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Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary–developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity

  • W. THOMAS BOYCE (a1) and BRUCE J. ELLIS (a2)

Biological reactivity to psychological stressors comprises a complex, integrated, and highly conserved repertoire of central neural and peripheral neuroendocrine responses designed to prepare the organism for challenge or threat. Developmental experience plays a role, along with heritable, polygenic variation, in calibrating the response dynamics of these systems, with early adversity biasing their combined effects toward a profile of heightened or prolonged reactivity. Conventional views of such high reactivity suggest that it is an atavistic and pathogenic legacy of an evolutionary past in which threats to survival were more prevalent and severe. Recent evidence, however, indicates that (a) stress reactivity is not a unitary process, but rather incorporates counterregulatory circuits serving to modify or temper physiological arousal, and (b) the effects of high reactivity phenotypes on psychiatric and biomedical outcomes are bivalent, rather than univalent, in character, exerting both risk-augmenting and risk-protective effects in a context-dependent manner. These observations suggest that heightened stress reactivity may reflect, not simply exaggerated arousal under challenge, but rather an increased biological sensitivity to context, with potential for negative health effects under conditions of adversity and positive effects under conditions of support and protection. From an evolutionary perspective, the developmental plasticity of the stress response systems, along with their structured, context-dependent effects, suggests that these systems may constitute conditional adaptations: evolved psychobiological mechanisms that monitor specific features of childhood environments as a basis for calibrating the development of stress response systems to adaptively match those environments. Taken together, these theoretical perspectives generate a novel hypothesis: that there is a curvilinear, U-shaped relation between early exposures to adversity and the development of stress-reactive profiles, with high reactivity phenotypes disproportionately emerging within both highly stressful and highly protected early social environments.The research on which this paper was based was supported by grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Research Network on Psychopathology and Development, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (1RO1 HD 24718), and by the Division of Intramural Research of NICHD. The first author is particularly indebted to Dr. Steve Suomi and Dr. Jan Genevro for a series of conversations that directly influenced the ideas upon which this paper is based. We also thank Dr. Jay Belsky and Dr. David Bjorklund for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: W. Thomas Boyce, Institute of Human Development, School of Public Health, Public Health CHHD (U90), 570 University Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-1190; E-mail:
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