Week 2 (4/9/19) – Behave Appendices 1 through 3 (if needed), Introduction, and chapters 1 through 5

In this session we discuss the initial chapters of Robert Sapolsky’s book. Each student should comment on this entry by 6pm PDT on Tuesday, April 9th.

14 thoughts on “Week 2 (4/9/19) – Behave Appendices 1 through 3 (if needed), Introduction, and chapters 1 through 5

  1. Sapolsky talks about how hormones like testosterone and oxytocin work to amplify pre-existing dispositions and tendencies. When sexual offenders are castrated and no longer have testosterone, there is still a subset of offenders that recommit the crime. With oxytocin, Americans (culturally more likely to seek emotional support) show more activity in the oxytocin receptor gene variant during stressful situations, compared to Koreans (culturally less likely to seek emotional support).

    The idea that hormones in our body have limited influence on us based on predispositions is a more comforting one than thinking that simply pumping more or less of a chemical in our body can significantly change who we are. Yet, I think there is more nuance to contingent affects than Sapolsky gives credit to. We see examples where testosterone makes subjects more confident and oxytocin makes women like babies more. Sapolsky doesn’t specify the pre-existing dispositions of the subjects in these experiments, but I would assume that the subjects were a mix of people with varying levels of pre-existing tendencies. Yet, the introduction of the hormones, moved the subjects as a whole towards expected behaviors past simply chance.

    Perhaps a more correct statement would be that hormones amplify certain behaviors with varying levels of strength based on how pre-existing tendencies compare to the expected outcome. Instead of the more binary outlook Sapolsky suggests with contingent affects, it might be more accurate and inclusive to look at it as a continuous scale.

    Beyond looking at contingent affects, Sapolsky’s work poses the question of what causes our predispositions. He talks about neural plasticity and how that affects our tendencies through social learning, but doesn’t really talk about our genetic makeup. Perhaps Sapolsky explores this more later, but understanding predispositions that we are born with would offer a more complete picture of behavior.

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  2. A recurrent theme in the first few chapters is the importance of context and that how you frame something shapes how you understand it: when something is too complicated to grasp in its entirety, we break it up into digestible chunks by using categorical thinking, focusing on one aspect of it like the old men and the elephant tale. After we frame a complex topic one way, we often forget to analyze our frame and thus its accompanying biases and shortcomings. This helps us process the information, but not in full, because “the boundaries between different categories are often arbitrary” but we forget that, and weight the importance as if it is more meaningful (5-6).
    Applied to human behavior and its basis in the brain, aggression and violence have their place in the right context, and making decisions driven primarily by the PFC versus the amygdala, can both be useful. This is why, in part, it is useful to have dual step systems like dlPFC and vmPFC at play in the brain to integrate different types of reasoning and judgment, increasing openness to context across many areas of decisions. As I have a psychology background, I was not as familiar with how hormones influence behavior. I had assumed they were concrete deterministic impulses that we had little control over, but Sapolsky described them as also functioning in this system of context, as making us more susceptible to our preexisting social conditioning and tendencies (136).
    I would be interested in discussing the gray areas of hormonal impulses and whether they just exacerbate normal tendencies or override one’s free will, as they apply to the legal system and criminal blame, as Sapolsky noted that he does not believe that blame should be part of the legal system.

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  3. In the first five chapters of Behave, Robert Sapolsky takes us on an interesting and unique journey to evaluating human behavior, zooming out on the behavior to understand it on a biological basis. This distinctive and comprehensive take on the human experience is one in which I find much value. Given the historical aspects of this perspective, I do wonder what such a take would look like in the reverse, in terms of the future of neuroscience, and the present’s implications on the future.

