One of my favourite episodes of all time.
This genre-shattering attempt to answer the question of human behaviour by looking at it from every angle.
Our guest starts by looking at the factors that bear on a person’s reaction in the precise moment a behavior occurs, and then hops back in time from there, in stages, ultimately ending up at the deep history of our species and its genetic inheritance.
And so the first category of explanation is the neurobiological one. What goes on in a person’s brain a second before the behavior happens?
Then he pulls out to a slightly larger field of vision, a little earlier in time: What sight, sound, or smell triggers the nervous system to produce that behavior?
And then, what hormones act hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual is to the stimuli which trigger the nervous system?
By now, our guest has increased our field of vision so that we are thinking about neurobiology and the sensory world of our environment and endocrinology in trying to explain what happened.
But he keeps going—next to what features of the environment affected that person’s brain, and then back to the childhood of the individual, and then to their genetic makeup.
Finally, he expands the view to encompass factors larger than that one individual. How culture has shaped that individual’s group, what ecological factors helped shape that culture, and on and on, back to evolutionary factors thousands and even millions of years old.
The result is one of the most dazzling tours de horizon of the science of human behavior ever attempted, a majestic synthesis that harvests cutting-edge research across a range of disciplines to provide a subtle and nuanced perspective on why we ultimately do the things we do…for good and for ill.
Wise, humane, often hilarious, Behave is a towering achievement, powerfully humanising, and downright heroic in its own right.
What a pleasure to welcome author of “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” Robert M. Sapolsky
Transcript by AI hence all the mistakes:
Robert Sapolsky Final
[00:00:00] Stay hungry. Stay foolish.
[00:00:29] Aidan McCullen: [00:00:29] Oliver sacks is arguably one of the best scientific writers of our time. Oliver sacks said our guest today is arguably one of the best scientific writers of our time. He has so many letters after his name. I don’t know what to call them. So I’m just gonna call him, man. He’s in Euro endocrinologist, a professor of biology, neurology, and neurological science and multiple bestselling author.
[00:00:54] And a fantastic lecturer and human being. And he is here with us today to share [00:01:00] his brilliant book. We welcome author of behave, the biology of humans at our best and our worst. Robert Sapolsky. Welcome to the show. Well thank you for having me today. You always start with the fantasy and. You’ve overcome him.
[00:01:19] You’ve overcome the guard on you have this moment. I’d love. If you’d start by sharing this with us?
[00:01:25] Robert Sapolsky: [00:01:25] The day I captured eight holes, Hitler. And it was fantasy. I’m leading a team of crack commanders. We, we overpower his elite guard or, you know, it’s a fantasy. I single handedly overpower his elite guard. I burst into his bunker.
[00:01:44] He has a pistol. Knock it out of his hand. We grapple, I get him down. I put handcuffs on him and I get to say, Adolf Hitler hire rescue for crimes. And it said that points, that one, then it has to do. [00:02:00] So what would you do if you would have Hitler or more pointedly? What would I do? They’ve done. And if I let myself go, they are, and really allow the visceral to come bubbling, sever his spine of the neck.
[00:02:14] Take out his eyes, cut his tone out. One, I would have that fantasy. If I were to have it now, my heart would speed up and I breathe faster and I’d be responding, physiologically all these plans for this most painful. So most discerning the punishments. And then when I come up with this a problem, because I don’t believe in science and I don’t believe in evil.
[00:02:38] And I don’t believe that punishment makes sense for an edgy and none of that makes sense to me. But at the same time, know, there’s all sorts of people I would like to have killed, but at the same time, I’m strictly against the death penalty here on United States. If there’s all sorts of violent schlocky movies that I love to watch, but at the same time, I’m from very strict gun control [00:03:00] and I’m confused.
[00:03:02] I’m confused, like virtually every other shaman out there when it comes to this issue of violence and sort of the starting off point. And what I think about is this enormous challenge we have in that we’re the most miserably, violent species on this planet and bad about it. Like cancer, bad thing. Get rid of it.
[00:03:25] Miserably, violent, bad thing. Get rid of it. But the confusion is that we don’t hate violence. We just hate the wrong kind of violence. And when it’s the right time, we love it. And we hand out metal roped for these people. Even the bigger problem is that while we’re the most miserably violent species, there is out there, we’re also the most out truest and compassionate and cooperative, and the huge challenge for making sense of us and our behavior as biological organisms is how do we [00:04:00] make sense of these extremes and how do we make sense of the fact that the exact same behavior, you know, you flex your index finger and you pull a trigger.
[00:04:10] And in one setting, that’s the most appalling thing imaginable. And in another setting, it could be a moment of like suicidal heroism or something. And the challenge we have in making sense of the biology of our behavior is not explaining the behavior itself. It’s to understand the context. And that’s really complicated. Once it gets us humans
[00:04:34] Aidan McCullen: [00:04:34] , you use that as the starting point. And then the way I always think about this is. It’s like, you’re, there’s a zoom in moment of that behavior. And then you zoom back and you go, well, what happened? Milliseconds beforehand, what happened days before and what happened weeks before and what happened generations beforehand.
[00:04:52] And that is the beauty of how you constructed this, because there’s so much information in this book. I was telling [00:05:00] him beforehand, I’d read a chapter, I’d read a page and go, that’s a chapter in another book and there’s 800 pages, but it’s so brilliantly. The narrative structure is fantastic, but there’s so much in it that you’re going to have to keep minors on me to get through the narrative of that.
[00:05:17] But, but let’s start perhaps with what is happening in the moment before. You pull the trigger.
[00:05:23]Robert Sapolsky: [00:05:23] What you have is all sorts of brain regions that are terribly pertinent, uh, area at the top of the list is called the amygdala. As you mentioned, a NYCLA is about fear. It’s about anxiety and really importantly, it’s about aggression.
[00:05:41] You can’t make sense of the neurobiology of violence outside the context of the neurobiology? Well, G a fear, um, you know, basically in a word, which, you know, were make jewelry, neurologists, you’d be afraid. There’d be a helmet, a lot less fun. So that part’s easy. What then becomes more complicated? That [00:06:00] is an area of the brain.
[00:06:01] I love this region. It’s called the insular cortex. And 99% of the South there it’s totally boring. What it does. You take a lab rat and it bites into a piece of like rock fitted food and within like the second. This insular cortex activates, and that triggers all this reflexive stuff that rats it’s out there.
