So when we look at the world’s ills one of the biggest sources of it is us failing to do the right thing when it’s the harder thing to do—giving in to temptation, giving in to impulse. Giving in to emotional sort of immediacy. And the part of the brain that’s most central to whether or not that happens is the frontal cortex. Most recently evolved part of the brain, we’ve got more of it proportionally or more complexly than any other primate species out there. It’s the part of the brain that does impulse control, long term planning, emotional regulation. It does all the stuff where it’s the frontal cortex that whispers in your ear saying, “Do you really really want to do that right now? If you do that you’re going to regret it. It seems like a great idea.” Frontal cortex about that.

See his new book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

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Robert Sapolsky
Image source: YouTube Video Screenshot

Okay, so when we look at our moments of life where there’s that enormous temptation to do the impulsive thing and—what’s going to determine whether the world will be freed of impulsive horrors?
“If only we could all get stronger frontal cortices trained in childhood to be able to hold out where you could have one marshmallow right now but if you wait you can get two later, and training from early age so that your frontal cortex has the most like fabulous aerobic metabolism ever, and it could just make you—“

And what the studies suggest is: at all sorts of junctures of doing the harder thing yes, having a really robust studly frontal cortex may do you a lot of good there.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

But when you do sort of the truly difficult thing, when you see people who are the ones who run into the burning building to save the child and they leap into the river when everybody else is standing there like headless chickens—When you look at those people they’re not doing it because they’ve got the most amazing frontal cortexes on earth that could reason through the long-term consequences of “oh, what if nobody in society came to the aid of strangers?”

What they do is: they do it automatically.

You ask anybody who does one of these heroic acts what were you thinking when you jumped in the river. And the answer is always the same: “I wasn’t thinking. Before I knew it I had jumped in.”

 

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

More on the book below

A New York Times Bestseller.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Behave is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read.” — David P. Barash, The Wall Street Journal

From the celebrated neurobiologist and primatologist, a landmark, genre-defining examination of human behavior, both good and bad, and an answer to the question: Why do we do the things we do?

Sapolsky’s storytelling concept is delightful but it also has a powerful intrinsic logic: he 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 evolutionary legacy.

And so the first category of explanation is the neurobiological one. A behavior occurs–whether an example of humans at our best, worst, or somewhere in between. What went on in a person’s brain a second before the behavior happened? Then Sapolsky pulls out to a slightly larger field of vision, a little earlier in time: What sight, sound, or smell caused the nervous system to produce that behavior? And then, what hormones acted hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual is to the stimuli that triggered the nervous system? By now he 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.

Sapolsky keeps going: How was that behavior influenced by structural changes in the nervous system over the preceding months, by that person’s adolescence, childhood, fetal life, and then back to his or her genetic makeup? Finally, he expands the view to encompass factors larger than one individual. How did culture shape that individual’s group, what ecological factors millennia old formed that culture? And on and on, back to evolutionary factors millions of years old.

The result is one of the most dazzling tours d’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. Sapolsky builds on this understanding to wrestle with some of our deepest and thorniest questions relating to tribalism and xenophobia, hierarchy and competition, morality and free will, and war and peace. Wise, humane, often very funny, Behave is a towering achievement, powerfully humanizing, and downright heroic in its own right.

Behave makes a great Father’s Day gift!

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst