Robert M. Sapolsky is the author of several works of nonfiction, including A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, and Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. 

His most recent book, Behave, was a New York Times bestseller and named a best book of the year by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.”

He and his wife live in San Francisco.

451: Behavior Mysteries Solved

Robert Sapolsky

Why do we behave the way we do?

Why do our children behave the way they do?

Many of the factors are well beyond our control.

Hunter talks to Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” about stress, individualist vs. collectivist cultures, displacement aggression, and how the frontal cortex development affects parents and parenting.  

Behavior Mysteries Solved - Robert Sapolsky [451]

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*This is an auto-generated transcript*

[00:00:00] Robert Sapolsky: But what we see is during times of stress, aggression increases. Displacement aggression onto somebody you could dump on increases, and that certainly explains a lot of family dynamics.

[00:00:20] Hunter: You're listening to the Mindful Parenting Podcast, episode number 451. Today we're talking about behavior mysteries solved with Robert Sapolsky.

Welcome to the Mindful Parenting Podcast. Here it's about becoming a less irritable, more joyful parent. At Mindful Parenting, we know that you cannot give what you do not have, and when you have calm and peace within, then you can give it to your children. I'm your host, Hunter Clarkfields. I help smart, thoughtful parents stay calm so they can have strong, connected relationships with their children.

I've been practicing mindfulness for over 25 years, I'm the creator of the Mindful Parenting course, and I'm the author of the international bestseller, Raising Good Humans, and now, Raising Good Humans Every Day, 50 Simple Ways to Rest Pause, Stay Present, and Connect with Your Kids. Hello. Hello. Welcome. So glad you're here.

So grateful that you are here on the Mindful Parenting Podcast. Listen, if you have ever gotten value from this podcast, please do me a favor. Help the show grow by just telling one friend about it. You can make a big difference and I really hugely appreciate it from the bottom of my heart. In just a moment, I'm going to be sitting down with Robert M.

Sapolsky. This is a real treat. He is the author of several works of nonfiction, including A Primate's Memoir, The Trouble with Testosterone, and Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. You'll hear me talk about why this is a special book for me. And his most recent book, Behave, was a New York Times bestseller and named best book of the year by the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.

He's a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius. Grant. He is so cool. You are going to learn so much about human behavior today that your mind will just be blown. It's, this is a really fascinating episode. I feel really honored that Robert chose to talk to me for the podcast and you, my friend, are in for a treat.

So, join me at the table as I talk to Robert Sapolsky.

Robert, thank you so much for coming on the Mindful Parenting Podcast.

[00:02:44] Robert Sapolsky: Well, thanks for having me on.

[00:02:47] Hunter: Um, I'm thrilled that you're here. And, um, like I was saying, it's, it's interesting to talk to you because I have given talks around the world about how to stop yelling. And I've And I show a slide of your book, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

So I know we're not here to talk about why zebras don't get ulcers, but I, I love the title of that book. Can you just tell us a little bit about the premise of that book before we dive into everything else? 

[00:03:13] Robert Sapolsky: Well, it's subtitle, actually, I don't even remember what the subtitle is anymore, but it's something like a guide to stress, uh, stress related diseases and coping.

Um, and it's basic theme is that we are just like every other vertebrate on earth, um, in that when we get stressed, we secrete the same stress hormones as every other species out there, the identical thing. And then we are unlike any other species on earth in that we turn on the stress response for totally bizarre reasons.

If you're your basic animal who's being stressed, either somebody is very intent on eating you, or you're very intent on eating somebody, and everything that you're doing in your body makes like total sense for the next few minutes. You mobilize energy to your bloodstream to hand over to whichever muscles are Good to save your life.

You increase your heart rate, your blood pressure, your breathing rate. You turn off everything in your body that is not essential. You turn off growth, digestion, reproduction, all of that. You enhance your immune defenses. And you think more clearly, your sensory thresholds get sharper, you get this flashbulb memory thing.

And all of that makes perfect sense if you are avoiding a predator. And that's what's been done for 99 percent of vertebrate history. And then along come us and us other socially sophisticated primates, where we suddenly have the capacity to generate chronic psychological stress. And what you see there is why we get into trouble because, you know, increase your blood pressure for 30 seconds running for your life and that's a great thing.

Increase it every single day because the traffic jams and you're going to suffer from high blood pressure. And that winds up being sort of the, the starting point for everything about why we Humans are so vulnerable to stress related disease, we turn on this ancient circuitry that's meant for dealing with a short term problem, and we do it chronically.

And if you do it chronically, you're going to get sick.