    To this point, where will the field of neuroscience be in 100 years? As Sapolsky addresses at multiple points, the field was in a vastly different place within the 20th century. From frontal lobotomies to legislators not acknowledging symptoms of PTSD until presented with evidence of hippocampal atrophy, Sapolsky goes so far to call the history of neuroscience an “ash heap” (147). While I do not doubt the significance of anything presented thus far, what are we to do with this information if in 2030 an fMRI 2.0, with unparalleled spatial and temporal resolution, throws into question many of our current beliefs, presented here? Our past was ill-prepared for our present, as seen by Sapolsky’s look into adult neurogenesis in chapter five. We cannot allow for current discoveries in the field of neuroscience to be discounted, due to sheer improbability. Our present must help guide our future, adequately preparing the field for things to come which are as of now unknown and potentially unimaginable.

    Thus far, Sapolsky has not mentioned this consideration. While the unknown does not always make for good reading, caution must be used when working with cutting-edge work. Some material could turn out to be wrong, or misguided, and we must be willing to persevere towards truth, rather than remain in our past. [300]


  4. Behave examines the factors which converge through the brain to create behavior (80). Some factors, like hormones and genes, are endogenous, while others, like experience and stimuli, are exogenous. In analyzing the factors that shape a behavior seconds to minutes before it occurs, Sapolsky states that “we are less rational and autonomous decision makers than we like to think” (98). In analyzing the factors that shape a behavior hours or days before it occurs, he remarks that “hormones don’t determine… behaviors. They make us more sensitive to… social triggers… and exaggerate our pre-existing tendencies” (136). Are these assertions reconcilable? The first suggests that human beings’ decision-making is determined by subliminal information in the seconds or minutes before an action. The second suggests that human beings’ tendencies are merely exacerbated by, rather than controlled by, hormones in the hours or days before an action. Does this mean that while exogenous factors, like information, determine behavior, endogenous factors, like hormones, simply exaggerate it?

    Throughout Behave, Sapolsky examines biological differences between males and females. He tells that sex differences in the brain are observed in most mammals (120). Moreover, “oxycontin enhances different aspects of social competence in women and men” (115): oxycontin improves women’s capacity to detect kinship relations and men’s capacity to detect dominance relations (114). There are, therefore, biological differences between males and females that extend beyond reproductive roles. How can we reconcile these biological differences, which drive behavior, with the equality of the sexes? Are these biological differences negligible enough that they can be dismissed? Alternatively, if the sexes are different but equal, are they separate and equal? I do not know if we can answer this question, but I wonder to what degree biology, rather than culture, is responsible for differences in gender roles and sex-specific behaviors amongst species.


  5. In chapter 3, Sapolsky discusses studies about cues and unconscious biases that affect our judgement of other people. One the studies has shown that people who look more stereotypically African American tends to get harsher sentences for the same criminal conviction (85). A question that arises is whether a defendant’s face should be shown to the jury if their appearance could affect their sentences. Note that some of my arguments speculative, as there this issue is not directly addressed in the book.

    Other studies in the chapter has shown more evidence of negative biases due to race recognition. Looking at someone from another race for a brief period can activate the amygdala, although the effect is inhibited by the dlPFC after a while (84-85). People are less empathetic to someone from another race (85). A white person viewing a black person increases their P300/N200 ratio, which makes them more likely to assume that a black person is a threat. The converse is also true as attractive people are judged as more kind, smart, and honest (87).

    There is however a problem with hiding the defendant’s face. A lot of information regarding a person’s mental state is in their eyes (96), and not showing the defendant’s face might deprive the jury of crucial information regarding the case. The chapters we have read so far did not fully cover what other information is gained from looking at a person’s face, and more research would be needed to evaluate whether the tradeoff between loosing information and reducing bias is worthwhile.


  6. A consistent theme in Behave is that explaining behavior is rarely simple. I was fascinated by the internal complexity driving behavior that others may not be able to perceive. Sapolsky describes processes of stimulus and inhibition within the body and the environment, resulting in our emotions. This central theme is seen throughout the first five chapters, especially in our biases.

    Sapolsky introduces three brain layers: one for “automatic” functions like breathing, the second for emotions like stress, and the last is the frontal cortex (focused on cognition, analysis, etc). It was surprising that information flows between these layers without always following a strict order.

