The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
What if you are a Conservative or a Liberal not because of what you read and how you read it, but because of the structure of your brain?
Esteemed neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky claims that the latter is most probably closer to the reality.
And he argues this convincingly and attractively in his exceptional “Behave.”
Who Should Read “Behave”? And Why?
Robert Sapolsky is certainly one of the most famous neuroscientists today – if not the most widely quoted and the most commonly revered in the general public.
So, students of biology and neurology should consider “Behave” one of their obligatory readings for this summer. The same goes for those interested in behavioral psychology as well.
Finally, people who simply want to understand themselves (and their selves) better will find on these pages numerous examples of what it means to be a human.
And why they behave the way they are.
About Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky is an American neuroendocrinologist and author.
Born in New York to Soviet immigrants in 1957, Sapolsky received a summa cum laude B.A. in biological anthropology from Harvard University in 1978. He obtained his Ph.D. in neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University in his birth town, under the mentorship of Bruce McEwan.
Since then, Sapolsky has authored numerous articles and books, the latter of which are especially well received by the general population. Among them “The Trouble with Testosterone” (1997) and “A Primate Memoir” (2002)
Sapolsky is currently the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor at Stanford University
“Behave PDF Summary”
We’ve treated you before with some nice selections of the best books on human behavior; the only reason why “Behave” is not among them is the fact that we only found the time to read it now.
In other words – you won’t read too many books more appealing or more thought-provoking than “Behave” by Robert Sapolsky.
First of all, because it is a book which is essentially about the way you think.
Yes – by you we mean the person reading this sentence at this very moment.
Because, Sapolsky tells us, we kid ourselves if we think that we are independent ghosts in the shells of our bodies.
Not many things could be farther from the truth:
Human behavior is very much dependent on the way our brain – a biological entity – functions and doesn’t function.
Want to know a lot more about that?
Well, please, be Sapolsky’s guest at Stanford and learn everything you want to know about Human Behavioral Biology in no less than twenty-five ninety-minute lectures:
The point, in a nutshell, is that we are all products of numerous factors beyond our control.
And we’re not merely thinking about the environment we grew up a few years ago, but also the dietary habits of the Neanderthals whose DNA was mixed with that of our most distant ancestors.
And, of course, the very structures of our brains.
Two important parts you’ve probably heard a lot about already are the amygdala and the frontal cortex.
The former, located in the cerebral cortex, is a remnant of the most ancient days of our existence and is responsible for your deepest fears and your most aggressive behavior; the latter controls it.
In laymen’s terms, your amygdala and your frontal cortex are in a constant war.
If either of them starts malfunctioning, you will be unable to control the effects.
Take, for example, Charles Whitman, the Texan Tower Sniper.
In 1968, the 25-year old Whitman murdered his wife and his mother before he started to randomly shoot at people at the University of Texas.
Just like the protagonist in Edgar Allan Poe’s famous gothic story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” as he put in a note left next to his wife’s dead body, he couldn’t “rationally pinpoint any specific reason.”
Many years after the events, forensic investigators did:
Whitman had a tumor which pressed on his amygdala inciting him to an aggressive behavior he was unable to control.
An even more famous case is that of Phineas Gage, whose frontal cortex was completely destroyed when an iron rod punctured his skull.
Fortunately, he survived.
However, he was – to quote his friends and colleagues – “no longer Gage.”
Namely, the once-gentleman Gage turned into an impatient mood-swinging man constantly swearing and shouting.
Simply because without the frontal cortex, his brain lacked the mechanism to inhibit the outbursts of his rapid-firing and fast-thinking amygdala.
In fact, it may be mostly because of an overdeveloped amygdala that some people are violent and others racists.
When faced with flash photographs of people with different color, almost every human reacts adversely: that’s the amygdala warning you that the other guy is not one of your own.
However, if given the time to think over, most people reverse their decision, because the lenient and rational frontal cortex tunes in and starts scolding the amygdala for making such a rash decision.
We like to believe that it’s something along these lines:
Hey, Amy G., why are you stressing out our boy for no reason whatsoever? Sit back a little bit and chillax… It’s the 21st century! We’re not 10,000 BC anymore…
However, in some people, due to difficult poverty-ridden violence-laden childhoods which have taught them to be fearful and protective, their amygdalae are much more developed than their frontal cortexes.