[00:05:34] Hunter: Yeah, you're going to get sick and you're going to yell at your kids. That's a by promise. I know, it's like, because our kids, our nervous system sees our kids as a threat. Threat in that situation. I think it's kind of funny. I mean, I guess my like when I give this talk and I use your book, my argument is that We don't, no one's choosing to yell at their kids, which is kind of interesting considering your latest book actually, like, no, no, it's not a choice we make it yet where we're so hard on ourselves.

We shame and blame ourselves. It's our, it's something we're kind of responsible for, but it's not actually like no one said, uh, you know, Oh, I think I'm just gonna scream at Sophie at two o'clock. Right. Like, so

[00:06:15] Robert Sapolsky: I don't know. And, and what that's tapping into is like one of the most reliable. You know, when you're stressed, there's a variety of coping mechanisms.

You could try to get social support. You could try to get a sense of control or predictability, all of that. But if you're your basic social animal, one of the most reliable stress reducing things out there is to displace aggression. on someone who is smaller and weaker. And that does wonders if you were a low ranking baboon, if you were a lab rat, or if you're a stressed human.

And unfortunately, displacing aggression is a pretty effective way of reducing stress. You sure are making that much more stress for everybody who is stuck around you. Um, but say among baboons, for example, more than half of aggression. is displacement aggression. You know, number two gets trounced by number one in a fight, and he spins around, and he bites number eight, and number eight who then goes and chases a female who slaps a juvenile who knocks an infant out of a tree, all in 30 seconds.

And that winds up being a very good way of reducing stress, and that gives you one of those like, Basic sort of soundbites of stress management don't avoid ulcers by giving ulcers to everybody who's stuck around you. But what we see is during times of stress, aggression increases. Displacement aggression onto somebody you could dump on increases, and that certainly explains a lot of family dynamics.

[00:07:57] Hunter: Yeah, yeah, why big brother is whacking little brother, and probably a lot of parental aggression with our kids. Like, it could be displacement aggression in some ways, I guess.

[00:08:09] Robert Sapolsky:  Absolutely, and why you see that during periods of economic downturn, Rates of spousal abuse increase, things of that sort. Even this, this is a study that is like crazy in terms of its implications.

Um, but you look at very fanatic football fans and in the afternoon after their home team loses, their rates of spousal abuse and child abuse go up. Ay yi yi. Ay yi  yi. 

[00:08:39] Hunter:Yeah. So this is exactly why I wanted to bring you on the podcast. It may have seemed like an odd fit in some ways to talk about human behavior and, and of course your latest book is about, is called Determined, the Science of Life Without Free Will.

I think it's so. I think it is so helpful for us to understand sort of the roots of our behavior so that we can have some chance of being able to modify, change it, make it, uh, you know, cultivate a little more calm and peace and, and goodwill and all of those good things in our life. We need to kind of understand the biology and the roots and all of these things of what we're dealing with.

so much. And I'm just curious about you, like, you're a generalist, as one would say, like, as somebody, you know, as a scientist, like, looking at so many different things. Um, what made you interested in the roots of human behavior? I mean, I guess you're kind of interested in the roots of many primates behavior in some ways.

Can you just tell us a little bit about that?

[00:09:44] Robert Sapolsky: Yeah, well, actually my, my first love is, uh, mountain gorillas, and I was very young, maybe eight or so when I decided I was going to go off and study mountain gorillas in Central Africa. That's how I was going to spend my time. But, you know, reality intrudes and everybody can't go and study mountain gorillas.

And I wound up studying baboons instead, um, in East Africa for more than 30 summers. And, you know, when you look at that and what I focused on is, uh, what does your social rank, what does your personality have to do with your patterns of stress? related disease among these baboons. Um, and when you look at them, you know, you kind of get pulled back to humans after a while and all that human behavior begins to be kind of interesting.

Again, because of the ways in which we are just like every other primate out there until you look closely and then we are completely unique. Um, so, you know, of necessity kind of wandering back into thinking about human behavior at some point.

[00:10:52] Hunter: Did you see parallels to your own

[00:10:54] Robert Sapolsky: behavior? Um, absolutely. Um, I think one of the things that was clear to me, you know, over, over the years with, uh, my baboons, I focused on studying adult males and there were, A bunch of reasons for this, but nonetheless see a whole lot of like infant stuff going on and maternal behavior and you come away from that and you say, wow, like, okay, so I know all about primate parenting now, and this is just going to be great.

And then my wife and I have our first child and sort of. Two months into it, the first time, he was playing with some object and looking at it, and you could see as he was doing this, like new neuronal connections being formed and like hemes going on into his head about what objects are for. And you realize at that point, all of this like experience of looking at baboon parenting is prepared me exactly zero for being competent at this.

Um, so that's, that's about as far as it. Tip me with, uh, that in any way generalizing to my own personal parenting behaviors.

[00:12:06] Hunter: Well, in, in Behave, you, you know, your book about the biology of humans that are best and are worse. It's, it's great. I, I love this book. It's, it's very detailed, dear listener, very, very detailed about the birth.

