An Interview With Dr. Robert Sapolsky

Understanding of human behavior can explain most of what is happening on the Earth, and the decision-making and neurological components of our mind are explained in detail by Dr. Robert Sapolsky in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. It is a seminal work that covers how a decision is made, from moments prior, to years and centuries ago. What leads to something happening today? The book includes discussion on neuroendocrinology, hormones, brain activation and maturation, stress, morality, us/them dynamics, and much more. I took extensive notes on this book that I will review for some time to come.

Dr. Sapolsky is an American neuroendocrinologist who is currently professor of neurology and neurological sciences at Stanford University. His work has focused on stress, neuronal degeneration, and recently, gene therapy. As mentioned in the book, he has spent some years studying a population of wild baboons  in Kenya, examining environmental stress and the baboon’s stress response. He has received many awards for his decades of research and teachings.

Here is my interview with Dr. Sapolsky on topics from Behave:

Armen: In your chapter on adolescence, and the lack of frontal cortex processing during that time, it was mentioned that exaggerated reactions and rewards cause greater response in adolescents than adults. Does this relate to how many popular individuals on YouTube and other social media/advertisements use many exaggerated facial expressions and provide cash and material rewards to pique the interest of their adolescent fan base? Is marketing about matching the intricacies of the consumer’s brain state at that specific age grouping?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: Well, my guess is that the media people designing these things are not particularly aware of adolescent neurobiology, but they sure intuitively know that this is an age that responds most strongly to vividness, in every sense of the word.

Armen: It was mentioned that the behavior of future sociopaths seems impervious to negative feedback. If they have high pain thresholds and lack empathy, wouldn’t they be well-suited for fields with high risk and volatility if they managed to keep from doing anything too harsh or cold to others along the way?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: I think very much so. I’ve heard it remarked that many very successful investors in the financial world, especially in realms carrying a lot of risk and volatility, have sociopathic elements to them…

Armen: I gained a lot from the sections on individualist versus collectivist cultures, and am starting to see some social issues as a clash between people of these two groupings. On a separate but related note, in an individualistic culture like our own, is there a place for someone to avoid heavy antisocial punishment for being too generous?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: Great question. I think it is possible, as long as the person is able to successfully cloak themselves in a “oh that’s why they’re that way” explanation that is socially normative — clergy, some front-line medical profession, someone with a supposed “debt to repay to society.” Things of that sort.

Armen: The parts about glucocorticoid secretion were interesting to me, with them being released during subordination, subjugation through inequity, times of stress, and more so, in individuals who had early life stress. Is it reasonable to think that glucocorticoids are released when things aren’t going the way someone would naturally aim for, as something like a morphine for heavier friction in life?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: Yes. In some ways, glucocorticoid are secreted (i.e., we are subjectively having a sense of stress) in circumstances where there is marked discrepancy from what you were expecting about how the world works. That certainly makes sense when it’s unexpected bad news, but remarkably, some settings of unexpected great news (e.g., a rat getting more food pellets than it has been conditioned to expect after a task) can upend one’s schema about the world sufficiently to constitute a manner of stressor.

Armen: In your chapter on morality, you had mentioned Dr. Michael Shermer, who I previously interviewed about The Moral Arc and Skeptic, and his stance on society’s provisional acceptance of morality. Is morality only included in societal dealings insofar as it works as a set of rules to keep out forms of cheating and short-cutting for genetic lineage longevity?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: I’d say that covers all the bases when one is talking about some rudiment of morality in some other primate. But in others, there’s not only the genetic lineage aspect but, even more importantly, that whole world where we are made to feel more or less related to some people than we actually are — the core of Us/Them distinctions in humans.

Armen: I share the views on free will that you presented, and I have always looked at reality as stimulus-response moments passing through time, with no other way for things to turn out or have turned out. Does this view match with a feeling of internal peace, with there being nothing to be surprised or shocked about?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: Well, I think there is still room for surprise/shock — even if there is no free will, we still don’t know enough to not be off the mark in predictions with some frequency. In terms of the potential for a sense of internal peace — that would be great, but I think the more frequent challenge that goes with dropping any sense of free will is dealing with the feelings of existential void.

Armen: If someone wanted to do things their own way, but was in regular contact with people whose energy they didn’t match with, would it be a good strategy to disregard their vmPFC activation(telling them that they were socially wrong), or is physiology too difficult to overcome with brute force mental processing? Is distancing from those people the only viable way?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: I would think yes, as long as you are including metaphorical distancing, as well as literal.

Armen: Lastly, you had mentioned that willpower takes metabolic power due to glucose demands. Would it then make sense, as far as efficiency, for someone to focus on doing higher level activity when in a highly energized or active state, and then when their energy level drops substantially, leaving important decisions and tasks to wait until their metabolic strength is back near 100%?

Dr. Robert Sapolsky: Absolutely. I think this harks immediately to the will study about judges decisions about sentencing being most predicted by how long it had been since the judge had eaten. I think this translates into that energetic scenario easily — what is the harder higher level activity that a judge would be hoped to muster at such times? — a capacity for perspective taking, to try to individuate the defendant in front of them, to try to understand what circumstances make someone who they are. That takes work from an expensive frontal cortex.

I much appreciate Dr. Sapolsky for taking part in this interview, gain value from the answers, and have gained much value from his book. You can check out his TED talks on uniqueness and the concepts from Behave, look at his publications in journals involving neuroscience, behavior, and more, or pick up his book Behave on Amazon.

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