2019-06-03 concepts

Stress, inflammation, intelligence

Hey all -

This edition contains my thoughts on recent health research. I have no training in health studies, and remarkably, even less in biology. Please read these with a grain of salt.

+ mental models #

* Stress

Stress is something we all feel from time to time. You feel it when you fall behind on your work, or when people have expectations of you, or when you’re in a situation you can’t control.

We feel stress because there is uncertainty about a future outcome - and we always fear the worst[1]. Will I catch that flight? Will I get that job? Will my boss get upset if I don’t get the work done in time?

These situations are stressful because we don’t know the outcome. Often, when the bad thing actually happens - you miss that flight for example - you feel less stress. It’s a relief. There’s closure - even if the outcome is bad - because at least now you know. (That is, until you start worrying about the next thing.)

Whenever we perceive a threat, our body triggers a stress response. It ensures that we not only act, but react to the stressor, so that we don’t die.

Animals experience stress too. If you drop a snake in front of a dog, the dog will tense up and bark. The stress response is triggered. Does the dog attack, or does it run? Fight, or flight.

Once you remove the stressor, the dog’s stress response subsides. The dog doesn’t ruminate or worry or wonder what if. The dog goes on with its life.

Not so with humans. We have this remarkable ability to imagine, to anticipate, to simulate. We can fabricate stressors - and stressful situations - strictly within the confines of our own mind. All we need to do is imagine. And so we do!

Just like animals, our bodies shift into a fight-or-flight mode when we perceive a threat. Adrenaline and cortisol pump into our bloodstream. Energy gets diverted away from our longer-term digestive and reproductive systems, and into our fast-acting muscles. This makes sense of course. What good is the long-term if you’re about to be eaten by a lion?

Even our brain mode changes. We disable our thoughtful, empathetic, reasonable prefrontal cortex - and instead activate our impulsive, reactive, emotional amygdala. Again, what good is planning for the future if you need to make short-term, intuitive decisions now?

During times of stress, our “lizard brain” amygdala takes over, pushing the “monkey brain” prefrontal cortex to the backseat.

Think of an athlete in competition. At that moment, they’re operating on pure adrenaline, pure impulse, pure intuition. There is no rational calculation, no thinking, no planning - because there’s no time for it!

The problem is that, for most of us, we are not athletes in competition. On the contrary, we often feel the most stress when we’re lying prone in our couch, or hunched over at our desk, ruminating about the future. And so, like the athlete, our lizard brain takes over.

And any decisions we make during this time - those about our work, or our relationships, or our health - are also made by the lizard brain!

This can lead to decisions we later regret. The obvious example here is road rage. When we’re stressed - stuck in traffic and unable to control the outcome - we get very emotional. Irrationally emotional! It makes no sense! Wonder why? Because the lizard brain doesn’t have to make sense. And suddenly, that lizard brain is sitting behind the wheel of a 3,000 lb vehicle. Is that really who you want driving?

The way we think about stress today sort of reminds me of the way we thought about smoking during the 1960s.

We know it’s bad for us, but somehow it’s socially acceptable. “I had a stressful day at work” is often met with indifference, not urgency. But it is urgent! Literally all the decisions we make will be affected by stress. That is a huge deal!

So how do we reduce our level of stress? Here are a few ideas:

All this being said, I do not believe in eliminating stress. Stressors give us valuable information about our environment, without which we could not learn nor adapt. We need stress.

But we need stress from time to time. We need it on tap. We need to control it. Otherwise, stress - and the lizard brain - will control us.

* Inflammation

So stress impairs our ability to make good decisions. That seems pretty bad. Unfortunately, it gets worse. Much worse.

Stress also reduces both the quality and length of our lives. Sometimes, substantially.

Consider when you scrape your knee, or when you get really angry at someone. What happens? Your body triggers an inflammatory response. Adrenaline and cortisol are released into your bloodstream, and blood flows to where its needed. That’s why your face gets red.