But you talk about why, a lot of these reasons why people behave as we do, and one of the things that we talk about here, of course, is like helping people to sort of shout less at their kids. And you talk about, can you talk a little bit about this, like why do we have this aggression at our kids? And, and I, you've, in the book you talk about hormone levels, traumas, childhood, culture, prenatal environment.

Like, there's a lot of things. I think I kind of want to get at, like, there's all these things that are in some ways beyond our control and some things that we can have some influence on, but, but maybe you could dive into that for me if you don't mind.

[00:12:59] Robert Sapolsky: Well, it's one of those, you, you look at a behavior and in this case, a parenting behavior for better or worse, and you wonder why this person just yelled at their kid, um, and you know, what you're asking is what went on in their brain a second ago.

But you're also asking, sort of, what sensory stimuli in the previous minutes helped trigger that? Is the person tired, or are they scared, or are they stressed, are they happy, or are they hungry? All of those things turn out to affect behavior in a very short time. Time span, but you're also asking what did the person's hormone levels this morning have to do with that behavior?

Because those were influencing how sensitive the brain was to this or that stimuli. You're also asking what was going on in the previous months to decades in terms of trauma, wonderful events, all because that will have changed the function of the brain during that time. And then you're back to adolescence and childhood and fetal life where obviously the main thing you were doing there is constructing the brain and thus what kind of brain you're going to have at that moment where it's being determined whether you're going to yell at somebody or not.

And then you got to get into genes and then you got to get into culture because the sort of culture your ancestors were inventing centuries ago. And the sort of ecosystems that made some types of cultures more likely to form than others influenced parenting style. And if you were raised in a collectivist culture, like you see in Southeast Asian, like rice farming communities, or if you were raised in an individualist culture, like the middle of Manhattan, Your parenting styles are going to be different within minutes of your child being born.

If you were raising a child in a culture of honor, which you see among nomadic pastoralists, and for some totally bizarre reasons, wind up being common in the American South. You teach your kids something very, very different from, turn the other cheek. You teach them, if they, like, afflict you, return with ten times the vengeance, because that's the sort of culture you have developed around that.

So even culture developed over centuries matters. Why did that person do that behavior? Because of everything that went on from one second ago to thousands of years of cultural evolution. And all of that winds up being relevant to making sense of why somebody does what they do.

[00:15:41] Hunter: Stay tuned for more Mindful Mama podcasts right after this break.

There is a lot there. And, and we talked to like one of the things you just mentioned there is the. individualist cultures versus collectivist cultures. This can, and this can influence how often moms sing to their babies, right? And how often babies cry. I think this is really interesting because a lot of sense, people are, we're influenced in some ways, like, especially in sort of the parenting world.

You know, we're, we're told to kind of take what someone deems as the best from one culture, but it may not be your own and it may not be, um, it may, it may be that genetically or culturally you're, you're more inclined to one other thing. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the details of those differences?

Maybe if you had ancestors of a collectivist culture versus an individualist culture?

[00:16:39] Robert Sapolsky: You see totally fascinating differences on lots of different levels. Here's, here's one example, and I love this one. You sit somebody down, um, from a collectivist culture and you find them all over the world, but the bulk of the research has been done in Southeast Asia.

Uh, sort of agriculturalists, you sit them down, you put them in a brain scanner and you show them pictures of various people and you show the person a picture of themselves and there's this one part of the frontal cortex that activates and show them some more pictures and show them a picture of their mother and the same part of the frontal cortex activates.

Okay, so collectivist culture, this part of the brain is responding to both pictures of you and your mother. Now you take someone from an individualist culture from the middle of Manhattan and stick them in the brain scatter. And show them pictures, and show them pictures of themselves, and that same part of the frontal cortex activates.

And then get around to showing them a picture of their mother, and it doesn't activate. People from collectivist cultures, this part of the brain you don't distinguish between yourself and your immediate family members. People from the center of Manhattan completely distinguish between the two. Or you ask somebody to draw, it's something sociologists call this a sociogram, like sit down and draw like sort of this diagram of you and the people who matter to you, like draw a circle of yourself here and everybody else who matters and how big the arrows are and all of that.

And you get somebody from an individualist culture and what they do is they draw me right in the middle. with a circle that's going to be bigger than any of the others, and then the connections to all the others there. And you get somebody from a collectivist culture and me is the same size or even smaller than all the other circles.

It's not necessarily in the center. And these are very different ways of thinking about the world and the meaning of social networks. You take somebody From an individual's culture. And you say, well, well, tell me about yourself. And they'll say, well, I'm a software engineer. And you take someone from a collectivist culture and ask them the same thing, and they'll say, Well, I'm a, I'm a mother, I'm a, I'm a grandchild, I'm a, something that is transactional within the context of social relations versus what you do for a living and all sorts of stuff like that.

