?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Every month, yeah. So one month, the upholsterer's out on vacation, replacement upholsterer comes in, takes one look at the chairs, and discovers Type A personality.

ELLEN HORNE: Presenting great moments in American upholstery.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: He says, "What the hell is wrong with your patients? Nobody wears out chairs this way." And the guy's absolutely right. They still have one chair, which I hope they're gonna give to the Smithsonian. And what it is, is the front two inches of the seat cushion and the front two inches of the armrests are totally shredded and the rest of the chair is fine.

ROBERT KRULWICH: What do you mean by shredded?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's like, ripped. That's where the tears are. It's not evenly distributed-

ROBERT KRULWICH: People were digging their nails into it, or something?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Well, basically what you've got there is the Type A profile, the person literally sitting on the edge of their seat and squirming and fussing with the armchairs and clawing. None of this wear on the chair distributed over the entire butt range of weight displacement. People are sitting there on the edge of their seats.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So the upholsterer says to the cardiologists, "There's something wrong with the people in your waiting room."?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Exactly. And what's supposed to happen at this point, this is supposed to be this epiphanic moment and one of these that winds up in the textbooks, of midnight conferences between upholsters and cardiologists who do these huge surveys and young idealistic upholsters sweep across America discovering you don't see chairs like these in a podiatrist's office, only the cardiologists. That's what's supposed to happen. Here's where Friedman says, "Get this guy out of my face. I need to see patients. I'm this important guy. Give him his damn check." He was too Type A to listen to the guy.

ROBERT KRULWICH: They threw the upholsterer out.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Give him his check, get him out of here. And five years later, they're doing these studies with these psychologists and out pops the Type A profile, and they say, "Oh my God, the upholsterer, he was right." To this day, they have no idea who the man was. And I'm willing to bet that there's this 95-year-old upholstery guy in some bar in San Francisco right now who's droning on about how he discovered Type A personality, and it's absolutely true.

??: An intense nationwide search has yet to reveal the identity of that replacement upholsterer. This story has been brought to you by the American Upholstery Association, dedicated to fine cloth, fine furniture, and a healthier America.

CHARLES YOUNG: 00:31:53 My name is Charles Young, and I do upholstery.

ELLEN HORNE: Tell me what you're working on here.

CHARLES YOUNG: Well, I'm doing a rocker. It's a nice chair, actually. It just ... they wore the seat all the way down to the wood. Sometimes things are so bad that they said, "Oh please cover it before you take this, 'cause I don't want people in the building to know how bad my furniture is." But I'm saying, how could you live like this in your own house? It's a mess. It's a mess.

JAD:  We couldn't find the guy, the Type A guy, but in the process of looking we ran across Charles Young. And in this messy, stressful world, his Lower East Side studio is a window onto calmer times.

CHARLES YOUNG: A long time ago, there was a straw inside of the old stuff. Oh, let me see if I see that. Let me see what stuff is in that chair. This is a photograph of an old chair, look like it was made about 100 years ago. I don't know if you can see that, but there's straw inside there. The old stuff has such class to it. You don't mind working on it. The new stuff is not that good. The new stuff is all badly put together, stapled together, so we can't fix it. Because everything we do, we throw away and go buy new.

CHARLES YOUNG: It's not the glamorous job in the world, but it's a job. People don't want to learn how to do upholstery. It's a dying art. So I don't know what they're gonna do.

JAD:  You want to know about upholstery? Visit Charles Young, owner of CY Upholstery Company on the Lower East Side. He's been doing it for decades.

CHARLES YOUNG: My best customers is dogs and cats. They chew up people furniture, which is absolutely wonderful.

JAD:  Charlie spoke with producer Ellen Horne.

CHARLES YOUNG: You got a dog?

JAD:  Jad here with Robert Krulwich. Today on Radiolab, we are looking at stress. The effects of stress on chairs and on us.

ROBERT KRULWICH: To get back to our bodies for just a second, remember before we said that when you get scared and you're gonna make a presentation, your mouth goes dry 'cause your digestive system is beginning to shut down?

