This is the title of my recently published Forum Paper on the NPG (Negative Population Growth) website. This is another effort to get the word out to the general public, as my medical colleagues have generally responded to my theory with this: It just can’t be that simple! Let me be as concise as possible and without all the medicalese that mostly is intended to mystify the general public, who made up most of my 25,000 patients during a 42 year medical career during which I wrote 1,000,000 Rx.
So, what is Population Density Stress? It is an umbrella term for the cause of our over-active stress response and all the “diseases of civilization” that can be traced to the resulting chronically elevated blood “cortisol” levels. It is composed of 4 elements: (1) crowding among large groups of total strangers, (2) bombardment by “stressors” thoughtlessly built into our modern physical environments, (3) alienation from the stress regulating rhythms of nature, and (4) the loss of our long evolved “clan/band” social structures. My apologies if this just sounds “too simple”. Over the 42 years of my medical psychiatry practice, I had one overlying job: to get the the bottom of what was causing my patients’ “anxiety” and clinical depression. When I started practice in 1974, after 3 years of psychiatric training and patient treatment under supervision, we only had a handful of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant agents, other than the well known calming and worry relieving effects of alcoholic beverages widely used in the 1950’s and throughout the 20th and earlier centuries, but with all the health damaging side-effects. Today, 1/3 of entering college freshmen are already taking antidepressants and 1/4 adult American women, some used for anxiety and the rest for clinical depression. Over my 42 year career, I watched in alarm as the rates of anxiety and depression increased year after year.
So, I began to search for the basic causes of this epidemic of anxiety and depression in American society and to refine our treatments, as the number of patent medicines to treat these potentially life threatening disorders exploded, as it still is. Alcoholism is also a growing problem, at least here in Wisconsin, and an increasing component of the “diseases of despair” that are shortening our lifespans for the first time in 100 years. Everywhere I looked, I found over production of the stress hormones: cortisol, (nor)adrenaline, endorphins, serotonin, and others. But wait a darned minute! These were also the chemicals being increased in our brains with the anti-depressants! So, a picture began to emerge of something driving this overproduction of stress hormones and our brains becoming exhausted in the race to keep up, which was forcing physicians to increase their prescribing of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medicines, to the joy of stock holders of Big Pharma company stocks, but at great expense to the suffering public and our insurance companies. To my surprise, however, i seemed to be the only physician I knew who was observing this epidemic of mental illness and the explosion of mood and anxiety altering drugs. Psychiatry and medical science in general, I was to discover, suffer from what Arthur Koestler called “reductionism”: an inability to step back and look at the big picture surrounding a problem.
During my training at Wisconsin, I had the honor of being mentored by one of the founding fathers of a new approach to treating mental illnesses: Family Therapy. Our family therapy seminar was led by Carl Whitaker and during one of our sessions, as he was given to doing, he passed out a paper published in 1962 in the February issue of Scientific American written by John B. Calhoun, an NIMH animal population researcher who had been studying the reproductive behavior of rats. Dr. Calhoun titled his article “Population Density and Social Pathology”, as he had discovered that patterns of behavior changes could be seen when rodents were raised in an enclosed space ( a sort of chicken coop for rodents) and allowed to reproduce at liberty and with none of the natural controls found in wild populations. At the maximum, there were 2,200 animals in a 10′ by 10′ enclosure! Whereas, in his 1/4 ac. backyard enclosure only 200 animals ever could be counted, as they separated into family units who defended their individual territories and thus prevented overpopulation, not unlike the Native American tribes in the US before our European ancestors arrived. Those 500 spread out “Indian” tribes held 2M individuals at the time of our ancestor’s arrival, but we are now 323M. Hmmmmmm?
When I retired in 2012, I was sorting through my papers and ran across Calhoun’s paper. I began researching population dynamics, as a small group of population biologists had been doing for 70 years, and discovered that one researcher had suggested that the stress response studied by Hans Selye in Montreal could be a population controller as designed by Mother Nature. He was the Scottish animal biologist V.C. Wynne-Edwards and had made this suggestion in his 1962 Animal Dispersion in relation to Social Behavior and he was seeing the same swollen adrenal glands (that produce the stress hormones (nor) adrenaline, cortisol, and endorphins) in his low ranking birds as Selye had seen in his experimental stressed rats. In 1971, the British psychologist Jeffrey Gray published his The Psychology of Fear and Stress and in it he also suggested that Selye’s “General Adaptation Syndrome” (swollen adrenal glands overproducing cortisol, shrunken thymus gland, and gastric ulcers) might be thought of a population regulation mechanism.
I don’t know exactly when the light went off in my head, but it did, and then I ran across the work of Jack Christian in Baltimore, who repeated Calhoun’s mouse/rat crowding experiments and measured the cortisol levels as crowding increased. By the way, i should point out at this juncture that not long after these rodents reached maximum population numbers, their entire population went extinct. Calhoun and another researcher here at Wisconsin believed that the crowding became so disruptive to pup rearing that mothers could no long protect their offspring and no more could be raised to reproductive age, but Christian thought the high cortisol levels were turning off reproduction. Why not both? So, I began to wonder if this same process was not happening in our crowded modern populations and it had been raising its ugly head in the increasing anxiety and depression of my patients all through my 42 years!
I am now convinced that this is exactly what we’re seeing in our modern human populations! Thus, my theory of “population density stress”. All of our top ten killing “diseases of civilization” are increasing, although our extensive and fabulously expensive medical care “industry” is ever better at keeping us alive with all its wonderful but expensive new technologies. Were it not for all this medical intervention, we’d be a tiny fraction of our current numbers. If you don’t “believe” in vaccinations against communicable diseases, consider the Ebola outbreak, or AIDS, or the 146,000 deaths so far from measles. How many friends and family members do you know who’ve had heart surgery, or take insulin, or have had joint replacements, cataract surgery, etc.? And, I haven’t mentioned that elevated cortisol levels suppress our immune system by killing off the same T-lymphocytes that Selye’s rodents couldn’t make in their shrunken thymus glands. HIV does its greatest damage by killing off these very same T-lymphocytes. Beginning to see a big picture here or have I just confused you? Sorry, but I’ve been trying to put this in terms anyone with a HS biology class could understand (maybe with a little help from a dictionary or the www).
This little essay is attempting to present the basic raw bones of my theory of “population density stress”, but, if you really want to dig into it further, you’ll have to Google “Stress R Us” for a free PDF in the e-library at the MAHB website out at Stanford, or get a PB/Kindle copy from Amazon Books. In any case, Good Luck, and a long and happy life!