One, one classic study, I love this one, looking at collectivists versus, uh, individualist culture people. I love it. and taking advantage of that convenience that there's now Starbucks all over the planet. And what they did in the study is they went to a Starbucks and they would take two chairs and place them back to back, blocking the way between two tables.

And in comes your study subject and they come up to their pathway being blocked. And the question is, do you walk around the tables and avoid this, or do you go in and you separate the two chairs and you take charge of the situation and you Oh, I think I know what I

[00:19:50] Hunter: would do. Can I share? Sure. Yeah. I think, I think I would just move the chairs.

[00:19:55] Robert Sapolsky: And that's exactly the most common thing you see in people from individualist cultures. You go in and you show agency and you, like, cut the Gordian knot there and you part the Red Sea and you lift the chairs. And people from collectivist cultures, on the average, Walk around the table instead. This stuff is permeating everything and this is enormously interesting.

You take a picture, a picture of a complex scene with a bunch of people and an obvious sort of central character in the picture and you get somebody from an individualist culture and in a fraction of a second where their eyes go is look at the person in the center of the picture. And somebody from a collectivist culture, and in a fraction of a second, they scan the perimeter of the picture.

And this is unconsciously what your eye muscles are doing in under a second's time. Reflecting the values of your culture that you were raised with, starting from when you were a couple of minutes old. So this stuff really, really gets in there in all sorts of ways. 

[00:21:04] Hunter: And it changes the way, uh, mothers mother, right?

[00:21:08] Robert Sapolsky: Absolutely. Yo, likelihood of punishment, uh, on the average, how many seconds does a child cry before they are picked up by someone? On the average, at what age is a child weaned, if they're nursed at all? At what age does a child start sleeping alone from their mother versus, you know, and Exactly what you would expect, westernized individualist cultures, a longer lag before you respond to a crying child, earlier age at which they are weaned, earlier age at which they are sleeping alone, and what are you doing?

You're training somebody to be individualistic and self soothing and all that kind of stuff, and that's a very different world from your mother's face, and your face is processed exactly the same in the same part of the brain. This is starting very early in life, teaching very different messages about what kind of brain do you need to be forming to be successful in this culture that you're growing up in.

[00:22:12] Hunter: Yeah, it's fascinating. I mean, the idea of like, That, you know, it's unconscious, you know, how long it might take before we pick up our babies or, you know, all of these things. And it's in the idea of that, like kind of going back to, you know, a collectivist culture, one of the ideas that I noticed in the book was this idea that a collectivist culture, you know, may be just because there was rice production and you have to cooperate to be To develop rice and to, you know, flood rice fields and do all the things it takes to develop rice versus like, if you're a herder of sheep or something, then you're pretty individual.

You're kind of, yeah, it's, it's fascinating.

[00:23:00] Robert Sapolsky: Like not only neurons and genes and hormones, but like ecosystems, people who grow up in rainforests. are more likely to invent polytheistic religions. People who grow up in deserts are more likely to become monotheists. Yeah, even ecology winds up being relevant to this stuff.

[00:23:22] Hunter: Yeah, it's, it's interesting. It's like the, the things that, uh, have shaped us that we don't even, you know, imagine, and how the brain is constructed. But one of the things that's also fascinating, Um, in your books is talking about the idea of the, the brain and how it's developed and, and some of the ways that, um, some of the unfairness is to be frank about how the, the brain is developed when you're, you're looking at brain scans of you, you talk in the, in determined about the stunted maturation of the frontal cortex in kindergartners and how they can, how researchers can tell from the, The maturation of the frontal cortex, what kind of socio economic status a child may have grown up in? Tell us a little bit about that. 

[00:24:10] Robert Sapolsky: This is this outrageous thing. Um, probably the most interesting part of the brain is the frontal cortex. We've got more of it than any other species. It's the most recently evolved. It's the slowest developing part of the brain in us. It's totally amazing. What does it do?

Impulse control, and emotion regulation, and long term planning, and like you don't get much of a frontal cortex until like late adolescence, early adulthood, but nonetheless, it's developing all along the way, and the fact that like a kid doesn't have a very developed frontal cortex explains Kid like behaviors and impulsive stuff, like there was this one time our, our then like four year old son did something crummy to our two year old daughter and my wife and I swept in there and were telling him, you're not a bad person, but that was a bad thing and wailing on him and with that whole thing.

And at some point, Like one of us, my wife, or I would say to the other, why are we, why are we getting on him about this? He has like no frontal cortex and we're, we're both neuroscientists. So we actually talk that way at home. And then the other one would say, well, how else is he going to develop a strong frontal cortex?