JAD:  Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ROBERT KRULWICH: It's also true that if you're very, very nervous, though you wouldn't know this, you stop growing. And this is even for a really little bit of time. A short spurt of panic will create a short spurt of non growth. That's on one end. But since Professor Robert Sapolsky has supposedly exposed someone to a lot of continuing stress ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: And at an extreme, you get one of the truly bizarre outposts in medicine, this disease of kids who stop growing for reasons of psychological stress.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Meaning they're so nervous about whatever it is that their system spends all the time pumping and palpitating and doing all this and then no growing.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's saying, "Grow tomorrow, grow tomorrow, grow tomorrow. This is no time for it." And it's well documented. This is not, ooh, fourth grade teacher who is mean and yells at the kids. This is like nightmare, police and the social workers breaking down the door of the apartment sort of nightmare stuff. And amazingly, you get the kids out of those settings and often they will start growing again.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Okay, so you read up a lot about this, and there's this weird pattern I had noted in a lot of these unreadable chapters, which is they would make reference to Peter Pan. They would start with a quote from Peter Pan or some snide comment about Tinkerbell, and I'd seen this and I have no idea what this was about, til one day I finally found the explanation.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Eight-year-old kid, growing up in Victorian England. One day, he sees his beloved twelve-year-old brother killed in front of him, horrible accident. This destroys the family. This was the mother's favorite child who dies, takes to her bed in this Victorian swoon for the next ten years, totally ignoring this child growing up in this emotional isolation, these horrible scenes. The boy comes in with a tray of food for his mother and she's going on, "Oh David, David, is that you, David? Have you come to me, David?" The dead son.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So the second son's left standing at the door saying, "Gee, it's only me."

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: "It's me. It's me. Sorry I'm not David. Sorry I'm not David. Sorry it wasn't me instead of him." Only thing she apparently ever spoke to him about was this crazy idea she grabbed onto, which was if David had to die, at least he was still a boy, he's not one of these boys who grows up and doesn't need his mother anymore. "He'll always be my perfect little boy," 'cause he didn't grow up. He didn't grow up and you grew up. This kid hears this with a vengeance and stops growing at that point. He lives to be 60 years old, under 5 foot tall, unconsummated marriage, complete maturational arrest.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Did he have puberty?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: He grew facial hair, but most indications are not a whole lot of other secondary sexual characteristics. And as an adult, this was the author of the much beloved children's classic, Peter Pan. This was JM Barrie, the guy who wrote Peter Pan.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Really?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Who was a very, very troubled man who, among other things, just endlessly turned out plays and novels and whatevers about boys who die and come back as ghosts and marry their mothers and all sorts of oedipal stuff like that. Sadomasochistic fantasy stuff with little boys all through his private writings. This was a very, very troubled man who did not deal very well with the consequences of this for the rest of his life.

JAD:  Coming up, the therapeutic benefits of screaming, gnawing, and beating the crap out of someone. This is Radiolab. I'm Jad Abumrad. Robert Krulwich and I will continue in a moment.

 

[BREAK STATION ID]

 

JAD:  I'm Jad Abumrad here with Robert Krulwich. This is Radiolab. Today's topic is stress, from your point of view and from your body's point of view. Usually you and your body are on the same side. Your stomach rumbles. That means your body wants you to eat, so you do. Your foot hurts. That means your body wants you not to step on that foot so it can heal, and so you don't. The interesting and sometimes tragic thing about stress and stress disorders is that you and your body find yourself on opposing sides. Your body's just trying to protect you, but that's not the way it works out.

JAD:  Consider this story about folk singer Linda Thompson. She was part of a late-60's scene that included everyone from James Taylor to Paul Simon, Nick Drake, even Bob Dylan.

LINDA THOMPSON: All these just amazing musicians. Sometimes I think that's part of the problem. If I had hung out with mediocre musicians, I wouldn't be half so worried about what I was gonna sound like.

JAD: 

Linda Thompson spoke with our producer Ellen Horne.

Ellen Horne: 00:40:14 I remember the first time I heard your voice. I was in college. I was at my friend Chris's house and we were all sitting on the floor around the record player listening to I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.

 

LINDA THOMPSON: Oh.

ELLEN HORNE: For weeks we tried to learn to play those songs. Your voice sounds so pure and so angelic.

LINDA THOMPSON: Oh, Ellen, that's nice of you.

