'World's funniest neuroscientist' to speak

November 09, 2004

Ever heard of a zebra with an ulcer? When it comes to stress, we could learn a lot from zebras.

Centre College Humana Visiting Professor Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and MacArthur "Genius" fellow, will give a public lecture titled "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: Stress, Disease and Coping - Stress and Where Stress-related Diseases Come From" on 7:30 p.m. Thursday at in Young Hall, room 101. This lecture is based on Dr. Sapolsky's book by the same title. It will be followed by a book signing.

According to Sapolsky, the only time that zebras get stressed out is when there is real danger around such as a hungry lion with lunch on its mind. Evolution has guaranteed zebras will respond appropriately to this real emergency.

Humans tend to worry about things such as meeting deadlines, the intricacies of personal relationships, taking exams, and stretching paychecks. However, they tend to cope by using the same short-term emergency responses designed to deal with threats like outrunning a hungry lion. Over time, this leads to severe health and performance problems. Sapolsky says, "We live well enough to have the luxury to get ourselves sick with purely social, psychological stress."


As a boy in New York City, Sapolsky wanted to live in one of the dioramas at the Museum of Natural History. One week after graduating from Harvard in the mid-1970s, he got his chance: he went to Kenya for a dozen summers in a row to study the social behavior in baboons. His book "Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons" recounts Sapolsky's coming of age as a field biologist.

Considered "the world's funniest neuroscientist," Oliver Sacks calls Sapolsky "one of the best scientist-writers of our time, able to deal with the weightiest topics both authoritatively and wittily, with so light a touch they become accessible to all."

Sapolsky is the author of three books and his articles have appeared in many publications, including Discover and The New Yorker. A new collection of essays, "Monkey Luv and Other Essays on our Lives as Animals," will be published in late spring 2005.

Brent White, Matton Professor of Psychology at Centre, said, "We are excited to have Robert Sapolsky visit our campus. In addition to his numerous contributions to our understanding of the behavioral and physiological consequences of stress, Sapolsky is particularly skilled at drawing connections between basic laboratory research and human illnesses."

White continues, "For nearly 20 years several of my faculty colleagues and many of our present and former students have been involved in research related to the physiology and chemistry of stress hormones. It is truly an educational bonus to have an expert of his stature on the campus."

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