Tuesday, June 27, 2017

It's complicated....more on Sapolsky's new book.

In a recent MindBlog post I urged you to read Robert Sapolsky’s new book, "Behave - The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst." This was when I was only through the third chapter, and as usual being impressed with his style and clarity. I’ve finished the book. It is a quirky, irreverent, clear, and magisterial effort. I feel like he’s almost managed to condense the take home message from my ~4,200 MindBlog posts that have appeared since 2006 into one book. I want to pass on some of the items in the take home messages he offers in his epilogue, slightly re-ordering his list:
While it’s cool that there’s so much plasticity in the brain, it’s no surprise— it has to work that way.
Adolescence shows us that the most interesting part of the brain evolved to be shaped minimally by genes and maximally by experience; that’s how we learn— context, context, context.
Childhood adversity can scar everything from our DNA to our cultures, and effects can be lifelong, even multigenerational. However, more adverse consequences can be reversed than used to be thought. But the longer you wait to intervene, the harder it will be.
Brains and cultures coevolve.
Things that seem morally obvious and intuitive now weren’t necessarily so in the past; many started with nonconforming reasoning.
It’s great if your frontal cortex lets you avoid temptation, allowing you to do the harder, better thing. But it’s usually more effective if doing that better thing has become so automatic that it isn’t hard. And it’s often easiest to avoid temptation with distraction and reappraisal rather than willpower.
Repeatedly, biological factors (e.g., hormones) don’t so much cause a behavior as modulate and sensitize, lowering thresholds for environmental stimuli to cause it.
Cognition and affect always interact. What’s interesting is when one dominates.
Genes have different effects in different environments; a hormone can make you nicer or crummier, depending on your values; we haven’t evolved to be “selfish” or “altruistic” or anything else— we’ve evolved to be particular ways in particular settings. Context, context, context.
Biologically, intense love and intense hate aren’t opposites. The opposite of each is indifference.
Arbitrary boundaries on continua can be helpful. But never forget that they are arbitrary.
Often we’re more about the anticipation and pursuit of pleasure than about the experience of it.
You can’t understand aggression without understanding fear (and what the amygdala has to do with both).
Genes aren’t about inevitabilities; they’re about potentials and vulnerabilities. And they don’t determine anything on their own. Gene/ environment interactions are everywhere. Evolution is most consequential when altering regulation of genes, rather than genes themselves.
We implicitly divide the world into Us and Them, and prefer the former. We are easily manipulated, even subliminally and within seconds, as to who counts as each.
We aren’t chimps, and we aren’t bonobos. We’re not a classic pair-bonding species or a tournament species. We’ve evolved to be somewhere in between in these and other categories that are clear-cut in other animals. It makes us a much more malleable and resilient species. It also makes our social lives much more confusing and messy, filled with imperfection and wrong turns.
While traditional nomadic hunter-gatherer life over hundreds of thousands of years might have been a little on the boring side, it certainly wasn’t ceaselessly bloody. In the years since most humans abandoned a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we’ve obviously invented many things. One of the most interesting and challenging is social systems where we can be surrounded by strangers and can act anonymously.
Saying a biological system works “well” is a value-free assessment; it can take discipline, hard work, and willpower to accomplish either something wondrous or something appalling. “Doing the right thing” is always context dependent.
Many of our best moments of morality and compassion have roots far deeper and older than being mere products of human civilization. Be dubious about someone who suggests that other types of people are like little crawly, infectious things.
When humans invented socioeconomic status, they invented a way to subordinate like nothing that hierarchical primates had ever seen before.
“Me” versus “us” (being prosocial within your group) is easier than “us” versus “them” (prosociality between groups).
It’s not great if someone believes it’s okay for people to do some horrible, damaging act. But more of the world’s misery arises from people who, of course, oppose that horrible act . . . but cite some particular circumstances that should make them exceptions. The road to hell is paved with rationalization.
The certainty with which we act now might seem ghastly not only to future generations but to our future selves as well.
Neither the capacity for fancy, rarefied moral reasoning nor for feeling great empathy necessarily translates into actually doing something difficult, brave, and compassionate.
People kill and are willing to be killed for symbolic sacred values. Negotiations can make peace with Them; understanding and respecting the intensity of their sacred values can make lasting peace.
We are constantly being shaped by seemingly irrelevant stimuli, subliminal information, and internal forces we don’t know a thing about.
Our worst behaviors, ones we condemn and punish, are the products of our biology. But don’t forget that the same applies to our best behaviors.
Individuals no more exceptional than the rest of us provide stunning examples of our finest moments as humans.
(The above quotes are taken from Sapolsky, Robert M. (2017-05-02). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (pp. 671-673). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)


  1. Sounds like a hugely interesting book. I rushed to order it on Amazon. Should arrive in a few days (I still prefer paper books).

    Deric, I have been following your blog for years. I never commented, so far, but I take this occasion to offer you my congratulation for the excellent work you are doing. I really learned a lot from your blog.

    I am not a neuroscientist (my daugther is one!), but I try to do what I can in the field of climate science, and the more I work on that, the more I understand that the key to doing something useful in this field is to understand the way the human mind works. In this sense, you might be interested in a recent post I wrote. Does it make sense to you?


  2. A fascinating post with following comments....

  3. I am a clinical psychologist who has a fascination with the larger views of human nature. I have Sapolsky's teaching company lecture series, and have read "Why Zebra's don't get Ulcers" that he wrote a few years back. Dr. Sapolsky is one of those rare individuals who can zoom in and zoom out while being engaging about how humans are. Your review has cemented my decision to get this book. And I am glad I found your blog.