The opinions expressed in previous entries may or may not express the current opinion of the author.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


I have a new hobby. It's called watching tv. Before bed, I've discovered it's nice to pick up the knitting, fetch a cup of Rooibos, and plonk yourself down in front of a good, educational PBS show. You can learn a lot.

Last night, for instance, I learned about what makes a Toucan's beak so light-yet-strong. I also learned about splicing spider DNA into goats, thereby producing spider-thread-infused goat's milk, whence high tensile fibers can be extracted. Yikes.

One programme last night, however, was particularly interesting - a National Geographic special called Killer Stress.

The programme (oh stop with the red underlining - I'm using British spelling) concerns two longitudinal studies, one carried out in England on civil servants in Whitehall and the other in Africa on baboons. Both the baboons and the civil servants live in hierarchical social systems, wherein the "top dog" can, and often does, terrorize his subordinates.

The lower-ranking individuals are subject to constant stress, brought about not only by persecution, but by lack of control over their own lives. Among the baboons, the persecution takes the form of physical abuse - among the civil servants, it takes the form of verbal abuse, lack of respect, and micromanagement. The higher-ranking individuals also have greater access to pleasureable activities.

Periodically, baboons of varying rank are anaesthetized, blood is drawn, and other health markers investigated. The researcher, Robert Sopolsky, displays stunning skill with a blow gun to achieve the prerequisite KO. Unfortunately Michael Marmot, the English researcher, didn't use this technique on his civil servants. I would have enjoyed seeing him lurk behind a telephone box with his blow gun, waiting for a be-suited clerk to come out of the Underground. However, despite this deficiency, the civil servants were also tested regularly.

The discoveries show that the Alphas - human and baboon - have much lower levels of stress hormones in their blood. They also have a significantly lower incidence of high blood pressure, clogged arteries, heart disease, and other illnesses. Surprisingly, findings also show that fat is gained more and distributed differently in the case of lower-ranking individuals. They are more likely to have belly fat, which poses a greater threat to one's health than fat accumulated elsewhere on the body. Furthermore, studies on rats show that stress can shrink brain cells and damage memory.

The plot thickened when one of the baboon troops suffered a reverse after a large number of their members died from eating contaminated meat in a garbage dump. Because the amount of meat was limited, only the alpha males were able to take possession of it - and only the alpha males died. After this, the troop was composed of females, and a reduced number of meeker, lower-ranking males. The culture of the group changed completely The females assumed a greater leadership role, setting a Summer of Love tone, with mutual grooming and other peaceful interactions replacing the former dog-eat-dog ambience. The health of the lower-ranking troop members improved as their stress levels decreased.

What is most interesting is that other young males who subsequently left their natal troops and joined this group (as is the custom among baboons) learned this new culture, gradually adapting their behavior to the more peaceful, passive modus vivendi of their adopted troop.

Stress causes damage at a cellular level, bringing about premature aging, as well as a host of other health problems. But the programme also touched upon the healing effects that positive interactions can have. Getting together with family and friends in an accepting, supportive atmosphere can actually repair cell damage.

Which of course brings us to the horse.

There does exist a dominance hierarchy among horses. However, a horse's place in the hierarchy doesn't play all that much of a role in shaping its daily life. Food is plentiful - or, if not, at least ubiquitous. A dominant horse might shoo a lower-ranking horse away from a nice patch of grass - but there's always another patch over there. Horses don't amuse themselves by bullying each other. They might get snarky in order to quick get what they want, but then it's over and done with.

Moreover, dominant horses don't have greater access to that wholesome cell-repairing activity known as mutual grooming. Nobody so far has offered to groom bossy old George, and it's only lately that the mares have started letting him buddy up to them a little. He can force the respect, but he can't force the love.

If we go among horses determined to impose our will on them, then we increase their stress and damage their health. If we go among them willing to wait and listen, then we allow them to decrease our stress and heal our bodies.

In the synchronous manner of the universe, an email appeared in my inbox this morning: the 252nd prohibition in the Sefer Hamitzvot is that Jews are forbidden from causing emotional distress to a convert. This negative commandment is in addition to another prohibition forbidding one to cause distress to any Jew. Therefore, the convert is doubly protected.

In light of the research above, it is clear that to cause emotional distress is to inflict damage on the health of the victim. We should refrain from causing emotional distress to anyone, but I think the horses are our "converts" - who have come to live in our land, whom we are drawing in to our way of life. As such, we have a double duty to protect their emotional and physical health.

I wonder what's on tv tonight?


  1. This was really interesting, thank you for posting this!

  2. Yeah, I was fascinated to learn this - I didn't know there was such a direct relationship between oppression and stress/poor health.