Robert Sapolsky explains the science of the Primal Scream tradition at Stanford

Primal Scream
Primal Scream illustration by Michele McCammon

A recent article in Stanford magazine explains that Primal Scream, the chorus of midnight cries that cascades across campus each Dead Week, began on a whim. Early one morning in 1980, a Stern Hall resident let out a yell. The next time he did, he was answered in kind. Soon the antic spread across the undergraduate student body, coming to be known as a tradition that alleviates stress.

So, JILL PATTON, senior editor of Stanford, set out to discover whether it, in fact, does.

“The mere act of the screaming is probably cathartic for most people,” answered biology Professor ROBERT SAPOLSKY, whose books include Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. “Our stress response evolved to deal with acute physical stressors (like sprinting for your life), and part of what makes human psychological stress so miserable is that it is being chronically activated by things (e.g., finals) that don’t demand an immediate physical response. Something more physical, like screaming, probably helps by getting the body to be stressed for a legitimate reason.”

Sapolsky added, “For my money, I’d bet that most of the stress-reducing effects come from the sociality of this. So scream in groups.”

Read more in Stanford magazine.