    For example, sometimes sensory information goes straight to the amygdala, part of layer two, before the cortex. This can prompt emotions of disgust before our frontal cortex has processed what we are reacting to. However, once the frontal cortex is aware of the amygdala’s reaction, it can regulate feelings of disgust if they are considered inappropriate. Sapolsky notes this process in regards to bias: “Stick your average person in a brain scanner, and show him a picture of someone of another race…too fast for him to be aware of what he saw…the amygdala knows…and activates” (pg. 59). However, if you show the image a bit longer, the frontal cortex inhibits the fear/disgust response.

    So, what seems like a cordial reaction to an outsider or a measured response to a provocation may be the result of a complex internal back-and-forth. This sheds light on our own understanding of bias. Inherent bias might be unavoidable, but our reaction to it isn’t. It’s possibly counterproductive to label people naturally “biased” or “unbiased”. It is more important to recognize biases and regulate them with the frontal cortex. We should better understand our biases, rather than pretend that they don’t exist.


  7. Sapolskys’ thesis is that human nature and violence is not problematic in itself — it is when it is done at the wrong time and in the wrong context. Killing Hitler is not bad; killing an innocent bystander is. He takes us on a journey that starts very granular and then zooms out (from “seconds before” (sensory inputs) to “minutes before” (preconceived impressions, racist bias) to “hours before” (impacts of testosterone, oxycontin)).

    A big question remains. He hints at it (“I will discuss how explaining is the same as forgiving”). But by describing how neuroscience and the way our brains are structured can impact our behavior – such as how the amygdala plays a role in aggression, for example – what is his point about violence? What does that mean for law and morality? Should we impose a different sentence for someone who has an impaired amygdala? I suspect he will answer later on.

    Finally, a note on his writing – I cannot easily follow his structure and main points. Perhaps it is impatience on my end. But I would prefer him to be more upfront about his main points, and connecting them to larger thesis of the book.


  8. Throughout the first few chapters of Behave, Sapolsky details the complex relationship between certain behaviors and the correlated biological processes. One pertinent example was the link between differences in function of the amygdala and psychopathic tendencies. The amygdala balances fear and aggression within varying contexts and violent psychopaths are shown to have amygdalae that are smaller than normal (44). This point evokes many different questions involving ethical and social issues relating to neuroscience. Because of the fact that the nature of specific brain regions directly influences certain behaviors, whether wanted or unwanted, is it ethical to target specific regions for intervention that elicit negative behavior? Sapolsky touches on this question when discussing the psychosurgeries conducted in the seventies to overly-aggressive individuals’ amygdalas (32). On one hand, it is important to address the question of what degree of function can be considered “typical” and the implications that moving towards homogenous brain processing could have on the progression of our society. Additionally, the very problem of intervening is difficult due to the way behavior is diversely influenced: cultural differences, changes in plasticity over time, differences in hormones, or structural brain differences. Furthermore, even individual brain structures have a multitude of different and even competing functions (e.g. the emotional versus deliberative functions of the PFC). It would be incredibly difficult to conclude causality between a specific aspect of an individual and their behavior. Focusing on changing the actual structure of the brain could potentially lead to almost identical results as utilizing cognitive-behavioral therapy to promote Hebbian Learning of a new behavioral response. That being said, if certain intervention methods should be utilized, then it is important to take a holistic approach when determining the best routes of intervention in order to avoid unknown peripheral damage within the complex web of behavior.


  9. My comment will specifically address the point made by Sapolsky on p. 153, that “…neuroplasticity…makes it “scientifically demonstrated” that brains change. That people change.” I will argue that while rhetorically powerful, Sapolsky provides insufficient scientific evidence, at least in the chapters thus far, to back up this claim.

    One type of plasticity Sapolsky describes is the relative enlargement of a brain region, such as the growth of the hippocampus in London taxi drivers preparing for a grueling test. Another major type is rewiring, which typically occurs in response to traumatic brain injury or disability, as in the case of blind individuals whose touch axons re-map to the visual cortex and enable them to read braille. Clearly, neurotypical individuals have the ability to learn new skills. But do they also posses the ability to re-wire—to change deeply entrenched behaviors or patterns?