[00:06:28] It’s like winches, you get like some crazy college student volunteer and stick them in a brain scanner and have them bite into summer water and festering food and their insular cortex activating the 10th of a second and will trigger the gagging. Maybe even throwing up. What does he insular cortex? Um, it mediates some gustatory discussed.
[00:06:52] It keeps us from eating toxic foods and getting poisoned. But then you do something more interesting with humans, which is you stick them in a [00:07:00] brain scanner and don’t make them eat something disgusting. Just make them think about eating something disgusting. Like I dunno, such squirming locust or something.
[00:07:09] And we humans activate the insular cortex. Just thinking about it, but then you take it one step further and stick that human in a brain scanner and don’t have him eat something disgusting. We’re thinking about eating something disgusting. Make them think about something morally appalling, a picture of them who have been subjected, genocidal, ethnic, cleansing, whatever such thing.
[00:07:38] And. Your insular cortex will activate. And about 40, 50,000 years ago, when we invented morals, transgressions, the notion of that. Obviously like you couldn’t invent a new part of the brain of that period and the brain evolved to just wing it at that point to amplify his insular [00:08:00] cortex, disgusting food, disgusting morals, have it, do both of those.
[00:08:05] And that’s why, if something is disturbing enough to us, if something is morally appalling enough, We feel sick to our stomachs. We feel queasy. We’re lifted with a bad taste in her mouth. And what is remarkable is when something morally disgusting, the first part of the brain that the insult of the talks to me is the, and the really dangerous thing is that some of the time, what is morally disgusting is like some horrendously damaging heartless act.
[00:08:38] Some of the time it’s. Somebody whose behavior is just different than yours. Maybe they look different. Maybe they pray different. Maybe they love differently. Maybe they, whatever. And if you’ve got a brain set up so that different equals disgusting and disgusting equals wrong, wrong, wrong. You’re running your ethics system on a very primitive part of the brain.
[00:09:00] [00:09:00] Stay on that. You’ve you’ve sent me everywhere in my own brain here. All the neurons are firing, but. Let’s stay on the inputs that we are so unaware of because you tell this brilliantly where, for example, we’ve, we’ve a high olfactory sense, even though we’re not a very old factory being anymore, but we still have the traits of that from back in the day, back in the cave days, but also.
[00:09:28] Like, for example, you say when, when eyes flash up on a screen or somebody of a different race, or even to the point of the gustatory taste, if I drink some Cod liver oil, for example, before a meeting, somebody else. My meeting’s not going to go so well. If they make some sort of moral transgression, you are now likely to advocate a more severe punishment for them than you would do.
[00:09:53] If you didn’t have a bad taste in your mouth. Wait, wait. That’s just a metaphor for your insular [00:10:00] cortex. That isn’t a metaphor and Nimrod there can’t tell the difference between disgusting food and disgusting, you know, situational ethics or whatever. Um, the one that you alluded to just now, that was probably like my favorites.
[00:10:13] Oh my God. We really are just biological organisms. That one of take somebody, sit them down, give them a whole questionnaire about their political views, social politics, economic, geopolitical, whatever. And it turns out that if somebody is sitting in a room with some foul smelling garbage in there, They don’t even have to be consciously aware of it.
[00:10:38] If you’re smelling something disgusting. People on the average become more socially conservative does nothing to your economic views. Your geocoder cool juice. You’re more likely now than otherwise to decide them with their different behaviors and different mores and different cultural values or whatever when they [00:11:00] do that.
[00:11:00] That’s just kinda, I can’t quite tell you why, but it’s just wrong. It’s kind of disgusting. In fact, it’s morally disgusting. You can sit there and be totally unaware of a smell in the room and it makes you less likely to find somebody who’s different from you to be acceptable, just because they’re different.
[00:11:21] And conversely, a more recent study. If you sit somebody in a room and there’s the smell of freshly baked cookies in there, they become more generous in their economic game. Play. And again, without any conscious awareness. Wow. Why were you so much more generous to this individual that much? Well, I said economically the logic of the world and are like laissez Faire, you know, Adam Smith capitalist system with him.
[00:11:50] No it’s cause you were smelling like chocolate chip cookies and you weren’t even aware of it and events happening 30 seconds before you make a [00:12:00] decision. It’s like, you’re not even aware of is influencing who we are and what we do. I was just thinking of politicians who may listen to this they’re Oh, they’re chocolate chip cookies.
[00:12:15] Yes. Before they go kissing some babies. But, but one of the things we talk a lot about on the show is unconscious bias and. It is so unconscious. Like we it’s so baked into our systems that we’re, we’re inherently racist in so many ways. And you tell us about when a face flashes on the screen. For example, example our amygdala lights off.
[00:12:40] This is, um, at least on first past the most damn depressant funding in this entire field. Once again, you get volunteers, stick them in a brain scanner and you’re flashing up a face. Every few seconds or even subliminally in a fraction of a second. And what you [00:13:00] see is, uh, really depressingly. This is with American subjects, American white subjects, about 70% of them.
[00:13:09] When you flash up the face of an individual whose skin is black. The amygdala activates the amygdala activates in 60 to 80,000 of a second milliseconds. And you sit there and you say, Oh my God, that is the most like demoralizing thing. A 10th of a second. This could be a picture that is flashed up so quickly.
[00:13:35] You’re not even consciously certain what you looked at, but you’re a Nick Dilla knows at a part of your brain called the fusiform, which resident registers faces. It doesn’t activate as much when it’s a face of them. Their face doesn’t count as much. You don’t remember it as accurately. There’s another part of the brain called the anterior cingulate, which has [00:14:00] something to do with empathy, show somebody, a film clip of like somebody’s hand being poked with a needle.
[00:14:06] And at the moment the needle enters your anterior singular what’s going to happen. That’s okay. But if that hand has a different skin color from yours, On the average, you don’t get as much activation. It depends whose face whose pain. They’re not all equal. So that’s unbelievably depressing except a little bit of good who’s lurking in there.
[00:14:29] The first thing is like the like good it’s like scientists crossing my T’s thought. And I always want to say on the average you get activation of the Nicola. On the average, mot, everyone who were the exceptions, who in the United States, for example, are whites. She put in a brain scanner and flash up a black face, and the nickel doesn’t have it to date people who grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood, people who had a close and that relationship with somebody of another race at some point, people who are on other [00:15:00] boards.