ELLEN HORNE: It's just hard to imagine that voice struggling in any way.

LINDA THOMPSON: It's really horrible. It's just awful. But you get through it.

LINDA THOMPSON: The trouble started in the studio.

LINDA THOMPSON: It feels like somebody's strangling you from the inside. That's what it feels like.

ELLEN HORNE: Linda would step to the mic, open her mouth to sing ...

LINDA THOMPSON: And instead of it coming out "ahh," you kind of go ... some kind of squeak or constriction happens first.

ELLEN HORNE: She was recording her sixth album with husband Richard Thompson. They were one of those mythic rock and roll couples. He wrote songs for her to sing with titles like Withered and Died and Down Where the Drunkards Roll. Dark songs about betrayal and loss. They played together for a decade.

LINDA THOMPSON: By that time, there were problems in my marriage, which I'm kind of fond of saying I didn't know about. But on a subliminal level, one does know these things, you know?

ELLEN HORNE: In was 1982 and Linda had just delivered their third child. Her throat hurt all the time.

LINDA THOMPSON: It was pretty bad, and then ... I mean, I'd just come out of hospital. I'd just had a baby. I mean, he stuck around til the baby was born, but as soon as she was born, a couple a weeks ... a week? I don't know ... he told me, "I've met somebody else." I don't know if I've ever told anybody this, but the first thing I said was, "Can she sing?" I mean, what normal person would say, "Can she sing?"

ELLEN HORNE: She was heartbroken when Richard left, and without explanation, her voice went with him. It just flew away, like someone had left the cage door open.

LINDA THOMPSON: That was really awful, and it put the singing into perspective a bit.

ELLEN HORNE: She was mute. At home with a newborn and two young children, she was totally isolated.

LINDA THOMPSON: If you can't speak, it's just a nightmare. I mean, it's a nightmare.

ELLEN HORNE: She couldn't make a sound when she picked up the phone. Strangers looked at her, puzzled, as she gestured.

 

LINDA THOMPSON: Nobody knew what was wrong with me. And I went to this guy and he said, "Oh, you've got hysterical dysphonia." And on one hand, it was great to know that it had a name. On the other hand, even though I'm a layman, I could understand that hysterical dysphonia meant that there was something wrong with my brain rather than my throat.

ELLEN HORNE: For months, her brain toyed with her throat. Sometimes it was totally fine. Other days, nothing. Dry gurgles would barely escape. Ironically, when she was at her worst, that album she'd had such trouble recording came out and the critics loved it. She got some of her best reviews. The label expected them to promote the album.

LINDA THOMPSON: Richard and my manager didn't want me to do the tour. I mean, Richard said, "We're not together anymore and I don't think you should do the tour." And my manager at that time, our manager, said, "You mustn't do the tour, Linda. You're not well enough. You've just had a baby and you're crazy and you mustn't do the tour."

ELLEN HORNE: Because think about what touring meant. Richard wrote their songs, many about heartbreak. Night after night, she'd have to walk on stage and sing their sad story from his perspective.

LINDA THOMPSON: And I said, "Forget it. I am absolutely doing the tour." And I was very glad I did.

ELLEN HORNE: Because something miraculous happened.

LINDA THOMPSON: Because I was so brokenhearted, my dysphonia ... I mean, for whatever reason, I didn't have it and I sang really well.

ELLEN HORNE: Anger had returned her gift. This tour is legendary.

LINDA THOMPSON: Absolutely. I stole a car in Canada and got arrested, slept with too many people, took too many drugs, and drank too much stuff.

ELLEN HORNE: There's a story about you smashing up a dressing room?

LINDA THOMPSON: I did. I smashed up a dressing room, and the guys at the club said, "We had the Sex Pistols last week and they were nowhere near as bad as you," and I said, "Oh, thank you! I'm worse than the Sex Pistols." But I wasn't actually trashing the dressing room. I was throwing things at Richard. It's like every time he passed me, I'd lob something at him. And when he'd pass me on stage, I'd trip him up on stage. I mean, it was insane. Poor Richard.

ELLEN HORNE: When they played LA, where Richard's new girlfriend lived, Linda Ronstadt consoled her.