So, the amygdala strikes back:
Geeze, Fronty, when will you give up?! I tried listening to you when I was a kid, but that bruised our boy’s body and hurt his heart for just too long! I’ll react to everything now!
In other words, our brain constantly develops – the frontal cortex way until our mid-20s.
The environment in which it matures strongly influences its structures which ultimately shapes our behavior.
And behavioral differences are not culturally conditioned in individuals only; they are culturally conditioned in whole nations as well:
Why should people in one part of the globe have developed collectivist cultures, while others went individualist?
The United States is the individualism poster child for at least two reasons. First, there’s immigration. Currently, 12 percent of Americans are immigrants, another 12 percent are children of immigrants, and everyone else except for the 0.9 percent pure Native Americans descend from people who emigrated within the last five hundred years.
And who were the immigrants? Those in the settled world who were cranks, malcontents, restless, heretical, black sheep, hyperactive, hypomanic, misanthropic, itchy, unconventional, yearning to be rich, yearning to be out of their damn boring repressive little hamlet, yearning. Couple that with the second reason – for the majority of its colonial and independent history, America has had a moving frontier luring those whose extreme prickly optimism made merely booking passage to the New World insufficiently novel – and you’ve got America the individualistic.
Why has East Asia provided textbook examples of collectivism? The key is how culture is shaped by the way people traditionally made a living, which in turn is shaped by ecology. And in East Asia, it’s all about rice. Rice, which was domesticated there roughly ten thousand years ago, requires massive amounts of communal work. Not just backbreaking planting and harvesting, which are done in rotation because the entire village is needed to harvest each family’s rice. The United States was not without labor-intensive agriculture historically. But rather than solving that with collectivism, it solved it with slavery.
In other words, only a small part of your choice to be liberal-minded or a conservative, a capitalist or a communist is decided by the objective reality.
Or, better yet, all of it is decided by it.
The only difference is – that the objective reality for one person is significantly different from the objective reality of another person.
But in that case – is there any difference between objective and subjective reality?
And doesn’t this mean that morality is subjective as well?
Key Lessons from “Behave”
1. Your Amygdala and Your Frontal Cortex Are in a Constant War
2. If You Are White, You Probably Think that Rap Is More Violent Than Death Metal
3. Empathy and Compassion Are Not the Same Thing
Your Amygdala and Your Frontal Cortex Are in a Constant War
Your brain consists of many different parts and neuro-connections, but the most important among them are the amygdala (a remnant of the very old animal inside you) and the frontal cortex (the sapiens, rational element inside your brain).
The frontal cortex inhibits the activities of the amygdala, which usually acts rashly in a fight-or-flight manner.
If the amygdala is overdeveloped, a person will probably be less societal and more protective of him/herself.
And it can be overdeveloped in adults who’ve spent their childhoods in violent and poor environments.
If You Are White, You Probably Think that Rap Is More Violent Than Death Metal
Your brain (which is biologically, historically, and societally conditioned) controls many of the things you think about the world, some of them as intimate as your taste in music.
Your amygdala, for example, doesn’t like anyone who is not your family, so the less someone looks like he or she is, the more aggressive the reaction against him or her.
And this spills over in categories such as aesthetics as well.
For example, studies have found out that white people consider rap music more violent than even death metal music because their amygdalae associate the former with the African-American culture, and the latter with white traditions!
In other words, to them, a black man whistling “Slayer” (if that’s even possible) no threat; but an African American man rapping Nas – now that’s someone you should be wary of.
Empathy and Compassion Are Not the Same Thing
People tend to confuse empathy and compassion.
Robert Sapolsky shows that not only these two are not the same thing, but they are practically opposites.
In other ways, our amygdala controls our empathy, and it’s difficult to train it to feel anything towards people who are unlike us.
Compassion, however, is a rationally-conditioned sensation – a better angel of our nature – and you can activate it when you need to give a little boost to your humanity.
And there’s nothing wrong that you’re willing yourself to do such thing.
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if you’re stressed like a normal mammal in an acute physical crisis, the stress response is lifesaving. But if instead you chronically activate the stress response for reasons of psychological stress, your health suffers. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
It’s no exaggeration to say that ‘Behave’ is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read,” wrote David P. Barash in “The Wall Street Journal.” Dina Temple-Raston, in “The Washington Post” shared his opinion, describing it as “hands-down one of the best books I’ve read in years.
We couldn’t agree more.