It's this really important part of the brain that is very dependent on what kind of cues you're getting around you as to what sort of world it is. And one of the things that turns out is, look at kids by the time they're five years old and the socioeconomic status of the family they chose to get born into is already a predictor of their resting stress hormone levels, elevated levels for poorer kids on the average, and elevated levels Blunt the maturation of the prefrontal cortex and thus by age five, you have a kid already simply because they are being raised in poverty.

They are likely to have a frontal cortex that's maturing slower than average and is thinner than average and has a lower metabolic rate than average and is already having a harder time than average and doing the more self disciplined thing. And that's a finding that's been around for a decade or so now and in the years since.

Look at a two year old and socioeconomic status is already having its mark, and look at a four week old and it's already having its mark. And in a paper published last year, people using this really fancy neuroimaging technique where you could look at the fetal brain and the socioeconomic status of the mother is already having an impact on the rate of brain growth in their fetus.

Like, you were born and already something as uncontrolled as like, you know, rung on the ladder of society you happen to get tossed into by chance. is already influencing the development of this really important part of your brain. 

[00:27:06] Hunter: And what is it that is preventing that full development, is making it less when we're thinking about the stressors of poverty?

You know, do you, can we tell exactly what it is that is hindering that development?

[00:27:23] Robert Sapolsky: Well, people have actually spent a lot of effort trying to dissect this and the large issue of why is it that poverty predicts like every aspect of poor health you can look at and shorter life expectancy and things of that sort and like obvious things.

Ooh, poor people can't afford to go to the doctor. Um, that's not the explanation because you see. This same quote, socioeconomic health gradient, the poorer you are, the worse your health is on the average, you see in a country with universal health care and socialized medicine. Oh, okay. So it must be that, uh, you know, lower.

Poor people have less access to good, healthy, protective factors, like a good health club membership, and they're exposed to more risk factors. They're more likely to be having pollutants in their drinking water than the folks in the gated community. All that accounts for only like a third of the variability.

What it is, is that low socioeconomic status equals sustained chronic psychological stress. Lack of control, lack of predictability, lack of social support because you and everyone you know are working three jobs and you're exhausted by the time you come home. Lack of outlet. You can't decide to take a break from work for a few months and go like walk on the beach for a season in order to get your head clear.

You don't have any of those opportunities and those are all the driving forces on chronically activating a stress response. And when you chronically activate it, when you are chronically secreting too much of this hormone called cortisol. It does all sorts of stuff in your brain, including make your frontal cortex less capable of regulating your social behavior, makes your memory worse, makes you more prone towards anxiety and depression, makes you less capable in your judgments and your executive decisions, and really interestingly, makes you much narrower as to who you feel empathy for.

So, like, all you're doing being born into a low socioeconomic level is getting training in. This is a world that has a lot of bad stuff going on and you've got no control and no predictability and that's stressful as hell and your brain development is going to pay the price for that even before you're born while you're still a fetus.

[00:29:56] Hunter: Yeah, I mean, it's, uh, it's really an argument for a lot more social support, which is something that we talk about here also a lot, um, on the podcast, but yeah, it's interesting that it's even in, in cultures where there's universal health care and things like that.

[00:30:12] Robert Sapolsky: It should be emphasized. You know, poverty is a predictor of poor health in every westernized culture ever looked at, but the place where it's the worst is here in the United States, where it's the steepest, where we don't have health insurance, we don't have the safety nets and, but still go and look at like those wonderful utopian Scandinavians and even they have a subtle gradient.

between poverty and health that you find there. But yeah, we got the worst one out there and that's been the case for four decades and getting worse in the United States year by year as inequality gets worse.

[00:30:50] Hunter: Yeah, that's something fascinating and behaves. Uh, I, you know, what happened, what you talk about inequality and how that affects people, you know, as far as our, uh, even aggression and different things like that, perceived inequality.

Can you tell us a little bit about that?

[00:31:07] Robert Sapolsky: Yeah, um, what you see, it's the same, you know, inequality and poor health, inequality and crime and violence, inequality and aggression of the displacing sort, taking it out on somebody weaker and smaller. What you see in all those cases is, um, poverty is a predictor of more of all of those bad things.

But then you look more closely and it's not so much being poor as feeling poor. Not your objective socioeconomic status, but your subjective. And really interesting studies where you basically say to somebody, you know, when you think of other people, how are you doing compared to them? What's your subjective sense of your status in society?

And it turns out that's at least as good of a predictor of what your health profile is going to be like as your objective socioeconomic status. It's not being poor, it's feeling poor. And then you get the really informative finding, which is not even your objective or subjective socioeconomic status, it's how much inequality are you surrounded by?