    The most relevant example of non-traumatic rewiring that Sapolsky describes is the role of neurogenesis in “pattern separation,” a circuit that allows humans to distinguish between signals previously regarded as identical (p. 149). However, as Sapolsky himself acknowledges, the field of neurogenesis is relatively new. So while pattern separation might allow a person to learn to distinguish between Katy Perry and Zooey Deschanel, there’s far less empirical support for an alcoholic using pattern separation to choose water over a beer.

    Hence, while Sapolsky certainly provides strong evidence for the ability for “an old dog to learn new tricks,” I find little reason to believe the claim that these mechanisms enable a person to change a fundamental aspect of their personality. Did neuroplasticity bring “Rosa Parks…from victim to catalyst” or “Mandela from prisoner to statesman?” (p. 153). Perhaps— or perhaps instead, Nelson Mandela had the mind of a statesman all along— he just needed to get out of jail.


  10. “Context, context, context…” is what Sapolsky continually emphasizes in these first few chapters. Each factual point is accompanied by the coating of various interdisciplinary examples. He holds to his initial word of examining this behavior from multiple different lenses, supporting the choice of this format by telling the age old “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke, and describing technical neuroscience concepts like brain lateralization through bean counting and whale singing.

    In “One Second Before”, Sapolsky also alludes to how this meshing of thinking is growing in neuroscience, with the proliferation of neuroeconomics, neuromarketing, neuroethics, neurolaw, etc. What I want to discuss further is this notion of scientific explanation as validation for behavior. This is something that Sapolsky characterizes as a fallacy, and I think his claim is supported by the fact that he is such a champion of understanding various contexts. In the information age, where the answer to everything is one google search away, will there be a point in neuroscience where we can search a database for research in which this complex context becomes fact?

    Who knows if there will be a day in which neuroscience can help to provide a foundation of explanation of all human behavior. As for myself, I do not think there ever will be time in which this full explanation of every behavior is possible, rather a changed perspective. As discussed in the New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik, “The strength of neuroscience is not in what it explains as in the older explanations it dissolves.” Sapolsky illustrates this with his context of woven stories and multi-faceted studies. Neurology does not give us immediate explanatory excuses, but rather more a sense of relief for being a human and making the behavioral choices that we do.


  11. The title of this book makes equal reference to both the best and the worst of humans. Despite this symmetry, however, Sapolsky seems to make a conscious choice to focus primarily on the latter. The studies he cites generally range from relatively neutral, such as “Watching Synaptogenesis in the Adult Brain,” to clear examples of “worst” human behavior, such as “The Thrill of Being Violent as an Antidote to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Rwandese Genocide Perpetrators.” Most of the studies fall somewhere in between these two, with few painting a particularly happy picture of human behavior. For example, he discusses unconscious cueing and the way in which it relates to racism, serotonin and its effects on impulsive aggression, and oxytocin’s tendency to bring out xenophobia. This is not to say the book is completely one-sided: most of these examples had a “better” side presented as well, but Sapolsky would typically spend noticeably more time discussing the “worst” side of human behavior than the “best.”

    I believe the reason behind this choice is the same reason that CNN tends to spend most of its time covering the bad news: people are drawn to the “worst.” Good behavior is often seen as boring, or, at least, less interesting than bad behavior. In fact, what is arguably “best” behavior is frequently seen as downright strange. Sapolsky mentions this in the first chapter, where he references a New Yorker piece surrounding organ donations to strangers. People find such acts disturbing, and often try to justify them with less-than-flattering explanations, regardless of the true motivations. By spending most of the book discussing some of the more problematic human tendencies, Sapolsky is able to engage readers more effectively than if he had chosen to give a more balanced account of human behavior.


  12. Sapolsky gives a whirlwind introduction to the biological underpinnings of human behavior. In discussing these mechanisms behind pro- and anti-social behaviors, Sapolsky concludes that, “No brain operates in a vacuum…in the moments just before we decide upon some of our most consequential acts, we are less rational and autonomous decision makers than we like to think” (98). This question of rational and autonomous free will is a cornerstone of behavioral science and philosophy — I’m interested in Sapolsky’s support or preclusion of its existence.

