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15.9.03

Stressed-out Savages

Jungle Dwelling Is More Stressful Life

The indigenous Mangyan people of the Mindoro Island in the Phillipines live a traditional and primitive life on the edge of the tropical jungle. Norwegian researchers have now found that the Mangyan way of life produces the same types of stress that modern technological living does - only more so.

... Like present-day affluent Norwegians, the most common physical complaints were muscle and skeletal pains. But while 82.1 percent of Norwegians answered that they have had such problems in the course of the past 30 days, 100 percent of the Mindoro felt the same.

... A basic difference between the two varying cultures is that the Mindoro do not view their pains as illnesses, but rather as a normal state of affairs.

-- via Foreign Dispatches


The obvious conclusion is that this study supports the "nasty, brutish, and short" theory of hunter-gatherer life. But I'm not so sure (the usual caveats about critiquing -- or buying into -- a study based only on a newspaper report apply). As far as I can tell, they based their measure of how often a person experiences pain on self-reporting. This opens the study up to cross-cultural subjective differences in what makes pain bad enough to remember and bad enough to bring up when asked. We rarely feel perfect, and there's no obvious point at which something is bad enough to count. So the two culture's attitudes toward pain may affect things. Norwegians see pain as an aberration, which could lead them to deny little pains, as they would be signs of weakness (it could also cause them to have exceptionally high, even perfectionist, standards for health and thus overestimate their pain -- this is something that would have to be established by further empirical work*). Conversely, It's plausible that the Mindoro attitude that pain is part of life may lead them to assume that they felt pain, in the absence of a memory that they definitely did not, or simply to remember actual pains more.

But even if we take their measures of pain frequency as accurate, that doesn't say anything about the pain's impact. The third paragraph I quoted above seems to indicate that the Mindoro have a healthier attitude toward pain -- a sort of "that's how life is, so I'll just roll with the punches" sort of thing. On the other hand, Norwegians see pain as a sort of unjust aberrant badness. This suggests that, when the Norwegians do experience pain, they don't handle it as well. It may spill over into their interpersonal relationships in negative ways, for example. I don't know if this speculation is true -- the report didn't cover these questions -- but it certainly seems possible.

What's really surprising here is that the same ailments are common among both the Mindoro and Norwegians. One would think that such different lifestyles would create different stresses on the body. Perhaps a biological predisposition to weakness in certain areas overrides anything culture can do. Or perhaps the psychosomatic expression of stress follows the same channels, regardless of what body parts are actually being hurt. Or perhaps our biological proclivities have shaped our culture, so that we design our environments in ways that suit our bodies (i.e., the stress ratios that both cultures experience are the optimum, and any other distribution of stress between body parts would result in more total stress).

*The researchers say something similar to this toward the end of the article, but the quotes sound like they're talking beyond the bounds of what the research actually demonstrated, to try to relate it to practical concerns.

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