This is a normal, natural response to short-term, acute stressors, be they physical or psychological. But it becomes abnormal when the stress is chronic. This of course results in chronic inflammation.

Inflammation is your body’s physiological response to a foreign object, an invader, a threat. It is designed to eliminate the threat. It operates with a sort of “martial law” - urgent, temporary and highly destructive. After it’s done, your body cleans up the damage and returns to normal, civilian life.

This all works if the inflammation is temporary. But if chronic, your body is constantly operating in a state of emergency.

There’s a lot a recent scientific research - mostly over the last decade - illustrating just how bad chronic inflammation is for our bodies. We used to think that all of our diseases, pathologies and abnormalities resulted in inflammation. The body reacting to threats.

But there’s increasing evidence that it’s precisely the opposite: inflammation causes disease. Chronic inflammation can cause or aggravate obesity, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, psychological disorders and more.

This would explain why we often see comorbidity among health conditions. These things are not acting independently, each somehow individually triggering an inflammatory response. In fact, it is the same inflammation triggering a multitude of health conditions.

Recent scientific evidence would suggest we want to limit the amount of chronic inflammation our body experiences. For the most part, I believe this.

I do however want keep a critical eye. It’s very tempting to immediately and uncritically accept anything under the pretense of science.

But I still have questions. Why does “chronic stress” like physical exercise seem to be okay? Why is something like slouching bad for us, even though it doesn’t trigger an inflammatory response? Why is getting absorbed in thought, or engaged in a lively discussion, not considered “chronic stress”? Again, I am sure there are perfectly reasonable answers to these, but I don’t know them. And until I do, I’ll probably hold off on any blanket acceptance of this theory.

* Intelligence

Sometimes it’s tempting to think that all you need to succeed in the world is more knowledge. If you want to live a good life, you better at least be smart.

I think of intelligence as the ability to comprehend or process rules. If you teach someone calculus or statistics or psychology, to what extent are they able to digest these frameworks?

These domains of knowledge - these things that we know - are effectively a compilation of facts, rules and processes. If I tell you how to run a statistical regression, you are smart if you can understand the procedural sequences with relative ease.

But smartness alone will not help you with the things we don’t know. It won’t help you craft new hypotheses, or ask better questions, or offer alternative ways of thinking.

Smartness will not help you abstract knowledge, or identify where knowledge from one domain overlaps with - and even contradicts - knowledge in other domains. For these skills, we need critical thinking.

Intuitively we know that, for many things, being smart simply isn’t enough. If I teach a good student about astrology and they pick it up quickly - well they are smart - but what good is that? Something has gone awry.

What we ultimately care about is not intelligence, but instead the ability to accomplish what you want to accomplish, to overcome obstacles, to solve problems. We care about getting things done.

To the extent that being intelligent helps us get things done, solve our problems and live a better life, then be intelligent!

But if you are intelligent and have awful discipline to follow through on your plans, well what good is that? Or if you are intelligent but have no creativity to solve a problem you haven’t encountered in the past, well what good is that?

Or if you are intelligent but everyone you work with despises you and refuses to work alongside you, well what good is that? Or if you are intelligent but do not have the courage to execute on your plans - however meticulously crafted - well then what good is that?

What I want to emphasize is that all of these characteristics exist in service of getting things done. Intelligence is one of many tools. But it is not the only tool, nor is it always the most effective.

Admittedly, if we want to get things done, we should have a strong bias for being smart over being ignorant.

But we should also have one for thinking creatively over thinking in boxes. For treating people with kindness over treating them with malice. For being dogged and persistent in what we want, instead of giving up at the slightest sign of adversity.

We should be well-rounded individuals, not because it is somehow noble or civilized or honorable, but because it gets things done.

Thanks for reading,


[1] Thanks to McKinley Valentine for changing my thinking on this. It is not uncertainty itself which makes us feel anxious, but rather, the possibility of downside exposure.