It's not being poor, it's not feeling poor, it's feeling poor because you were surrounded by plenty. How often is your nose being rubbed in it? And that's the real predictor. Because in a world in which nobody has much, everybody is equal, in a world of a very steep socioeconomic gradient. The most pertinent thing is you can see every single day who's got all the stuff that you don't have and it's the comparative aspects.

It's not being poor, it's feeling poor and is feeling poorer than everybody around you. That's the thing that drives poor health, uh, displacement, aggression, crime, all that, you know, in a world in which People tend to not have a whole lot of peers of equal status in a world of, like, enormous inequality.

That's a world that's less healthy and less kind and meaner and more prone towards crime and with less empathy.

[00:33:22] Hunter: It's funny, my brain always jumps to, like, what are the takeaways? What can we learn from this? What are we going to do from this? And it's like, I just, like, think, like Stop watching TV shows about, I mean, I don't know, like all the TV shows about, you know, Uber, Uber.

Don't, don't watch like Architectural Digest, like, well, celebrities welcoming you to their home.

[00:33:44] Robert Sapolsky: Yeah, the uplifting lifestyles of the, yeah. Because what it mostly communicates, I mean, you know, A thousand years ago, if you were not well off, you were able to look around like your mud hut village in medieval Europe and see, whoa, those folks have more goats than me and that's not fair.

These days, a car can pass you on the freeway and because it's like 100, 000 Tesla or something, you never even see the face of the person. and you can feel subordinated. You can find out about how like Jeff Bezos is living his life and you can feel less successful. You could go online and see all the really like fancy expensive birthday parties everybody else in your middle school is having and you could feel worse about yourself.

What we're able to now is feel rotten comparatively with like so much more of the world than back when, when your neighbor had like two cows and you only had one.

[00:34:51] Hunter: Stay tuned for more Mindful Mama podcasts right after this break.

So as you talk about all of this, one of the, my hopes in like kind of bringing you on the podcast was just help us understand that there's so much, uh, going into our behavior, kids behavior, all of these things that we, we have no control over and in determined, You talk about the idea that, you know, you, you questions, most people, the vast majority of people's assumptions about our own personal choice and willpower.

What have you come to believe about our choices?

[00:35:34] Robert Sapolsky: Well, I'm kind of out in the lunatic fringe on this. You talk to most brain scientists, biologists, and they think we have a lot less free will than the average person thinks. And that's fine, but I happen to be way out on the extreme in that I think we have no free will whatsoever.

I think it is a complete myth. Because when you look at how you became the person you are right now, all it is is the outcome of all that biology stuff you had no control over and this interaction with all that environmental stuff that you had no control over. And when you really look at the nuts and bolts about how that stuff works, this neuron one second ago, this morning's hormones, this fetal life, all that going back.

You look at it, and there's not a spot in there where you can insert in our everyday folk intuition as to what free will is, because that folk intuition requires that something works there, like nothing that science explains. It requires you to invoke something. Bordering on the Edge of Magic. 

[00:36:49] Hunter: Like the idea that there's something that's separate from everything else that is making a choice.

[00:36:55] Robert Sapolsky: Yeah, that there's a me in there that somehow, you know, isn't made of that, like, neuron brain yuck stuff and is somehow separate of it and, you know, it could get advice from your brain and it could try to, like, read the newspaper every day and make sure it sees the scientist in the news. To report it today kind of thing and scheme the articles.

Now you're a little bit up to date on recent brain science, but then the me that's inside there that's made out of some sort of magical stuff is the thing that makes a decision. There's no me in there that's separate of all of the biology that was made of what came a second ago and a minute ago and a lifetime ago.

[00:37:40] Hunter: Yeah. And everything is, is, is within the context of. An environment of choice of, of different things arising. You know, it's really interesting, Robert, as I've been talking about this, my husband has been talking about the idea of free will. Kind of in your camp, I think, he's, he's a, a listener of, of, um, dang it, I'm blanking on his name, um, the podcaster, but anyway.

You know, it's very much, and I don't know if you, if you're familiar with like the, the Buddhist teachings of no self and things like that, so for me, I come from sort of that point of view and I, I really feel like I, I very much, you know, the, understand like that concept of no self, like there's no separate self aside from, you know, if you take away the elements of your brain or your context, your upbringing, all those things like, That there's nothing that's separate from all of that.

It's, but there is this sense, but the teacher, you know, the teacher I consider sort of my main teacher, the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who died a few years ago, um, We talk about the idea that both, you know, in the ultimate dimension, there is no self right there. Uh, you know, there's no separation, no barrier between me and you.

There's no space where my body ends and the world begins, like, and you get down to a micro, you know, microscopic level. There's, there's the idea of separation is really an illusion. And, and I, I completely understand that, but yet at the same time, this idea of no self and a sense of self in the sort of what he would call the historic dimension, or you might say the sort of like dimension that we're working with in day to day life where we have to, you know, pay taxes and go into Starbucks and get coffee and things like that.