[00:15:00] Yeah. Don’t use skin color as the criteria and for who counts system ulcer, then. So that’s good in regards. That also is, and them’s, I’ll come back to that in particular, particularly oxytocin, and because everything’s oxytocin this great, wonderful neurochemical, I’ll come back to that, but I’d love to share just one more thing.
[00:15:21] Cause we talked about the cookies. We talked about the unconscious. Unconscious inputs that we have coming in all the time. One of the most fascinating, fascinating, and most relevant ones that we all can take action on was if I’m sitting in a comfortable chair or a rigid chair, but also the findings of the judges and the blood sugar, that is just incredible, an extraordinary finding that should be.
[00:15:50] One of the first steps in convincing everybody that the criminal justice system makes no sense whatsoever for a million reasons, but this one is [00:16:00] intensely flashy. Uh, this was a paper published three years ago and a very prestigious journal by very good group. And there were lots of statistical challenges afterward, and the results have stood up to all of these.
[00:16:12] What they did was they examined a whole bunch of judges. Um, who did parole board hearings. And I think it was, it was actually a group in Israel, looking at all the parole board judges and all of the third decisions over the course of the year. And it was more than a thousand decisions as to whether someone would be released from jail or for more.
[00:16:34] Time. And they look for every possible Victor as to when judges would glance somebody parole. And when they would send it back to jail and it turned out the single best predictor was the number of hours it had been since the judge had eaten a meal. Appear before a judge right after they had a meal, 60% chance of being paroled, uh, four hours later, [00:17:00] 0% chance.
[00:17:01] And you look at that and you say, Oh my God, what’s that about? That’s biology. Blood sugar levels, low blood sugar levels. Your brain doesn’t work as well. And when the levels are low, the most expensive part of your brain in particular doesn’t work well. And that’s a brain region called the frontal cortex, which I hadn’t mentioned before, but it’s amazing.
[00:17:25] We evolved part of her branch. We just got more of it. Any other species? What is the frontal cortex to it makes you do the hard thing when that’s the right thing to do. Impulse control gratification, postponement, longterm planning, emotional regulation. And where’s this becoming relevant for the judges when you don’t have a frontal cortex working very well.
[00:17:49] The easiest thing to say in your low blood sugar state is. Rotten person. I looked at all the things they did. Totally. I can’t let them back out in the [00:18:00] streets. And what a more active frontal cortex is good at is stopping you in your tracks and say, wait, what’s the world look like from their perspective.
[00:18:10] What things did they experience that I could never have dreamt of in my privileged life. And so on perspective take, you takes a lot of frontal activity and it turns out that when you’re hungry, it doesn’t work very well. When people are hungry, they become less generous and economic games. They cheat more, they have less empathy.
[00:18:29] They have less activation of empathic parts of their brain. When they’re looking at somebody else’s suffering and judges find it a lot harder. So do anything other than say, ah, throw him back and channel and throw away the key. I was just thinking to myself, I’ve really set myself a pair for about, I see you’re sitting on a wooden chair.
[00:18:50] It’s 1130, it’s 1130 in California PM. You probably just haven’t eaten. I’m going to order your pizza, man. [00:19:00] It’s good to like, I have a, I have a cushion under my rear end. I’m going to call out your wife, bake some cookies in the background. Um, but, but moving on. So I just wanted to share one thing to our audience about the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, because you do this brilliantly and I was one of those nerds that when you say.
[00:19:24] At this stage, if you don’t know much about the brain junk the appendix, and then the appendix was like another book, which, I mean a, an absolute, uh, thanks to you because it was, and it was so brilliantly done, but I love the way you talked about. It’s like the way I, I, the mental model I created is, is like the prefrontal cortex is this executive functioning.
[00:19:48] It’s like the CEO of you. And then all the, the limbic systems all like fighting for attention. Me, me, me, me. And it’s like a, it’s like a stick students in your class. [00:20:00] Trying to answer the question. They’re like, I know your answer, mr. Spolsky may me on your, okay. Okay you, but then some people can bypass it and get to you without you answering them or saying, yeah.
[00:20:12] I’ll take your question. One of the most sort of interesting bits of revisionism out there is, okay. You look at cortex it’s gleaming, it’s brand new. It’s wonderful. That’s it? So it was all this fancy executive function stuff. And then you look the amygdala, which just makes you do stupid things like punch someone when you’re tempted, even though, you know, better, or just, just inhibitive, stuff like that.
[00:20:38] And what anatomy mostly veterans at the start was the frontal cortex since a whole bunch of cables. So the amygdala and they’re inhibitory. In other words of what the frontal cortex does, is it races down to the victim as fast as possible before the victim does something, God awful stupid. And the fucking [00:21:00] cortex gets there and says, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
[00:21:02] I know it seems like a good idea right now. You really credit? It’s like. What frontal cortical a Deloitte interactions consist of would be the frontal cortex showing up down the amygdala and like preaching Christian temperance or something like that. Okay. So this very one direction, a picture of the brain.
[00:21:21] Then it turns out the amygdala senses, many projections up to the frontal cortex is the other way around. And those are circumstances of stress, anxiety, distraction, fatigue, pain, hunger, et cetera. The balance gets flipped and the amygdala gets to dominate the frontal cortex instead of the other way around.
[00:21:46] What if we just explained, this is the whole world of every single one of us who during a time of great stress and agitation decided to do something that was horrendous and we regretted it for decades afterward [00:22:00] and it seemed brilliant at the time. This is where impulsivity comes from. And you look at half of like criminal murder trials.
[00:22:11] And this is something I sort of made a hobby by now with like testifying and teaching juries about the brain where you have a moment where somebody. In like extreme arousal who’s been threatened and things have gone badly for him in the past. And he’s just pulled the trigger and the person is lying there, like on the floor, no threat whatsoever.
[00:22:34] And if you just opt at that point, Any jewelry would have said that was self-defense because the other guy put the gun first. And instead this thought with six seconds of agitated, long reflection, instead of decides to pull out a knife and stab the dead guy, 72 additions, at which point the jury says, you know, You should have been able to stop during those six seconds and say, [00:23:00] Hey, he’s kind of in there on the floor there.
