Biological Basis of Oppression

I suppose this post is a little off topic but it has been on my mind for a long time. Social defeat/Social stress as a model of depression is one of my favorite things to talk about these days. Not only am I am intrigued by the biological and psychological implications of this model and how it epitomizes similar dynamics in our society today. I have recently wondered if this model can be applied to people who have experienced long-term oppression. For example, slavery was a reality for at least 300 years in the United States and social stress was the reality. Even after slavery was abolished in 1865, Black people were still considered unequal in many ways.  Biologically speaking, is it possible that being enslaved caused a downregulation of neurotropins (BDNF/VEGF/ etc.), CREB, and neurotransmitter/neurohomorones? I suppose no one will ever know, but let’s consider something for a second. In animal models of social stress/social defeat, rats can experience increases in heart rate and blood pressure, suppression of immune system function,  higher body mass and higher glucose levels (still somewhat debatable.) Now, let’s look at some statistics.  I often have doubts about statistics, but I think they highlight a problem that is worth looking at.  African-Americans (most are descendants of slaves) are 1.5 times more likely to have high blood pressure compared to non-Hispanic Whites. African-American women are 1.7 times more likely to be obese compared to non-Hispanic White women.  African-Americans  are 2.2 times more likely to die from diabetes compared to non-Hispanic Whites.

Most people study the physiological changes in “defeated” animals, but what about the “winners?” There are a few studies on animals that are in the “winning” position. In fact, they show higher heart rate/blood pressure levels. So, is it “stressful” to maintain a dominant/wining position?

In terms of depression, you saw the figure that Duy and I talked about last week. Asians and Hispanics had higher depression symptoms. Blacks were in between Asians/Hispanics and Whites.

So what do you think? Is it an interesting story?

I got my statistics from this website:

Social Crowding

This idea is very intriguing but it is also off topic. Please forgive me!  While doing the behavioral part of my senior project/thesis (whatever you want to call it), I had to put all of my rats in cage to induce social stress. Most of them are pretty hungry, but not starving.  Anyway, I decided to give them a small piece of rat chow to see how they would react. To my surprise, the rats were a little over the top.  They would climb over each other, bite, fight, squeal, and do all sorts of things to get to the food. Then I started thinking. Why is this scenario so familiar? The rats started to fight each other because they wanted to get a resource!  It reminds me of housing developments in bad neighborhoods. I will admit that I grew up in a housing project and Black people were the dominant group. So, what happens when you take humans and overcrowd them in a small space with limited resources?

Think about it.



10 thoughts on “Biological Basis of Oppression

  1. Thought-provoking entry, Sharonda. Michael Meaney has an interesting take on growing up in environments such as you describe, or with ongoing adversity. Based on their findings that rat mums that are on the low end of certain maternal care behaviors have offspring that show exaggerated stress reactivity he has argued that this could be a way to signal to the offspring that conditions are rough and you’d do well to be on high alert. It seems like a bit of a stretch to extend it to humans in this way but there are reports that low caregiving in human mothers is linked to more fearfulness and negative affect in their children. Interesting but I’m not sure how well it explains data you’ve talked about in your entry or in class.


  2. The scene you described Sharonda reminds me of the pictures from Haiti. Where there are mass amounts of people who have very limited resources and are desperate for food. When a food truck pulled up people crowded around and pushed women and children out of the way. I think that survival instincts do kick in when you and your family are struggling to survive while so many others are also in your same position.


  3. I think this definitely illustrates how biology AND environment play an integral role in psychology. If you look at any individual who has experienced considerable diversity during his or her life, you will almost always see more vulnerability in that person (when it comes to succombing to an illness, whether it be ‘biological’ or ‘psychological’). I think this also transcends race, and can be seen in populations like LGBT men and women, children who are bullied, and even animals. It certainly depends on the environment, as well as how accepted the individual feels. Really interesting entry.


  4. This is a very interesting theory; it’s almost the idea of inherited stress, which may or may not be a root of the idea (I think disproven) of inherited memories. There is, of course, another explanation for these minorities having problems with blood pressure and obesity: those minorities are also significantly poorer on average than other demographic groups. Poorness has also been found to be related to obesity, which is very directly related to blood pressure and a variety of other physiological and psychological stresses (depression, joint problems, even some cancers). It’s still possible that there is some effect of ‘inherited stress’, but that it might not be the 50% increases in obesity and blood pressure rates.


    1. You bring up some interesting point, Kenny. I’d be interested to see the statistics on obesity and depression. Since obesity is also on the rise in the U.S., I have a feeling there is a strong correlation.


      1. There is some evidence that touches on a relationship between obesity and neurogenesis. These researchers decided to give rats a high fat diet for a period of time and measure neurogenesis. Unsurprisingly, rats show disrupted neurogenesis. That’s the only study I know off the top of my head. If you believe that decreased neurogenesis is tied to depression then there might be a link!


  5. I was very intrigued by this journal entry. I had never thought about the long-term effects that oppression could have on people. It is very interesting to think about the implications of this oppression, especially when related to neurotransmitters. Although I have little knowledge of the issue, I think it is interesting to think of the possible effects on neurotransmission. It makes sense that being oppressed for long periods of time could effect the ability to form neurotransmission and synapses. There could be many explanations for African-Americans having higher blood pressure and risk of diabetes, mainly due oppression that still goes on today, I think this entry has a lot of validity. It seems that the tests on animals could have similar implications in humans and the studies seem to correlate. It is somewhat alarming to think that oppression that mostly occurred almost 300 years ago could still have present-day implications and this certainly garners more thought and research. This was a great entry.


  6. Some of this touches on some ideas we were batting around in Adolescent and Adult Development last semester. I found your question of “what about the dominant culture?” to be particularly provocative of further research. Using, for the time being, the model of racial interaction in the modern United States, the theory explicated in Ad and Ad was that dominant social position gives into an entirely separate host of stressors. Since this was modeled on American “White” culture, much emphasis was put on such things as unreciprocated bullying in schools, repression of emotion (primarily among males), and social constructs that promote disaffectation (e.g. football teams, cheerleading). Unfortunately, this theory has not been satisfactorily applied to many other countries which could potentially have radically different approaches to the ways in which dominance is expressed (e.g. China as argued by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers to be societally defined by rice growing). As for the causation in this relationship, whether the dominance caused the aspects of the culture that could be associated with appearance and maitenance of image, I’d say it would require a huge amount of research to get an inkling of.


  7. Sharonda,
    this post makes me think. I’m curious about ‘socially defeated racial groups’ having a high rate of depression because you would think that as the survivval instinct kick in, depression would be the least helpful disorder to acquire.


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