There is a, a sense of self, right? Then both are true kind of at the same time. I guess, like, as I've been thinking about this idea, you know, I feel like in some ways the idea of framing it in some ways as free will feels, like, very, um, Inflammatory to me and, like, that in some ways it's, there are choices, like, I understand that there are choices that we make, but there's nothing that, no choice that can be made that's outside of Uh, the context of, you know, our continuation, and our history, and our biology, and our conditioning, and our influences, and all of those things.

So there's nothing that can be kind of outside of that. Would you think of that as like a kind of correct understanding of what you're trying to

[00:40:18] Robert Sapolsky: say? Exactly. There's, there's nothing other than that, because that's what we're made of. And if people sort of are resistant to that idea, and almost everybody is, philosophers, for example, 95 percent of philosophers, uh, believe in free will amid them believing that there's things like atoms and brain cells and science exists and that sort of thing.

Nonetheless, they are quote, Compatibilists, who somehow think that all of that, like, biological stuff that we're made of, nonetheless, is compatible with a free will that's made of a need that's separate of all of that stuff. Yeah, it's very, very, like, hard for people to accept that. You know, just as one example, there's a type of biochemical manipulation you could do to the brain where you change what's called a second messenger cascade inside neurons.

And as a result, one part of the brain has a firing rate of neurons having action potentials. And as a result, focus is better. What have you just done? You've just had some coffee with caffeine in it. And as a result of that, caffeine interacting with this biochemical, your brain works differently. You're a more alert person.

You're, you're a different person in subtle ways than you were without that biological intervention. Like even on that level, that's a sign every single day of the machine ness. That's going on just underneath the surface.

[00:41:55] Hunter: Do you find that this idea, um, I, I find in some ways the discussing this idea as in framing it as kind of a lack of free will, it's kind of a dangerous idea because I think that could be discouraging for people to, to understand it and completely.

And, and, but I wonder if now that you have kind of. wrestled with this idea enough to write this giant book about it. Um, does it give you more compassion for yourself and for others as you move about the world?

[00:42:29] Robert Sapolsky: Yeah, absolutely. And rather than it being discouraging, I think it's a great thing if people stop believing in free will.

How come? Um, well, everyone immediately goes, Oh my God, we're just all going to run amok. A lot of very good science shows we're not likely to. Oh my God, we're just going to have murderers running around on the streets. No, it is possible to construct a society in which dangerous people do not endanger other people and you don't have to invoke blame and punishment and bad souls and things like that.

Oh my God, if there's no free will, nothing could ever change. No things change dramatically. It's simply not that we choose to change. But we are changed by circumstance. Okay. So all of those worries don't exist. And in actuality, it's great news. And why do we know this? Because look at the history of us time and again, figuring out some domain where turned out there wasn't free will, where we subtracted a sense of responsibility out of something that went on in the world around us and what happened every single one of those times.

The world became a much better place. At one point, about, I don't know, 400 years ago, we figured out that, like, horrible lightning storms that destroys everyone's crops are not caused by old ladies with no teeth who live alone on the edge of their hamlet. that there's no such thing as witches causing witchcraft that controls the weather.

People are not responsible for the weather, so don't burn them at the stake. And it's a better world since we stopped doing that sort of thing. And then, I don't know, about two centuries ago, we figured out that epileptic seizures are not a sign of demonic possession. No, this is not someone who chose to get into bed with Satan, and this is evidence of it.

And you don't burn them at the stake either. And like, it's a much better world that we figured out instead that this is not satanic possession. It's screwy potassium channels in neurons in one part of your brain. And then, like 50 years ago, we figured out schizophrenia. is a neurochemical disorder. It's not caused by mothers who in some sort of bizarre Freudian toxicity secretly unconsciously hate their child.

And then about 20 years ago, we figured out kids who have trouble learning to read are not lazy and unmotivated. They've got some screwy circuitry in one part of their cortex, and they have this thing called dyslexia. And at every single one of these steps, We've subtracted free will and responsibility out of it, and at every one of those steps, not only has the roof not fallen in, it's become a much more humane world.

It's really good these days that we're able to tell somebody that their child has dyslexia and here's the sort of training that's needed for them to have an easier time learning to reach, rather than them growing up and taking into adulthood the belief. That they are lazy and unmotivated. And the same thing with any one of these.

That there are gene variants that you have no control over whatsoever, having to do with a receptor for a hormone called leptin. And if you've got a lousy version of that receptor, you're not having trouble with self discipline. You don't secretly hate yourself, and nonetheless, you are going to be obese.

Because your brain doesn't get signals saying that you're full. And what we do instead is have a society where that's one of the most stigmatized things out there. And people grow up hating themselves because why can't I show some of the self discipline and other, it's yet another domain in which, Oh.