[00:23:02] I don’t think he actually represents a threat anymore. You should have been able to discern that this was no longer a threatening circumstance. No, nobody thinks that then, because just, nobody thinks that because their medulla has taken over your frontal cortex, it’s Harley. And an astonishing number of these.
[00:23:21] I just do one trial after another another, where some poor bastard who’s had everything gone wrong in his life. So he’s got the flimsiest frontal cortex. You can imagine because it’s atrophied by stress and he’s sitting there in a circumstance where, Oh, this seems just like that other time, that wound up really bad for how things finished for me.
[00:23:44] And I’ll have all those alarms go off and I’ve just. Stabbed the guy once or pulled the trigger once and any sane, calm, like legal scholar sitting there. And they’re on chair with look at the situation and situation and say, my, [00:24:00] I think all of the threat has passed and it’s time for you to shift gears dramatically.
[00:24:04] And. Get your felt important to expect in charge. And instead of 99% of people will wind up if they have that sort of history and that sort of brain scarred by lifetime of adversity is instead going to have their frontal cortex totally marinating in the mix of orange juices. And they’re going to pull the trigger every time.
[00:24:26] And then before you know, it, there’s a bit of pulled the trigger 20 more times, bringing that then too. The office or the workplace or homeplace for most of, most of us, which is the workplace. Now, one of the things I thought about this was you, you say that the prefrontal cortex is the. The basis of willpower, et cetera, but it’s actually very expensive on the juice.
[00:24:51] So it takes a lot of, of juice to keep that running. Um, you know, I’m very aware of, you know, the time here for you because your willpower juice is going to [00:25:00] start running. I, I say this to my kids. I told you they’re 10 and eight. And I say, when they start misbehaving after like seven or 8:00 PM it’s I showed them a glass of water and I pour it out and I go.
[00:25:13] I’m running out of juice. And I thought this is the same because we run out of willpower throughout the day. And I think, you know, the way I construct my day is to, is to organize it around prefrontal cortex activity, essentially because I go to the gym in the morning because I know if I won’t go after work, I try and do my writing early in the morning.
[00:25:34] Cause I won’t do it later in the day. I’d love your sh your opinion on this. It makes perfect sense. And one of the best. Sort of manifestations of this is one out of neurology, rather than student the behavioral sciences. You look at people with Alzheimer’s disease, where it’s relatively early stage and you get something that’s called a sundowner syndrome, which is you get that person early in the day.
[00:26:00] [00:26:00] And they can tell you where they are and they’ve got a fairly good sense of they know what year it is. They probably know what month it is there. No, have a good chance of remembering the name of the president of their country. They know the name of their spouse. They know the names of most of their grandkids, and then you get them at the end of the day.
[00:26:20] And all of that is gone. All of that is gone because fatigue, because your brain, in the case of someone likes, this is running the cortex of the brain, reaching the campus, you’re running to get on like 85, 90% of the neurons you normally have, and the networks are weakened and it’s taking more energy to retrieve information.
[00:26:42] And you got more energy earlier in the day. And when you get tired, your cognitive status goes down the tubes. And this is just a totally documented sort of clinical phenomenon, the dementia patients, as it gets later in the day, what, you know, brains get tired along with and everything [00:27:00] else. And it gets harder to be running on like six cylinders when, uh, you know, which should be eight, but two of them have died due to the disease.
[00:27:09] I wanted to, to share something that I thought was really important, which is your, your narrative on gut feeling and decision making and VM pre prefrontal cortex damage. Yeah. Okay. So as you sort of already alluded to a frontal cortex has this executive function and a sub area that. Apologies from the jargon called the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex.
[00:27:37] That’s basically when the prefrontal cortex makes an executive decision, the information exits through this area. And that’s what sends out the command for your muscles to do whatever. And as you noted before, what the frontal cortex is also doing is listening to all those more emotional, messy.
[00:27:57] Disinhibited parts of the brain shouting in as [00:28:00] to what they think is the smart thing to do at that point. All of that emotional limbic information is coming in by way of another portal in the frontal cortex. This one is called the ventral medial prefrontal cortex. Okay. So dorsal lateral is for the hyper cerebral, mr.
[00:28:17] Spock, Vulcan decision making sort of stuff. And ventral medial is all the emotional stuff coming in there. So what everyone’s accustomed to is the idea that if you get somebody who gets the mr. Spock part of the brain damage, the source of lateral prefrontal cortex, obviously that’s going to be a disaster because you have somebody then who can inhibit their emotional behavior.
[00:28:42] And this is what you see damage there is associated with people who are. Sexually inappropriate who are hyper aggressive Marsh last from this, from the standards of their cultural, whatever, all of their emotional stuff has been dis-inhibited by the [00:29:00] sensible part of their frontal cortex. So you come away with a sense of.
[00:29:05] Whoa, you really do want to have a dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex working properly, but then you take the flip side and say, so what happens in people with the ventral medial, prefrontal cortex, that staff and what you then have is the frontal cortex that doesn’t get any gut feelings. It doesn’t get any intuition.
[00:29:27] It doesn’t get any input, not running a thought experiment, but running a feeling experiment. Cause a lot of what you’re doing when you’re making decisions is ask your emotional parts of the brain to simulate. Okay. So how am I going to feel if I do this, this is what happens, how much you get damaged there.
[00:29:47] You’re not getting any of that. And you get someone who has a whole lot of trouble making a decision because they get no good intuitions about what the right answer. More importantly, you get someone who [00:30:00] the most unbelievably heartless on emotional affect was decisions possible. And what does that look like?
[00:30:09] You get any person out there and you give them all these sort of like utilitarian, moral decision making sort of things. Okay. Would it be okay to kill them? One sibling, same three strangers. And there’s a whole hierarchy of who counts most of us than others. You get damaged in this part of the brain. And you throw your mother under the train as readily as you would throw Hitler under the tray, because.
[00:30:38] My mother no longer has it emotional resonance coming into your front, you get totally cold affectiveness. Hugely pathologically pragmatic decision making. So what do you get from that is just when people are about to decide, Oh, damn. If only we were surely rational creatures, one, one [00:31:00] before world, this would be no, a lot of the time, the best, most wonderful, compassionate, her Warwick stupid, like.