LINDA THOMPSON:She pulled me out of the gutter outside The Roxy where I was lying, surrounded by champagne bottles. She pulled me out of the gutter and took me back to her house, where I was ill for days and days and days.

ELLEN HORNE: But at least her voice was back. And singing, she says, felt good.

LINDA THOMPSON: It didn't stay for long, I must say. It didn't stay for long.

ELLEN HORNE: When the tour ended, the voice took off. It left, as mysteriously as it had returned.

LINDA THOMPSON: I couldn't speak when there was any peripheral noise. Like if I was in a restaurant, I would just say to the waiter, "I've lost my voice." I never went into the whole ... you know ... with anybody. "I've got this thing, this dysphonia," and blah blah blah. I mean, please.

ELLEN HORNE: She's never entirely recovered. The battle between brain and voice has continued for two decades.

LINDA THOMPSON: Hypnotism, that didn't work, and therapy and voice therapy and speech therapy. All sorts of things. If somebody had said to me, "If you have a heroin injection every day you'll be fine," I would have done it. Absolutely would have done it, 'cause it's just so boring not to be able to sing. It's boring. It really is boring having this kind of ... tight throat. And then I suddenly said, "I'm not gonna do anymore. I'm just not gonna sing." And that's what I did. I didn't sing for a long, long time.

Speaker 21: That's the only big difference from when we've played it.

LINDA THOMPSON: And after the instrumental ...

Speaker 21: And after the-

LINDA THOMPSON: ... coming straight in.

Speaker 21: Exactly. That's the other thing..No worries, so.

ELLEN HORNE: This is Linda, back in the studio after 17 years.

LINDA THOMPSON: Oh gosh. Well nevermind. I'll be all right.

LINDA THOMPSON: Sometimes I couldn't sing, so I would come back the next day and sing.

LINDA THOMPSON: It's the first two voices and then a we pause, then the second [crosstalk]

LINDA THOMPSON: And so that's how I got started again, with kind of the minimum pressure.

LINDA THOMPSON: And then the…

Speaker 21: No, is there a pause there?

LINDA THOMPSON: Yeah.

 

Speaker 21: Yes, there is.

ELLEN HORNE: And the critics are raving about her voice again.

LINDA THOMPSON: ... verse, and you guys go in [crosstalk 00:47:42]

ELLEN HORNE:1 To me, it sounds like it always did. Clean, vulnerable, ethereal.

LINDA THOMPSON: ... no break.

Speaker 21: Yes.

ELLEN HORNE:9 But there is a difference.

LINDA THOMPSON:I think I'm learning to let go a little. I did a live vocal and some of it's shaky, but I'm leaving it all in, and I wouldn't have been able to do that a few years ago. I would have just winced. Now I don't care. I just want it to feel right. I do care, but I care a little less. That's probably the only good thing about impending old age.

ELLEN HORNE: And she added in that bleak tone I recognized from her songs ...

LINDA THOMPSON:There's absolutely nothing else to recommend it, I can tell you.

JAD: Ellen Horne is a producer for this program. For more on Linda Thompson and her music, and for more on hysterical dysphonia, check our website. Radiolab.org is the address. I'm Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab. Here with Robert Krulwich. Today we're talking about stress. Robert, let me ask you a question based on what we just heard. Bleak, bleak, bleak. That's how that last piece ended. And that basically describes the world we live in. How do you cope?

ROBERT KRULWICH: I don't. I don't cope at all. I hate deeply and I hate well.

JAD:  You rage fluently.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I do, and as you know from working with me, there are moments when I want to kill you.

JAD: That's all.

ROBERT KRULWICH:14 It works for me!

JAD:  Yes, yes.

ROBERT KRULWICH: But it also works for rats. I know this from Robert ROBERT KRULWICH: You have a very interesting description of work with rats in which rats are put into very tense situations, but there are four or five ways in which they alleviate their pain.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: It's beautiful stuff because it essentially gets at the core of this issue. Most of us cope. Basic scenario animal studies, you've got two cages side by side, a rat in each cage, each of which can get a shock. And whenever one of them gets a shock, the other does. Same intensity, same duration, same everything. Sole difference is, the rat in cage one just gets the shock. The rat in cage two gets the psychological manipulation.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Meaning if you wanted to be one of these rats ... not that you would ... you'd want to be the second rat, number two, because number one just gets zapped. Number two gets little fixes. There are four fixes he's gonna describe. Let's start with number one.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: The first version that will help the second rat. Every time it gets one of those shocks, it can run over to the other side of the cage where there's another rat it could sit down next to and bite the crap out of. And you know what? That rat's gonna do just fine. He's not gonna get an ulcer, because he's giving somebody else an ulcer. He has an outlet for his frustration that-

ROBERT KRULWICH: The Mike Tyson approach.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yes.

