Human Behavioral Biology – 01 – Introduction

November 2011

in Self-awareness

Post image for Human Behavioral Biology – 01 – Introduction

This post is part of a series summarizing Human Behavioral Biology, taught by Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University in 2010. Lecture videos are available for free online.

Thinking In Buckets

Sapolsky starts out by introducing a concept about how our brains think about stuff: we create boundaries – i.e. ‘buckets’ – around ideas.

These buckets can influence our memory, our language, and our ability to see the ‘big picture’.

For example, where does violet stop and red start on the following scale? Different cultures have different words for colours – for example, not having a word for orange – and this can influence their beliefs about the world!

Another example: when people are asked to memorize the following shapes,

they find it much easier to remember at a later time whether they had been shown a triangle rather than the particular squiggly shape above.

An implication of our bucketing minds is that we are bad at differentiating facts that fall within the same category. Two shades of red are labelled ‘red’.

A second larger implication is that when we focus on categories while talking about behavior, we loose out on the big picture.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

It’s easy to see a single one of these categories as providing The Explanation. But they are merely various Behavior Buckets. They are all a part of the big picture explanation.

It is an easy trap to fall into. Flawed bucket thinking has been done by many of the most influential scientists in history!

This course is about how biology influences behavior.

And a major goal is to not fall for bucket thinking – we must resist the temptation to find The Explanation in one bucket.

Much time will be spent traversing the various buckets. For example,

  1. What was the behaviour?
  2. Why did that happen? (neurons firing, etc.)
  3. What environment caused that behaviour to happen? (sensory stimulation, etc.)
  4. How do hormone changes affect the sensitivity to sensory stimulation?
  5. What genes caused certain hormones to be created?
  6. What environment caused certain genes to be expressed?
  7. Etc. etc.

Three Intellectual Challenges

There are three intellectual challenges we will face throughout this course.

1. We must accept that we are nothing but animals.

Female hamsters achieve menstrual syncronication through air-born pheromones (the Welsley Effect), and exactly the same thing happens in humans.

2. We often appear to be like everyone else, except some things happen differently.

The same areas of the brain are lit up in a chess grandmaster who makes a winning move and a baboon who kills its rival.

We humans use our psychology in unique ways. We have the ability to get stressed reading about a character in a novel!

3. We do some things that are completely different from other animals!

We, as humans, often do things that are not remotely similar to things other animals do. We have regular non-reproductive sex, and we talk about it!

Course Outline

  1. First half: Introduction to various buckets.
  2. Second half: Putting all the pieces together and making the buckets disappear.

Course Books

  1. Robert Sapolsky. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. 2004.
  2. James Gleck. Chaos: Making a New Science. 2008

A final important thought…

Everyone Needs To Be Behavioral Biologists!

It is useful to be informed about behavioral biology if we are, for example:

  1. Serving on a jury: “What was the cause of the behaviour?”.
  2. Voting: “Should we spend the money on that? Is it really a problem? Is it solvable?”
  3. Dealing with depression in the family: “What is causing it? What can he do about it? How do we deal with it?”

This is stuff that everyone needs to know!

In the next class: Introduction to behavioral evolution, the requirements for the evolution of populations, and the three building blocks of evolutionary behavior.