[00:31:08] How could anybody get themselves to do something that amazing in a circumstance like that? Yep, we do it because some of the time, our greatest moments are irrational ones. We need our irrational inputs into our decision, making our emotional inputs as readily as we need our thinking and cognitive ones.
[00:31:28] It reminded me of when you had mentioned thrown your, your mother under the bus, that the philosophical trolley problem, and you mentioned colon and in greens. Two trolley problem. I love if you’d share this, this, you know, classic problem in philosophy. Okay. So there’s a trolley it’s broken lease from his brakes is hurling down the tracks out of control.
[00:31:51] It’s going to hit and kill five people. And the basic scenario is, is it okay to push one person onto the track? Who’s going to be [00:32:00] killed by the trolley, which is going to gum it up in the process and stop it. Is it okay to sacrifice one missing person to save five for classic utilitarian? And what fascinates philosophers is, you know, that people have their students sessions.
[00:32:14] What fascinates psychologists is you get totally different decisions from people depending on subtle things with wording. Depending on subtle things, like, is it okay to push this person onto the track? Oh my God, no. Only 25% of people would be willing to do that. Say five people from death. Is it okay to press a button that would open a shoot that would dump this person onto the track?
[00:32:43] 75% of people say, sure, of course I would sacrifice one in order to say, fuck, wait a second. In both cases. You’re choosing between one and five and in one scenario, don’t sacrifice one. And the other yuck, absolutely [00:33:00] the same form late the difference. And it turns out people have much more of an aversion to doing that.
[00:33:06] If you’re going to push the person with their own hats, if you’re going to look at their face before it ha this is where all that irrational stuff is coming in. And this is where as you noted before now, instead of what’s going on one second before or 30 seconds with the smells before what’s coming on in your brain hours, days before, um, your brains getting exposed to hormones and the levels of your various hormones, and this is where it brings in this hormone, oxytocin, which.
[00:33:39] If only we could dump oxytocin in the water supply, everyone would like join nudist colonies and just sing folk songs in there, you know, or because oxytocin promotes mother infant odds. And monogamous pair, bonding and trust and generosity, all of this stuff, [00:34:00] Oh, oxytocin is uniform, but then you look at it more closely and that’s not how it works.
[00:34:08] And this was this brilliant elaboration on the runaway trucks, trolley problems who’s done with the Netherlands. A few years ago, researcher named Karsten did drew wonderful study where he gave, you know, Students Dutch college students, one Oh one volunteer. He gave them the runaway trolley from. And there were some elaboration they were asked, is it okay to push this person to their death in order to save five other people?
[00:34:35] And what was done was that he was given a name and a service because at the time they were given some good old boy Dutch name, like dirt or Peter or something. And the rest of the time they were given one of the two names of groups that consistently have negative connotations and Hollins. German names.
[00:34:58] Oh yeah. That’s right. World war [00:35:00] II. That was a bummer or Muslim names. So now you’ve got somebody you’re contemplating. And what are you going to push dirt onto the track? How about pushing auto launch of the truck? How about Ahmed or whatever, and what they show is you give people oxytocin and they’re much more likely to save the life of Dirk or Peter.
[00:35:21] And there are much more likely to push Volk gang or Muhammad onto the tracks. There just oxytocin make you nicer, no oxytocin. What makes humans nicer to people who count as an us, and it makes you crap year and more preemptively aggressive and more likely to cheat in an economic game against people you can classify as the them.
[00:35:46] Oxytocin wouldn’t make the world nicer. Let’s just take the us with them for well hints in our brains and make them even more exaggerated. Which is a hell of a lot more Southern living in Japan effect then, Oh, this [00:36:00] is a wonderful, that makes mammals essentially our brains are much more complicated than that.
[00:36:06] I was thinking of it like a oxytocin makes you do the, do the, in the cupboard word, the elbow bump, but it’s actually more likely to give you an elbow to somebody who’s on the other team, but I’m moving on to, um, a testosterone and on behind me is one of your brilliant books. The trouble with testosterone, but you, you focus in on us were particular, um, emphasis on behavior in behave.
[00:36:31] Basically sort of testosterone we use as the evil twin of oxytocin oxytocin. It’s gotten away with this wonderful honor direct mutation as being uniformly. Pro-social now look closely. It’s messier than that. It’s not such a beautiful hormone. Support to spinal surgeon on the other hat has this across the board, horrible reputation.
[00:36:54] Why are males of like every culture, every species out there. So uniformly pains in the rear [00:37:00] testosterone because testosterone causes it fresh. And it turns out when you look closely testosterone doesn’t cause suppression. Here it’d be like a classic sort of behavioral study showing what testosterone actually does you take it five male recently you stick them together in a group and they fall the dominance hierarchy.
[00:37:22] One through five. Number one, dominates two through five. Number two dominates three, three 65. They have this linear hierarchy. Now take number three in the hierarchy and shoot him up with testosterone. I give him so much testosterone that he’s like growing extra testicles or clueless, massive amounts of testosterone.
[00:37:43] So you asked this question, is he going to be involved in more fights now? And the answer is yes, absolutely. Number three is going to be in more fights. So now you say, aha is number three. Now going to be challenging and Trump saying what? There’s two, the number one is number three, going to be [00:38:00] rising up in the hierarchy.
[00:38:01] Absolutely not. Number three. Doesn’t go anywhere near number two. And what, what happens is number three becomes a total nightmare, deport number fours and fives. Number three, just a range terror down with them. Testosterone does not cause aggression. Testosterone amplifies, whatever patterns of social aggression are there already.
[00:38:26] So if we have trouble with sort of male aggression, it’s because socialization, all testosterone, steaming is amplifying. Whatever the socialization is putting in there, what’s even more remarkable. Is some totally subtle studies, okay. Somebody is threatening your status and you’re a male about who and how are you going to respond to this threat?
[00:38:49] You’re going to try to slash the guy’s face open with your canines. If you are human challenges, the status can come a lot of different forms and [00:39:00] retaining status could take a lot of different forms as well. And then a particular setting. The way you can attain status as a human is by seeing, being seen as the most charitable or the most wonderful or the most laudatory or the most way we could get stabbed.