We aren't responsible for that. That was due to biology outside our control and every one of the steps, it becomes a much nicer planet to live on.

[00:46:28] Hunter: I, I accept that argument. I think it's well stated. Robert, it's been such a pleasure to talk to you. I really enjoy your thinking and your writing and I like how it challenges me and I, and I really, really appreciate you coming on the Mindful Parenting Podcast.

Robert's new book, Robert Sapolsky's new book, Determined, A Science of Life Without Free Will. Is there any, anything you want to leave the listener with or, or any place you want to send them to if they're curious about diving in more? 

[00:46:59] Robert Sapolsky: Oh, I just, the, the book is agonizingly long, but it's written, it's written for people who are not.

Scientists, so hopefully accessible and like, I'm not trying to convince anybody that there's no free will. I'm just trying to convince people there's so much less free will than is normally the case that we really have to run things differently. We have a world. In which we think it's okay to treat some people way better than average for reasons they had nothing to do with, and other people way worse than average.

And then when we're done with that, we give them nonsense about how this is a just world and people get what they deserve, that we have earned the lives we have. So like to any extent that people can stop thinking this way, I think this will make things better for everyone.

[00:47:53] Hunter: Yeah, yeah. I, I think I agree.

And, and yes, there's a, there's a lot of brain science in this book, dear reader, that the footnotes are wonderful. I love your footnotes. Somebody's really into musical theater, huh, too?

[00:48:07] Robert Sapolsky: Uh, my, my wife is a musical theater director, so unavoidably there are references to musicals. Obscurely and subtly, in some cases throughout the book.

[00:48:19] Hunter: Yeah. So you got a great sense of humor in that. I love it. Um, all right. Well, thank you so much for your time and for, for taking the time to talk to us. I really, really appreciate it. 

[00:48:29] Robert Sapolsky: Great. Well, thanks for having me on. This was fun.

[00:48:41] Hunter: Wow, right? There's so much to learn here from Robert. I feel it was such an honor to talk to him thinking about, you know, why do we behave the way we do? Why do our kids behave the way we do? And all of these factors that are beyond our control. And I think that's really interesting so that we can start to shift away from.

Blaming Ourselves, etc. So, and, and that whole frontal cortex development and parenting, oh my goodness, you know, gosh, now we wish it developed a little sooner sometimes, right? Hey, if you like this episode, please help share it around, tell, you know, your, of course, great if you tell social media and your friends and tag me and things like that, but if maybe just tell one friend, That'd be great.

Let one friend know what a cool episode it was and tell them to, of course, subscribe and so they get all the episodes in their inbox and that would be amazing. And hey, I'm wishing you a great week. I'm so glad you were here to enjoy this conversation. It was really, really wonderful and I hope you're getting something out of it that's gonna enhance your life and benefit you and your family.

And so, I will be back. Talking to you real soon. Thank you so much for being here. Thank you for listening and I'll talk to you soon. Namaste.

I'd say definitely do it. It's really helpful. It will change your relationship with your kids for the better. It will help you communicate better and just,

[00:50:15] Robert Sapolsky: I'd say communicate better as a person, as a wife, as a spouse. It's been really a positive influence in our lives. So definitely do it. I'd say, definitely do it.

It's so worth it. The money really is inconsequential. It's so consequential when you get so much benefit from being a better parent to your children and feeling like you're connecting more with them and not feeling like you're yelling all the time or you're like, why isn't this working? I would say definitely do it.

It's so, so worth it. It'll change you. No matter what age someone's child is, it's a great opportunity for personal growth and it's a great investment in someone's family. I'm very thankful I have this. You can continue in your old habits that you have. Or you can learn some new tools and gain some perspective to shift everything in your parenting.

[00:51:11] Hunter: Are you frustrated by parenting? Do you listen to the experts and try all the tips and strategies, but you're just not seeing the results that you want? Or are you lost as to where to start? Does it all seem so overwhelming with too much to learn? Are you yearning for community people who get it, who also don't want to threaten and punish to create cooperation?

Hi, I'm Hunter Clark Fields, and if you answered yes to any of these questions, I want you to seriously consider the Mindful Parenting Membership. You will be joining Hundreds of members who have discovered the path of mindful parenting and now have confidence and clarity in their parenting. This isn't just another parenting class.

This is an opportunity to really discover your unique, lasting relationship, not only with your children, but with yourself. It will translate into lasting, connected relationships, not only with your children, but your partner too. Let me change your life. Go to mindfulparentingcourses. com MindfulParentingCourse.

com to add your name to the waitlist so you will be the first to be notified when I open the membership for enrollment. I look forward to seeing you on the inside. MindfulParentingCourse. com.

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