ROBERT KRULWICH: If I get hit, you get hit.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Exactly. And it's documented by science, it makes you feel better, which is why sort of the first sound byte they've gotta do with you in stress management is don't reduce your risk of an ulcer by giving it to somebody else. Make sure your outlets are not abusive ones, because they feel great. They're very effective.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Now to scenario number two.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Next version. This time the rat's getting the shocks and now can go over to the other side of the cage and gnaw on a bar of wood or-

ROBERT KRULWICH: I mean, just ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: This counts as a relaxing hobby for a lab rat. It once again gets out the tensions, gets out the frustration. It's an outlet.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I like that actually better than beating up on the other rat. This is nicer.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Much nicer world if we all gnawed on wood instead of invading countries and things like that.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Number three.

Speaker 22: The Department of Homeland Security yesterday raised the national terror alert to orange.

Speaker 23: Orange, or high alert.

Speaker 24: We are taking strong precautions.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Third version. In this version, the second rat knows when the next shock is coming. A little warning light comes on ten seconds before. It gets predictive information. And for the same physical reality, you're less likely to get a stress-related disease if you get predictability. When is it coming? How bad is it going to be? How long is it going to last?

ROBERT KRULWICH: Oh, that makes a difference?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Yeah.

ROBERT KRULWICH: If you see, "Get ready, get set ..."

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Exactly.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Get ready, get set helps you?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Because you scrunch up and you tighten your butt and you close your eyes and you think about that Hawaii vacation, whatever it is. And this is what we're doing when we're sitting in the dentist chair and say, "Are we almost done? Give me some predictability here."

ROBERT KRULWICH: And finally, scenario number four.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: The last factor is this one of if the rat thinks it has control, it's not gonna get the stress-related disease. Let it press a lever. It's been trained to press this lever to decrease the chances of a shock. The lever is doing squat. Today it's a placebo, it's disconnected. But the rat's pounding away the lever thinking, "This is great. Imagine how many shocks I'd be getting otherwise." It has a sense of control. Control makes stressors less stressful.

JAD:  So moving along, beating up on another rat ... or a person in our case ... gnawing on a piece of wood, having a sense of control, even if it's false, these seem to be helpful stress relieving techniques. Well, what about yoga? What about therapy? Do they try and talk to the rats?

ROBERT KRULWICH: You would of course figure that a professor at Stanford would come up with something therapeutic. He did, actually.

JAD:  Oh, good.

ROBERT KRULWICH: This wasn't with rats. It was with his real field expertise, which is baboons. What Robert Sapolsky does is he goes to East Africa and he spends time with baboon troops, particular families of baboons, and he just hangs with them for really long periods of time, years even, and then writes stories and he observes things. And one of the things he observed was a therapeutic kind of stress resolution, in this case involving friendship. Here's how it went.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Every baboon troop has an alpha baboon. That baboon beats up all the other baboons and is the guy who gets all the girls 'cause he's the strongest one. But in the life of every alpha baboon, there's gonna come a moment where some lesser ranked baboon is gonna beat you up, and you lose your crown. In baboon life, when you stop being the number one ...

JAD:  Do you fall to the bottom?

ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, what happens is the other baboons remember how cruel you were as an alpha and they take it out on you.

JAD:  The other ones that are up above you now.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Above you. Yeah, so the number two beats you up, the number three starts to beat you up, the number four takes you on, he tries to beat you up, the number five. And you're dropping down the chain.

JAD:  That doesn't seem fair, by the way.

ROBERT KRULWICH: That they go all the way to the bottom?

JAD:  Yeah.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Well I don't know whether they might be, like, 34 out of their 90, so they're not at the very, very bottom.

JAD:  Who decides?

ROBERT KRULWICH: Whoever gets beat up. So ...

JAD:  I know, but I mean, you beat up the alpha guy. Does he then have to fight everybody else to reestablish his [crosstalk 00:54:45]

ROBERT KRULWICH: I think yeah. Just like a bird pecking order. Everybody fights with it. It's like one of those bar room things where everybody looks at each other, they all slug it out, then they arrange themselves in standing order afterwards.

JAD:  Oh, I see.

ROBERT KRULWICH: "I stood next to Tom 'cause I beat up Tom, but he beat up Fred."

JAD:  "At least I can still beat up Tom."

ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah.

JAD:  Okay.

ROBERT KRULWICH: It's not a happy thing, to be an aging former champ baboon. Not at all.

JAD:  Well, so then if you are one of these ex-heavyweights, what do you do?

ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, that's the question.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: What you often do, what you do about half the time, is you pick up and you move to a different troop. You transfer to a different troop.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Even though you don't know anybody? You just start all over again?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Which is great. You're gonna be incredibly low ranking there because you're this broken down old male, but at least you're gonna be anonymous. And what you often see are these old, broken, battle scarred males who show up from out of nowhere and join a troop, and he's some sweet old poop and you feel horrible watching the juveniles hassle him. And almost certainly, he was one son of a bitch in the western Serengeti about five years before, and the guy's basically seeking political asylum.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Are there old guys who used to be alphas who stick around?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: That's the thing. Only about half the old guys leave. So one of the studies I did was trying to figure out who leaves and who stays. Is it the ones who were more brutal back when? Is it the ones who are getting more grief now? None of that. The ones who stay are the ones who actually manage to get friendships. This is for real. These are smart enough animals that they have social affiliative relationships that are stable over time, with females if you're an adult male.

ROBERT KRULWICH: What do baboon guys and girls do when they're just friends? They don't go to the movies or anything, so they ...

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: They hang out.

ROBERT KRULWICH: They hang out.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: They sit next to each other. They sit in physical contact. They groom each other.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Can you groom a lady and not get her boyfriend, the alpha of the moment, angry?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Well, the alpha's only interested in her if she's at the peak of her ovulatory cycle.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Oh.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY:This is the rest of the-

ROBERT KRULWICH: So when she's not hot, then you can go sit around and shoot the shit about things.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Exactly. And what you find is very often, females at the peak of their cycle, are in the middle of all this tumult with numbers one through three, and sort of all this male androgen musk Schwarzenegger crap, and once it's all over with, she goes back and spends the rest of her month hanging out with the somewhat aged guy who's her buddy.

ROBERT KRULWICH: So the baboon who had a little room in his life for friendship, not just conking and sex, but friendship, wins in the end.

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Not only do they win in this heartwarming old guy sitting in the Savanna sort of picture, but also win in the Darwinian sense. What's been a revolution in the field in recent years is the recognition that these guys who do the nice guy Alan Alda affiliative stuff reproduce a whole lot. Because it turns out, a lot of the time, even during the peak swelling, while number one and number two are tousling, the female runs over to the bush and mates with the Alan Alda guy ...

ROBERT KRULWICH: Really?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: ... because she prefers him, amazingly enough because the guy's actually nice to her or [crosstalk 00:57:45]

ROBERT KRULWICH: Now do you know this or is this just your prayer?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: No, this is real. It's true.

ROBERT KRULWICH: You've counted. But how do you know that the Alan Alda guy had more babies than the Schwarzenegger guy?

ROBERT SAPOLSKY: Because people now do paternity tests. You can do stuff like get hair samples from your wild primates when they go through the bushes and some thorn pulls off some, and you go do genetic analysis. And amazingly enough, from a genetic Darwinian bloody and tooth and claw standpoint, nice guys do not finish last.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Robert Sapolsky is the author of many, many books and essays, including Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers and my absolute favorite, A Primate's Memoir. I spoke with him in his office in Palo Alto, California.

JAD:  That about does it for us. Check our website, radiolab.org. More information on anything that you heard tonight. And while you're there, communicate with us. Radiolab@wnyc.org is our email address. I'm Jad Abumrad. Robert Krulwich and I are signing off.

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