[00:39:18] So all sorts of interesting ways. And there are economic games where you gain status by being generous and remarkably, you give people testosterone without the knowing it, they don’t become aggressive jerks, then. They become more generous in their game. Play. Testosterone doesn’t make us aggressive, testosterone, amplifies, whatever preexistent tendencies towards the question there are.
[00:39:45] And most of all testosterone makes us do whatever it requires to have more status. In other words, if you took a whole bunch of Buddhist monks and you shot him up with testosterone, they would run the mucks, seeing [00:40:00] who could do the most random acts of kindness and testosterone. The problem is that we hand out so much Kristine for aggression.
[00:40:12] I was of that image in my head mother going around take that there’s some gum, here’s some more
[00:40:23] cookies. Goddammit. Um, so, uh, moving onto dopamine because, um, I lectured, uh, also, and it’s one of the things I try and tell the kids about students about is. The magic of maybe and the dangers of social media and how it’s designed to trigger your top of me. I live near the heart of Silicon Valley at Stanford university.
[00:40:50] So surrounded by the universe of these masters of the universities who were taking over every facet of private and social life. And [00:41:00] they’re brilliant at understanding basic neurochemistry and again, some wonderful revisionism here. Oxytocin more complicated than people used to think. Testosterone a complicated, yeah, it’s dope.
[00:41:12] It’s a nerd transmitter. That’s a chemical messenger in the brain. And what every body from nursing from their mother first learned is okay. Dobutamine is about reward. It’s about pleasure. Cocaine releases of the insulin. Absolutely. But then people figure it out. It’s really not about pleasure. It’s about the anticipation of pleasure.
[00:41:37] Once you learn. Aha. When the little light goes on, that means if I press the lever 10 times, I’m going to get a reward. When do you secrete? Dopa? Not when he gets bored. You secrete it when those little light goes on. That’s your brain sitting there saying, yeah, I know all about this. I know what the light saw on.
[00:41:58] I hit the lever. I’m [00:42:00] going to get a report. That’s going to be fabulous. I’m on top of this, it’s about the anticipation. The reward is an afterthought. The anticipation to get it is what’s really driving more importantly, if you block that rise and dopamine. You don’t press the bait is what gives you the fuel to go out and do the work to get that reward, the goal directed behavior.
[00:42:23] But then the thing that’s most amazing wall is that this is what you see, circumstances, where you do the real world. You do the work, you have to reward hundred percent relationship. Now, switch things to you, do the work, and you only get the reward of a 50% of the time. And what happens to dope? Again, it goes through the roof, like crazy like levels.
[00:42:47] You’d never see otherwise. What is this? You’ve just inserted the word you loaded before into your brain chemistry, the word, maybe. Because you’re teetering on that fulcrum there of, [00:43:00] Oh yeah. I’m on top of this. I know how to lever Presbyt I’m such a screw up and I’m sure, but that’s up to me, but now I knew what the red signature is.
[00:43:08] No, I’m going to mess up and TB back and forth and you press the lever over and over and over again. And unpredictable intermittent reinforcement is the thing that just milks. Appetitive behavior out of us like crazy. This is something that the neuroscientists who invented Monte-Carlo in Las Vegas, figure it out way back when, and this is something that’s Silicon Valley.
[00:43:33] Sure. Understands and patterns of predictability and reward these systems. We are not. Pleasure by the pursuit of happiness, mere pleasure. The happiness of pursuing something. We’re maybe we’re getting a kid. It maybe not, maybe, maybe, maybe you could just taste it. So let’s just press that lever another hundred thousand times and it’s going to be terrific.
[00:43:59] One of the [00:44:00] fears of this. Period of time we’re in, in this pandemic and what’s coming next. I don’t think we’ve felt the pain of it yet is that chronic stress depletes, dopamine, and therefore depletes that magic of maybe, or the carrot of, of desire and enthusiasm. Absolutely. So you get all technical, um, by diversity stress, by whatever like that, you have somebody who suffers from an Donia psychiatry, jargon hedonia pursuit of pleasure and a dome, inability to feel pleasure.
[00:44:39] This is the old version of pleasure. You’re depleting the dopamine. You can’t feel the anticipation of pleasure. You can’t feel the motivation yet. And what if we just define this is the backbone of what clinical depression is like. And what is clear is like world is going to be suffering for years to come with tidal waves [00:45:00] of anxiety disorders and depressive disorders, because of what this pandemic is, that if the main thing you have concluded.
[00:45:09] From this pandemic is every single second. Have to be vigilant to wash your hands and wash them again and close the windows and make sure nobody is exhaled in your vicinity. You’re going to wind up with an Isola you just saw. And if what you conclude from this is this invisible thing is everywhere and there’s nothing I can do about it.
[00:45:29] You’re going to wind up with a major depressive disorder. Or if she really complicated enough, you’re going to wind up with boats and really have your life derail by it. It’s going to be a disaster there’s to come the psychiatric implications of everything that’s going wrong. Now one’s flooded because of this virus.
[00:45:50] It reminds me of Robert of, um, PTSD and how the, when, when you. Experience traumatic events, your [00:46:00] amygdala gets larger, but also it then triggers us to maybe take a step back and look at. We looked at what happens milliseconds before what happens in moments before days before weeks before. But what happens when you’re a fetus?
[00:46:13] For example, if your mother is stressful during the pregnancy, we are not allergens. Genes are important. The genes you inherited are important that they influence all sorts of aspects of function, but genes don’t decide anything. You want a metaphor saying the genes decide what happens with your behavior is like saying that cake recipe decides.
[00:46:36] And when you make the cake, all genes are as the recipe, the readout for stuff, what regular environment? And it turns out a whole type of gene regulation can involve environments turning some genes on for the rest of your life or turning other teams off in certain parts of your body, turning them off for the rest of your life.
[00:47:00] [00:46:59] Jargony, very flashy, sexy field these days. At the genetic changes in the brand and it turns out your fetal environment is nine months of epigenetic experiences shaping what your brain and body are going to be like forever after. And one of the really striking ones is what you just brought up, go out and stupidly pick the wrong wound.
[00:47:23] And nine months of a mother who is poor or refugee or homeless, or who knows what, who secreted tons of stressful. And as a result of the stress for most, here’s an epigenetic change in your fetal brain. So thank you and make to this. Could it be bigger? As an adult, and you’re going to have more of a tendency towards anxiety and depression, and you’re going to have more problems with regulating your emotional behaviors and such in other words, wow, human.