    Strict interpretations of neuroscience often cast doubt on the existence of free will (1). Neurochemistry, hormones, genes, and our early sensory environment are, as far as we know, out of our control, and yet Sapolsky demonstrates how influential they are in determining behavior. Where does choice fit in this puzzle?

    Sapolsky mentions the “Texas Tower” killer, Charles Whitman, whose decision to commit a mass shooting finds roots in both the tumor pressing on his amygdala and a history of familial abuse (33). In another example, he describes how amygdaloid responses to other-race faces before frontal cortex intervention may play a part in shootings of innocent African-Americans (85). Although moral intuition makes me uncomfortable with completely excusing these acts, I do wonder how much say an individual has in the neurological and cultural circumstances (tumors, abuse) that lead them through life. If we are the product of nature and nurture, are our choices determined for us?

    In his interdisciplinary approach, Sapolsky is clearly just as hesitant to posit such strong generalizations as “tumor = murderer” as we are (33). Whatever conclusions we can draw about free will could inform how we address things like criminal justice. I look forward to exploring choice, free will, and moral responsibility in the future chapters on anthropology and culture.

    (1) https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/freewill/#FreeWillMoraResp


  13. Throughout the first five chapters of this book, Sapolsky places a strong emphasis on the idea of context and definitions. To understand human behavior, we generally default to terms and labels that frame situations in binary terms – good vs evil, hot vs cold. However, this tendency makes it difficult to understand the true nature of our decisions and actions. While we turn to neurobiological answers for a significant portion of explaining behavior, it is not the end all of the explanation. Sapolsky himself highlights that while the technical knowledge is the point of convergence for behavior pathways, it is not the starting point of the process.

    In Chapter 3, Sapolsky investigates the moments before the starting point. He ties the processes happening seconds and minutes before back to the idea of the effect of context: cultural cues and situational details play a large role in how we analyze and react to the world. Before we even make a decision, activity in our nervous system effects our later behavior in determining fashion – deciding whether our action is pro or antisocial. The most interesting thing is that all this cuing is so subliminal and unconscious that we are unable to detect it. How, then, are we to account for things like language effects and priming, especially when it does take effect in just seconds / minutes before our prototypical behavior occurs? What is the reason we have the ability to so quickly and unconsciously allow external contexts to greatly influence our behavior? Though we have not yet covered answers to these questions, I wonder if there is more information on how this initial reactionary process leads to prosocial vs antisocial behavior.


  14. Transfer of comment mistakenly posted on the Week 2 2015 blog:

    Chris Hogan Peisch
    7 hours ago

    In Behave, Robert Sapolsky introduces his belief that an understanding of human behavior can only be derived from an understanding of the systematic, often intertwined, interactions between biological, psychological, and cultural influences. The manner in which Sapolsky shares his wealth of biological knowledge to his diverse audience, specifically the daunting subject of neurobiology, should be noted as he allows for complex biological problems to be broken down so that biologists and non-biologists alike can understand his conclusions.
    An illustration of Sapolsky’s unique ability to introduce and elaborate on complex biological topics can be seen in his explanation of the relationship between the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. When this complex subject is introduced (45), Sapolsky almost immediately shares his general conclusion about the role of the frontal cortex. This allows readers to keep an eye out for situations in which the “frontal cortex makes you do the harder thing when it is the right thing to do. (45)” From here, Sapolsky shares a few basic facts about the frontal cortex, then introduces an important subsection of the frontal cortex (pre-frontal cortex), before finally introducing the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Not only does this sequential technique protect readers from being overwhelmed by concepts or features that have not been introduced, but also allows for non-experts to understand the conclusions he will ultimately reach.
    Sapolsky also uses biological “edge cases” to explain neurobiological function (such as Phineas Gage in order to illustrate the function of the frontal cortex and Charles Whitman (the “Texas Tower” shooter to illustrate the function of the amygdala) without relying too much on their conclusions before examining further empirical research. This allows for a more accessible understanding of neurobiological features without solely relying on extreme biological phenomena and the resulting human behavior.


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