[00:47:57] The way they can’t control their behavior in the face of [00:48:00] temptation, why are they awful like that? Because it’s something that happens to them when they were second trimester fetus. Yeah, don’t tell me about free will. And we are the captains of the phase when everything from like a smell 30 seconds to what was going on and was a seagull.
[00:48:17] And all we do afterwards is try to come up with a rationalization or something for taxes. So why is that? That was a theory, rational thing that I did just now. Thanks. So that’s the physical environment in which we live as in the womb and then. I thought it was really useful because I’m here in Dublin and we all saw Irish got out of Ireland all over the world.
[00:48:43] And we brought a lot of tribalism and in lots of Southern States in the States, for example, honor, was very important, but honor drove aggression on a drug tribalism and, uh, drove horrific acts of violence. And I’d love if you shared this because [00:49:00] those echoes of the past are still with us today. Yeah, in remarkable ways.
[00:49:06] Um, say as you noted in the United States, there’s a long standing, uh, as sort of regional differences in that the Southern parts of BMI, the American South that has the highest rates of violence and the lowest educational levels.
[00:49:30] Since the lowest rates, the highest rates of voting for men running for president of this few weeks, you were going to take us back to the dark ages, but in any case, so the American South has very high rates of violence and what’s puzzling is the pattern of all the elevated rates of murder and the are due to white males who are rural.
[00:49:56] These are not people going into showing up the liquor stores in [00:50:00] town. You do want some higher rates of murder in the Southern city States. What’s something about art crimes of passion and honor you’re in a family picnic and some cousin is coming onto your girlfriend. She would, you shoot. This is what the elevated rates of aggression and the term that’s given is a Southern cultural involvement.
[00:50:26] And what is from a fascinating sort of historicism is the Northern parts of the United States. The original columns were settled by Puritans. Um, we’re mostly from the South of England, the middle Atlantic, or settled by Quakers. The South was settled by pastor crazy Scottish Irish
[00:50:57] American South. And the remarkable [00:51:00] thing is you sit around and in modern day, 21st century American South, you see patterns. Where you wish to go or do they shop in person one day and there’s messaging, which is remarkable on the other finding is the level of infectious disease load that a society has four years ago.
[00:51:31] It’s a predictor of levels of esteem outside who is now. 400 years ago with all sorts of infectious stuff and get it silence. The dog short 100 years ago, if you were an actor culture that was dealing with constant waves of infection, you would generate the sort of culture that was hostile to outsiders, because who knows what pathogens they’re bringing.
[00:51:54] Yeah. And 400 years later, Your descendants are more likely than [00:52:00] chance to be more hostile to outsiders than is. Wow. Yeah. From one second before to centuries, before we are just sculpted all the subterranean stuff, have we had no damn control over. It’s amazing. And then, you know, add in what we talked about with this pandemic and travel marinade us and all those cocktail of neurochemicals and, you know, tribalism, polarization, et cetera.
[00:52:28] We won’t go down that rabbit hole, man. I wanted to finish on the positives, the positives, because. One of the reasons I do this show is because of people like you, who bring brilliant knowledge to the world in order to shape the brains of the people who will make that world. And I think, you know, you talked about the whole idea that new knowledge creates new neurons creates new connections, creates a new lens and through which you see the world and you experience it.
[00:52:57] And that’s how we change things. And you [00:53:00] finish. You said when you did the research for this book, I’m going to share something with your mind. I’m going to share my screen. I’m going to read out to those who were listening to the show, what it says, because it’s a comment by somebody on one of your lectures.
[00:53:13] And by the way, for everybody watching or listening, Robert’s lectures are available online on, they are. Brilliant covered in wit and humility that I talked about as, as this, but I’m going to share this because you would never look at this, but I’m going to share it. So I don’t know if you could see my screen.
[00:53:31] So, so what it says here is this beautiful human being must have consumed an unimaginable number of literature, published papers, well, premises, lectures, and conversations. I’m in awe of such a person who dedicates their lives to accomplishments of this magnitude. And they do it for the sake of others. As much as for themselves.
[00:53:51] I believe there’s no amount of Annie currency that could make him do this. Any better. I just thought I’d share that with you, man. Cause I think that’s just [00:54:00] sums it up and you know, I wanted to say that too, because I know you’d never look at that. That’s very nice. And you’ve read that. I, I detect from the grammatical structure though.
[00:54:10] I’m thoroughly sure. That was written by my mother. So we should, we should take that in that context. Okay, man. That’s the humidity I talked about, but I’m sharing that to show the difference you make in the world, but also that. By bringing new information, we can change it, but you still need all this information.
[00:54:30] You studied all this horrific massacres, like the Mihai massacre, Pearl Harbor, world war one, but you also studied how everything can change, including environments. You mentioned the Swedes. I’d love if you’d share this as our final message to our audience today. Well, I mean, one of the themes that comes through over and over is wow, all that subterranean biology influencing us all the time, but that amid that more of that [00:55:00] stuff has changed and people every use to think.
[00:55:03] The adult brain can make community and all sorts of interesting circumstances, all sorts of aspects of, you know, behavioral patterns can be changed. There’s epigenetic changes that can occur current Seattle life. Do nothing about it. You got him forever. But they could be reversed with the right sort of therapeutic interventions.
[00:55:24] And what you see is very little of our biology is set in stone. And as a consequence of that, very little of our behavior is set in stone lies and where you get some of the best examples of that is looking at just extraordinary examples of change. Know, cultural change the Swedes and like the 18th century where the most like crazy ass violent people who could imagine, and then run 18, 15, something happened and they became the Swedes.
[00:55:55] Like they became a modern Swedes and like cultures change [00:56:00] and people can change and it can take decades there. The, the hymn amazing grace. Was written by this British theologian, John Newton, who in his old age, in England, in the early 19th century was a central architect of the abolition of slavery in the British empire.
[00:56:20] And as a young man, John Newton was the captain of a slave ship. And when he retired from slaving and went to divinity school school, did he have a revelation at that point? No. He grew wealthy by investing in the slave trade and 35 years after he stopped being involved in it, something changed in him.
[00:56:44] Something changed that he celebrated writing this amazing place and he became the leading Apple. Was she the same way? She can get changed on that sort of scale or change this wonderful example, this man, uh, one of the [00:57:00] pilots who led one of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Chapman’s all her pilot. Um, 50 years to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a ceremony in Honolulu with some of the, the.
[00:57:14] Aged American survivors of the attack and a 50th anniversary and all that. And he, this elderly man broke out through the crowd and in broken English, he apologized to those men for what he had done 50 years later. And he, and some of them became close friends for the rest of their life. Wow. 60 years totally transformed.
[00:57:37] But what you see is it doesn’t necessarily tell you 15 years. It can happen in days during world war one, the Christmas truce soldiers in the trenches there put down their arms. And over the course of a few hours completely changed who was in us and who was the, that. And then we’re no longer the hun or the Brits them [00:58:00] work, buddy, who was not in the trenches here with us on both sides of this hell hole.
[00:58:05] And then was any damn officer who I go get us killed for them. And they just did that. Ours, where they had these truces that went on for days until officers had to show up and threatened to shoot him. If they didn’t go back to conducting four or one. Well, what’s most amazing is sometimes it doesn’t even take hours or a day.
[00:58:25] And the example you bring up the BLI massacre, which was like in some ways, the most horrific thing. Documented moment, the American version of the Vietnam war. Um, this was 52 years ago when American brigade into a South Vietnamese village, still nothing but civilians, children, elderly people. And they went in.
[00:58:48] And they killed between 305, 350 and 500 civilians there. They gang raped girls before then they related all these. They shot all the [00:59:00] livestock. They poisoned the Wells, they burned down the fields and this was unbelievably nightmare and the worst documents of atrocity by American troops during the Vietnam war.
[00:59:13] And with absolute certainty that it was not the only time, something like that happened. So you look at it and you say, Oh, God happened to happen. All of that. And somewhere in there, you also stumble upon the fact that there was a man, a soldier who stopped the Nila massacre. Amanda did manage to Thompson.
[00:59:35] And there were all sorts of interesting things about his past his upbringing, his military status that made it likely that he, it was the one who’s going to step out from this crouch. Hugh Thompson was piloting a helicopter gunship. He’d gotten word that there was fighting in this village of me lie. And Oh, of course assumed that American troops with their protecting villagers from a Vietcong [01:00:00] attack.
[01:00:00] And he flew over there and he landed and got out and saw American soldiers, bayoneting elderly women and shooting babies and things like that. And he went to the commanding officer there and said, what the hell are you doing? And the officer basically told him to screw off and mind his own business. And at that point, There was sort of the last surviving villagers huddled at one end of the village and a bunch of American soldiers coming towards them, clearly intending on killing them.
[01:00:31] And she Thompson at that point took his entire lifetime. Of nationalistic jingoistic, chauvinist, Dick training as to who was an awesome event and all of his military documentation, all of that. And in a fraction of a second, all of that evaporated and he changed us some categories, he got in his helicopter and he trained his machine guns on the American troops and said, take one more step.
[01:01:00] [01:01:00] Yeah. This man, 10 minutes. Well, I could never have told you that he was thinking to do that. And when you look at who were the people who. Saved Holocaust victims. And whom were the people who stood up against the KU Klux Klan, the Americans South, and who are the people who show moments of unbelievable change and unbelievable magnificence like that.
[01:01:29] And the loss that comes through over, over from the biology of them is. Save don’t have parts of the brain that none of us do. They didn’t invent some new fancy neurotransmitter that one of us have, they uniformly have fairly conventional upbringing. There’s no obvious predict. They’re just like the rest of us.
[01:01:49] And what we see from sort of understanding that the biology of where change like that can come from is people like that. Like are not putting their pants on [01:02:00] to license. It’s fine. They’re just like the rest of us. We’re all capable environments like that of June something that shows a degree of biological plasticity that leaves us open mouth.
[01:02:15] That how we do pull off a moment like that, where we could not even have predicted it. Um, so, you know, and then all of this, Oh my God. All of this it’s depressive biology here. Um, there’s lot of good news here. We could change. And it’s very likely that virtually any of us could do that in some extraordinary circumstance and do something wonderful.
[01:02:39] That’s a beautiful way to finish mine. And you know what, what you do for people like me reading this book is you give us empathy and you make us suspend judgment. So when you go to judge someone particularly harshly, you go wait a second. I have no idea what’s going on. I have no idea. And I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt.
[01:02:59] So [01:03:00] for that, And from our listenership and our viewership. I want to thank you so much. And particularly because I know you’re in the midst of a book, I know it’s 20 past midnight over in, in California. So I want to thank you for that. Rubber’s is there a parting message you’d like to give, I mean, we’re.
[01:03:16] We fast forward to this interview because we were going to do a post election it’s we’re in a period of chaos in humanity. Is there a parting message of, of hope that you want to give to everyone out there? Well, it strikes me when people sit there and they study about all of this stuff. Um, most people have a moment of like total existential panic because they say, Oh my God, there’s much less free will than I thought there was.
[01:03:44] Or even though I thought, Oh my God, there’s no free will. Oh, And 99% of people see that as absolutely terrifying because what’s our purpose. And we’re just going to have murderers running around because they would be held responsible or worst. I’m [01:04:00] not going to be able to be praised for any of the good things that I did because it’s not really about doing, and what’s the purpose in life.
[01:04:06] And there’s all these ways of what’s your picture of. Accepting that we are nothing more or less than our biology is totally demoralizing. We used to existential despair when you really, really sick, what it does instead is lead to two fantastic things. Really, truly believes we are nothing more than whatever, wonderful or crappy biological luck the millennia have brought to one second before and our brain.
[01:04:37] There’s no justification forever Evan feeling as if you are entitled to anything more than any other person. And there’s never any justification for him. I think the committee, because these are going to hate someone that makes little sense as hating a tornado in your farm house. And if people, yeah, we really could think that [01:05:00] way.
[01:05:00] Those are the only conclusions you reach and it sure as hell hard to do that because I don’t succeed at that very often. But in principle, that’s where all of us should Eros. Beautiful, beautiful man, author of behave by the biology of humans at our best, and at our worst, one of the best scientific writers of our time.
[01:05:24] Robert Sapolsky. It’s an absolute honor. Thank you so much for your time. This was a fun interview. You hit on all the right. Thanks. Pleasure. Absolute pleasure.